Guaranteed for life


Dear Artist,

A regular inbox question goes like this: “Your dad wrote that he would gladly give a refund to someone if they weren’t satisfied or had an issue with a painting. How does that work, exactly, for art?” The query kicks a hornet’s nest of grey areas like painting condition, time passed since the original sale, gallery commissions and how much of a cash float an artist needs to keep on hand for refunds. If this idea sounds a bit strange, let me explain.


“Four Cut Sunflowers”
oil painting
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

You may have heard this one before, but when my dad was 14, he exhibited in a Victoria craft fair and sold his first painting — a watercolour of a Rufous hummingbird hovering near its nest. The buyers, a couple from Portland, phoned him at home and thanked him. The following day, Bobby, so blown away by his good fortune (they paid $15 for the thing he loved most in the world,) rode his bicycle to Beacon Hill Park to show his new collectors the actual nest. Still trying to make sense of his unspeakable windfall, he then offered to change the painting if they didn’t like it. The couple happily declined.

Call it survivor guilt or extreme gratitude, reckless joy or just a lifelong flow of good vibes, from that moment on, my dad stuck to an idea he called, “value added and guaranteed for life.” Though an introvert and workaholic, for the next 50-plus years he cheerfully welcomed collectors and dealers into his studio for tea, scotch, boat rides, counselling and, once in a blue moon, a complimentary cleaning, exchange or touch-up. A big-picture guy, Bobby never forgot the original connection and many friendships that blossomed through the thing he loved most in the world.


“Willows at Sunset”
oil painting by Vincent van Gogh



PS: “I have walked this earth for 30 years, and, out of gratitude, want to leave some souvenir.” (Vincent van Gogh)

Esoterica: Think of your guarantee as a way of extending an emotional connection through art by going beyond what’s expected. A regular sale, through a gallery or otherwise, might quietly include the future option to exchange for another of the same size and current value from your studio. This small gesture spreads immeasurable good faith and reassurance and is rarely realized — art lovers tend to become attached to their original choices. The exception is a commission — which should begin with a 50% non-refundable deposit with the chance to take another stab if your first pass is unsatisfactory. Inviting your work back into the studio, regardless of age or condition confirms your own self-belief and affords you lifelong quality control. Personally cleaning or repairing early work ensures its future appreciation. An enthusiastic supporter can become a career-spanning friend and, with her, the privilege of saying “thank you” for your mutual joy.

vincent-van-gogh_lane-with-poplarsDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Every great business is built on friendship.” (James Cash Penney)



  1. Such a great letter. Reminds me why I loved having Robert’s letters come into my mailbox twice a week. Your dad was a human artist painting for other humans….his paintings weren’t of monumental size, designed only for museums. Their intended destination was peoples’ homes, to be part of peoples’ lives.
    I’ve tried to follow most of his artistic principles and this was one of the most important.

  2. This is of course right. Buying art is not an everyday activity for most. It is often a complex decision that involves more than just money – Will it fit my decor? Will my partner like it? and so on. It doesn’t hurt for the artist to be confident enough to offer a money back guarantee. I put a time limit on the offer and occasionally some works come back, and the money is refunded cheerfully. All part of the artist’s mission to make the world a happier place.

  3. Thank you Sara. I just also wanted to thank you and Dave Genn for “The Letters: Vol .1 and 2 “…… I loaded them on my iPod and I must tell everyone that on these dark rainy days in Vancouver, I start the letters as I start my day in the studio and they calm me and bring me something special to initiate a creative spark …. For those who are not tech savy, they download easily onto a computer and best of all, the proceeds help to keep The Painter’s Keys in our creative lives…. PS Dave’s voice is so calming and soothing ….. just what an artist needs to focus… thank you ….

  4. Thank you Sara!

    I so appreciate this letter, the story is wonderfully charming.
    Hearing how other folks handle a return policy is extremely helpful. I would not want to have someone feel regret for buying, or feel stuck with a piece I painted because they weren’t happy with it. The process of creating is thrilling for me and I wish that same energy into the sale so that the entire project remains on a high note.

    Thanks to all and wishing everyone a light spirited day.

  5. A wonderful reminder of your dad’s generosity, which he extended to me as I ogled his work and peppered him with questions. I even met you there one day I think!

  6. I love your dad! And this reminds me that I can let go of the resentment I held for the person that traded their gift from me to them, a year later, while in the studio, without asking. They mentioned it as they waltzed out the door with a new painting!!!! Your letter and this experience tell me that art is more powerful than we know.

  7. It is easy – the artist must “draw a straight line” of one sort or other, and that puts a prize and burden there at step one. So it is almost automatic to go full pace to be sure all are happy with the transaction, since “the buck stops here” – it is the artist’s well-being at stake.

    It is such a gift and if one appreciates it at all , there is a need to care for it like any other loved one.

  8. I once had a client’s husband call and ask me to refund the multi-thousand purchase price of a painting his wife had given him. (This was 2 years after the purchase). Being unable to refund it, (he didn’t want a trade), I felt unhappy with the idea that he had enjoyed (or not enjoyed) the painting for 2 years, and I couldn’t do a darn thing about it. So, whenever I sell a painting, they may keep it for 2 months after which it has passed the “approval stage”. I am not willing to keep myself strung out (lovely thought that it is) for eternity. Considering the time and effort, not to mention the money, to keep myself alive, it is only reasonable to consider a purchase to be complete. If the painting needs touch up, or revarnishing, of course I consider that my due diligence. I know that the thought of being so selfless and generous is awesome!!! But I cannot and do not consider my work exchangeable. The next potential buyer has possibly seen that work in another’s home….is it therefore discounted? (Being “used”) It just opens up a can of worms that cannot be corralled.

  9. My nickname is also Bobbie, something I never thought would last until Grandmotherhood.
    I appreciate you sharing your father’s values about guaranteeing his work. My works are like my children and I want them to have loving parents.
    Thank you for reminding us of the loving spirit of your Dad, who inspired and taught so many of us through his generous sharing of experience and wisdom.

  10. Enjoyed this letter, Sara, and I always loved to read your Dad’s letters, and sense his values and probity over his art and everything else he engaged in! He was a special man. I know he influences others. I don’t disagree with those who want to set a time limit on the return policy, either. I can imagine it would be a challenge to refund an expensive painting, when you have spent the money on rent or whatever, to live! But, hopefully it occurs rarely.

    Cheers, Karen in Halifax

  11. This is such a fine reminder of “value added” integrity. Thanks for all the wonderful “life-lessons” you and Robert share!

  12. A generous fellow,your Dad.
    I asked him to do portraits of my preschool son an daughter. The children are now in their 40’s.
    He did a wonderful job and charged me whatever his going rate was for 9×11 canvases in 1973.
    But the kicker was that with each painting came a signed note promising to repeat the portraits
    gratis when each child reached the age of 21 years.Bless his heart. We were still friends when the children reached the age of majority but I could not bring myself to mention this to him,not even in a joking manner.
    The children may have flown the nest but both portraits remain on our walls
    Stay well,Sara

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Painting is my passion and joy.  My process is intuitive, though informed by good composition and design principles.  I paint what I remember, or think about, or feel, or just what comes off my hands to the brush to the canvas.  Texture and color are of primary importance to me.  I typically choose my support, texture it, select my palette, and go.  There is nothing more satisfying to me than watching paint run and move.  I love the surprises. I experiment and learn constantly.  It is a remarkable journey.  One I am pleased to share with you.


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