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.

SwordFight

 

 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.