The weak link in the virtuous circle


Dear Artist,

“Virtuous circle” is a term used mainly in economics. It refers to a chain of events that reinforces itself through a feedback loop with positive results. When results are negative it’s called a “vicious circle.” In both systems each iteration of the circle reinforces the previous one. When the circles are extreme in either direction they may have the prefix “hyper,” as in hyperinflation. These circles can also be applied in sociology, warfare, politics and art.

The Eames House (aka Case Study House No. 8), 1949 203 North Chautauqua Boulevard in the Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. by Charles Eames (1907-178) and Ray Eames (1912-1988)

The Eames House (a.k.a Case Study House No. 8), 1949
203 North Chautauqua Boulevard, Los Angeles
by Charles Eames (1907-1978) and Ray Eames (1912-1988)
Matthew Tait photo

A typical virtuous circle in the art vocation is (1) quality work, (2) proper marketing and distribution, (3) collectorship, acceptance and recognition, (4) artist happiness and productivity, and (5) quality work. Get the idea? On the other hand, many artists are stuck in a vicious circle: (1) substandard work, (2) inadequate, local or inconsequential distribution, (3) poor collectorship and recognition, (4) artist disappointment, frustration and torpor, and (5) substandard work. Widely available programs offer systems and information to build artistic success. Well-meaning non-artist counsellors can omit or gloss over the part of the virtuous circle that deals with product quality. While art is one of the few vocations where it’s possible to successfully market incompetence, our vocation is rendered more fulfilling when the product being marketed is of esteemed value and perceived quality.

The Eames House Studio By Charles and Ray Eames Matthew Tait photo

The Eames House Studio, 1949
By Charles and Ray Eames
Matthew Tait photo

Seeing as I’ve identified quality work as the frequent weak link in the circle, I’d better give you some definitions: Competence and ability, consistent or periodic style, unique sensibility, first-class materials, facility in composition, drawing, colour and form are all certainly part of what many of us mean by quality. Other factors might include sufficient volume of work brought about by regular effort and stubborn persistence. Artist agreeability, perennial studenthood, interesting lifestyle and an exploratory personality might also be part of it. Fact is, the quality of the work often depends on what dealers, galleries and curators see as the total package. In my experience, competence is very often at the top of that package. Often mistaken for genius, self-education and hard work can cause one to flourish. A few of the ultra-dedicated may find themselves in a state of hyper-flourish.

The Eames House Work Space/Studio by Charles and Ray Eames Leslie Schwartz and Joshua White photo

The Eames House Studio (interior), 1949
by Charles and Ray Eames
Leslie Schwartz and Joshua White photo

Best regards,


PS: “Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality.” (Charles Eames)

Esoterica: Everything hinges on the quality of one’s working. This means the total personality — attitude, knowledge, passion, work habits, and the resulting work. It is indeed a package. Is there one thing that leads to this broader understanding of quality? As far as I can see, it’s the acquired habit of studenthood — the simple need for learning. “There are no absolutes in painting,” said the American painter and demonstrator Rex Brandt. “All is measured by that relative term, quality. It is in this search for quality that the artist is, of necessity, the eternal student.” A genius may find this an easy job, but most of us have to work at it. “Quality,” said John Ruskin, “is always the result of intelligent effort.”

Husband and wife Modernist architecture and design pioneers Ray and Charles Eames. Eames Office LLC photo.

Modernist architecture and design pioneers (and married partners in life) Ray and Charles Eames, who moved into their Case Study House No. 8 on Christmas Eve, 1949 and never moved out.
Eames Office LLC photo

This letter was originally published as “The weak link in the virtuous circle” on January 25, 2013.

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  1. Bandbox is in a positive virtuous circle, scoring high on artistic happiness and productivity and from so-so to very good, and occasionally excellent, on quality. He’s reached a stage in life where he no longer exhibits his work, produces it for anyone other than himself, or cares what others think. These happy circumstances result in complete artistic freedom, unconstrained creativity, and slow but steady production. The final material result will be a large body of work that his children will either parse out between themselves or take to the dump.

  2. I really like this in particular about an artist’s virtuous circle “attitude, knowledge, passion, work habits, and the resulting work” that is all balanced with a kind of student-hood. This morning, I will host a regular zoom studio time with local artists, many who are past students even though I do not have time to teach anymore between my painting practice and the gallery. The purpose of this zoom call is to connect and facilitate our well-being during these challenging times but also to encourage our studio work habits. We take this time each week of usually less than 30 minutes to remind each other that we are artists and we have work to do. I am a steady, regular painter who completes between 30 and 40 paintings a year, depending on the size. It is not a huge volume but it seems to be what easily produces the quality that I aspire to maintain. Last year in 2020 it was 42 pieces. I found homes for 28 works in my inventory of about 100 available paintings. This is my 11th year of working full-time as a painter even though I have been a part-time painter for over 40 years before that. I want to encourage even those that are part-time artists to continue to apply this advice. If you can do nothing else, work on strengthening the quality of your work. This one thing is crucial. Continue to be persistent, stretch, grow and be bold no matter what. And while you are doing this, keep one eye out for opportunities to connect with your ideal art collector. If there isn’t a door opening, climb through a window. If there is no window, cut a hole in the wall and make one. However, whatever else I do, I keep challenging the edges and evolution of my own abilities in a way that keeps me thriving with inner drive and direction. And this is the best any of us can do I think. Another great article Sara!

  3. Well now….the perception of quality is a finicky thing….virtuous and vicious can both lay claim to it….as recent politics prove. Edvard Munch slashed chalk on cardboard for the Scream….not exactly quality materials….and John Myatt successfully fooled a whole host of so -called experts with house paint and plywood. You Go John!
    “While art is one of the few vocations where it’s possible to successfully market incompetence, our vocation is rendered more fulfilling when the product being marketed is of esteemed value and perceived quality.”
    So….who is in charge of the estimates….?

  4. Before 2020, a certain delicious tension between Eastern and Western styes and techniques went missing for me. Painting drew enormous energy from deep inside both gut and heart, and that went missing. For the past year I’ve been playing with new materials, studying flourishing, Celtic lettering, painting in oils and mixed media without caring about where this surge will go. At the end of last year I sold one of my “experimental”works, and began to revisit a theme around Lake Tahoe, one of my favorite places on earth. By working daily and exploring the process, new work and works in progress are flowing again. I feel a surge of positive energy and that glorious tension between the Eastern and Western minds.

  5. Thanks, Sara for this letter, photos and quotes. And, thank you, Terrill. Your advice is really, so good. Hope you don’t mind, I’m going to write some of it down in a notebook, to encourage me. I am a writer, but did start a major in Fine Arts in college. But writing has always been a stronger passion for me. So, now, so many years on, I am going to begin writing again. Thanks, again for good advice!

    • Please Kate, feel free to take whatever is useful from my comment. We will always do better by borrowing from others tidbits that resonate. I do have a gallery newsletter “A Brush with Life” that is published ever second Friday. There are several writers, as well as art fans and collectors, that subscribe just for the connection and inspiration. It is mostly about the artists and paintings showing in the gallery though so I don’t want to misdirect you. But you can read back issues to decide for yourself and can find the link if you click on my gallery website which is connected to my name in this comment. Always a pleasure to connect with other creative beings!

  6. I remember visiting Robert at his studio in my final year of art & design school. I was lamenting the fact that I loved to paint but didn’t know what my ‘subject’ or ‘style’ should be. His response still resonates: ‘quality is always in style’. Thanks for sharing these jewels of wisdom, Sara.

  7. kelly leichert on

    What passes for quality is often the ability to make something good once and repeat it. This is style.

    Appreciation is fine but it can border on pleasing. To flip the coin is to provoke with the work. Neither is purposeful. One pacifies and the other is aggressive.

    One should be shook on some level. When we are really transformed we are moved – there is motion within. After trauma, elation, discovery your body will react physically. If making or viewing art does this you know it is heading toward truth.

    Materials do not matter. How they are used as to alter the viewers perception does.

    Prices, recognition, visual beauty are neutral and are social. The point of the artwork is that it is independent of others, its own being. It does not want to be used nor defined. Do you want this for your self – to be objectified? A masterpiece cannot be made by formula or repeated in series. Regardless of what price it has or how much others speak of it the masterwork is mercurial – it will not be controlled. You will be curious, come back to it, entranced even repelled. It will move you to a response sometimes quietly sometimes not.

    Capital, marketing, advertising, theory is so entrenched we have trouble seeing and experiencing art. There is a built in interface between us and the art. The quality artwork breaks through that and changes you. It is one of the rarest experiences in life. It is not appreciation but transformation. You are not pleased but altered.

    Most of us are not able to create as to change another. Perhaps this is why art used to be associated with the divine. How well we create is a function somewhat of ability, training, gift, talent, work ethic. To me, it is a vocation to see how far towards the noted above you can get – period. You may find perils and pearls along the way but no matter as it is secondary. It is like religion. Not a business or career really but a calling.

    Few other serious activities settle. The scientist, the athlete and so forth push their capacity further and the point of the work. It is to constantly dis-cover. So often we stop as artists either to please the patron or the academy as there is reward in this. The viewer is in charge and comfortable. We get a pat on the back. What does this accomplish as purpose? Artmaking is not social work to take care of others or change society. It is to touch the inner world. You make an object non objective. Alchemy. This is the magic,, mystery and meaning of art. Thanks, sermon ended :) KL Regina, SK

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