Thursday, December 29, 2016

Dealing with Our Inner Critic

Gabriel Cornelius Ritter von Max (1840-1915), 
who actually lived with a family of monkeys

Over on YouTube, Natasha asks:

"Because of all your videos, it has inspired me to want to go out and quit being afraid of what others think or say about my paintings. Yet I think we artists may be our biggest critics of all. How were you able to overcome any fears of hearing what bad things other people have to say?"

Natasha, You're right that we're usually our own toughest critic. That can be a good thing. It's helpful to hold ourselves to a high standard, always asking 'How can I make this better?' That self criticism is what keeps us improving, hopefully. The other extreme, overconfidence— being overly satisfied with everything we do—can be as big a problem as being self-critical, and it makes a student unteachable.

At the same time, don't be so hard on yourself that you avoid taking risks. We all need to take satisfaction in our successes and in our experimental attempts, even if they don't work out the way we had hoped. You don't have to show anyone your duds. Paint over them or put them on the Gallery Flambeau. 

So should we shut off our inner critic? OK, temporarily if that helps you get into the flow. But keep your critic nearby. You'll need that voice to guide the flow in the right direction.

Painting on an Amish farm in Ohio
Develop your determination and your steel nerves about trying out new media. Be analytical in your experiments. If you're overwhelmed with a complicated procedure, simplify the variables. Try painting in grisaille, which removes the color issues. Break the picture down into smaller steps. Do more preliminary sketches. Confidence builds on little successes. Most importantly, stay with the problem. My mantra is "All problems yield to effort."

If a piece isn't going the way you had hoped, ask for the private opinions of a few people you trust and give them permission to say what's not working about your piece. Be ready for honesty, and thank them for it. People are usually unwilling to offer constructive criticism unless you ask for it, especially on social media.

Try new things. Don't let fear of criticism cause you to hold back and play it safe. You don't want to keep doing the same thing over and over again just because you know it will work and you'll get approval for it.

As far as strangers who walk by and make remarks when you're painting outside, don't worry at all! That's part of the sport. People say all kinds of nutty things, and just about every picture goes through stages of looking awful. But once in a while, you'll get a critical comment from a passerby that will really help you see you see your work in a new way. Keep your antenna tuned for that.

Previous Posts about Criticism and Confidence
Top ten ways to deal with curious spectators
How Rockwell turned a detractor into a defender
Gerome and his Critics (57 comments)
Critics Redux
OKGo Answers its critics
Zorn's Self-Confidence

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Tom Hart said...

Excellent advice James, which we all can use wherever we are, or judge ourselves to be, in our personal artistic development. We all probably experience a version of Natasha's concern from time to time. In addition to all that you mention, I find that it helps me greatly to stay in touch with the enjoyment, the flow that I experience whether I'm standing at my easel painting or working up a fanciful sketch. There are times when we have to keep the end product in mind - e.g., when we're working on a commission. But all of us came to art because we love the experience of simply "doing it". Remembering that can be a good antidote to concerns about criticism and and the "success" of the physical product.

Susan Krzywicki said...

I think that the photo you used to accompany this post is also a key: try showing your work to children. They are clear, enthusiastic, and rarely carry adult baggage. Practice at showing young people your work, and I think you will find their combination of bluntness and supportiveness to be a good learning point.

Another thing that helped me when I used to start things - if it was a big white canvas, I would run a wash of my favorite color over it. In my case, it was always yellow ocher. Some would be horrified by this practice. But it got my brush moving, and it got the tone of the painting set, and it made the white less intimidating. It set the stage by creating a color field. It kept my ensuing brush strokes large, and forced me out of focusing on the details too soon.

Additionally, I found, quite accidentally, that it helped with the problem of onlookers. The painting would already look to be deeply established and helped THEM to see that you were working on the "bigger picture," if you will excuse the pun.

But this still doesn't solve the issue inside one's own do we stop being overly self-critical. Of everything we do. I have never succeeded in simply asking myself to stop doing it. I'm always looking for good techniques on how to change an internal voice - practical steps to make it happen. Any ideas on that?

James Gurney said...

Susan, yes! Kids give the best feedback. They tell you exactly what they're seeing, without any complicated agendas. I also like to show a piece to non-artists, who look at the pure subject. I had a contractor help me fix a problem with the way I constructed a house. Your other question, "how to change an internal voice" is a crucial one. I'm not a practiced counselor or therapist, but maybe someone reading this is, and can offer a suggestion.

Tom, you're right: tapping into that basic sense of fun is so vital. That feeling almost always present in the low-risk sketch stage. Sometimes, to be honest, I have to slog through that "ugly" stage of the final picture through sheer force of willpower to get to the fun on the other side. Painting isn't always fun for me—sometimes it seems like a chore, and I have to manage my expectations, either lower them or raise them to get through the rough patches to the final details, which are usually more fun to paint.

That's why I'm relieved to know that artists I admire most, like Sargent and Rockwell definitely had a tough time with many of their best pictures.

Tom Hart said...

James you make an excellent point about slogging through the "ugly" stage. I encounter that point, to a greater or lesser extent, in nearly every painting I do. Having now experienced that innumerable times, I'm pretty used to it and expect it. But I still sometimes have to remind myself to push on.

Susan, I use that same preliminary tone/wash technique too. It's a great way to start.

Mel Gibsokarton said...

Thing is, whenever I post something for critique on any artist community I just get disregarded completely, days pass and it seems like nobody even has seen whatever I posted, it only makes me feel worse about what I do. What should I do? What can I do? Please don't ignore me.

James Gurney said...

Mel, that's pretty frustrating. I'd suggest seeking out feedback from a friend, family member or neighbor in your actual community rather than relying on someone online. Even if you do get comments in a forum, it's often too hard to sort out what someone really means.

Mel Gibsokarton said...

It is pretty much, James. On the other hand, what of value can my family members say, they're incompetent. I'm not trying to do art to impress my mother, which she doesn't care of anyway. Eh, I guess it's worth trying to ask other artists directly, if they don't mind it.

Luca said...

Mel, that's a common problem, don't worry. It's like sending a message in a bottle.
If you are on Facebook, i suggest you to join the "Draw or Die" group, if you don't know it yet. It's the best place i can think of for receiving (and giving) critiques on the web in a friendly, relaxed and constructive way. It may happens that some artworks is ignored there too (nothing is perfect) but the ratio of (useful) comments per post is quite high, if compared to sites dedicated to art. Perhaps the fuel of it it's that, deeply, everyone wants to show that "knows something more than the person that posted this work", but who cares what's inside people mind and their inner motivation, the important part is to receive some useful and focused feedback.

About parents and friends, i understand what you mean, but i think James meant to find someone that you think could give you some kind of useful feedback or to ask for a more focused feedback to people, narrowing the request for feedback to some elements you are interested about and not just asking a simply "do you like my drawing?".
Anyway, never give up and always have fun :D

James, reading that even you sometimes have to rely on willpower to pass the "ugly" moment is encouraging (i suspect that your ugly moments equal the success moments of the average artists, but that's another story :D)... Sometimes i feel that everything i do is always in the ugly phase and it turns in a fight between my mental image of my drawing and what my hands are actually drawing, ah ah.
Jokes apart, talking about "inner critic" there's something i'd like to ask you, from a comment to a Muddy Colors article of Lauren Panepinto, about failure
(you can find it here: - perhaps that article it's the kind of advice that Susan was looking for, since it deals with changing how we see the things inside of us.

As an alternative to "celebration of failure" you put the "experimentation and the informed risk taking". This is an interesting point, but i'm not sure i understood the core of your thought. I understand that failure is failure and not a masked training and that we have not to hide it under the carpet but fully acknowledge it, with a cathartic rite like the Gallery Flambeu (or our personal version of it), but if you'd like to go a little deeper in the "informed risk taking" applied to art and the risks of "celebration of failure" i'd really appreciate it (and i think it could be interesting for all your blog readers) ! :)

caddisman said...


I'm always impressed with your command of so many avenues of social media, and your ability to speak honestly and personally here on your blog. Such a down-to-earth, intelligent, and thoughtful view of art and artist.

Your comment about holding one's self to a high standard, but not letting it handcuff one's creativity is so true. However, I think there is no shortage of artists that think they are masters already.

Question: In this internet art society, where we can post our work to the world minutes after it is completed, and can get instant feedback, what value can we place on the resulting pouring out of "replies" from web "friends", or the web site participants? I'm guessing the most value is in encouragement, no matter what the quality.

I quit participating on one very popular, established art site because all the feedback I received was about the same as that given to images with little artistic merit. (The word, "Stunning", really started to get to me). It became evident that this was more about socializing and less about the art.

However, this is something that I have wrestled with throughout my career: The social participation of art (or have a good agent/gallery/public art critic) is what one needs to be good at if one wants to be a successful professional artist. Not something I'm interested in over producing personal impressions of the world around me.


James Gurney said...

Luca, the fuller explanation of my comment to Lauren P's post can be found in my earlier post called "Is Failure the Key to Success?"
I had asked my racing-car cousin Dan Gurney what he thought of the many books written about how we should seek to fail as much as possible (“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.”}
My cousin pointed out that in his field at least failure can be a costly or even fatal exercise. The physical risks are less in making art, but still failure can sap time, capital, materials, and energy. Moreover, the more I looked into the psychology of it, I realized that we really don't learn much from failures; rather we learn much more from successes. So the strategy, as I see it, must be to aim toward success, not toward failure, as the "Fail Fast, Fail Often" book implies.

Bill, I know what you mean about internet feedback. It's nice to rack up a lot of likes and comments, but people are moving fast, and all comments are offered in a public setting where the social context is really unknown. It's kind of a "context collapse" problem—"infinite audience possible online as opposed to the limited groups a person normally interacts with face to face." That complicates the agendas of any comments, and usually stifles really honest feedback. Ironically, I think the anonymity of the internet can be valuable here—places like Reddit and Wikipedia are great because of their anonymity. Pinterest and Instagram can be valuable for aggregating the number of likes, but that's just a single metric, not a critique. For insightful feedback on work in progress, the person I trust most for feedback is my wife—plus a few valued art directors, and we can usually hash out just about anything.

Olina 歐莉娜 said...

What a nice question and the answer! I have this question, but never know how to ask it. (maybe don't want to face it at all~ ) Thanks for your sharing very very much!