What is quality?


Dear Artist,

“Shall I tell you what I think are the two qualities of a work of art?” asked Pierre-Auguste Renoir. “First, it must be indescribable and second, it must be inimitable.” With these two celestials in mind, how might we get closer to our own highest expression of quality? And in these days of conceptual spectacle, deskilling and verbosity, how is it even properly measured?


Robert proofs Sara’s poster design for a children’s festival, 1992

“You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal,” wrote William S. Burroughs, and so we strive for something that can be mysteriously but undeniably felt. “Quality is always in style,” said my Dad, like a mantra. “You should be able to get within an inch of the painting and see it. And you should be able to recognize it from across the room.” As a lifelong pilgrim of quality, I can tell you that the search for it takes on a deepening urgency.


Show invitation, Jenkins Showler Gallery, 1992

When I was starting out, quality seemed most within reach by showboating techniques like zippy gradations, handy brushmanship, design and by drawing from nature — the goddess of quality herself. If I could over-prepare by ticking a few boxes, I thought it might earn me in future the right to reach for wider, more unexpected markers of quality — those inventive, personal and abyssal stirrings that artists understand as truth — the ineffable good stuff. Quality surely lives there, too, even if her more obtuse packaging also holds the dangers of confusion and technical error.


“The Shakespeared Puritan”
acrylic on canvas by Sara Genn, 1992

Think of the quest as first asking yourself a few hard questions and then embarking on a long course of incremental tweaks, whereby your very reason for being, your message, can be refined and deepened. Then neaten or loosen, sophisticate or simplify, leaving your strokes as the audacious, virgin treasures they are. Step up to the easel with the understanding that there’s always a little bit more to give. My Dad called it, P.M.I.I — “Put More Into It.” In the home stretch, when you stop short of overworking, pluck a hair from the varnish and tie off the wire, you tell the world, “This is how I love you.”


Show time, 1992



PS: “It’s neither contrived, nor surprising and smart, not baffling, not witty, not interesting, not cynical, it can’t be planned and it probably can’t even be described. It’s just good.” (Gerhard Richter)


Grandparents Lorrie and H. D. (Doug) Genn — Grandpa Genn once owned a sign painting and advertising shop.

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.” (John Ruskin)

Esoterica: It dawned on me during a recent conversation with a new contemporary art magazine that it’s been 25 years since my first show. I observed in my memory — like a floating, orbiting space station — how it was able to messily germinate because of the quiet encouragement of so many bemused and patient friends. I realize that not much has changed in the time between then and now. Today still holds the disquieting gnaw of obligation to try to fulfill quality’s basic requests. “The things that we love tell us what we are.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)

Sara’s interview with Create Magazine is here.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Be your own discriminating connoisseur.” (Robert Genn)



  1. In a world with Jean Michelle Basquiat, Carl Andre, Jeff Koons and Damian Hurst how can we even talk quality?
    Felix Gonzales Torres candy in the corner I guess would depend on the quality of the candy.

    • Sarah

      Are you familiar with Clementine Hunter and her flying angels? She is really an original. I thought that you might find those paintings of hers interesting.

      Thanks for all that you do for all of us.

      I enjoyed the great photo of your father holding you work. He is proud.

      Beth Mahy- Dallas, Texas

  2. I know why you are smiling, all those red dots mean sales. That is what hooks us and takes us on the ride of a lifetime… They can be far and few between but our dreams take us further than the sales ever can. Watch how illusive fulfillment becomes after those sales leave us forever. We run grasping at our next truth to be revealed in work we have yet to create, but that is the only place you will find it.

  3. Thank you, Sara, for this lovely letter and for including family pictures along with wonderful examples of your early work. Yes, the “quality is always in style” mantra is still fresh in my memory. :-)

    Congratulations on your feature in the Create magazine!

  4. Barnaby Guthrie on

    Hi Sara,

    Still following your and your Dad’s letters. Nice to see your grandparents again, who were there when I used to visit your dad at their home on Persimmon Drive in Victoria. It all takes me back. Please remember me to your mum Best wishes to you and the Genn family from Barney.

  5. Thank you Sara for reminding us about the search for quality in our work, striving to confidently move ahead and show it, while dangers of our inner critic and those of “confusion and technical error” are left behind by the authentic love an artist gives to their work. I do believe if we remain focused and courageous we may find streams of “inventive, personal and abyssal stirrings” (your great words)…and something Good happens.
    Keep it going! Jane

  6. I always go back to Oscar Wilde when style is mentioned, style is in the brush mark. I guess that is why many artists say that when they do a good drawing, trying to emulate it into a painting is one of the hardest things to do. If all the principles of fine art are there in the work, there is still the intent. Why is the artist doing this? What is the artist saying? Questions like these speak to another language that works on a different level than words can describe
    .Are there any good critics out there anymore ?

  7. Appreciated your Create article, Sara, especially your profound statement that “…many things are their most beautiful when they reveal their transience.” As Wallace Stevens wrote, “Death is the mother of beauty…”

  8. Thankyou Sara for sharing such lofty thoughts with your readers. I liked the symbolic representation in ‘ The Shakespeared Puritan.’

  9. “Try to make your payday happen at the easel in the form of satisfaction; emotionally, spiritually, creatively — this accumulates into a lifetime of mostly happy days. ” Thank you Sara. I forget that. My pay is in the joy I reap as I follow the promptings toward beauty. Thank you.

  10. Good article Sarah because instead of lists of things to do to achieve quality, I found the advice to be very diaphanous. I even re-read a few times to find out exactly what you think by quality, and again, the answer was so subtle, it’s only when you know you’ve accomplished it that one recognizes the instruction!

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