Dealing with Criticism as an Artist and Staying Humble coz Nobody Likes a Conceited Douchebag
I’m lucky enough to be a South African man, in our patriarchal culture, who’s wife doesn’t pander to his ego. And for that, I’m grateful. Although sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be hero-worshipped. I’d probably find it uncomfortable. Where’s the catch?
I usually don’t agree with what she says, because I’m extremely stubborn and strong-willed. But I always appreciate her feedback. And whatever she says, always gives me plenty to ruminate over — to accept or to discard.
I’ve seen this bizarre patriarchal arrogance in a lot of male artists, particularly in the generation before mine.
But therein lies the danger. If you don’t have anyone to call you on your BS, how are your eyes going to really see, or your ears really hear? How will you gain any sort of self-awareness and learn when it’s time to just shut the hell up and keep your opinions to yourself?
Learning from others
As an artist, I’ve started realising that you can learn things about art from anyone. Not necessarily those who can draw or paint better than you.
Some people just have a natural awareness and wisdom; a way of seeing things and communicating things, that hit the nail on the head. They can give the most interesting constructive criticism on an artwork; get right down to the heart of the matter and to the emotions, without having the ability to produce art themselves.
These are the few people in this world who connect with the feeling of an artwork as if it were a poem or a piece of music, and don’t get caught up in comparisons because they know that art is something subjective.
It’s a kind of Zen-like approach to art. As your sensibilities develop, you become more in tune with the purity of the artwork. Because art is about communication from the heart, and when an artist is truly authentic to themselves, that comes across.
Treating technique too subjectively can be a little dangerous also I think. There can definitely be an objective comparison with what is considered great versus poor technique. But again, the lines of comparison can be a little blurry, and is always dictated by taste.
For example, today, the paintings of Bouguereau are held in extremely high esteem for their technical ability, but during his own life-time, his work was considered too old-fashioned, overwrought and overly sentimental in the wake of the rising Impressionist style of the next generation.
I generally don’t pay much attention to anyone giving criticism about my drawing or painting’s technical ability if their own artwork doesn’t completely blow me away and I wish they could be my artistic mentor.
To be honest, I wish I could find more local people like that. Most of the great South African masters I admire have unfortunately passed on. But there are one or two contemporary painters whose art I resonate with and whom would love to spend time with.
That being said, some of the most amazing artists in history weren’t that great technically. What they were trying to say with paint was more important than any kind of perfect rendering.
For me personally, the technical aspects of a painting are only a small part of what makes it great. Of larger importance I consider, is the emotional content, the concept or the story behind the piece.
And if you’re an artist or a critic who’s always stuck only on the technical stuff and can’t see past that, then I’m afraid you’ll never be a great artist or a critic worth paying attention to. (Personal opinion.)
Everyone wants to be an art critic
I think people get a little power surge when they criticize an artist’s work. It takes a lot of self discipline and awareness to actually look at art without saying anything. To let it speak to you before you speak.
When I hear the ignorant art Pharisees and Sadducees pronounce things like “Oh, she ruined the painting by putting in that blue umbrella,” or “His proportions are out,” or “The colours and shading are wrong.” I’m like seriously *rolls eyes.
Firstly, the blue umbrella is actually quite nice and I like the way she used it to bring a human aspect to the vacant, harsh landscape. Secondly, everyone’s body is different, so unless you’ve met the model, how would you know whether her body really looked like that or not? (Ingres had some blatantly mis-proportioned bodies in his French Academic paintings.)
And thirdly, the colours and shading technique are part of the very heart of the expressive licence of being an artist. They can use whatever colours they freaking want, or shade the sh*t out of their drawing if they want to.
Should we all make paintings to look like photos with their limited colour, high contrast and clipped lights and darks, distorted proportions due to a single lens, lack of focal point because everything is done with slavish attention to detail? — And need I even say, absolutely bugger-all expressive quality?
It’s funny that that constitutes as good art these days: making a painting look like a photo. I think it’s because people spend more time looking at photos than at art, and making ignorant comparisons between the two. But I don’t even want to get started on that.
Damn, I don’t want to be that guy
Nothing is worse than artists and gallery owners whose social esteem has gone to their heads. There’s always that subtle little assumption that the artist needs the gallery-owner more than the other way around. I don’t subscribe to that view point any longer.
A great gallery owner has his/her finger on the pulse and they will want to know as much about the artist as they possibly can and the artistic direction the artist is going in. They offer ideas, ask a lot of questions, but they don’t tell you how to do your job of painting.
They can tell you what kind of work is currently popular in the market, but they aren’t trying to copy everybody else in town. Because they are innovative in their own business and know how to generate their own aesthetic for their gallery.
I think a great gallery doesn’t sell paintings like a furniture store sells TV cabinets —which, unfortunately, seems to be a lot of galleries in South Africa.
They won’t try to tell you how you should or shouldn’t paint. They won’t say things like, “I think you need more red here, because red is in fashion right now.”
The actual painting is the ARTIST’S job!
I’ve had gallery owners tell me things like “Don’t paint on wooden panels or use a gold frame, people are put off by frames.”
Or “Stick to your landscapes, your portraits and nudes are not there yet” *Hasn’t seen any of my portraits before, or my latest work or my website.
Or “You should sign your name in big red lettering so people can see it!”
*Can I just say kitsch!
When gallery owners are so out of touch and beyond hope that they don’t bother to get to know their artists; I’ve also heard things like: “You should paint in acrylic, it dries faster.”
Or, “You should go for art training and learn to draw with charcoal first,” when in fact I draw with charcoal A LOT. (I’m still in training and will be for the rest of my life.)
I had a serious *rolls eyes* moment when an artist and gallery owner tried to tell me how to use grisaille in my painting, but couldn’t even pronounce it properly. Then informed me so narcissistically about another realist painter in Cape Town he’s almost as good as, but then went on to say why this artist’s painting wasn’t very good.
All the stuff he was sagely spewing forth was pretty much freely available and popular amongst anyone who has any kind of current interest in art and an internet connection, and I was quite familiar with it already. But he made it seem like he had some sort of special knowledge, and his demeanor was extremely condescending and vainglorious.
A conceited person makes assumptions about another person. They make the mistake of thinking they are better than someone they don’t actually know. But a wise person holds his tongue and allows the fools to babble on.
When you experience mild condescension from someone, it’s usually because of insecurities or doubts in their own abilities on their part. It’s also a sign of them not really seeing who you are, making assumptions about you, and underestimating you.
Having the gall to tell someone how to paint without asking questions about their work or having enough knowledge of their art, is like teaching someone to sing without having heard their voice.
It’s a very dangerous habit, letting stuff get to your head and thinking you’re the sh*t. Ego really gets in the way of making good art, of being aware of your surroundings and being intuitive towards others. It blinds you from learning new things or seeing the world in a new light.
And in being an artist, it’s vital to have your eyes open and to see reality in a constantly fresh way.
So what could I do but sigh or laugh ruefully, when someone who paints kitsch wildlife tourist art wants to give me pointers on how I should train for my art, or how I should paint and what I should paint. When they don’t even know who I am. I love it. Total douchebag in my book.
Then again, he probably can’t help it. Very few people can view the world or view artwork other than through their own evaluating lens. But it certainly doesn’t make them right.
Being vulnerable enough to accept criticism
Sometimes you just have to be vulnerable enough and brave enough to ask for feedback. What do you think is wrong with this painting? Why don’t you like it? Why wasn’t it accepted into the competition/exhibition?
That’s how you learn.
I must say though, I do sometimes struggle to accept criticism. But I’m working on it.
And when I start feeling defensive or a rising uncomfortability inside because I don’t quite agree with where the criticism is coming from, I tend to hold my tongue in the fear of coming across as defensive or overly-sensitive. I always doubt myself and ask, ‘Am I wrong here? Am I just being prickly?’
Or is this dude just being a condescending prick?
And then in the car ride home, I start thinking of all the things I could have said but didn’t because it was too uncomfortable and I was too unsure of myself.
Hindsight suddenly hits me with how I gave absolutely no response to stand up for myself. I was too worried about coming across as offended.
So then I spent the next few days checking and rechecking myself. And I came to realise that there is a reason why we are very sensitive beings.
I’ve received criticisms many times before which I didn’t have a very strong reaction to (besides a bit of irritation that damn I never saw that!). And I think we can subconsciously pick up if the criticism is coming from a place of that person’s ego or ignorance and is actually completely unfounded.
So it’s important to listen to your internal reaction. What you’re hearing could be really bad for you.
Protect your creativity
You just have to be very careful as an artist who you listen to. If you listen to every little remark about your painting, you will probably never finish another painting again, being so worried about getting things right.
‘Will they like it?’ you ask yourself.
Get that freaking thought out of your head right now!
Can you honestly say whether you like your painting or that painting hanging on the gallery wall? That’s surely all you need to know!
My wife doesn’t know that much about art — she’s not an artist — but she obviously knows a lot about me. And she has looked at my paintings many times and pointed out things that I missed. The difference is that she’s not trying to teach me. She leaves the painting journey to me. She’s trying to show me what she sees.
I learnt more in 5 minutes while holding up a painting that I was unsure about to my wife, than I did from a meeting with an artist and gallery owner, who proselytized for over an hour about how I should paint or what I should be painting, and subtly inferring how marvellous he was and that one day I could be as good as him.
Just as one should be careful who their friends are, so should an artist also be very careful of who he or she accepts advice from or works with. It also applies to what you read.
I listen to my gut. When someone whom I really respect as an artist makes a subtle suggestion, I think about it extensively. And I either use it or don’t. Because at the end of the day, the artwork is still mine and the choices are mine.
I think you just know when something is based in ego and when it’s pure. There are some really great master artists in the world and I would be extremely grateful to pick up scraps of their knowledge about techniques and ways of drawing or painting. There’s always the next level and you just need to be humble enough to see that, so that you can climb that mountain.
And as in the Buddhist tradition, the master appears when the student is ready.
So I think finding the balance between listening to advice or criticism and recognizing when it’s total BS is very important. I think that balance only comes with time and wisdom.
There is a lot of ego and boastfulness in the art world. My wife says she’s also come across it often with celebrity chefs she’s worked with. For some people, a little bit of success and fame just goes to their heads.
It really bothered me though. I thought, I never in my life want to come across as he did — a self-loving know-it-all. But I’m sure I could count on my wife to point it out if I ever was.
When I spoke about it with her, she told me that yes, I can be a little bit over-sensitive sometimes. But having a voice and standing up for yourself without being defensive is equally important. I said that in the moment, I just didn’t have that kind of wherewithal.
When someone doesn’t get me or my art, or criticises it, it kind of makes me feel deflated the next time I’m in my studio looking at a painting I’m working on. It’s like my energy has been taken from me.
As an artist it’s important to put up boundaries and psychic walls because making art is such a personal, visceral process. And you need to protect your sacred creations. I might flippantly call one of my paintings rubbish, or toss a whole lot of my drawings in the bin, but it’s the process and the artist’s journey that should be safeguarded against the profane in this world.
You have to remember who is painting this picture. And why.
It’s very important to remember where you came from and to remember the people who were there from the beginning. The collectors who supported you and watched you grow. And if you were lucky enough, the parents who praised you for your drawings, or the teachers and mentors who inspired and guided you.
When you remember where you started, I think you’ll just remain grateful for where you are now. And the successes won’t go to your head.
There’s always going to be someone further along than you. But the journey is really a personal one, and the greatest adversary or competition as an artist is really yourself.
So if someone rattles your cage, it’s probably a sign that there’s more internal stuff to work on than the actual painting or drawing.
Maybe you need to listen to the feedback or maybe you need to ignore it.
And I think the way to know is: Are you feeling inspired or crippled?
As Carl Jung said:
Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, ‘Something is out of tune.’
Check out my latest series of works The Sirens