Your artwork sucks: 5 tips to defeat criticism and learn how to be a better artist

Painting of girl
What to do when the monster of criticism attacks.
Detail of painting “Reeling for the Empire”

When a friend lobbed a few critical words at my life drawing skills (something I work hard at and am proud of), all my self-puffery deflated like a sat-upon whoopee cushion.

We all know the sting of criticism. And artists—sensitive lot that we are—tend to become derailed by the smallest hint that our work is not up to snuff.

The criticism came from an artist I respect immensely, so it stung especially hard. I was ready to crawl into a hole, learn Microsoft Office and reemerge as an office lady. Why would I even think I could be an artist?

I’ve seen a lot of talented people give up their love because of a few off-the-cuff critical words.

But I can’t do that. Because to not paint; to not draw; to not tell stories? That really hurts. If criticism is like being stuck with a hat pin, not working at my art is like being eviscerated with a dagger.

Yes, really.

So I’ve developed 5 ways to deal with criticism. They aren’t foolproof, but they do help keep me from sinking into despair.

1. Consider the source. Did a yayhoo in a beer hat just say my painting sucks, then shows me a watercolor his great-grandmother did of two Labrador retrievers in a pond?

Wait, what? Those are ducks?

Unless he then tells me he’s a professor at a prestigious art school, and then goes on to offer me a free detailed critique of my work, I smile, hand his phone back to him, and go on painting. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion.

If, while sipping his beer, my hypothetical art professor goes over my languishing painting and tells me where I’ve gone wrong. I listen. And here’s where the last three bits of advice on my list come to play.

2. Don’t take it personally. I am an artist, but my art isn’t me. The art I’ve made in the past just shows the road I’ve been traveling. Sometimes that road is rocky and I stumble on a rough track, sometimes it’s smooth and I zoom like a sports car. But that journey doesn’t define me; I like to think that it’s the potential art I might make that defines me.

3. Consider the criticism. This is hard. Because it hurts a little to admit to myself that my carefully crafted work is never going to make it into the Guggenheim, even as outsider art. It hurts a lot to find that my peers think my art sucks.

But I force myself to take the criticism in my hand and examine from all sides. Is any of it valid? If so, what bits can I keep and learn from and what bits can I put in a mental drawer and forget about for now? And if it’s not valid, I file it away in my mind anyway, because it could be that I’m just not quite ready to hear it.

4. Consider your options. If the criticism is valid, what steps do I take to make my art better? Do I need to learn more about composition? Do I need to learn more about color theory to clarify muddy color? Do I need to work with another media for a while to loosen my arm?

My art is about communication, and if I’m not doing a good job of that, what will it take to improve my skills?

5. Keep working. Like a traveler on a pilgrimage, I keep putting one (metaphorical) foot in front of the other. Art (and life) is sometimes a slow trudge, and I’m learning to take help from even hostile territory.

The fiddler tells a story about his martial arts teacher, who said, “People ask me how I got so good at martial arts. I got so good because I got beat up a lot.”

Because even when criticism is meant to draw blood, you can learn something about the battle.



 Addendum: Wow, I want to thank those of you who read this column and then came to my defense! That means a lot to me. 

But really, I was not fishing for anything. I was trying to talk about the hurt feelings that artists all have at some time. I honestly wanted to share how I deal with those hurt feelings, in hopes that it might help others in the same situation.

Keep on creating, whatever you do! And if you have any tactics you use to survive and benefit from criticism, share it in the comments section.


A talisman of bright red for Our Beloved Lady


Lacybug, Lily, Iris 5" x 7" watercolor on Arches #300 hot press $100
Ladybird beetle, Lily, Iris, Moon
5″ x 7″ watercolor on Arches #300 hot press

These little ladybird beetle paintings came about after the great ladybug cloud I saw at Calaveras Big Trees State Park on Superbowl Sunday. Their orange and red carapaces send a signal to other animals that they are bitter and no good to eat, but the cheery color and their taste for aphids make them a beloved bug among people.

We also love them because they eat the scourge of our gardens: Aphids. Once some farmers were losing their crops to the little green monsters, and they prayed to Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, to intercede. A cloud of bright red bugs flew across their land and ate up all the aphids, and saved the crops. And that’s why these bright little bugs are known as Ladybird beetles.

I have a soft spot for the Virgen de Guadalupe. When I lived in The City, I often stopped at her shrine at St. Joseph’s in Mountain View.  I fancied I could feel her maternal tenderness as well as feminine toughness pool in the little fountain below her image.

It pleases me that ladybugs are among Our Lady’s talismans, and in these little paintings, I’ve placed the little beetles with her flowers, as well as the crescent moon that she usually stands on, although in truth it was a brand new moon when I saw the beetles waking.

Lacybug, Lily, Iris Ladybug in the Circle of the Virgin 5" x 7" watercolor on Arches #300 hot press $50
Ladybird beetle in the Circle of the Virgin
5″ x 7″ watercolor on Arches #300 hot press





Gold Rush dancing and great news


Saturday night the fiddler had a gig in Columbia State Historic Park playing tunes for the annual Lamplight Tours. Docents dressed like they stepped out of 1849 give tours of Columbia, and players perform skits so that you can see what it might have been like when the West was still wild. Afterwards in Angelo’s Hall there was dancing, cake, and merriment. And beautiful costumes.

Waiting to Dance
Waiting to be asked

I am always amazed at the time and effort the docents take in creating their costumes. Corsets and collars, tucks and pleats, hand-crocheted lace and yards of trim: All the details are researched and historically accurate, I’m told. Right down to what’s under the crinolines. The ladies looked like flowers spinning on the dance floor.

I always covet these dresses. Someday, when I learn to sew…

Of course I had to sketch the dance (when I wasn’t playing tunes).

couple dancing
The Sailor’s Dance

I was off my game, though, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine. The previous day I’d had a procedure that would have been unimaginable during the Gold Rush. Thankfully the doctor gave me a two-year pass until the next time I need the test. I’m certified cancer-free! Yippeee! No wasting sickness for me. If I’d had a long dress, I’d have been spinning with the other girls.

But the drugs block the signal between my brain and hand. I could remember tunes, but my fingers wouldn’t play them. While drawing, I fumbled and erased a lot. But it was still fun to  capture an older entertainment with an even older technology.

Dance Teacher
Dance teacher

Really, more people should get out and dance. It’s a lot of fun.



Dia de los Muertos (after the fact)

Tropical night scene
Tropical night scene
Night path, tropics, 1996
Color pencil on paper

I’m writing an art column for our local newspaper’s lifestyle tabloid, the Sierra Lodestar, and my first story appeared in last week’s edition.

Pottery bird
Bird on a Wire
Color pencil

It’s about the ofrendas, or altars, that appear during Día de los Muertos. In Murphys, the Day of the Dead has become a popular celebration, and since it’s one of my favorite holidays, I wanted to transmit some of the beauty and meaning of the rituals of creating ofrendas for the dead.

I lived in a small tourist town in coastal Oaxaca in the 1990s, just before the narcotraficantes made Mexico a nightmarish place.  Our town catered mostly to surfers and budget travelers, and Mexicans who appreciated small and real rather than huge and glitzy. During the off-season there were a few ex-pats who lived there year-round, and a small community of fishermen, farmers, service people, and shop keepers. Everyone knew everyone else; it was a lovely place to live.

In those days, the season that spanned the end of October and the beginning of November was a traveler’s secret (I don’t know what it’s like now). It wasn’t crowded. The rains had ended, for the most part, and the weather was cooler than it had been since May. The pulsating greens of the rainy season were fading to olive and gold, and there was a softness to the  heat. It’s what autumn is like in the tropics.

For the week leading up to November 1 and 2, when it is believed that the veil that separates the living from the dead, people (yes, living ones) began building ofrendas, or altars, in businesses and homes. The altars, made to honor the spirits of the dead who are able to return home for the first two days of November, were crowded with things like balls of chocolate, cigars, alcohol, toys, candles, mirrors, bread, and marigolds woven into wreaths and chains, or arranged in bouquets of orange and yellow. I never fully understood which items were for the departed (but returning souls), and which items were for the saints that rather spookily had come through the now gauzy curtain between this world and the next.

The article will be up on the Enterprise website for a few more weeks (clickable link below). I hope you’ll take time to read it.

Sierra Lodestar, November 4-10, 2015  <–Click here.

Drawing on the farmers market

FarmersMarketThe fiddler fiddled at the Sonora Farmers Market last Saturday. He likes me to be present for moral support and to bring him pastries. I go and spend dollars while he plays for dimes. (Folks, please support your farmers market musicians; throw quarters in the fiddle case, at least!)

After my dollars are spent, it’s lovely to sit on a curb and while my butt falls asleep, sketch the crowd. A little chair would be more comfortable, but there’s a neat thing that happens at curb level. I’m closer to the kids, and instead of looking down on the tops of their heads, I can sketch at their eye level.

I’m not sure why, but farmers markets seem to bring out the goofy in kids, and they are often beautifully dressed as pirates or fairy princesses, or pirate fairy princesses. Leprechauns. Furry animals. It’s like there’s this alternate world that’s swirling around adult kneecaps, and curb sketching gives me a window into it.



Which old witch
Old Witch Old Witch
Pencil drawing on typing paper

The very first record I ever owned was Under the Lollipop Tree by Burl Ives. Don’t judge me; it was a smash hit for second graders.

I was crazy about all the songs and I can still sing most of them, but the one that I love to sing to make The Fiddler laugh is “Old Witch Old Witch.” I blame Burl Ives (and my father, with his bluegrass and hillbilly music) for tuning my tastes to folk music, a temperament I’ve never outgrown.

Longer Boats Pencil on typing paper
Longer Boats
Pencil on typing paper

In the 1970s I discovered Cat Stevens, enraging my father by dismissing his music and falling in love with scruffy troubadors in tie-dye everything. I used to sing “Longer Boats” at the top of my lungs with my best friend, Emily Boltz, harmony and all. I can still sing all the songs from Tea for the Tillerman, and those old vids of a young Cat still make me weak at the knees.

Those longer boats, whatever the heck they were (he once said the song was about flying saucers), were coming to win us, and the song encompasses my young adulthood. My generation grew up believing in things. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. 1001 Arabian Nights. Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. The Weekly World News. Aliens were possible. Everything was possible. Music, like the skies, was blue and wide open.

Painting of Fiddler
Watercolor on Arches #140 cold press

These days the sky has gotten a lot smaller and the horizons are empty of flying carpets and saucers. Jinnis and aliens got waylaid by the internets. Burl Ives sounds hopelessly square and Cat—now Yusuf—is a grandpa. But music remains the same.

With age I’ve grown less musically exclusive; I listen to nearly everything. My father’s old time and hillbilly twang is in heavy rotation with traditional Irish music, Billie Holiday, and Glen Miller. I’ve even got a Doris Day album that I love. Choosing a favorite song would be like choosing a favorite child. But I’ll leave you with “Elzic’s Farewell,” played on the claw hammer banjo. You can’t go wrong with that.

Why in the world would I take on two internet challenges because my life isn’t busy enough?

Every month the interwebs crackle with bloggers answering challenges—painting a day; photo a day; poem a day; recipe a day, a workout a day, et cetera. I don’t normally participate in these—they’re a lot of work—but every so often I stumble across one that I like. The most recent was the Thirty Paintings in Thirty Days from Leslie Saeta. It was fun, but at the end of the month I felt like a horse that had been, as my best friend is fond of saying, “rode hard and put away wet”.


I’d busy, you’re busy, we’re all busy. But my favorite challenge—well, not really a challenge, but more like a personal project —is Roz Stendahl’s International Fake Journal Month. Roz isn’t about making you work like a dog. This project is so low-key and so much fun that it makes it easy to join. If you’ve got a sketchbook and 15 to 20 minutes a day, you can do it. As it indicates, you’ll be keeping a fake journal. You get to be someone else in your journal. It’s a lot of fun.

BloggingUThis month I also got caught up in the WordPress “class” Writing101. Everyday there’s a prompt with a twist. My personal challenge is to write to the prompts in a way that fits the subject matter, tenor and tone of That is, how do I write about art and music using the prompts from the Happiness Engineers? Will I be able to add an illustration? I don’t know if I’ll make it everyday, but it will be fun to try.

That’s what I’m doing in April. What are you doing?


Rain frog

Amulets_FrogThe Mayans have a serious froggy called Uo. The rain caller. It’s a fat plop of a frog that burrows in mud. (Read about the Uo here)

When I lived in Mexico, we often made our evening paseo near a long-abandoned hotel; during the rainy season the frogs  who lived in the drippy jungle and roofless building chorused like something out of One Hundred Years of Solitude.  I’m not sure if the Uo makes its home on the Pacific coast of Mexico, but every time it was going to rain, the ranas that lived in the overgrown hotel garden sang like the feverish lovers they were.

Here in the drought-dusty Sierra, we have been crying for rain. And the day before the big California-walloper storm hit, I heard a few tree frogs singing. Not many, but their small voices rang out like oracles.

It’s been a long while since I’ve heard froggy voices of any kind.  They all but disappeared from Silicon Valley decades ago. The Sierra frogs I heard heralded a good soaking rain, and I made the above picture to honor them as the rain bucketed down last night, and to ease my anxiety about flooding, mudslides, and all the other horror stories from the National Weather Service.

I needn’t have worried about rain. Because right now? It’s snowing.



Waiting for the storm to wallop us.


Amulets_Fox There’s a big storm expected, but the forest is quiet. At dusk I can hear only the whistling chuckles of quail, the har-de-har of a woodpecker,  the hopeful chirping of a few tree frogs. And the rattling of my heart.

Amulets_EyeI admit, I’m anxious about this storm. My mind invents catastrophes. What if a deluge of rain liquefies the soil and my house slides down the hill? What if gusts of wind blast away the roof? What if trees topple, roads crumble, power goes out? What if, what if, what if?

Amulets_CrossSo I did what I do when I’m anxious: I picked up a pencil and began to draw. It’s the best medicine for me.

Amulets_HandAnti-anxiety drawing usually reflects what I’m currently reading, and these days I’ve been reading The Tradition of Household Spirits by Claude Lecouteux. It’s a treatise on European household traditions of appeasing the spirits, or the dead, or dead spirits, or somebody “up-there” so that they’ll protect the home. Most of the traditions seem to protect the home from fire (always a problem in open-hearth houses).

Amulets_DaisyI started thinking about the things that people have traditionally used to protect themselves and their places. So many amulets and charms to help ward off the storms of life!