Don’t take it to heart, or so they say

In Control (Grace and her Unicorn), 24X30, $3,478 framed, oil on canvas, includes shipping in continental United States.

One of my friends, a professional artist, was working out a problem in a plein air painting when a car slowed down. He’s used to the attention of bystanders, which can sometimes take weird forms. But even he was surprised when, after a long pause, the driver said, “I’m not trying to be mean, but I could paint that in ten minutes.”

People can say the stupidest, cruelest things without even realizing it. Twenty years ago, I had an art opening where nothing sold. Someone who really should have known better said, “You gave it the old college try but maybe it’s time to get a real job.”

The Wave, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869, includes shipping in continental US.

That’s not to say that people can’t have opinions. For the uninformed, art generally comes down to, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s as valid a judgment as that of the most self-important art historian.

But sometimes people forget that they’re talking to fellow human beings. Or about human beings, in the case of the sotto voce ‘witticisms’ when they think you can’t hear. It would be nice if they were, well, nicer.

It’s easy to step back from unfounded criticism when it happens in forums like classes, art groups and workshops-you can just take a temporary or permanent break. It’s more difficult to deal with unsolicited criticism. It has a way of blind-siding you.

There’s something to be said for keeping an open mind. Even hostile feedback can provide valuable insights. It’s just that the hurt takes so long to recede that it can take years for us to appreciate the nugget of truth underlying the snarkiness.

Ravening Wolves, oil on canvas, 24X30, $3,478.00 framed, includes shipping in continental US.

Every person we come across in life approaches us with their own preferences, hurts, defenses and biases. Often the harshest critics of art are the ones who know the least. When I was young, my list of ‘painters I don’t like’ was far longer than it is now. The more I know, the more I appreciate other approaches.

The first time I had a work reviewed in a newspaper, it received an awful panning. “Immature color palette” and “I don’t know why it is in this show” were the two general ideas. I called my friend Toby and wept on her shoulder. Now I realize the reviewer had an ax to grind (long story). That’s every bit as baseless as the uninformed insult, and far more damaging.

Experts say that we should see criticism as an opportunity for growth, a spur to improve. I’m 64 years old and I’m not quite mature enough yet.

The Logging Truck, 16X20, oil on canvas, $2029 framed, includes shipping in the continental US.

Instead, I’ve learned to lean on my friends when I’ve had a knock-out blow. There are a few of them who are perfectly willing to lie to me. They’ll tell me that the juror who didn’t pick me was an idiot, even when he obviously wasn’t. It may not be true, but it helps me survive to fight another day.

If your posse isn’t made up of loyal, supportive people like that, get yourself a new posse. Most of us can find ways to beat ourselves up without any help from others. Knowing you’re loved and valued is the greatest defense against those slings and arrows.

In the end, it’s your vision, your path, and your pace. What someone else thinks really doesn’t matter. I just keep telling myself that; sooner or later I’ll believe it’s true.

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Put down the red pen

Ravening Wolves, oil on canvas, 24X30, $3,478.00 framed includes shipping in continental US.

On Wednesday, I wrote, “Not creating is a safe position from which to operate. Your talent is inviolable, protected, a seed not open to criticism… That gives you the latitude to criticize other creators, as you are protected from criticism yourself.”

That relationship between nonachievement and criticism is famous in art schools, where bitchiness itself is often raised to a fine art. This video was a one-hit wonder but it captures the experience.

The Logging Truck, 16X20, oil on canvas, $2029 framed, shipping included in the continental US.

The best painters I know are also the most generous critics. They’re courteous and supportive of even the most tentative of efforts. They understand how murky and undeveloped radical new ideas can be, and they’re as curious as anyone as to how they will turn out.

“Put down the red pen,” is an editing maxim (from when writers used pens). It means that the editor should read through a piece first, with an open mind, before starting to make corrections. By coming at a piece flourishing your metaphorical red pen, you’re inclined to start rewriting the piece as you would have written it. That leaves no room for the writer’s own voice or goals.

The same is true with painting. We need to first step back and look and think. When we intervene too forcefully at the beginning, we supersede the artist’s ideas, style and voice. We take on the responsibility for refinement without asking whether that’s helpful or not. ‘I know better than you’ becomes our primary message. That might feel good (temporarily) to the critic, but it can be paralyzing to the painter.

Hostile input shuts us down

There’s plenty of science to tell us that the brain just shuts off at the first hint of stress. Comments that are perceived as personal attacks can set off a cascade of chemical events that weaken our impulse control or paralyze us with anxiety. We’ve all seen the Gary Larson cartoon (above) about what dogs hear when we yell at them. The same is particularly true of teenagers, and to a lesser degree, everyone else.

At my age, I don’t need to be diplomatic, but I do need to be kind. That’s not a moral imperative; I just want my students to hear me. One important way forward is to divorce feelings from criticism. I dislike comments that start with, “I feel…” What you feel about the artist’s use of line, color, shape and form is immaterial. What matters is what you think about those things.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed.

Objectivity is our goal

Here is a framework for objective criticism. These aren’t my ideas; they’re standard criteria for design. Obviously, there’s room in critique for the subjective, since art is ultimately a personal expression. However, these questions can also be framed in non-inflammatory ways. “Does this evoke a response in you,” is a very different question from, “is this painting boring?”

It’s far healthier to learn to apply these standards of criticism to your own paintings than to cast around for approval from your peers (although we’ve all done it). Learning to critique your own work as you go will save you a lot of flailing around.

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Self-doubt is a vicious cycle

Tin Foil Hat, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

I have three students whom I’ll call A, B and C.

A and B are both very accomplished. C is earlier in the cycle but has good instincts and is working very hard to close the gap. It’s paying off.

I got a sad text from C that read in part, “I am really not at the level of the others in our class.”

C is a perfectionist, and that occludes her vision. (That’s, sadly, a common problem among painters who were very successful in their first careers.) C can’t see how energetic her brushwork is, how controlled her color is, or how beautifully she composes. All she sees are deficiencies.

“Are you kidding?” I responded. “A and B are both painting at a professional level, but the rest of the class is on the same level as you.” I didn’t say that to make her feel better, but because it’s true.

Possum, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Shortly thereafter, I got an email from B. “A is killing me,” she lamented. “I so want to paint like her. Wow, is she good.”

I haven’t heard from A yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she emailed me to tell me how much she wished she could paint like someone else.

I love painting with Eric Jacobsen and Ken DeWaard, but there are days when I want to throw my brushes in the harbor when we’re done. Eric’s brushwork is lyrical; Ken’s drafting is exquisite. I peek at their work and see only my own deficiencies in comparison.

I was once at an event where I felt totally outclassed. I know it makes no rational sense, but I’d convinced myself I’d somehow gotten in by mistake. “I feel like I’m surrounded by the big boys,” I whined at Eric.

“You are one of ‘the big boys,’” he told me. “You’re here because they chose you, and they chose you because they want you.” From that moment I was able to relax and do my job properly. Insecurity, anxiety, and envy were robbing me of my confidence. Without that, what could I possibly achieve that was fluid, relaxed and compelling?

Pull up your Big Girl Panties, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Envy is hard work’s evil twin

I’m not telling you this because I want to add ‘envy’ to your reasons to beat yourself up. We all feel envious at times. I bet some sense of inferiority stretches back from painter to painter all the way to the anonymous artist who first chalked on a cave wall.

“Ambitious men are more envious than those who are not,” Aristotle wrote in his Rhetoric, about 2400 years ago. “Indeed, generally, those who aim at a reputation for anything are envious on that particular point.” To excel, you must really want success, and envy is hard work’s evil twin.

Envy is an emotion, so by definition it’s irrational. That doesn’t mean we must be slaves to it. Eric dispelled my terrible state of mind with a few well-chosen words. I’ve been able to repeat them to myself as needed, and so can you.

Hiking, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Why do we deflect praise and take criticism to heart?

One day a fellow dog-walker said to me, “You look fabulous. You’ve really lost a lot of weight.”

“Oh, it’s just my leggings,” I said.

“Wrong answer,” she laughed. “Just say ‘thank you.’”

We deflect praise even when it’s true, but we take criticism to heart despite it being absurd. That’s especially true when it’s our jaundiced, ornery liar of a self who’s doing the speaking. Painting is uniquely and painfully personal. To excel, we must ignore those whispers of comparison and self-doubt. It’s really as simple as catching yourself in the self-doubt cycle and saying, “STFU, Self!”

Dealing with criticism

Best Buds, 11x14, $1087, oil on canvasboard, available here.

This week I received another unsolicited critique. No, I’m not going to repeat it to you.

I recently heard about someone who saves hate mail to a designated file; they can be referenced if needed. ‘If needed’ is a chilling commentary on our times. Anyways, I’m not tough enough to keep corrosive cankers on my hard drive. I just complain to whoever’s nearby and delete them.

That hasn’t always been the case. When I received my first negative review, I cried for two days.

Apple Tree with Swing, oil on canvas, $2029 framed, available here.

Once you stick your head over the parapet and become any kind of public figure (and I’m not much of one) you start to get the occasional brickbat thrown your way. It’s going to come in the form of obnoxious messages and comments, bad reviews, or old-fashioned snark.

That’s no reason to not try to excel, but it does give me pause when thinking about the lives of famous people. Mixed in with the adulation is acid. It’s very easy to forget that these are actual people with feelings, rather than mere players in a public spectacle.

More to the point is the complaints that volunteer organizers regularly receive about events. How often do we consider the humanity of the person who arranged for tables, chairs, rain tents, food, jurying, etc. when we start kvetching about the labels and the lights?

In Control (Grace and her Unicorn), 24X30, $3,478, oil on canvas, available here.

The spectacular achievement of putting together a sustainable cultural event has been on my mind this year. Perhaps it’s because I count several such organizers among my friends. I’ve watched how hard they’ve worked.

One of them started her event fifteen years ago and has since handed over the reins. She still gets called regularly for routine tasks and questions. Another started her event this year. She’s small but tough, and that’s a good thing. She must have sent out ten thousand emails and answered a thousand questions by the time she was done. Not all of them were kind.

Beautiful Dream (Rockport Harbor), oil on canvasboard, 12X16 $1,449.00 framed, available here.

My dog is the mildest of creatures. He’s trained to heel, and he’s on a radio collar to remind him if he messes up. Still, I’ll occasionally encounter someone on the trail who hates or fears dogs. The other day, we passed a woman who snatched up her toddler and turned away, a horrible grimace on her face. Perhaps she was actually afraid, but what she was signaling was raw, palpable anger.

For the remaining 45 minutes of our hike, neither Doug nor I was in a good mood. We were waspish with each other and with the dog. That experience reminded me of how easily hostility is passed from person to person.

Constructive criticism is one thing, but snark has more to do with the critic’s internal settings than any real problems. If possible, just hit the delete button and purge it from your internal hard drive. Studies show that forgiveness is not just a religious mandate; it’s good for your health.

Monday Morning Art School: what is critique?

It’s not an emotional response or mere fault finding.

Skylarking 2, 18X24, available.

This week I begin a new online class dedicated to critique. Since it’s a totally new idea, the shape of this class is evolving. However, the plan is that students will bring work they’ve done on their own for analysis within the group. The hope is that we can develop a sort of executive function that will oversee our painting processes outside of class. This, as you can imagine, is much harder than “hold your brush like this” painting classes.

Critique is a long-standing tool in every intellectual discipline, artistic and technical. However, it’s more straightforward to tell your co-worker, “I can’t duplicate your results,” than it is to put into words why a painting isn’t working. “I don’t know about art, but I know what I like,” is only a funny joke because it’s to a large degree true.

Lobster Pound, available.

What critique is not is an emotional response. It must be disciplined and systematic, but art is at the same time intuitive and subjective. We bridge that gap by analyzing works based on a series of values:

  • Focal point
  • Line
  • Value
  • Color
  • Balance
  • Shape and form
  • Rhythm and movement
  • Texture (brushwork)

These elements of design transcend style or period. Every painting includes them to some degree. The critic must consider how they work together. Do they coalesce into something arresting or not? If not, what forces are blocking the full expression of the artist’s idea?

Beautiful Dream, 12X16, available.

There should be no censure involved. We’re all intelligent adults; if our ideas aren’t working, it’s because we’ve run into a problem that another set of eyes can help us unravel.

The very first question we must ask (and answer) is, what are you trying to do or say in this painting? That’s not always simple, so it deserves time. Every subsequent point of discussion should be weighted in regards to that answer. For example, if what interested me was the loneliness of a home on a rocky crag, my composition, color, brushwork all need to support that aloofness.

Criticism should never be mere fault-finding. There is a seed of brilliance in almost every painting, and it needs to be enlarged upon. That means discussing the merits of a painting as much as discussing its faults.

Belfast Harbor, 11X14, available.

For critique to work well, the critic and artist must both approach the process with humility and mutual respect. I once took a painting I couldn’t finish to a noted teacher for criticism. She told me that it looked like a ‘bad Chagall.’ In trying to execute her ideas on the canvas, I completely destroyed my own vision. My self-doubt met her self-confidence in a terrible concatenation.

I’m speaking here of narrow peer criticism. There’s a larger world of art criticism that seeks to analyze artists in terms of their culture and times, but it has nothing to do with us.

By the way, I’m also starting my mid-coast plein air sessions tomorrow. There’s more than ample room in this class, so if you’re interested, email me for more information.