Writing the letter


Dear Artist,

On the recent cruise to Alaska I met up with some subscribers. On the boat and on the towns, I asked, “What do you think might improve the twice-weekly letter and the Painter’s Keys website?” Answers varied. Jim of Calgary suggested that I ought to write a letter about writing the letter. As well as wanting some questions answered, he thought subscribers might make some suggestions. I told him I don’t generally know in advance what I’ll be writing. I told him about our editors who check the letter before we send it out. I mentioned our common complaint that it comes out too frequently. Another complaint is that it doesn’t come frequently enough. To the question, “Where do you find the time?” I told him, “We always find the time for things we love to do.”

And what about the clickbacks? “Conflict is good,” said Sandy of New Jersey. “It’s good when they don’t agree with you,” she said. I agreed. She also told me she didn’t read the longer responses. Other subscribers said the same thing. I told them that sometimes it’s darned hard to edit well written and useful material. Many excellent long ones, unfortunately, we just leave out. “It’s so fantastic,” said Sandy, “to see another opinion or method — brief and to the point. Serious artists don’t have a lot of time.” Everyone agreed that our webmaster Andrew is a master. “The Painter’s Keys site is so easy to follow,” said Russ of Ketchikan. “It’s the most authoritative art-thing on the net,” said Pete of Skagway. “It’s good because it’s not a blog. Some of your artists know important stuff,” Pete said. “I love the quotes,” said Manuel of Portugal. His favorite was, “Be mad.” (Salvador Dali)

“It’s good to be part of a community,” said Pua Maunu of Juneau. “Even though we’re in an out-of-the-way place, we feel part of something greater — part of the art world.” Regarding my letters, some folks had suggestions: “Sometimes you get too wordy and have too many references. Make it less turgid,” said Mickey of Vancouver. Some folks liked the references to products, equipment, and the value of personal tips. Others preferred to read about the more “spiritual” side of our game. Teresa of Florida said, “Pictures are worth a thousand words. You should use more pictures in the clickbacks.” I asked if anyone thought that I was too full of myself. “Aren’t we all?” said Phyllis of Sardinia, “and isn’t that one of the Painter’s Keys?”

Best regards,


PS: “Why do I write? Because it isn’t there.” (Thomas Berger)

Esoterica: Time and again subscribers have told us that the letters and clickbacks have given them new insights. “They make me think,” they said. Lord Byron once observed, “A drop of ink makes people think.” It’s my wish that I can help creative people think of new ways to be creative — to get more joy and understanding from their own unique processes. This twice-a-week effort has been a learning curve for me too. Thank you for being part of it. I sincerely invite your input.

(RG note) Thanks so much to all who wrote in response to “Writing the Letter.” I was away overnight and Andrew opened the inbox and received the main thrust of the Tsunami. Faced with making a ten-letter clickback out of 1800 emails, he told me on the phone that he could choose the first ten that came in, or the last ten, or only ones from those who wrote less than ten words, only females, only males, only Californians, only watercolourists, only ones who sent illustrations, only ones who didn’t, only those who hadn’t written before, only those by the name of Brown, or only those who said, “Don’t change a thing.” Then he said, “Why don’t you have a go when you get back?” I think he wanted to go sailing. So I took Saturday, read every single one and picked out a few. I went way over my limit. There were a few helpful ideas which I have taken to heart as well. Thank you. Boy, that was something else. After that I floated around this studio like the Goodyear Blimp.


Robert’s recent trip to Alaska


Sandy Sandy of Tabernacle, NJ, USA
at work aboard the Coral Princess


Constance Hartle, Jane Stokes and Pua Maunu of the Juneau Plein Rein Painting Club at the Fred Machetanz exhibition, Juneau








Wake-up on arrival
by Pat Brown, New York, NY, USA

I love the letters! When they arrive, they always wake me up. Where has the time gone — flashed by — since the letter that came just a minute ago? What am I doing — is it art? Usually it’s busy work. I need to be woken up to that. I love the universality of your letters. Currently I’m a full time student studying to become an art therapist — and your philosophy, tips, nudges are useful to me even though I’m not painting. Thanks so much for spending the energy getting the letters out, and thanks for sharing your experience, struggles, and successes. Yes, you write about painting; I find you are also writing about living. Very helpful, insightful and down to earth.


Keep it real
by Nola Diamantopoulos, Australia


Nola in her studio

This was a funny (meaning I laughed) topic and I enjoyed it because, as expected, there is no such thing as making it better. Better is generally understood to mean ‘improved’ and ‘better’ will be defined by each of us depending on what we want. So is the question — what do we want? Here’s what I say — I subscribe because of your uniqueness. That you write in a conversational style and I feel that you are nearby — that you appeal to my spiritual and esoteric side as well as my technical — I often respond to you in my imagination which means that whether I agree with you or not you have stimulated my thinking enough for me to want to respond to you — cool huh? Just keep doing what you are doing — keeping it real.

(RG note) Thanks, Nola. Some time ago we started compiling odd and sometimes funny things that people wrote about the letter. Andrew has gone back in and added some more. If you’re interested, see What artists have written about the Twice-Weekly Letters.


Keep it honest
by Dreama Perry, Paris, KY, USA

I guess what I like about your letters is that they are honest and unfiltered. Honesty helps everyone, even if you don’t agree with what you are reading — it helps everyone not be so afraid of truths. Because your letters are not “magazines” looking for sponsorship and advertisements, they don’t feel edited and postured. I don’t always have time to read each one, but I am glad they are frequent. I print out the ones that are relevant to me and sometimes forward them to friends I feel will relate to the subject. Keep writing — it’s a good thing.


Selling art
by Brian Knowles, CA, USA

Yours is the mature commentary of an artist who has under his belt a lifetime of maturing and development. My input for your letters would be that the most daunting part of being an artist is selling one’s work. It takes every bit as much effort as painting itself. Moreover, there is so much competition out there, especially here in Southern California. There are so many very talented artists! It’s like the gunslingers in the old West: no matter how good you are, there’s always someone better. There’s only so much wall space available in galleries and elsewhere, and only the best get hung. The rest of us get the leftovers.

(RG note) Thanks, Brian. Some ideas about selling art are at Dealing with dealers and Gallery Joy and other places on our site.


Connectors for gallery owner
by Randy Follett, St John’s, NF, Canada

I’m a gallery owner and I find your letters an absolutely essential element of my operation. I don’t read them all — sometimes I scan quickly — sometimes I read them twice — I also act as editor and forward relevant letters on to other friends in the art world, which leads to interesting chats.


Transported from the house
by Naomi Waggoner

Your twice-weekly letters are a lifeline to me. Currently I live with my daughter, her husband, their 9 year old son and 9 month old daughter. I am an artist/writer who struggles with the compulsion to keep both right and left brains actively expressing sights and insights, experiments with textures and colors, etc. I am caregiver for my daughter and her family during her months-long illness, and while I’ve entered my 60s, it is often overwhelming. Physically disabled myself, these 15-hour days of care-giving leaves me bewildered as to how to find time to put anything on canvas, computer, paper, or other forms of the talent I’ve been blessed with. I not only read and enjoy your letters, I print them out for further reference. They take me out of the closed-in feelings I sometimes have and cause me to think, Oh, when I can, I’m going to do that, too, or try this method, or train of thought, to apply to my “work” as an artist. You’ve taken me out of the house to far away places and helped me ponder the beauties of them — the spirit of your expressions is a delight to receive.


Favourite uncle
by Martie Wagner, Bellevue, NE, USA


original painting
by Martie Wagner

Don’t change a thing. Your letters are a twice-weekly blessing. Just when I start to think the artist’s life is making me lonely and odd, along comes one of your emails, and suddenly I am at home in my skin again. You are giving us something so precious. You have created a family around these emails, and just like a favorite uncle, we just want you to continue being who you are, because that is something pretty wonderful.





You be you
by Suzanne Ste. Therese, Norwalk, CT, USA

You be you. That in itself is a valuable thing. I would not change a thing to your letter — it is because it is a unique document from a unique person that it is helpful. Keep your confidence. I gain much more from your writing than not and think the length, tips, insights, etc., are just fine. There is too much homogenizing in this world — stay a single bottle or a drop of milk or one flower. The world does not need more of the same. If you want to change it, go ahead! It is your baby and you get to raise it in anyway you like.

Also, the way the site is set up is uniquely helpful. I can find whatever I need or want in two clicks. Easy and elegant. I don’t always read every letter right away. I do file them in their own folder in my e-mail box.


A smorgasbord
by Pam Coffman, Oviedo, FL, USA


original painting
by Pam Coffman

I appreciate and share your passion and commitment for art. Taking time to write these eloquent, informative, inspiring, and insightful letters and maintaining this Mecca of a website, speaks volumes about your love for what you do. Your willingness to share your knowledge and to grant permission to teachers and artists to use it freely is most generous and the mark of a true teacher. I’m sure that Robert Henri is smiling down on you. The beauty of email is the ability of the receiver to simply delete a letter that is of no interest, too long or wordy for them. They can go to the clickbacks or not, read in-depth responses, scan, find a quote, or just look at the artwork. They can take what is important to them and leave the rest. I suggest that you keep the Painter’s Keys just as is it is — a smorgasbord, so that people with all kinds of tastes and appetites can find food for their artistic soul and come away feeling nourished.



Technical suggestion
by Dave Kellam Brown, Dallas, TX, USA


“Delta Don”
original painting
by Dave Kellam Brown

I would like to have some way to search for information and comments regarding specific subjects in your clickbacks and other on-line sources. I love the longer responses in the clickbacks but I understand readers who don’t want to wade through long ones. It might be practical to catalog them on-line and provide a link to a key-word indexed site for such. There might also be an isolated section for flames and contentious opinions. I manage a couple of on-line discussion groups and found that this last suggestion helps in the harmony and mutual respect within the group.

Thank you for your letters and acting on your love of art. Stay full of yourself — it helps to refill all of us! Hopefully, we help to refill and recharge you and one another.

(Andrew Niculescu note) Thanks, Dave, and everyone else who took the time to suggest technical improvements for the Painter’s Keys website. Besides updating the content on the website, I create and implement features to improve the accessibility of content while striving for increased user-friendliness. Dave’s suggestions are valuable and can be found on my long “to do” list. Currently our search feature — found at the top of every page — can be used to find subject-related material from Robert’s letters or from clickbacks.

Feedback on the look and feel of the Painter’s Keys website is always appreciated.


“Just for me”
by Jim Kuykendall, Conroe, TX, USA

Your letters provide me with a time to learn and to see others work and points of view. It also motivates me to take the time to keep painting — and again learning. I have read your book and have looked up the other artists you speak of, as well as order their books. I read for content and to get the “nuggets” that are there “just for me” and the needs I have for this time in my art.


Expanded connection
by James Grady, Bucks County, PA, USA

I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania along the Delaware River. Across the river is the state of New Jersey. I am a half hour drive from downtown Philadelphia and a one hour train ride from New York City. So I don’t live in an out-of-the-way place like Juneau, but I still identify with Pua Maunu’s assessment of your e-mail letters. They expand my connection to the art world.


Got to please yourself
by Ib Larsen, Napa, CA, USA


Ib and Salvador

Don’t change a thing! Your twice-weekly letter is a winning formula, and judging by the enormous amount of subscribers, you are right on target. Your letters are not only informative, but seem to “hit home” ninety percent (or more) of the time, or to say, they arrive just in time with a solution to a problem I thought only I could have. Your ability to articulate problems and solutions seems uncanny, and your sense of humor and play with words is so refreshing, I always feel uplifted after reading your letter. We are blessed to have you and your staff providing us all with a sense of unity and sharing in what at times seems like a rather isolated profession. There are many types of Artist communities on the web, blogs, etc., but I venture to guess not one is the quality or size of Painter’s Keys. Too many cooks crowding the kitchen, and many turn rather negative due to that. So don’t change a thing with this winning formula, and remember you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself. (Easier said than done for some of us.)


Letters inspire her
by Annette Compton, Woodstock, VT, USA



Thank you for your piece about writing your letter. I have been painting less and writing more. I found that after writing my book, Drawing from the Mind, Painting from the Heart that I enjoyed writing ever so much. In fact, I have a new “day job” as director of the Chamber of Commerce here. Your bi-weekly letters inspired me to write a weekly column in the local paper. Your style is crisp, full of excellent references and art history. You are providing the art world with an excellent resource in this technologically challenged world. Thank you for your joy.


Too much normalcy
by David Wayne Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada


original painting
by David Wayne Wilson

I am forever reacting to the predominance of ‘adjusted’ art and artists here at Painter’s Keys. If the planet and our culture is a standard of sanity, I beg for more “madness.” Salvador Dali‘s “Be mad” remains an inspiration because he wasn’t bothered with a need to come across as ‘normal.’ There is so much normalcy aboard Painter’s Keys! I would much prefer some candor, some confession, some humor, some something alongside the Clickbacks letters. I’m not asking that Bob be any crazier than he is. Normal people do not trouble to foster a ‘Creative Occasion’ such as Twice-Weekly/Painter’s Keys. Bob’s appearance here is just the kind of ‘craziness’ this world needs more of. It amounts to a willing “showing up” — in this vast culture of humanity — that too few engage. When I feel free, I take the liberty of being absolutely insane on the canvas. I do not adhere to the myth that most people are well adjusted. I do adhere to the idea that most people are compromised by the manipulations of their own egos. Who dares reveal what’s behind our charades? Only those who recognize it as the innocence that it is.


Create to become unique
by Cristina Acosta, Bend, OR, USA


“The Corn Maiden”
oil and mixed media on wood
by Cristina Acosta

By making your inquiry regarding your writing process and the opinions public, you’ve reminded me why it’s important for an artist to re-examine her/his motivations and expectations, both privately and publicly. Reading about the contradictory responses you receive gives me a chuckle. I’m reminded of the completely contrary advice, both unsolicited and paid for (I work with consultants), I’ve received regarding my art. Many corporations can attest to the capricious opinions a focus group will come up with while examining a box of cereal. Art history is rife with reassessments of an artist’s work as time passes. Luminaries such as Vincent Van Gogh, Vermeer and Rembrandt were perceived during their lifetimes mostly on the failure end of the continuum, only to have their work completely reassessed positively in the decades and centuries after their deaths. Ultimately, as artists the advice of others will only serve us if we use it as another viewpoint from which to investigate ourselves and by extension, our work. The more you create, the more you become the truly unique human being you are called to be.

(RG note) Cristina Acosta is the author of Paint Happy!


Big workshop in the sky
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA


Jamie sharing his methods and philosophy.

Having never had a pen pal, I know nothing of the experience of someone writing consistently to me, as you have. In your letters, I find a kindred spirit, an older brother, a wonderful resource. Long ago, I stopped wondering why you guys put out this incredible service. I accept that you want to make all artists’ lives better and that you guys get something out of all this that can’t be bought. When you get to the “pearly gates,” there will probably be someone waiting to escort you to a place of honor. I can just see it now… “Mr. Genn, yes, please follow me, we’ve pulled out all the stops for your arrival!” He’ll lead you into an arena the size of Arrowhead Stadium, we’ll all be there giving you and yours a standing ovation, and, because it’s in heaven, we’ll all have the time and get a chance to pat you on the back!


Everyone knew but me
by Anne West, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

I wanted to write to you about your recent letter about your letters. My sister turned me on to your letters when I told her I had finally started to paint. When I told my sister, “Hey, guess what? I can paint!” — all she had to say was, “Duh!” I guess everyone but me knew that I had it in me. I look forward to your letters. You feel like a friend to me. I am interested in everything that you have to say about being an artist, and it is not important to me what sort of an artist you are or even if I think you are ‘good’ or not. What is important to me at this point in my life is the freedom and desire to ‘create,’ and being exposed to as much opinion and information about art and artistry as I possibly can. Thank you for your passion about your letter. Thank you for doing what you love. I love reading it. I don’t think you should change a thing. I don’t think it should be anything other than what you feel like saying and what you feel like talking about. And thank you for starting it “Dear Anne”…it really means a lot to me.


May we continue to learn
by Kirk Wassell, Chino Hills, CA, USA


“Painted desert”
digital artography
by Kirk Wassell

Well, Mr. Genn, and I would like to add “my friend,” because I feel like I know you, the first comment I would like to make regarding all the comments you embraced on your recent trip is, I have to agree with all of them. I agree because they are all loving and embrace what seems to be the very reason you write. But on the other hand, if I had to make my own personal comment, I would add, that if I were you, I would not intentionally change a thing. Of course we both know that’s impossible, because now that you have heard all those insightful comments, they are now part of you. So unto that I say, let come what may, but do, above all, keep on writing. You are an inspiration to all who see who you are, and a constant education to those still looking. May we always continue to learn.


by Veronica Stensby, Los Angeles, CA, USA

I hope you’re writing a book of “Painter’s Keys” letters. That’s how much I value the service you are performing for all of us, artists and those who may be “armchair” artists. I enjoy your references, always learn something new from you as well as your clickback writers, have fun and laugh as well as be provoked to think about the making of art and what it signifies in our world. Twice a week gives an amazing richness of opportunities for us to share thoughts. I just thought of one category, if we had the nerve: Bloopers! Like the Star Trek shows from the ’60s. Rather than show our mistakes, perhaps we can admit to one bad habit we’d like to break. (Not to fall into Art Therapy, necessarily!) We all know how hard it is to develop the skills and the length of time (years) it takes to become artists. Well, I’ve reached my quota (just joking) of words.

(RG note) Thanks, Veronica. Right now I’m working on a coffee table book The Art of Robert Genn which will be out on Sept 1, 2006. Assembling the twice-weekly letters by year or into one great big book is in the works and something we will do after the other thing that is blooping up my mind.


Real gems in readers’ responses
by Hugo X, Calgary, AB, Canada

There is this management theory about being responsive to your clients and stakeholders. Your letter is the perfect example of why you should not allow anyone to fool with a good thing. I have no idea how you get it out twice a week. Often I write responses and I don’t get them mailed before the next letter is in the inbox. Often I get a little out of the topic you write about, but then in the readers’ responses I find real gems. So don’t get too analytical. It’s good that it is not a blog. I would not be bothered by longer responses, or more of them. I like the format and the pictures included. My hat is off to you, and I too feel part of a special community. I look forward to the Tuesday and Friday evenings when I take some quiet time to read the new issue. Thank you for doing it, and thank you for the gut level honest way you treat your varied interests and opinions (and people).


Quotes quoted in class
by Timothy Nero, Santa Fe, NM, USA



I look forward to reading your letter each morning twice a week. Although I do not see very much art represented there that is similar to my view point and style, I find a camaraderie with all who reply to you. Your writing is amusing, profound and worthy and I am grateful for it. I have recently begun to teach a drawing class at the University of New Mexico NM – Taos branch. During some of the drawing exercises I read the quotes that I have printed out from Painter’s Keys quotes pages that are most pertinent to that day’s work.


Dropping too many names
by Jan Ross, Kennesaw, GA, USA

I love your twice-weekly letters but have to admit feeling a bit jealous reading of all the exotic locales you write from and visit! My main complaint is that while it’s understandable that you’d want to acknowledge various people you meet or work with along the way, given my limited amount of time to read your letters, they’re extraneous and distracting. I’m more interested in your thoughts and suggestions regarding painting/creativity rather than the people you know. Think about those ‘Christmas letters’ folks send to update others whom they’ve lost touch with during the year… you know you generally skip the parts about Uncle Frank, cousin Jim and sister Sue!


Spiritual and practical
by Ginny Blakeslee Breen, Hailey, ID, USA

I appreciate the combination of the “spiritual side”, which is so very important to me, but then you include the practical things, like the easel you had awhile back. I want to get a large easel soon and this kind of information is invaluable. I also appreciate that you take the time to write this letter. I enjoy hearing where you are and what you (or others) are doing. I have never felt (even remotely) that you were “full of yourself.” The letter makes me feel connected with other artists that are here on the planet that I may never know. I love the clickbacks and the pictures. If I don’t have time to read them I keep them in my email until I do. And if it is something I’m not interested in, I do what you suggest — I delete it.


What glue?
by Sharron Campbell, Cobble Hill, BC, Canada

I’m priming canvas and heavy watercolour paper, cutting it into sheets of 12 x 16 inches and taking acrylic paint with me. When I come home with a lovely little pile of paintings I plan to mount them on one-quarter-inch plywood panels (mahogany). My question — how should I prepare the panel before gluing? And what glue should I use?

(RG note) Acrylic medium is used to prime the panels on both sides and is generally the right glue for adhering the paper or canvas to those panels.


Windex cleans canvas
by Carol Ubben, Mount Morris, IL, USA

I found that I can use Windex to remove pencil lines on my canvas. Normally I sketch in pencil on my canvas to get the basics before I start painting. Before Windex there would be a snowfall of eraser pieces on my easel and the floor. Now I use Windex on a paper towel and it does a much better job. You don’t have to press hard and there’s no mess. Windex to the rescue!


Fred Machetanz an early influence
by Robert Bissett, Naples, ID, USA


“Old Hunter”
oil painting
by Robert Bissett

We moved to Palmer, Alaska in 1957 when I was eleven, two years before Alaska became a state. Fred Machetanz was one of my earliest influences. I visited him at his home several times. It had to be after 4 p.m. because he painted until then. He was a gracious host, explaining his process with all the detail you could absorb. I saw his drying room that was filled with horizontal racks of in-progress paintings under a surprising number of lamps. One of his most prized possessions was a paper cutout given to him by Maxfield Parrish. The release of his yearly lithograph was an exciting event even though the list of loyal collectors for those one hundred prints was pretty much fixed.




How many paintings?
by Enda Bardell, Vancouver, BC, Canada

I was wondering what you did with all your paintings? I calculated that you paint about 50 to 60 paintings per month. That adds up to about 600 paintings per year or so, give or take time off for events, personal stuff etc. Your work sells well but some may not. From your letters I understand that you have a storage studio. As a matter of curiosity, without getting too personal, how many paintings do you paint each year, what percentage do you sell and what percentage goes on the back shelf? Please advise — if it is not too personal. I need to satisfy my curiosity.

(RG note) Thanks, Lynda. It’s really about 300 a year. My work sells slowly but steadily. About half of my paintings sell within the year they’re produced. While I have many in my archives (I call it my Salon de Refusees) my dealers have the largest archive of better works.





The Baker’s Dozen

oil paintings on illustration board
by Adrian Gottlieb, Echo Park, CA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.

That includes Anne Ward who wrote, “The only improvement I can imagine is if you were to ‘podcast’ your letters. Wouldn’t that be neat to be able to do an audio version and download it?”

And also Catherine Moffat who wrote, “I always have the feeling reading your emails that you want us to learn, want us to grow in understanding and maturity in our life as painters. Your audience ranges from the Tuesday dabbler to the obsessed and committed, but you speak to all with respect and encouragement.”

And also Sandy Tucker, Burlington, NJ who wrote, ” ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ and I say, too many changes too quickly and you might just ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ ”




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.