Lessons learned


Dear Artist,

Wow! That was quite an experience. After submitting my painting for your input in the previous letter, this Inbox jammed up. (On Friday morning, more than three thousand emails came in before breakfast.) Reading and gisting many of them one after the other reminded me of the time I had a two-hour session with a psychiatrist. When I stepped out of his office, I didn’t know whether to turn left or right. I forgot where my car was parked, or even if I had a car, and if I did, what kind of a car it was.

On another level, it was like being in the central spotlight of an arena with thousands of spectators pointing. And just then my briefs fall down. In other words, I thoroughly enjoyed the exposure. Thanks to all who participated, even those who were not as brief as requested.

While there was a remarkable consensus on improvements to some parts of my painting — the background tone, the spotty trees, the hole in the middle — it was also valuable to see opposite opinions in adjacent emails: “Your painting has so many errors it’s not worth going on with,” and, “Don’t touch a thing, Robert, it’s fine the way it is.” It surprised me that some folks went to a lot of trouble and Photoshopped various elements in and out. Thank you. An amazing number of people told me to put a deer in it. Thank You.

A very high percentage felt there were value problems between the main (dark) trees and the (too pinkish) background. To get the Full Monty, you really have to cruise our listing of representative opinions. Michelle spent Saturday assembling and condensing many of these for your interest. Other input ranged from reflections on the validity of committee work to outright trashing of me and my efforts. It seems that some people are coming from a position of theory and conventional wisdom, while others are able to see clearly with practical knowledge and sensitive eyes.

Lessons learned? No matter what you do, your accumulated errors become part of your style, and while others may copy you, no one can take it away from you.

As usual, some critics echo our own ruminations. Hopefully improved, thanks in part to your goodwill, my revised painting is at the top of the current clickback. Really, thanks so much for your input. It was a slice. Now, if I can just find my car.

Best regards,


PS: “We all admire the wisdom of people who come to us for advice.” (Jack Herbert)

Esoterica: A few years ago I was conducting a workshop and had noticed one young lady who was particularly in need of help. No matter what I suggested or pointed out, she continued merrily doing her own thing, fraught as it was with ignorance and wrong-headedness. When she abdicated my workshop prior to its valuable, climactic end, she was singing to herself as she carried off an armload of “paintus horribilis.” Later, I heard she had several successful shows with the stuff. This morning I looked in vain to see if she had anything to say about my own effort. She hadn’t. I don’t think she’s a subscriber. “The best advice yet given is that you don’t have to take it.” (Libbie Fudim)


Subjects of a mass experiment?
by Gail Griffiths, Ocean, NJ, USA


“West coast”
oil painting
by Gail Griffiths

Robert, I find you interesting. You played this whole thing. I have to suspect with good intentions of your own. Were we subjects in a mass experiment? Did you take into account that some would react with distain and trash the painting? To find that some readers would like to lash out at you, is that disheartening? You stirred up the masses, your people. I saw two things, one in your painting which is still there and one in your personal characteristics. You were playing with the core of what you are about. Yet the finished product you put out gives no satisfaction to those taking time to help with your art piece. It was a big “Ha Ha, I’m going to do what I want anyway.” Actually, good for you as an artist, but why do it? Are you experimentalist or brat?

There are 2 comments for Subjects of a mass experiment? by Gail Griffiths

From: Catherine Robertson — Mar 07, 2009

There’s nothing “bratty” about Robert. He’s just a really warm, fun, giving guy and perhaps his tongue was slightly in his cheek but it was a fun “play”. Enjoy the fun and smile with him !

From: Eva — Mar 07, 2009

What ever reason Robert put his painting before us, doesn’t bother me at all. I happen to prefer his piece to over work, sentimental paintings. Thanks Robert, I’m inspired.


The mystery of success
by Sandy Bonney, Brookings, OR, USA


“Mount Saint Helens”
oil painting
by Sandy Bonney

A couple years ago I went to Flagstaff AZ with a friend who was interested in buying a gallery. As we did a walk-thru amongst all the wonderful artwork, we noticed some rather insipid looking watercolors of florals and landscapes. Our first thought was, “That poor artist. I wonder if they ever sell anything?” Well . . . guess who was the top seller in the gallery? Even the gallery owner couldn’t figure that one out. But that is what keeps art interesting.

There is 1 comment for The mystery of success by Sandy Bonney

From: Dennis — Mar 05, 2009

Sandy your painting of Mount Saint Helens is very haunting. You have captured a sense of another world.

Looking at the mountain with its top blown off and the lack of trees and such it seems that I am looking at a landscape on a different planet .You really captured the “end result” of the tremendous explosion that had taken place. It looks so “peacefull” for now. How far do you live from Mount Saint Helens ?


Doing fine — ear okay
by Pam Craig, Memphis, TN, USA


original painting
by Pam Craig

I started reading your clickback and thought to myself, Oh dear… then I started laughing. I know quite well how everyone likes to tell someone else how to do things. I commiserated with you and felt like that old commercial YOU ASKED FOR IT — YOU GOT IT… Then at the end I read… “It was a slice… Now if I can find my ear…”

I thought OH!!!!! Did I tear into him? I thought I had really expressed how much I liked it and the potential it would have with just a few adjustments. I kept thinking I didn’t mean to make him feel ineffectual as Van Gogh, enough that he felt like he had been attacked and driven to detach an ear. Then I put on my glasses and realized you were looking for your CAR… whew… I am not such a bad person after all. Thanks for the fun of participating in telling you what to do. Hope you found your car so you can get out of Dodge.


The stuff of wisdom
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“Enter the silence”
oil painting
by Mary Moquin

I thought it was quite a hoot actually to ask the advice of a bunch of artists, especially considering the whole spectrum of experience and abilities. Having overheard several beginner artists critique works that belied their inexperience I can only assume you opened quite a Pandora’s box! I am reminded of what Plato wrote in The Apology. Socrates had been told by the oracle that he was the wisest man alive. Socrates found that hard to believe so he went to several different groups of people to quiz their knowledge. They were all opinionated in their viewpoints, yet none were exactly correct. Socrates finally had to concur with the oracle that indeed he must be the wisest man alive because at lease he is aware that “A wise man knows that he knows nothing.” I hope you have found your car.

There is 1 comment for The stuff of wisdom by Mary Moquin

From: Mishcka — Mar 06, 2009

I like your painting!


Value of the collective response
by Karl Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA


“Winter Blues”
oil painting
by Karl Leitzel

The many contradictory responses you got, and these mostly from actual artists, vividly illustrates why we can’t get hung up on one negative review of our work, or one rejection notice from a juried show. No art will ever connect with everyone, or satisfy the expectations of one viewer, judge, or art critic. A collective response, of course, is something to pay attention to, as a large part of why we create art is to communicate with other human beings as well as ourselves, and if no one connects, then there may be a problem. I always try to keep a lot of irons in the fire and applications and entries out there, so that the rejection letter one day is often followed by a glowing acceptance the next.

There is 1 comment for Value of the collective response by Karl Leitzel

From: Liz Reday — Mar 06, 2009

Yes, that was why this exercise worked so effectively, especially when we read the comments to the clickbacks. It’s all about the dialogue, plus I love your point about not getting hung up on one negative review of our work – that is a good lesson to re-learn again.


Incredible experience
by Polonca Kocjancic, Slovenia

This is just fantastic. And I think you also learnt the lesson behind it that no matter how many opinions you gather (and this indeed was a massive gathering), in the end you have to turn around, go inside and search your own essence and voice — in the end you have to refine it all and decide on your own. Looking at your final product, I dare say you did. You accomplished this task and it will always remind you of this incredible experience.


Born critics
by C. Keith Jones


“Red Peonies”
watercolour painting
by C. Keith Jones

Years ago when my youngest son was growing up (around age six or so) he would often want to paint with me. I would prompt him as he decided what to paint and then would go back to painting whatever I was working on at the time. Naturally he would finish his painting in less than fifteen minutes and be back asking me how I liked it. As I marveled at his work and attempted to critique it to try to help him hone his skill, he was unable to see any problems with it, however he would come to my painting and proceed to pick it apart. At his young age, he could see things in my work that could be improved, but in his eyes, his work was fine. Maybe we are all born critics.




Won’t be posting work
by Gena Lacoste, Medicine Hat, AB, Canada


“Out of the Blue”
watercolour painting
by Gena Lacoste

Robert, if what my Ol’ Uncle Pete says “God hates a coward” is true, God must treasure you! It takes a lot of courage to put your work out like that and invite criticism. I read the feedback with interest, and was horrified by what some people had to say… Mike Vandy especially! He takes mean to a whole new level, and was foolish enough to include his own work after very personal and mean trashing of yours and of you. I won’t get into what I think of his painting, but have to say that “Those who can, paint; those who can’t jump all over those who can.” I love your work, I loved the painting you submitted, and please carry on. I’m a watercolourist and have been painting steadily for the past 10 years, and am now teaching as well. You can bet I won’t be posting my work and inviting feedback. I do sometimes ask my class to critique a demo that I’ve done, but people who are in your presence are seldom as mean as they can be when sitting safely at their computer and sending their opinions out over the Internet. Every single one of your letters is a blessing.

There is 1 comment for Won’t be posting work by Gena Lacoste

From: Linda Mallery — Mar 06, 2009

Wow, I am in awe of your painting. Water Color is the hardest of all the mediums I have tried. And I am going to persevere, but your work leaves me breathless. Well done!


Fix your own habits
by Eva Kosinski, Louisville, CO, USA

If there’s one thing common to most humans, it’s the ability to always see everyone ELSE’s failings, but be relatively unable to push outside one’s skin enough to see one’s own with any clarity. If we could put a tenth of that effort into keeping good rein on our own habits and practices, all of our artwork would improve. Freedom and success are both the result of allowing others to take responsibility for, as well as bear the consequences of, their own actions or inactions, while exercising self control and taking personal responsibility for your own.


Remembered landscape
by Karen Gillis Taylor, Niwot, CO, USA


oil painting
by Karen Gillis Taylor

Painting from memory, (as you said this work came from, a small remembered sketch,) requires imagination and far more personal input than painting from life before you or from a photograph. It is far more difficult in some ways, and more fulfilling, more liberating than others. I found it interesting that so many responders to your invitation to the critique overlooked this fact and jumped in full force to analyzing the painting in academic terms, though that is quite a first accepted reaction. My questions to the artist would be, “Do you think this painting represented your initial inspirations for painting it in the first place?” Paraphrasing John Marin, after you “bow to the landscape,” did it bow back to you? Only the artist can answer the question, did your exploration in the form of this painting fulfill your hopes for expression? When we paint from memory or imagination, we lay ourselves open to critique of another dimension. We are exposed for what we dare to express on canvas, but we also can say, this is my own creation owing nothing to a real scene or place except for an initial glimpse. Say what you will. It is still my dream laid down in paint. Then we stand by our dream, and move on to the next painting, just as you said you would. So bravo, do another!


Modified computer images
by Ansgard Thomson, Edmonton, AB, Canada


digitally enhanced colours and composition

I love your painting. As a digital artist I always look at all art through my computer screen how I can enhance the composition and color. As you had asked for advice I rather gave it a try on your finished work. I will delete it after sending it to you. I hope you can enjoy my loving critical eye.

(RG note) Thanks, Ansgard. I did appreciate your loving, critical eye. And thanks to everyone who sent imaginative and loving digitalized versions for me to study. Of interest was that no matter what people did with the painting, the thing still tended to retain many of my personal errors and wrongheaded stylistic tendencies.


Too many decisions
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA


“The pose”
pastel painting
by Dyan Law

Rather than critique your painting, as requested, I waited to see what your readers replied. I was quite confident that you would get comments which would dissect every nook and cranny followed by every nanny and crook! And voila! I believe in and always encourage critiques for myself and my students. However, I also think it’s possible to look too far into the artwork as easily as one can overwork it. Looking “too deeply” is similar to looking into a never ending black hole! I try to put a lot of thought into constructive comments, leaving out all that may be considered non constructive… allowing the artist to respond to any “question marks” on his or her own. If you give someone all there is to comment about, you are merely giving them a major headache! I say leave a few open options to think about when critiquing… enough good stuff to question and “toss around.” Most artists will then invariably go after that which they knew required more focus in the first place! None of us are gurus to all. However, some are willing and ready to help as you saw by the numerous responses. Unfortunately with too many critics offering too many suggestions, there may be too many decisions to make. The outcome… too much confusion and too little gain! After all, isn’t “improvement” what we are chasing after? Congrats on your improvements, Robert, and for your reward… I have your car!!

There is 1 comment for Too many decisions by Dyan Law

From: Anonymous — Mar 06, 2009

Quite right. Too many cooks spoil the soup, or something to that effect.


Not so bad now
by Ellen Langas Campbell

I wanted to participate in your painting critique, but when I looked at the original, I was overwhelmed. I just didn’t like it, but I didn’t know what it was I didn’t like about it. To me, it seemed masterfully created… I think it was the gentleness that turned me off. So, deciding that my minimal art capabilities were not worthy and wishing to avoid writing anything negative about a perfectly good piece, I did not weigh in. Today I see the “reveal.” It’s the same scene, but with its new attitude, I love it. How very odd. I’m attracted to the rugged manner of painting compared to the original serene style. The emphasis of pink that seemed sickeningly sweet has been removed, yet now reduced to merely a spec of color, it makes its point. I think I learned more from this simple exercise than you or I might have anticipated. Thank you!





watercolour painting
by Patti Adams, New Orleans, LA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Teri Peterson who wrote, “My delight came in two parts — the subtle wit found in your letter and the amusement at how seriously some of us take ourselves. The seriousness of distracting silliness. Hence, the giggle. It is good to laugh at oneself.”

And also David Evanson of Gibsons, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Since subscribing to your letters, I have found it either interesting and well written or very interesting and still well written. It is unfortunate and unnecessary that your experiment was trashed. That is pretty dumb and obviously not well thought out.”

And also David Lloyd Glover of West Hollywood, CA, USA, who wrote, “Aren’t our best paintings really a collection of a thousand mistakes nicely arranged on canvas?”

And also Pat Vicari of Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “I laughed out loud when I read of your experience of receiving thousands of opinions on how to correct (or not correct) your painting! Wow! Artists are really opinionated people.”

And also Gudo Hallstone of Fresno, CA, USA, who wrote, “There are too many different opinions and likes and dislikes to worry about. Just please yourself until you can love it for yourself.”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Lessons learned



From: Claire Holcomb — Mar 05, 2009

Three thousand e-mails. God. I’m in writing group and sometimes get l0 critiques and those are hard to get through… I see your painting as a study in color. I always first get the whole and then, if at all, go for details. Yours is either surreal or fantasy. But it’s not realistic. I probably don’t know right word for what you are aiming for.

I like it. Felt it hinted at something unknown, yet to come. I probably would not want to own it as it makes me vaguely uneasy. But I wonder if I’m right that color is your main vehical of expression.

I think a deer/etc would make it too predictable since I feel you are on the edge of unpredictable.

From: Kathe Hall — Mar 05, 2009

I am a self taught non-directional mosaic/collage artist. I did not comment on your painting for the mere fact… I have no expertise in the subject matter of painting.

I buy art because it evokes an emotion in me or there’s something that I really love about it… Honestly, I didn’t like your beginning or your end. Doesn’t mean a thing, just not to my liking.

None the less, I love and enjoy reading your twice-weekly letter… Love love love it……. And look forward to it.

From: Morgan Samuel Price — Mar 05, 2009

It was fun reading your letter. I have a feeling that you are full of fun and generous. You certainly must give the psychiatrist fits with your upbeat manner. Most of his or her clients would be dragging bottom. Once you find your car I hope you will share what area you were painting when you did that painting. The rock formations are always a challenge and I want to go there.

From: Heather Assaf — Mar 05, 2009

I look forward to your letters each week and admire you immensely for your efforts to share your thoughts and experiences so freely. Your finished sketch is ‘you’ and I’m sure you will translate it into a beautiful painting. A critique is just that and I am always interested in comments on my work but, in the end, it is my work and I have to be happy with the end result. Deer, skunks and marigolds are not ‘you’!

From: Nancy Stewart Matin — Mar 05, 2009

I didn’t respond to your exercize, but I want to give you a marshmallow to suck on. Whoever “trashed” you is mean and narrow. I teach and I have never trashed … suggested, praised, tried to lead a blind pig to the pen sometimes, but never trashed. Sometimes a raw, primitive style has its own beauty and the artist needs left alone to pursue it.

You’re such a pro you don’t need my humble encouragement, but I offer it nonetheless. So enjoy your letters!

From: Sue Parr — Mar 05, 2009

I had to laugh when I saw the long list of comments on your painting. Everyone is a critic. One reason for my smile is that I hung a show in a local coffee shop here in Nelson yesterday and during the hour it took me to unpack my paintings and sort them a young man made a point of following me around and critiquing each piece while drinking his coffee. He not only told me I was painting in the wrong medium but that my technique needed adjusting and he knew just how to FIX all my work. I took it in stride and smiled and chatted with him between his comments but really just wanted him to shut up. I am told I am very hard on myself so need all the ups I can get from a critique and less downs. I commend you on the serenity you exhibited in your response to the critique. Lets all smile some more.

From: Sooz — Mar 05, 2009

I didn’t comment on your painting, but your letter reminds me of a cartoon I once had posted in my office: Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, flat on his back high up on scaffolding. In walks the Pope, far below, and calls up to him: “Michelangelo, the focus group thinks there should be more purple!”

From: Carol Lavoie — Mar 05, 2009

I love what you do and loved it just the way it was… You are incredible as a communicator, ‘seer’ of life with your painting and writing.

Keep doing what you are doing!!

From: Ann — Mar 05, 2009

Thank you for putting your work out there like that. It was fun. I have had my work critiqued so much over the years but have never critiqued anyone else’s. I know where you are coming from. Actually, I have walked away many times thinking maybe I should just give up painting.

From: Doris Cooper — Mar 05, 2009

Just re-enforces my conclusion that we ought to change the word critic to opinion! I love the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield’s line, “Who made the rules?” Not implying that there are no rules in art, but that some of the best art is where rules are broken and it works! ‘twould be nice to get the arguments out of the art world. But at my age, I don’t expect to ever see it. My final conclusion in the matter: if I like what I’ve done, who cares what others think?! Good suggestions still welcome though.

From: Halverson Frazier — Mar 05, 2009

Just wanted to give you a high sign for your brilliant updates and endeavors. How you manage the site, the research, plus finding time to explore your painting seems a daunting task. You really give us pause to consider that none of us is promised tomorrow. Today, in all its beauty is all we have. You indeed inspire us all.

From: Carol Lyons — Mar 05, 2009

What did this teach you?!! You can’t improve a painting by committee! I had to laugh when a California responder said a critic told her to look for gallery opportunities in England or Japan.

Get an experienced critic who you have confidence in, and has a track record. Someone who “gets” you and your work. It is a rare artist who has such a contact.

Maybe latch onto a Robert Corsetti (the only one who repeated my suggestion of bringing the background pink into the foreground. In my browsing I happened upon a famous woodblock printer who used that exact pink for a background) or a David Schwindt, both of them use glazes for color harmony.

From: Joy Hanser — Mar 05, 2009

Thanks so much for the shuddering belly-laugh imparted by your last letter!

I have no sage advice, just that I loved your response to the responses, and haven’t laughed so much since I don’t know when…

From: Janet Sellers — Mar 05, 2009

OMG. I read “find my car” and looked at the painting and tried to find a car. Well, after I decided that the rock on the lower right looks like a stylized station wagon (in hopes of finding your hidden car) it dawned on me that I was making up the impossible. My goodness. In a blur, there is a line of cars moving slowing along in the forest… a traffic jam of a fall day. NOT!

From: Gail Shepley, B.F.A. — Mar 10, 2009

Robert, I had no idea you are so funny!! Decided against the deer?



Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.