No one likes to be criticised. It can make you feel unsure about your work. It can make you question yourself and your art. Especially if you have a strong interior monologue (which many creative people do), it can prevent you from continuing on with the work.
People have different ideas and approaches to criticism. Some people think you should get it early and often. Others think you should work on your project until it’s basically done, and then get feedback on it. So what’s right? Well I think it depends on the situation…
Painting in public
I often think about this topic of feedback when I go landscape painting. I paint landscapes plein air: outside, in public. And depending on the time of day, and where you are, you’re likely going to get people coming up to say hi.
Now, they usually don’t offer criticism on the work. But a strange thing happens when I’m working in front of other people. I start to imagine their reaction to my work. I get… self-conscious. I imagine them making judgments in their heads:
“What’s that supposed to be?”
“He’s not as good a painter as my friend”
“I’ve seen him here 3 mornings in a row. I thought it would look better by now.”
This sort of feed in my head can stop me from getting out there and working on a piece. It makes me want to at home and work, instead of going outside.
Well… this guy just wanted to talk about his buddy. Sometimes people just don’t want to talk about you. Y’know?
The same thing can happen when I think about sharing my work online. What if I’m fooling myself? Will anyone like this? How many people will click ‘like’? What if people think I’m showing off?
Normally, people on Facebook are nice- they’re friends, so they’re not going to troll you or anything.
I used to post my short animated films on Newgrounds, a site that that exhibits animation and games made by members of the site. However, there were a lot of anonymous people on Newgrounds, and the comments weren’t always nice. Occasionally people told me I was rubbish and I should give up.
I’m told people have the same experience when they post their artwork on Deviant Art. I’ve never had a problem on that site, but that may be because my stuff gets lost in a sea of uploads!
It can be tempting to avoid posting online, to hide your stuff away and only show it to a trusted few, while you wait for some vague point in the future when you’re ‘good enough’.
However, the prevailing wisdom today is that collaboration is healthy. There’s the idea that keeping your project to yourself makes it dull and self-indulgent. Kids at school are encouraged to collaborate on projects. Workplaces are increasingly open-plan. Surely more input is better than less. Regular feedback beeps you honest and grounded.
Except that for many creative people, being an introvert means that you work better alone. It’s hard to concentrate with other people around. It’s difficult to integrate other people’s ideas into your own work.
Making this comic, I found I needed a lot of momentum to get it done. I didn’t waste much time preparing beforehand (eg. making model sheets, polishing the script, researching my subject matter). I did write out the script and design the characters first, sure. But then I got started straight away. I didn’t wait around while I sent it off to 5 friends to get feedback. I began drawing the pages, then inking and colouring. I kind of tinkered with the script as I went.
I reached out to get feedback from one or two friends along the way, but that didn’t make me slow down my production schedule. I was afraid that if I stopped to take on too much feedback I would begin second-guessing myself, I would get discouraged, and the project would grind to a halt.
One of the tricky things about creating and posting art online is working through obscurity. If no-one is checking out your stuff, isn’t that the biggest criticism of all? Surely that means no one even cares enough about the work to engage with it. It can be very tempting to give up after a year of posting work and little to no feedback.
When we’re growing as artists, we can feel insecure and we might try to imagine why we don’t have the success we’d like. Sometimes we just need to improve. Sometimes the next big milestone is just around the corner. Or we might need to learn to put ourselves out there more.
If you think the feedback you get is unfair, consider again who is giving the feedback. Is their opinion valuable in this case? Would others seek their opinion?
Art for art’s sake
Back to my adventures in landscape painting: I decided to put some of my oil paintings on Etsy. I made links on my social media and even had a postcard printed with the shop details. And I waited. And no-one bought. This was confusing, because I’d been told my work was good! I was pretty sure people liked it! But apparently not enough to spend money on it.
I’ve since read an article or two about the finer points of marketing and selling, but at the time it felt like criticism to have my work available (at a very reasonable price, I thought) and get no bites. Did this mean I should just give up? I’d been posting my work to my blog for nearly 10 years and all I get is the occasional sale to family and friends.
But I realised that even if I don’t sell another painting, it will be worth it to keep going and enjoy what I make, and keep working at improvement.
In some ways, commercial success is just one part of the whole spectrum of feedback you can get on your work. Just because person A is employed and person B isn’t, doesn’t mean B’s work is inferior, it just means A was more suited for the job. Or the employer had a pre-existing relationship with A. Or the person reviewing portfolios was in a better mood the day she looked at A’s work.
If you’re in an art group or doing a course, do you take feedback well, or are you defensive? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a teacher give instruction and the student starts defending their work. What’s the point of coming to the class? Do you think your work is perfect? That you have nothing to learn?
This kind of attitude can cause teachers to stop giving feedback, because they think no-one wants it. If you trust your teacher, ask for their feedback! If you have a friend whose opinion you trust, ask them for help!
Don’t get me wrong- I’m not just saying, ‘toughen up’: the wrong feedback in the wrong context really can be damaging. If you find yourself getting offended or defensive, ask yourself why. Are you identifying too much with the work? Maybe you haven’t had a lot of feedback before. THink of it as a process: you can inoculate yourself against those bad feelings by gradually getting more and more feedback over time.
So that’s some of my thoughts on criticism- I hope you can relate to some of this! Have you had a bad criticism experience? Do you look for feedback on your work or do you try to avoid it? What was your best experience of criticism?
Thanks for reading!