I heard a wonderful analogy on the subject of criticism and gossip which goes something like this:
If you were accused of standing on a busy street corner wearing a ridiculous bird costume and vigorously flapping your wings, would the accusation upset you?
Probably not. Because it’s just too absurd. Unless you actually created such a spectacle as a college fraternity stunt or for a Halloween party, but then so what? And if it was simply a case of mistaken identity, again, so what?
Either way, you wouldn’t get defensive over whether it was you out in public flapping your wings. And while malicious rumors can damage a person’s reputation and peace of mind, most of the negative stuff people toss around is relatively harmless.
So why do we get so upset when we don’t get the praise we want for our art?
Answer: Because a small part of us agrees with people’s judgments when we don’t trust our own. And how many of us completely trust ourselves?
I’ve read blog posts by established artists who devote 2,000 words to blasting their critics. Seriously? These artists are at the top of the pecking order, in blue-chip galleries, with waiting lists for their works that sell well into the six-figures. Completely taken over by the opinion of someone with little or no influence.
By contrast, the great portrait artist Chuck Close (featured above) was once publicly told that his paintings were boring to look at. His response was priceless: “Imagine how boring they are for me to paint” (not a direct quote).
What a perfect way to handle someone who is trying to put you down. Agree with them externally as you disagree internally. Let them wonder whether you’re serious or not. No one can argue with inner conviction and they can’t shake it either.
The big challenge for many of us is the self-criticism. How can we feel confident about our work when we don’t? I can only suggest – and this is for the students – an approach that I use for most painting problems:
Take your mind, and your eyes, off of the work. An occasional glance is enough.
Focus all your attention on the subject and connect deeply with it. Realize that the painting is a manifestation of that connection, not a reflection of your talent or potential.
The less time spent dwelling on a work in progress the more emotionally detached you become and the internal and external critics lose their power. The moment you stop thinking of your work as a trial designed to measure your level of talent is the moment you become free of everyone’s opinions…
“But I want to sell my art”
“Professors are grading my stuff”
“I’m past 50 and don’t have time to waste”
So what? Van Gogh sold nothing and studied little. Had he mastered his mental, emotional and resulting physical state as successfully as he mastered painting, he may have lived to see how important he would become.