Dear Artist,

Yesterday, my friend Joe Blodgett brought a big yellow print into the studio. It was sort of modern, with a large, undecipherable signature across the lower end. “What do you think of this?” he asked. “Interesting,” I said, which is what I say when I don’t know what to say. “Why don’t you run it through those ‘evaluation points’ that you use when you jury?” he suggested. I protested that my points were subject to modification — sometimes there’s something major that upsets them. “Like, ‘I like it,’ ” I said.


“Basket Light Drawing” 2017
painted on acrylic glass and lit from within, 42 x 32 inches
by Dale Chihuly (b.1941)

My evaluation points are compositional integrity, sound craftsmanship, colour sensitivity, creative interest, design control, gestural momentum, artistic flair, expressive intensity, professional touch, surface quality, intellectual depth, visual distinction, technical challenge and artistic audacity. If you were to assign a maximum value of 10 to each of these fourteen points, an almost impossible top mark would be 140. Loosely speaking, a total of around 50 is often enough for an “in.” My system doesn’t favour realism over non-objective work, but in my jury duty hard-won realism often wins out with these points.


“Float and Reed Drawing” 2008
work on paper, 60 x 40 inches
by Dale Chihuly

Cruising the print and looking at it in different lights and over the afternoon, I was hard pressed to find points to hand out. It ended up with 30. While it had a sort of confident flair and a look of audacity, it was mostly what I call “basic.” As a piece of print art — embellished or not — I saw it as unchallenging and average. Though bright in colour, it was dull in spirit. It suggested some sort of bare ambition — which has its appeal, but is often not enough in the big scheme of things. As a juried show-piece the print wouldn’t make it. Mind you, some other juror — even using the same set of points — might have evaluated it differently. Joe phoned later and told me the print was the work of Dale Chihuly. “Chihuly’s the internationally-known glass artist. That one is worth a couple of thousand — edition’s almost sold out.” I told him I hadn’t been aware that Chihuly made prints. “That’s how ignorant you are,” said Joe.

Once again I had been victimized by my ignorance. Or was it innocence? I’ll stick to my guns. Ambition and audacity are quite frequently mistaken for talent and value.


“Japan Diptych Drawing” 1997
artwork by Dale Chihuly

Best regards,


PS: “Knowing is false understanding. Not knowing is blind ignorance.” (Nan Ch’uan)

Esoterica: Do we all crave a level playing field? It’s been my observation that innocent-eyed jurors — often from another village–are best able to separate the better from the poorer — the grain from the chaff. All art carries a provenance that ranges from humble to exalted, from non-existent to stellar. What we’re looking for here is the truth. In art, is the truth possible? “Real knowledge,” said Confucius, “is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

This letter was originally published as “Ignorance” on November 25, 2005.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Somebody once said people become artists because they have a certain kind of energy to release. That rings true to me. It must have an outlet. That’s why I draw.” (Dale Chihuly)



  1. Just because an artist has a “name” doesn’t mean that they can produce a “name” painting. And it doesn’t mean that every painting they produce is a quality painting. So, what they are selling is their name. Would have loved to have seen the “big yellow painting“.

    • Shelly Wilkerson on

      Curious myself as to what it looked like. I heartily agree that you need to continue to strive to better yourself as an artist even if you have a name, otherwise your arrogance seeps into your work. Many a piece of mine has ended up painted over, trashed, burned, spindled and mutilated. It’s a great way to unleash the creative frustrations!

  2. Like the others, I appreciate Robert’s honest and candid take on the piece brought in by his friend. I too am going to save his “observation points” for my personal critiques and for my next jurying assignment. I especially resonated with the critique “though bright in colour, it was dull in spirit.” I am finding that an intrinsic, present spirit in a piece is what separates a few works from the rest. All the labor or all the gusto in the world can’t cover a lack of heart.

    • I love that her stuck to his guns. I’m on the same page with him. “Price if Everything,” a HBO documentary is an excellent statement on the contemporary art market and how we value strong foundational skills in art. It’s become a playground for branding which might sell just for the name behind the painting but leaves the soul cold. There are exceptions to the rule but it’s sad statement on our culture and how we see art as a whole.

  3. Jacqueline Glover on

    George W Bush’s paintings probably sell, too. I disrespect no art, but knowledgeable judgments are necessary.

  4. When the call came last week from a distinguished sounding woman with the last name Hutton from the “Marquis Who’s Who in America” I was painting. She told me that a jury from her prestigious organization had selected me for a Life-Time Achievement Award in art, and although many artists would like to receive the award very few artists are chosen yearly. She said, “It is an honor that is respected throughout the world.” It does not cost anything, you need to be chosen.

    I don’t know how they found me again, as they also had chosen me early in my career for inclusion. I felt oddly sad about it. I don’t feel old enough for a lifetime achievement one. However, with graying hair and vision changes, I know that this dance is gradually become one of letting go and allowing my life’s work to whisper through a curtain in time. Paintings are still accumulating as I continue to work and teach plein-air workshops yearly in the US and Europe, sharing my knowledge of what has brought me to this moment.

    I wonder what the late Robert Genn, an artist I have followed for many years and I highly respect would say to me. I imagine this: “Congratulations Sharon. Job well done. Now your life will have this punctuation point forever digitally published and recorded by an unknown jury to be researched and carried into the future.” I see him smiling at me from an artist heaven. Artists crave kudos. Even the accomplished ones. I say “Thank you.” as I wink and smile back at him. Knowing that someday soon I will also be one of those light billowy clouds floating amongst tiny stars looking to share encouragement and love. With a broad light filled brush I will lift you too, as high as I possibly can!

    Have you had such an honor as this? I would like to hear from you if you have..

    • Dale was interviewed about his art in which it sounded very much like the sketches one does for a painting. His canvas’s were glass blowing before an eye injury. Now his images and colour palate are reflected in the glass and color combinations he designs. Perhaps we may want to ask ourselves when the last time was that we had a one man show over and in the canals of Venice Italy. If thwarted creativity in one area it has a way of turning left. google – dale chihuly glass/images He is a unique artist.

    • I do not wish to rain on your parade Sharon. Possibly your situation is very different from mine. But since you asked us to share, here goes.

      Your experience reminds me of similar unexpected “honours” I have been contacted about years ago in the world of writing. For more than a decade I headed a writers’ association that was listed in several international reference volumes with my contact information.

      While I like to think I did a good job of this unpaid function, and invited many accomplished writers to speak, I am not a distinguished writer myself.

      In fact, my personal publishing credits are quite pedestrian, I am virtually unknown beyond my own locale, and I have won no major awards or contests.

      However, soon after my newly-bestowed greatness was announced, there would come a follow-up contact which quickly cleared up my confusion.

      Invariably, what this exciting recognition boiled down to was an expectation (read a firm condition) to purchase at least one copy of the highly esteemed, exorbitantly-priced volume which would feature my name in it!

  5. This was very insightful – particularly all of those categories by which you base your judgement of a piece. I have often wondered how jurers come by their choice of which art ‘makes it’ and which ones don’t. It’s at least a little encouraging to see that it’s not entirely subjective… or perhaps that there’s a system within which to be subjective?

  6. That personality driven art scene is so much crap. All to often, when the BIG NAME walks out of the room the piece on the wall turns to a thousands of dollars piece of garbage. Robert was right to stick with his original evaluation, but what would he have rated it if he knew it was the work of a BIG NAME?

  7. Wow – I had to read and re-read your list of criteria to try and get my mind around it! Usually my response to a painting is immediately one of these 3 thoughts:
    -I love it exactly as the artist created.
    -I think it’s lacking something and could be improved.
    -It’s not going to improve, even with more work!

    • I felt the same Jean. Given that the judgment of art seems to be a mostly subjective, even composition can be overruled…your three points are basically how I see art in general.

  8. Dale Chihuly’s glass works are incredible. There was an exhibit of his glass works at the Denver Botanical Gardens a couple of years ago, which were outstanding. I was glad to have seen them personally in such an awesome environment.

  9. Dale’s glassworks are amazing, he has led the charge into the universe of new glass techniques and appreciation by viewers. His paintings and prints are sketches for future glassworks that are quickl done and may only contain the essential germ of an idea. Some work on that level and some need to be fleshed out in the glasswork that may or may not follow. They must be looked at as any other non representational piece, if it moves you, great, if not it’s maybe just not relating to you. We all have experiences that affect how we see and appreciate and none of us are able to relate to everything. You have to go back to Bob’s list of criteria and just do your best. However, you are free to enjoy things that may not get above 50, it’s just a starting point. Enjoy art always!

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/The-Wine-Drinkard-1962-wpcf_259x300.jpgThe Wine Drinkard
oil on canvas
40 x 50 inches

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