“As artists, it is our responsibility to show up and do the work, creating our best work with minimal concern on how others view our work.”

How to Deal with Criticism as an Artist

By Ellen Howard

Criticism can hold us back from creating. As Ted Orland & David Bayles state in their book, “Art & Fear,” our inner critic prevents us from doing our best work and criticism from others prevents us from doing our own work. There is a saying, just focus on the things we can control and not focus on things we cannot control.” I believe this is especially true in dealing with criticism in art.

Internal and external criticism can be difficult for every artist and it takes some skill to overcome it. Criticism in the arts seems to sting a bit more than in other occupations since what we create is very personal and our results or lack of results can be seen immediately – even before the paint dries!

Many famous artists in history have been criticized and rejected in public for their work, including household names like Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh.

Rodin’s very first sculpture, “Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose,” was rejected twice by the Paris Salon due to the realism of the portrait. Pablo Picasso’s work was severely criticized as “schizophrenic” and even “satanic” in the beginning. Many critics dismissed the work of Vincent Van Gogh stating that his work was amateur, strange, and intense. Claude Monet’s career suffered greatly in his first 20 years as he was repeatedly rejected from the Salon with statements from critics – that Monet’s work was ‘formless, ugly and unfinished.’

Today, all these artists’ works are revered and they are viewed as masters of their craft, selling in the multiple millions. What would have happened if these artists listened to their critics and just gave up? As artists, it is our responsibility to show up and do the work, creating our best work with minimal concern on how others view our work.

“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”
– Aristotle

Showing our work to others can be scary especially when we are at the beginning of our creative pursuits. To learn our craft, most of us have attended an art school, taken workshops, painted with other artists, and practiced our skills. There is a lot of opportunity for potentially unhealthy comparisons when we are in class or working with others. It is difficult to absorb an insensitive comment about our work from another artist.

I think we all have been the recipient of hurtful comments or have heard others make a disparaging comment about another artist’s work. In truth, these comments are frequently more of a reflection of the quality of the commenter than the quality of our work. But how do we deal with these comments in a healthy way?

I must admit that when I was starting out, a negative comment could ruin my day. I think as a beginner, we are more sensitive to criticism because we have not developed enough skill to feel good about our work and these types of comments hit squarely when we are most vulnerable.

As I have progressed in my career, these comments do not affect me as much. I have learned to ask myself a couple of questions to qualify the comment. First, do I respect the opinion of this artist/gallery owner/collector and if the answer is yes, then I look to see if I can learn anything from their comment. What in my work could I improve – and is this a change that I want to make?

I also try to put the comments in perspective. One comment on a painting or about a body of work in a show does not reflect the successes I’ve had in the past or dictate what my successes will be in the future. It is important to take a long-term view of your career and not get caught up in the day-to-day ups and downs. I also find it helpful to belong to an art group or have a couple trusted artist friends who can offer a fresh perspective.

Another form of criticism that artists experience are rejections from exhibitions and events. Every artist has experienced rejection. No one is immune. I clearly remember a time, years ago, when I entered four shows and got rejected by all of them. It was a very hard thing for me to deal with and unfortunately, I chose to confide this outcome to a senior artist who was not very supportive.

The artist told me that I needed to “know my place,” which I took to mean that my work did not have a shot getting into these shows. After I got over the initial disappointment, I researched the shows to see what work was accepted and tried to understand what would resonate with the judges. I looked at my work realistically and evaluated where I needed to improve to be accepted to these shows. I put in the time to develop better skills. As a result, I was accepted into three out of the original four shows the next time I applied.

“There’s a myth among amateurs, optimists, and fools that beyond a certain level of achievement, famous artists retire to some kind of Elysium where criticism no longer wounds, and work materializes without their effort.”
—Mark Matousek

As I have progressed in my career; I have also come to realize that there are other factors that determine an outcome. Sometimes it is not the quality of your work. A judge could lean towards more realistic or abstract work or prefer tonalist work to that over a colorist’s work. Or, they could prefer a certain type of subject matter, figurative versus landscape.

A rejection does not always mean that the work is not good. Sometimes, it simply means that the timing is not right for the work to be accepted or it is not in keeping with the theme of the show.

I entered my painting “Going to the Light” (shown at top) in a national competition and it was rejected. Two months later, I entered the same painting into another National show and it was accepted. “Going to the Light” was also chosen for Fine Art Connoisseur’s “Look Up” portfolio section in the September/October 2020 issue and sold the first week that it was shown in Rieser Fine Art Gallery in Carmel.

“Evening Light” was rejected from a national competition but was highlighted at Holton Studio Gallery and sold in the show to a gallery owner and art historian. This painting might not have been right for the competition but was gladly accepted by Holton Studio Gallery and my collector. It is important to have faith in your work and the process.

How to deal with art criticism - Ellen Howard, “Evening Light,” 9 x 12 in.
Ellen Howard, “Evening Light,” 9 x 12 in.

So how do we tame our inner critics, which can be overwhelming at times? Most artists have asked themselves the following questions: Is my art good? Will my art be well received? Will my peers respect me? Will it sell? Can I make a living as an artist? Then, after years of experience and success, the internal critic ‘levels up’ and asks, “How will I be perceived if I take my work in a new direction?”

It takes a brave soul to follow their creative dreams and trust in their process. These questions are difficult to answer but I have found that by regularly showing up to do my work and not focusing on the outcome, consistently making the time to create, not being afraid to fail, having a growth mindset, and taking a longer-term view for my career has helped tame my inner critic.

As a teacher, I have witnessed students being overly critical of their work. I always encourage my students to pick three things that they like about their painting before they start their self-assessment. Sometimes it is our self-talk that prevents us from doing our best work – believing in ourselves and our abilities is half the battle.

I took a new direction with one of my paintings in a solo show at the Peninsula Museum of Art. My painting “Emergence” was much more abstract and I pushed a bolder color palette than my usual work. I chose to keep this painting to myself for a while. I was unsure about my new direction: my inner critic was alive and well.

About six months later, I decided to post this painting on social media, and it received an overwhelming number of positive likes and comments. This feedback gave me the confidence to enter it into a national show, where it was accepted and sold in the first week of the show.

How to deal with criticism in art - Ellen Howard, “Emergence,” 20 x 24 in.
Ellen Howard, “Emergence,” 20 x 24 in.

I am currently working on another series of work that explores bolder colors. “Vibrant Hues” is a step in this new direction. I try to create what speaks to me without focusing on the outcomes or opinions of others.

Ellen Howard, “Vibrant Hues,” 12 x 24 in.
Ellen Howard, “Vibrant Hues,” 12 x 24 in.

Receiving criticism is an unfortunate part of being an artist, but it is up to us on how we react to outside criticism and our own internal critic. We cannot control the comments from others – but we can strengthen our resolve to do our best work and let go of negative commentary.

Dealing with our own internal critic, which we can control, needs continual work at different stages of our career. Some strategies that help are accepting where you are in the development of your craft and having the knowledge and confidence that you can improve and get better.

Create a positive story about your work in the future, set goals, and visualize where you want your work to go. When I am in a drought period, I focus on the motto, “I have something to say or express.” It is a tragedy to let outside influences and our own negative beliefs get in the way of creating. Each one of us has something unique to say. Artistry is a gift. It is a privilege to create and express ourselves through art, so keep creating and bringing beauty, joy, and gratitude to the world.

“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To lay out a course of action and to follow it to an end, requires courage.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

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  1. I was struck by the quote: “There’s a myth among amateurs, optimists, and fools that beyond a certain level of achievement, famous artists retire to some kind of Elysium where criticism no longer wounds, and work materializes without their effort.” [Mark Matousek].

    I realized I am in the camp of the amateurs, optimists and fools though without fame. I do have a sort of private paradise when I paint and draw where criticism is practically non-existent, and images do materialize without excessive effort. In Zen it’s called wu wei (effortless action) that happens when you are fully immersed in action. A certain spirit of “just paint,” allows the connection between what you are making and your deliberations to simply emerge. Granted it has taken a long time to arrive at this ease.

    Retaining an amateur status is helpful, what (again citing Zen) is called the “beginner’s mind.” I was already equipped with an optimistic bent; I want to preserve some of the amateur’s innocent eye, and while I don’t wish to be a fool, a certain appreciation for whimsy assists creativity. For me it’s a “what if” attitude: what if I did this, or what if I did that?

    To be often learning is available in art in ways that are not possible in ordinary life. We can take all the chances we want in painting and the only negative outcome might be to spoil a canvas. So why not adopt an adventurous spirit?

  2. Well argued and important topic. While I am relatively new to art –and enjoying the challenges immensely — I have been a cartoonist selling nationally for fifty years. At first all I earned was rejection slips, and I still do not sell all that I draw, but I persisted, which I think is the key to all personal endeavors. I paint once a week with artist friends, and their correct and helpful criticism has resulted in paintings accepted in shows that might not have made the cut.

    • Hi Richard,
      Thanks so much! I appreciate your comment and so glad you keep pursuing painting! My grandfather did cartooning-I’m sure your work is beautiful and it has helped with painting. Best,


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