How contour drawing helped battle an attack of the criticism blues

Last week I wrote 5 steps to deal with criticism. I gave the example of a critical friend who said my figure drawing looked “constructed.”

Ouch. That hurt. But since my friend is A. a wonderful artist and B. Far more educated than I’ll ever be, I had to examine her criticism. To ignore it would have wasted valuable input from a trustworthy source.

I was trained in figure drawing by Rob Anderson, a teacher I respect immensely. He taught us to construct a figure using circles, boxes, and lines.

I love this method of figure drawing. For me, it’s like engineering the figure. It makes all the body parts understandable, and my drawing hand can grasp what my eyes and brain are trying to tell me. But if I have to admit it (and I believe in telling myself as much truth as I can stand), it does give my figures a certain stilted look.

figure drawing
Figures drawn by constructing all the bits then connecting the dots

I’ve been struggling with my figure drawing for a while. During our weekly drawing session, I’ve been looking for something when I draw that I haven’t been able to find. So maybe I was simply ready and primed for the criticism; It made me look hard at my work.

My friend Sue Smith draws in a beautiful, fluid style. I could watch her draw all day. So when she taught a class, of course I took it. I wanted to learn her secrets.

What did she teach us?

Contour drawing.

In the past, I have tried contour drawing and failed miserably. Way back when in college (when we went to school on woolly mammoths and drew with sticks in the mud because fire hadn’t yet been discovered and so we had no charcoal), a teacher hell-bent on minimalism insisted we make blind lines to describe the figure. We couldn’t look at our paper when we drew. Our eyes were supposed to stay on the figure. It’s a commonly used method to teach beginning students to draw.

I hated it.

But I firmly believe in embracing the beginner’s mind. And besides, Sue’s drawings are beautiful. She must be on to something.

So I drew blindly, and made these monsters. But there is something about them that I like. A freedom of line. A fluid movement of the charcoal.

Then we were allowed to look at our paper, but not while we were drawing. When we were drawing we looked only at the model. I feel like these drawings have a motion that I’ve been missing.



In our next life drawing session, I used a brush pen to better focus on line quality. I forced myself to think in terms of contour instead of constructing the figure.


My brain changed. Suddenly I was thinking more about the whole figure as I tried to make relationships on the fly rather than mapping out the body parts and connecting the dots.  My drawing changed too: My drawings became more active, more alive.

But what I gained in artistic fluidity, I lost in accuracy; I need to balance those two things. Can’t I have both?

I set out to combine the two. When I made this drawing, the idea of blind contour drawing was still bouncing around in my head, even while I lightly mapped the figure for accuracy. I can feel the echo of those clumsy blind-contour monsters giving life to this drawing.


I’m super excited by this discovery. I can feel the hardened edges of my artistic soul cracking open to let in more light.

And all because I didn’t shrivel away from criticism, but rather smacked it like a piñata and let its wisdom rain down like candy.

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.