Previously Published February 2017
Everybody hates criticism, especially when it comes to something so personal as the artwork we've worked so hard to make. But without criticism an artist may have no incentive to improve. Many artists already possess a certain level of insecurity in regards to their own work. We are always our own worst critics, but when negative comments come from some unknown person we tend to let their words weigh heavy on our minds. For a lot of artists, this breaks them and completely destroys their confidence, but for others, it is just the ticket to taking an honest look at their own work and making the changes necessary to get to the next level.
This was demonstrated to me recently when I had some works critiqued. One of the comments I got back was that my landscapes lacked focus and meaning. Instead of getting upset and sulking around for weeks at a time, I took a good look at my work and tried to understand why the viewer had thought that. I could see in several paintings that the focal point was weak. I may have known what it was about, but it wasn't obvious to the outsider. I'd gotten too hung up on the references during the painting process, and forgot to use my own imagination and judgement to tell the story.
I decided to rework a couple of the paintings and see if I could 'fix' the problems. I no longer had the references images and worked from my imagination, letting go of accurate representation. It worked. I was able to strengthen the paintings and learned a thing or two in the process which will serve me well going forward.
One of the thoughts I'd had while reworking these paintings, is that I am not suited to alla prima painting. My works are always much stronger if I go back and rework areas when the paint has had a chance to settle, and the original reference image or idea has faded from my mind. I don't know what made me think finishing a painting on the same day was the way to go, because for me it isn't.
While it's always nice to have our work appreciated and lauded, never shy away from criticism for the important clues they can hold for advancing your work. Paul Arden said: "Do not seek praise. Seek criticism". I believe you will learn more from criticism than praise. Just make sure to consider the source before taking any negative comments to heart.
A peer, or fellow artist, is a more valued source of criticism than your spouse or parent who has little art education. While the neighbour may be ready with an equal dose of good and bad comments, they are (unless experienced in art) responding to their own sensibilities, likes and dislikes, more so than the specific technical qualities of your work.
"In any field, it's a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than as a personal attack."
"My rejection at the Salon brought an end to my hesitation [to settle in Paris] since after this failure I can no longer claim to cope... alas, that fatal rejection has virtually taken the bread out of my mouth."
I have written about the importance of setting goals in the past, and I’ve also written about the artists ego, but what I don’t think I’ve written much about is the head games that can happen, especially those revolving around rejection.
Who doesn’t remember the childhood experience of teams being picked for sports in school? Maybe you got chosen by the teacher to be the leader and pick the teams (the jury), but more often than not you were part of the pack jumping and dancing; thinking “pick me”, “pick me”! That horrifying feeling of standing there with all your classmates hoping beyond hope you’d be picked first. Then the sinking feeling as person after person is picked ahead of you. The self deprecating thoughts that start to enter your head. The feelings of worthlessness; of being unloved and not good enough. It’s heartbreaking to watch a child going through that.
Those early rejections play into the experiences an artist faces today. Not being accepted, even into adulthood, hits at our very core of emotions and basic human need for love and acceptance. It is why, no matter how many successes an artist has, the rejections always sting at least a little, and tend to be remembered a lot longer than the successes.
Following a successful year in 2014, I had my goals set early for 2015. Some of my goals related to things I wanted to make submissions to. As it happened those things all fell early in the year. It also happened I received rejection notices from all of them within the same week. Normally I take rejection in stride. I know it is one juries opinion at that time, and given a different week or a different set of jurist’s, the outcome will be different. I also know the rejection isn’t a reflection of my work overall but of the suitability of those few pieces for that one event. Sometimes it isn’t even a reflection of those pieces, but is a numbers games where only so many pieces can be accepted and other artists have submitted work the jurists feel is stronger; and that is perfectly acceptable.
Even though I know all of this, sometimes I have falsely built up a whole story about the outcomes and benefits of being involved in one event or another, that I’ve placed too high of value on it. Because I’ve built it up so much in my mind, when the rejection comes it hits hard. When that happens I liken the mental and emotional process I go through, being much the same as a grieving person in letting go of their expectations and hopes. Do these thoughts seem familiar to you?
It is easy to say “do not take rejection personally”; but it is personal. It means you have tried. The easier saying is “do not take rejection to heart”. Rejection notices means you are taking risks. You are putting yourself out there. You are TRYING! Keep trying; and when success comes celebrate it for all its worth!
Maybe for someone starting out the goal is “I want to learn to paint”. So the student goes out and buys paints, canvas, and brushes and begins to paint. But their goal is too broad and general, and they’ve failed to invest in themselves by building a solid foundation first. They haven’t identified where they want to go in their own work, or how they can get there.
For me, my investment in self takes many forms. There are the books – not technique based books though – those get put aside and forgotten quicker than yesterday’s failed canvas. But books about ideas, theories, and the thought processes of other artists. There are a few workshops. All carefully vetted to make sure it meets with my long (or short) term goals. I have a short list of artists I want to study with and I don’t sign up for a workshop just because it’s offered, but because it matches my goals. If you take every workshop ever offered all these different styles and techniques end up on your canvas, with the result that your work may lack focus and intent.
Not every investment is so serious. The biggest investment is a commitment to daily practice and play. For this I turn to the sketchbook. I occasionally look for fun workshops or lessons that are totally unrelated to the work I do on canvas, such as children's illustration. This is at once frivolous, but there is a more serious underside to this work. It is exercising the visual muscles – kind of like yoga for the hand and eye. One of the common threads I have identified in almost every contemporary artist I admire is that they came to painting through a career in illustration first. Every time I find a new artist I love their bio invariably says “illustrator”.
Informal study (or even a formal study if one was so inclined) into an unrelated style or discipline offers an artist the opportunity to learn a different way of expressing yourself visually. This kind of no pressure play can lead to surprise discoveries which can be used in your more formal work, and opens doors for your own unique voice of personal expression.
My artistic ‘yoga’ practice had taken the form of daily portrait doodles for most of the year in 2016. Why the human face when I’m focused on landscape paintings? The face offers the opportunity to easily judge accuracy and allows me to explore a variety of methods for creative expression. In this exercise I was not looking to produce laboured or artistic drawings. I know I can do good charcoal drawings of people. What I wanted was quick sketches to capture an expression, emotion, or characteristic of a person. My parameters were that a) they had to be quick b) small – just a few inches c) at least one a day. But I usually ended up doing several a day. I drew faces from a variety of sources; a couple of online portrait groups, vintage mugshots (my favourites), myself, family…. I drew happy faces, sad faces, goofy faces, young faces, old faces…. Some were good, some were downright horrible.
The investment of time and energy doesn’t really offer a clear progression of improved ability. That’s not the goal of this type of exercise. It’s to explore expression and to find out what factors contribute to likeness in an illustrative sketch or caricature. It also continues my exploration of the power of line. This year I am focusing my illustration and sketches more on the landscape and figure, working out ideas for expressing concepts and abstraction within a representational realm. It is a little more focused and serious than the portrait sketches of last year, but still offers some frivolity in that I can explore different ideas, styles, and methods of mark making within a small format that I can (hopefully) transform into poetry on canvas.
“Line is a rich metaphor for the artist. It denotes not only boundary, edge or contour, but is an agent for location, energy, and growth. It is literally movement and change – life itself.”
Go ahead and invest in yourself. Find a strategy that works for you, and pursue that learning with both seriousness and frivolity, but always with purpose. Have a long term goal or idea of how you want paint and what you want to say. If you focus your energy into that you will likely find it will translate well at the canvas, and will be rewarded by those willing to invest in you!
Addition: This was written several years ago. I myself hit that roadblock that I mentioned. Life turned upside down and I didn't have the time or energy to invest in myself having a plan and I truly didn't know where I wanted to go. I am still on the very edge of that roadblock, just starting to make a plan and investing in myself.
The artist's ego is a tricky thing. It tends to live at either end of the spectrum between "my work is garbage" or "my work is brilliant" - often it's both at the same time. It's no wonder artist's are often portrayed as flamboyant, flaky, and just a little bit crazy.
While in the process of building this website, I was combing through some older works. Works like "Lead Thee Weeping" and "Song Sparrow" which have long since left the studio. I didn't have the confidence back then to know these were really good paintings. I kept working to create better paintings, taking the advice of many different peers, which steered my works towards different styles. More control, better or more accurate representation of the subject. Better composition. On and on....... But in my quest for betterment, I lost my voice. I lost the quality that made these paintings special.
I look at these paintings, and many of my other earlier works today, and wonder what the heck I was thinking, and why I didn't have the confidence to just stay the course in this more impressionistic, or expressive, style. I love these early works now and wish I could paint like that today.
The opposite is also true though. I look at some of my work that I thought was brilliant at the time, and wonder what the heck I was thinking. Some of those works are truly cringe worthy. So now, when I've finished a painting which I think I've done a really good job with, I wonder if it's just my artist ego. Is it truly a good painting? Why is it good? Maybe it isn't. I second guess and overthink my thoughts.
I hear so many artists expressing the same things, so I know this must be a common phenomenon within the arts world. I hear very accomplished artists, who I admire, express doubt in their own work. It's no wonder though. We artists can do a dozen really good paintings, and then the turkeys come out one after another, and we feel like somehow, overnight, we've completely lost our ability to paint.
I think part of the lack of confidence in ones art stems from outside influences. How often do we observe ugly work being given high praise, and beautiful work being totally ignored? Family and friends will (usually) always like what you do, even if it isn't very good. Art instructors often offer lots of praise and encouragement rather than kind honesty, so it is very hard to have an unbiased, outside opinion of your work. How do we know if our ego is being over or under confidence? How do we know when it's telling us the truth? Does it even matter?
I have reposted an old blog post written at the time I made "A Dream Of Joy And Sadness". See the previous post "Telling Stories".
This blog post was originally posted on October 2017. I am reposting it here to remind myself of my thought process from that time. See post before this for context.
I am often frustrated trying to reach this goal I have in my head for the way I want my paintings and drawings to be. I am searching for a certain something which is hard to pinpoint. I am looking for more story, more expression in the work.
Last night we attended a Home Routes house concert with Kev Corbett, who is a folk singer and storyteller. There was a line in one of his songs which made reference to "a bunch of Group Of Seven trees on the shore". I instantly knew the image his song was trying to paint and how that tied into his story. The expressiveness of Corbett's songs and stories have a certain quality I want in my paintings. Some of his songs were able to reach down inside me to grab hold of my soul and give it a good shake....wake it up. At one point, I had a well of tears building in my eyes. If a story can do that to me in a living room full of strangers, you know it has real depth....serious expression.
That's the quality I want to achieve with my paintings. And while most of my work is considered good, and loved, it's not meeting that level for me on a consistent basis. I don't want to just paint a pretty scene of the landscape before me. I want to create a story within in. I want the painting to have something important to say....to be able to reach out and shake the viewers soul.
Working with the Revelations Of The Beautiful project - creating paintings to go with the poetry of Edwin Henry Burrington - I have challenged myself into thinking more of how to tell a story in paint. As that project winds down (I'm currently waiting for my proof copy of the book), I am left with how to create stories out of the landscape I live in. How can I be a visual story teller, rather than a just a good painter?
"A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art. Emotion is the starting point, the beginning and the end. Craftsmanship and technique are in the middle."
How do I create a story when I go to the pond to paint en plein air on a winter afternoon? How do I improve the expression of the paint, values, colour, and design of a piece of canvas that same way a singer or poet creates a story to stir up your emotions? While it would be easy to look at the easily identifiable works of the Group Of Seven and try to emulate their style, that gets me nowhere on my quest of imparting my own story to the work. I can study it instead for the qualities that make it expressive. I can study all art and try to distill what it is that makes me drawn to it. What is the story and how has it been told?
If I take my example of popping out to the pond to do a quick plein air sketch, I need to ask myself, why I am here. What makes this place worth wasting paint and canvas on? What is my emotional connection to this scene? But is that enough to give the work a story and expression? Or is it okay that some works are just pretty pictures in practice for the story, kind of like the writer jotting down a phrase or sentence that leads him to his song?
My search for these answers, and to give my work this elusive something continues.....
My main goal for 2023 is to get my online life organized. I have, for the past 10 years or more, tried to maintain separate websites for each medium and also some sites for specific purposes. For example, within photography, I had a general site with a small sampling of my work, but also a more extensive portfolio for art buyers. Plus a site dedicated to my painting career, and one for illustrations.
The problem was, it became so overwhelming and time consuming I quit updating all of them. I knew I needed to consolidate, but couldn't settle on a single solution to cover all my needs. I *think* this site will be the answer. I am saying "forget it" to the advice about not confusing your audience with mixing the different mediums on the same site. It might make sense in a way, but as I am a one woman show......impossible to implement.
This is who I am. I paint. I sell paintings. I draw/illustrate, mostly for the book cover market. I take pictures for wall decor and book covers. I license my images. I sell prints. But most of all I just love to create images that reflect my internal dialogue. Sometimes fun and lighthearted, sometimes dark and brooding.
Republished from my previous blog.
I get greater value from books about art ideas, theories, and other artists thought process. I want to talk a little bit more about that and how those kinds of books can have more influence on my work than technique or how-to based books. I have just started reading some of John Ruskin's writings which is opening up ideas for me, which have been sitting just beneath the surface but I wasn't fully coming to grips with yet.
He has a section where he compares painting to poetry, which really piqued my interest because I share this idea. While many painters compare the similarity between painting and music, for me I see it as more closely following poetry. What Ruskin was talking about was how art patrons seemed to favour paintings which portray the world exactly as it is, but if the highest ideal of art is to imitate what already exists, why not just have a mirror on the wall, or open the window and see what is there in front of you.
"The difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy; false appearances, I say, as being entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us."
He further goes on to say how if poetry just stated what exists we would not be moved by it. Compare "the sky had an orange glow on the horizon with clouds building"', with "clouds billowed up in a crimson sky like the lust of new lovers". The first is just a descriptive sentence that may be more suitable for a news report - nothing to make it endearing and exciting. The second, poetry filled with emotive suggestion that engages the imagination. Without the heart and passion of the author putting into words a simile of what he feels in his heart, rather than the facts before him, there could be no poetry. The same thing exists in art.
"Amongst the painters, and the writers on painting, there is one maxim universally admitted and continually inculcated. Imitate nature is the invariable rule; but I know none who have explained in what manner this rule is to be understood; the consequence of which is, that everyone takes it in the most obvious sense - that objects are represented naturally, when they have such relief that they seem real. It may appear strange, perhaps, to hear this sense of the rule disputed; but it must be considered, that, if the excellency of a painter consisted only in this kind of imitation, painting must lose its rank, and be no longer considered as a liberal art, and sister to poetry."
Ruskin goes on to compare the paintings which imitate nature truthfully belonging to a class of historical documentation in painting. The other, where the painter embellishes the truth for emotive suggestion belongs to poetry. It is the artist trying to capture how the subject moves him, or makes him feel that leads to more meaningful art. This is the thing, the poetry, I strive for in my work. I am not in interested in having the viewer look at a painting and say "oh yes, this is Mount so and so painted from the third viewpoint in mid-September at 7:00 pm". I want them to think, "I remember that warm autumn day when my lover and I strode hand in hand along the mountain lakeshore, and the late day sun set the rocks aglow to which they mirrored a song welling up in my heart".
My husband is my sounding board and confidant for all aspects of my life. In art we do not always see eye to eye. He comes to art without any formal understanding of it beyond simply what appeals to him, and what he has thought the measure of excellency in art was - namely being the ability to realistically capture what exists. How many times have you heard someone in amazement exclaim the painting looks just like a photograph, as if that is the defining measure which makes it great. I have over the years been swaying his ideas on that aesthetic as a measurement of arts merit.
My argument has always been, how hard it is it to reproduce that which exists? You look and put down a visual truth as it exists as surely as a child tracing the outline of their own hand (not to say there isn't considerable skill involve or to suggest the execution is as easy as tracing). But to translate what you see into the emotions and spiritual attachment you feel towards it is a far more difficult task. You have no roadmap telling you how to do it. Take all the workshops you can, read all the technique books you want, and you will be no closer to being able to put your emotions (as it relates to your subject) down on canvas. That is why painters like Degas can create such a strong emotion in me that I'm likely to fight back tears in the presence of his work.
That is why contemporary painters like Carolyn Anderson, Michael Workman, or Quang Ho, who seem to capture the emotional essence of a subject without realism, can move and inspire me more than the highly realist approach of others. High realism is easy to understand. There is nothing left for the viewer to do but look and acknowledge the faithful reproduction of that which exists. The familiar and known is easy to understand. Poetry and emotion, on the other hand requires engagement from the viewer. They need to apply themselves to interpret the image and fill in the story as it relates to them. In creates a deeper level of engagement, just as poetry requires a deeper level of thought to interpret what the writer is really saying.
I do want to say that I don't discount the hard work of those artists working in the realist genre. The mastery of technique and the patience to work in this style is impressive; and I often think if I had the discipline to study this way of painting I may not struggle so much at the canvas to lay down the poetry inside. But then I think having any kind of calculated approach would be a barrier from that internal truth which I am interested in trying to portray. Perhaps it is the very struggle to express the emotion which gets to the heart of it in the first place.
In just a few short pages, Ruskin has set to words what I am striving for; of what I understood in my heart but couldn't articulate well. There are other books, such as Robert Henri's 'The Art Spirit', which are able to generate a much deeper understanding of what I am trying to achieve at the canvas in a more profound way than technique based books.