How dare you speak to me like that?

Criticism is tough to take. Sometimes, that’s because the criticism itself is lousy.

The Raising of Lazarus, by Carol L. Douglas. Really, was it so bad?
I don’t remember the exact words of my first printed review, but they are burned in my memory as, “I can’t believe the curator included this dreck,” and “absolutely amateurish use of color.” My stalwart friend Toby, also an artist, listened to me whine and cry for about an hour. She stoutly agreed that the critic was an ass. That’s a pal.
It was a national show, but the critic and I knew each other slightly and had mutual friends. Knowing me didn’t make him more kindly-disposed. That’s a good lesson in general, by the way: never assume that connections will carry you in the art world. They are just as often a handicap.
I’ve critiqued a lot of paintings myself since then. The older I get, the more I understand that there are few absolutes in art. It’s always childish and supercilious to rip on another artist. There’s almost always something that you can learn from another’s work if you take the time to try to understand his processes or point of view.
Well, heck, you may as well see the whole series. This is Submission. Later, it would be in a show closed for obscenity.
That was an unsolicited review. What is far more common is criticism that we ask for.
The worst mistake we can make is to ask for an opinion when we really want a pat on the back. We sometimes hear home truths we aren’t prepared for. Always ask yourself why you’re asking that particular person for a critique. If it’s because you crave his or her approval, quietly move on.
Even if you are genuinely interested in an objective opinion, what do you intend to do with the information? I, like everyone else, am plagued by self-doubts. I tend to immediately grab on to a criticism and act on it, without thinking it through.

I once paid another artist to critique a large work that had me flummoxed. “It kind of reminds me of an immature Chagall,” she said. She felt I needed to loosen up, abstract more, and conceptualize less. I went home and wrecked the painting entirely. I’ve carried it around for twenty years now as a bitter reminder. Under all that schmaltz lies a beautiful idea that died from an overdose of opinion.

A third painting from the same series. I can’t even remember what it was called, but I have certainly gotten less political in my old age.
Sometimes it’s easy to see what your critic means: darken that sail, raise that cloud cover. But sometimes, he or she is making a subtle but very real point that will take you months and years and many more paintings to understand.
Very few people have earned the right to critique my work. They earned it by being trustworthy, not having an ax to grind, and understanding my goals and motivations. I can count those people on one hand. Ours are relationships of long standing. I trust that they understand my goals in painting, even when those goals are radically different from theirs.
Scrotum man, also from the same series.
“When you ask another painter—unless they’re an experienced painting teacher—they’ll often just tell you how they would have painted it,” Bobbi Heath said. Listen for this and guard against it. The questions the critic should be addressing are broad ones of value, composition and technique.
Even with an experienced teacher, an opinion may still be flat-out wrong. Poppy Balser once asked me what paintings she should submit for an award. I’m glad she ignored me, because the one I didn’t choose won Best Watercolor. The jurors were focusing on different things. In retrospect, I saw their point.
By the time you read this, I’ll be flying to Minneapolis for a weekend of dancing on crutches. Meanwhile, it’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer. I plan to be able to walk by then. Really.