Personal coach


Dear Artist,

My friend Ralph, who doesn’t mind my talking about this, is way out of shape. His personal coach, Alberto, is a ladder-chested ex-lightweight boxer with blinding white teeth and lots of hair. Alberto comes over to Ralph’s twice a week. Sometimes they work out on Ralph’s expensive equipment. At other times Alberto drives him in his Beemer to an upscale gym. Personally, I’d say Ralph’s still the same. Maybe not. Maybe he’s bigger.

Schadenfreude, 1993 Painted and chromium-plated steel 26.25 x 52.5 x 32.75 inches by John Chamberlain (1927–2011)

Schadenfreude, 1993
Painted and chromium-plated steel
26.25 x 52.5 x 32.75 inches
by John Chamberlain (1927–2011)

“Tennis players got ’em, why not you?” Ralph says. He’d like me to book Alberto, but Alberto’s booked solid, just one of many solidly-booked Albertos around here.

It’s no surprise when people ask me to be their personal coach. It happened again only yesterday. The lady was talking art, not abs. Come to think of it, a lot of us buffs are in demand. So I was thinking of all the inefficiency and disappointment that must ride on Ralph and Alberto’s contract. And while I like the idea of tailored guidance, I rather wanted to offer a more general workout. A sort of “Jenny Craig Success Course of the Arts.” Mine’s free. Here it is:

Hillbilly Galoot, 1960 Painted and chromium-plated steel 58 x 65 x 58 inches by John Chamberlain

Hillbilly Galoot, 1960
Painted and chromium-plated steel
58 x 65 x 58 inches
by John Chamberlain

Find a sanctuary where you can comfortably work.
Dedicate at least two hours a day to your art.
Have more than enough equipment and supplies.
Set short- and long-term goals and keep track of progress.
Think of your work as exercise, not championship play.
Explore series development and exhaust personal themes.
Work alone with the benefit of books and perhaps tapes.
Replace passive consumption with creative production.
Use your own intuition and master your technology.
Feel the joy of personal, self-generated sweat.
Fall in love with your own working processes.
Be forever on the lookout for the advent of style.
Try to be your own person and claim your rights.
Don’t bother setting yourself up for rejection.
Don’t swing too wildly and damage the well-being of others.
Don’t jump into the ring until you’re feeling fit.

Velvet White, 1962 Painted and chromium-plated steel 79 1/2 × 52 3/4 × 58 1/4 inches by John Chamberlain

Velvet White, 1962
Painted and chromium-plated steel
79 1/2 × 52 3/4 × 58 1/4 inches
by John Chamberlain

If you can stick with this regimen for a couple of months, I can pretty well guarantee your progress. If not, then at least the exercise will let you know the job’s not for you. We all have the potential to be barrel-chested, rich, satisfied or evolved.

Best regards,


PS: “The man who goes alone can start today.” (Henry David Thoreau)

Esoterica: “I decided to learn everything I could about beans,” said Thoreau when he moved to Walden Pond. Artists looking for inspiration can’t go far wrong with Thoreau. Self-reliance, there’s your personal coach. I’ve noticed most of the real success stories happen without benefit of Albertos. We all need to find the character within ourselves to overcome our weaknesses and build our muscles.

John Chamberlain in his Greene Street studio, New York in 1964.

John Chamberlain in his Greene Street studio, New York in 1964.

This letter was originally published as “Personal coach” on September 28, 2007.

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“You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.” (Henry David Thoreau)



  1. Very good & simple advice. The only real challenge is that ‘being human’ is likely to get in the way….,so a daily mindfulness, yoga, chi Kung practice or fill in the blanks might help with that….

    But thanks for the list.

  2. With this glorious isolation I am finding that I am not much interested in taking Zoom classes or doing much teaching right now, but I love being stuck in my studio. This letter sums it up. I’m thinking that my wonderful art education didn’t teach me to DO stuff, specifically, but gave me the opportunity to stay in the studio to explore possibilities. I’m guessing that for many artists, this will be one of the more productive periods of their lives. Of course we still have other commitments, but I’m not letting those overpower my time given to the plain old DOING of art. I love to teach, but there was a time when I would see the work of students at the end of class and I was jealous that THEY had done it and not me. So this list from Robert Genn of how to make time for yourself and DO the work covers so much territory, so much of the fear of being an artist because you are wasting you time, no one will buy it, these materials are so expensive, it’s gonna look stupid, I don’t have the skills I need to pull this off, my garden is full of weeds, I should be helping people more, who am I kidding, anyway, dang, it’s time to cook dinner, and all the other excuses we come up with.

    • An exercise Annie….look for the little faces in the trees….leaves….wood grains….linoleum flooring….tiles….mildew spots….bathroom stalls….italic strokes….ink spots….
      Discovery is never a waste of time….

      • Hmmmm. I was surprised to learn, Joan, that I am not the only one who habitually sees faces in things – our river rock fireplace stones, shower curtains, travertine tile, clouds. Always clouds. I never thought of it as an exercise but there it is. You have expanded my list…..
        BTW, I wonder if ‘finding faces’ counts towards dedicating 2 hours a day to my art? I seem to spend more time ‘learning’ than painting but it’s all part of what makes Life fun.

    • Oh, how that John Chamberlain photo freed me of guilt! I did wash the sliding glass doors that light my basement studio, and the effect electrified me, but reorder, put everything in its place, NO. If I did that, I’d never find anything. And art flows from this place…

  3. John Chamberlain’s work reminds me that what is considered art is subjective above all. I received formal training at the hands of professors who were deeply bought into the mid-twentieth century aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism: expressing one’s emotions is primary, and mastering illusion or craft is secondary, likely irrelevant. I tried to embrace their aesthetic. Nevertheless, I pursued a life of art making focused on the natural world as inspiration and subject matter, and painting the light and shapes landing on my retinas onto canvas as the jumping off point. I am now trying to let go of the more constricting prejudices I inherited and free myself from the need to render precisely. It is not easy. When I see John’s metal work I try to be encouraged that tight illusion is not useful any more. I can’t escape a nagging skepticism that it represents real art making as I see it. I’ve seen some abstraction that is compelling, and much that is not. I’m presently unable to experience apparently randomly crumpled metal as Fine Art. Maybe some day I can tune my perception to appreciate whatever the message or emotion is that is being transmitted. In the meantime I’ll be painting and sculpting things from lived experience and trying to let gesture and emotion come through more emphatically and not worry about “what does it look like”. The learning never ends. In art as in life, no? Thank you so much for this always stimulating forum. It is a wonder refuge and inspiration. A tribute to Robert’s life.

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No Featured Workshop of Fire 2, 2019
6 x 8 inches

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Christine Hanlon, whose work has been compared to that of Edward Hopper, creates ‘urban landscapes which quietly exude atmosphere.’


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