Listening to the Critics

As I wrote earlier,
I’m interested in this concept of "flops" and how we get past them.
Today’s Do This! newsletter
encourages you to listen to your critics in order to get better.

For me, a flop is an unhappy client. Thankfully, it’s not
very often! I wouldn’t have been able to build a business with four Web sites
and this thriving blog if I had a ton of unhappy clients. But, every so often
there is someone who isn’t 100% happy with what they’ve gotten from a class or
a consultation or whatever.

Every time a client is unhappy, I learn. I either clarify
something in the class, in the description of a class, or in my guidelines for
clients. Or I change it altogether. I might even go back to other clients and
asked them if they had a similar experience. Maybe they did, but it wasn’t
powerful enough for them to complain.

The point is: I listen, I learn, and I improve (I hope!).

Jack Canfield’s Success Principle # 30 is to "Face What
Isn’t Working." He writes, "Successful people . . . are more
committed to finding out why things are going wrong and fixing them than they
are to defending their own position or maintaining their ignorance." (page

Admit when you’re wrong or when things are going wrong–if
only to yourself. Don’t live in denial or listen to only the people who praise

I’d love to hear about times in your art career that you
have made a big change based on criticism (from a friend, another artist,
teacher, collector, curator, . . . ). How did it help you improve?

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4 comments to Listening to the Critics

  • Alyson– You couldn’t have hit the nail harder on the head! Give someone a flute, and they have a flute. Give someone a camera…and suddenly, they’re a photographer! Our friends, spouse and family can give us an inflated sense of worth about the quality, saleability, and general acceptability of our work…Finding someone who can put a critical eye and give constructive feedback is the only way, IMO, to take you to the level where other professional artists compete at. It takes a thick skin to handle this kind of feedback for sure, because it won’t always been warm-and-fuzzy, but that’s the way to really improve on your work and move forward. I speak from experience–I had a pro photographer who gave me a no-holds barred critique of my portfolio from 5 years ago and I suddenly had insight as to why my photos were “OK” but not “awe-inspiring”. Based on that feedback, I was able to translate that into a changed view and a whole new portfolio emerged. -Dave

  • Chris

    I understand how another’s opinion of your work could be beneficial. However, through my experiences in grad and undergrad, I finally realized that you must do the work which speaks truthfully from your soul. If they (critics, professors, colleagues, etc.) don’t get it, it’s not for them. Successful work, not speaking in monetary terms, is truthful work, not what the artistic audience wishes to see from you. I’ve often noticed that critique feedback seems to start with, “I would like to see you do….” or “you should check out such-and-such’s work.”, particularly if they don’t know how to categorize or understand your work. If you desire feedback, get it. If you are fully comfortable with your voice, stand courageous with it and don’t let any other artist, regardless of merit, sway you from your path. Thank goodness Hendrix or the French Impressionists didn’t take the advice of the critics. These are exceptional cases, but this illustrates the trust one must have in one’s own artistic voice. Make work from your authentic self, not from others’ expectations, and there will be an audience which connects.

  • Chris, of course you’re right. You MUST find your voice. But if you’re struggling, the critics (positive and negative) can help you work things through. An artist must possess, above all, self-confidence to succeed in this competitive environment. Anyone who relies only on the opinions of other is not cut out for this life. You’ll lose your soul. On that we can agree.

  • Alyson- One of the most rewarding experiences I ever had was getting honest criticism from an artist and instructor that I very much admire. In Sas Colby’s “Art Like You Mean It” workshop in Taos this summer,I was trying something totally new to me – painting with gesso over charcoal while creating a hand made book. I knew the piece wasn’t working somehow, and I had almost completely finished! I asked Sas’s opinion. She said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but you need to simplify. Stop worrying about perfection and be bold. I don’t know how you are going to fix it, but you should reconsider your whole approach.” She gave me a few suggestions and it was as if a light went off! I had felt for sometime that my work was often too “busy.” Her honesty was just what I needed! I had pasted and glued all kinds of hand made paper, vintage photos, and found objects to the piece. So – I just started ripping! Half of the artists there thought I was crazy, but hey! It’s only paint and paper! Most everyone but me came out of that week-long class with about five or six finished works. I had one. My book. But it was unlike anything I had ever done – a new style and concept for me. I was much prouder of its completion and my experimentation than I would have been with numerous pieces that were so similar in nature to my previous work. Constructive criticism can be the best thing that can happen to an artist – IF and ONLY if, she is willing to accept it and apply it. I am beginning a new phase in my artwork, and I have to say I would probably not be there if it weren’t for Sas. By the way, you can view the book in my blog in the photo albums.