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Thoughts On Rejection

by Richard Christian Nelson on 2/18/2011 9:02:36 AM

This post is by guest author, Richard Christian Nelson.  This article has been edited and published with the author's permission. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.   This author's views are entirely his own and may not always reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.

As an artist, it is important to develop a thick skin. It is impossible to create work that everyone is going to like. Those that are indifferent to our work, or actively dislike it, can cause us great pain and can influence us more than perhaps they should. I had an experience recently that may help to parse out rejection.

One weekend, I was in Atlanta doing some adjustments to some recently delivered charcoal portraits and everything was going great...until my last appointment. The client brought out her daughter's drawing and said that it was unacceptable, it looked like she had a hair lip, we need to start over, etc. I was completely unprepared for this and it was a shock.

Now, generally I am very happy to make adjustments if I can see that they will help. And I'm even happy to start over if the drawing has gotten too far off track. It was the client's attitude that really disarmed me. I took the drawing and said I'd get back to her. Since then, I've have had some time to try to figure out how to handle this rejection.

Essentially the choice comes down to this in any rejection situation:  is it worth the effort to try to salvage the situation or is it best to accept the disappointment and move on? We cannot please everyone and some will prove impossible to please, no matter how hard we try. I think the key is to not internalize a lasting sense of failure. The great majority of my clients are very happy with my work. But we can have 99 successes and 1 failure yet, somehow, we tend to internalize the bad experience.

This can be true of many aspects of being an artist; there is passive rejection in the form of poor sales, inability to get into a certain gallery, perceived lack of interest in our work (sometimes by galleries that do represent us!). And there is active rejection like paintings being returned, hearing disparaging things said about our work or what I experienced that weekend. These can drown out all the good things in our creative life if we're not careful!

Perhaps at these times it is good to consider the patron saint of rejection, Vincent Van Gogh. How ironic that this artist, who never had any success during his lifetime, is one of the most revered artists of all time! I also love the quote from Kipling's 'If': 


"...If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same..."



It seems that it is a small percentage of people who are really going to love a particular artist's work. It is ultimately our mission to find those that love our work but that is a different topic. I've decided to do what I would normally do; offer to schedule another sitting and start over, hoping for better results.

However, what I am really trying to do differently is to not dwell too long on the issue. Ultimately, we are like waves pounding the beach. We just keep at it, knowing that we are doing what we were put on earth to do and always trying to advance down the endless road of learning and becoming better artists and people.


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Lorrie Beck
How right you are, Richard. I was standing by my work at a show when a woman and her friend came up discussing my art. One of them, while gazing at my work, said to her friend, "It just doesn't SAY anything." I wanted to say, "Helloooo! I'm standing right here! I can hear you!"... but I didn't. All the lovely things that people had said about my work that weekend went right out the window after this woman's insensitive blurb. Why is it that we remember the bad stuff? Like you said, try not to dwell on the negative and just remember the happy clients and the admirers and, most of all, please yourself and others will respond to that.

Michael Cardosa

I think this comes from the idea first of we all want to be liked. Since our art is an extension of ourselves, any attack or rejection of the art is a the same as an attack or rejection of the artist! Human nature... You're right though, the best thing to try to do is get past it and dwell on the good times and acceptance you get from others. The mind is funny this way, over time we tend to forget the negative things that have happened to us unless we think of them specifically and recall pleasant experiences. Don't let that one client get you down, she's not worth it...

thanks again for the interesting posting,


mimi torchia boothby watercolors
So what did you do about that portrait? I'd like to hear the rest of the story.
I have had a bad experience too.
my client had given me a terrible photo of his deceased son. It was taken with a flash, and even worse, it was a photo of a photo! I did my very best and let him see what I had done. he sent me a list (about 10 items!) of everything he didn't like about it. Most of the things he didn't like were places that my painting did not exactly match the tones of the photograph.
I made some of the changes and wrote him a long letter explaining why i could not do all of the changes. He then came back with another list.
I repeated myself. He did pay me, but it was pretty sour for me by then.

Roderik Mayne
I don't wish to make light of your article which is very important and valid, but what happened with the portrait that you took back?!

Donald Fox

Rejection, even when kind, is still rejection and certainly can be unpleasant. Sometimes, though, it can be amusing. Some years ago I painted a double portrait of good friends, a couple. It was not for commission; I did it as a gift to them. Both of them really liked it and thought it captured them as individuals and as a unit. The funny part is that his family liked her portrait but not his and her family liked his portrait but not hers. Both sides were quite adamant in their opinions. This was a source of amusement for some time afterwards.

Stede Barber
Aaah, rejection...I've heard that actors have classes in handling it...

So many silly little quotes come to mind to help me deal: "Every knock is a boost", "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," "If we/they knew better, they'd do better", etc. I guess it comes down to knowing what to take personally, and what not to. For me, getting enough sleep and eating well also helps "thicken my skin" so those things don't get to me so easily.

If you were making a cartoon of some of what we deal with, you'd probably be laughing out loud.

I'm not making light of your situation with the portrait...I'm more focusing on how invaluable..your own inner peace is so that you can continue creating...remember that Kenny Roger's song, "Know when the hold 'em, know when to fold 'em....know when to walk away, and know when to run!"

Here's to all the people who lovelovelove and buy your work, and the fortunate ones in your future!


Teresa Tromp
Richard, I don't think Vincent Van Gogh handled rejection very well, however, he did know that one day in the future his work would be appreciated.
Whenever a very close relative of mine comes to a juried show reception with me, I think she thinks she is complementing me by insulting other works of art. I have to tell her to lower her voice, because she doesn't hear well, so she speaks loudly.
Then it happened to me. An older gentleman was looking at the paintings with his daughter, and he insulted my painting. I was a bit hurt, but then I remembered my very close relative, and I just had to laugh. His daughter was whispering to him, and he just said what he felt.
I believe as Michael does. Insulting our art is like insulting us or even our child.

Karen Winters
One thing to remember when thinking about rejection: a lot of it is a matter of taste. Your work can be excellent and still only please a small percentage of the public.

Think about the music you like. I happen to like classical, some smooth jazz, oldies, some Renaissance music. If I hear techno music or rap or some really strident jazz, it may be the best of that genre in the world but I'm not going to like it - it's just not my taste.

So someone's critical comments about our paintings may fall into the same category. Some people don't like bright colors, some people don't like symmetric compositions, some people don't like abstract expressionism and no matter how well it's done they're not going to like it.

You can't please everyone - it's impossible.

Sandy Askey-Adams

This is a wonderful article...and I feel your angst with the portrait. I want to know also...what happened? What is the end of the story?

I was there many, many years ago (while in my early 20's) when I was commissioned to do a portrait/figure of a man and his wife.
The husband commissioned it as a surprise gift to his wife. A tiny photo he gave me to use for a 24 x 36 vertical size oil. Good thing I had great eyesight back then. Just getting the drawing right from that small photo...whew!!
I asked him many questions because I could not meet his wife. One question was making sure of the color of her eyes. He said they were blue, I asked, are you sure because they appear brown or hazel to me. He insisted, they are blue. O.K. He came back a few times to see how the painting was progressing and was pleased thus far.
Then as it got closer to it being completed, he came back again and rejected the whole painting. Finally, he admitted that her eyes were indeed BROWN and NOT Blue, and wanted to know if it would cost more to repaint the color of her eyes.
O.K. fine.....fixed that. BUT, then a week later, he comes back again, and tells me his wife totally had her hair cut and changed her complete hairstyle. O.K...not what I wanted to hear. He did not know if he wanted the painting because of that. He was rejecting it again after all the time and hard work hat I had put into it trying to get it just perfect for him. I refused to change the hairstyle. IT was so totally different than her original hairstyle that she had worn for so many years, including the color!!
I was a young artist and really wanted to please and be liked and have my work liked but, there were limits. What a time!
Eventually, he did come back to pick up the painting, paid for it and left telling me he liked it. But, I felt like he was NOT totally pleased with the final result. Never again I told myself. The stress was not worth it to me, nor the payment.

But, handling rejection is a horrible thing to have to go thru. It is too personal and I know I have shed many tears throughout the years and then forced myself to pick myself back up again.

You know..there are those times too when rejection or raw mean comments of rejection should be considered by the source of where or who is saying them. Even in juried shows, we should take into consideration who the judge or judges are...and try to give ourselves a break once in awhile.

Stede is interesting that you said Actors have classes in handling rejection.
Funny thing just last week I mentioned to another artist there should be classes for artists in handling rejection. LOL

AND, I think it is a good idea to keep all the GOOD things that we have heard or seen written about our work..write them the acceptance letters, the e-mails and the actual letters from patrons that tell you how much they appreciate and love your work, etc....ALL THAT kind of stuff ... put it in a special folder or a treasure box so you have it to read when you are really having a hard time dealing with rejection. It helps wipes away some of the tears...and quiets the sobbing.
That way, we can remember that yes, we are O.K. and that it is just something to get thru right now. It will help in improving our work also...and to try harder next time. It makes us look at our work even more intensly and dissect it.

richard christian nelson
Thank you all for such thoughtful comments and stories. Last I heard the client decided go elsewhere. You can see the drawing on my original blog post.
I'll use it as a sample.
It may be that the child is more attractive, and the drawing could have been improved or re-done. I generally even offer to start over. Heck, I want folks to be thrilled!
I've had portrait relationships successfully resolved, and some have continued to go down the tubes. It's really hard to know when to pull the plug!
I also have to say that I've noticed an increase in some client's fussiness in the last few years. The fact is once they approve a portrait, it's time to write a check, and who likes doing that? Not me!
Have a great weekend and thanks for responding!

Sandy Askey-Adams
She is very pretty and your drawing shows her beauty and her soul. I have never met her of course, and do not know what the patron was looking for because this little girl speaks to me.

Today I received the magazine "Art of the West," another art magazine that I enjoy subscribing to. Inside there is an article titled "Straight Talk" and the artile is about... "There Will Always Be Critics."

This article is focused on critics of Western Art...but, as I was reading the article, something stood out....and if I may write it here giving credit to Allan J. Duerr and Thomas F. Tierney for writing it.........

"Regardless of what one does in life, there will always be critics. There are those who specialize in building themselves up by tearing others down. While we understand and appreciate their right to do so,....etc..."

I feel that same paragraph can and does refer to ALL art, not just western art.

Another sentence they wrote...and you might find it especially interesting Richard. ...

" Artists are given remarkable flexibility in presenting their subjects in the way they want, or in the way they think will connect with the viewer..etc..etc...and the last sentence...Haven't you heard of artistic license?"

And yet, another sentence they wrote in the article...and we have all used or heard spoken many times... "Be the Best you can be."

Marian Fortunati
I think rejection is hard. No matter all we know intellectually about different people with different tastes, etc. No matter how many acceptances or rewards we earn.. the rejections hurt.

I will say that your statement, "Ultimately, we are like waves pounding the beach. We just keep at it, knowing that we are doing what we were put on earth to do and always trying to advance down the endless road of learning and becoming better artists and people," is so profound.

I think I'll keep that as my mantra!! THANKS!!!

richard christian nelson
Wow! Thanks so much! My brother just pointed out that I misspelled 'harelip', although I think the client may have meant hairy lip. Sheesh.

Speaking of rejections and acceptances, this is interesting - what do you think of this behavior?

On a local Art Gallery's FaceBook call for entries for a juried show, one person commented: "How do I do this?" And the gallery replied: "Submit, attend. Instructions to follow. but you are in."

What? "BUT YOU ARE IN!!!"

I admit I was stunned to see that.

I can't believe the gallery/curator would publicly state that one of the artists didn't need to be juried like everyone else. How commonly do groups publicly behave like this? Wouldn't this make people not bother to try and submit to shows? I know they're off my list of acceptable venues.

Carol Schmauder
This is a great article Richard. Rejection throws you off a little and sometimes you have to regroup. But there are always others out there who like what you have to offer. Thank goodness.

Karen Winters

My guess is that the gallery owner didn't realize that a message like that should have been sent privately, rather than in a public place. Big faux pas! And yes, it would send quite a mixed message to other potential applicants. Some people don't "get" how social media works. I've seen other ham-handed examples like that, too.

Teresa Tromp
You know, Richard, if you hadn't been rejected, you wouldn't have been able to write this wonderful article.

Casey Craig
Thanks for sharing your story Richard.

I don't remember where I got this suggestion, but it's great after a bout of rejection or just plain rudeness. Every time someone compliments your work, whether in person, at a show or via email, go write it down. Create a document called "positives" on your computer or just jot them down in a notebook if you prefer. When you get blindsided by a negative, pull out your positives and remind yourself that you have received some kind words. It helps to put things into perspective.

Valérie Pirlot
Thank you so much for this story. I think every single artist in the world faces self doubt - quite often for most of us - and any negative feedback makes us wonder "what if I'm actually not good at all?? What if I'm a fraud?" But we should always remember two things: 1.Art is a subjective matter and as you say we can't - and shouldn't- please everybody. 2.An artist's work is always "a work in progress" and failure - if there is one- can actually help us getting better. Thanks for your quote at the end about "the wave". I think I'll copy it on my sketchbook!

Richard, that certainly sounds demoralizing! But I have to wonder if this client was the kind of customer who probably wouldn't be satisfied with anything. You know, like the kind of person who always finds something to complain about at a restaurant, even if everyone else at the table sees no problem with the meal. The best remedy I've found for rejection is to move on, put it behind you, and get into to the next project. When you do so, the rejection shrinks back to realistic proportions.

I loved this article, I recently took a very long car ride to see someone who was interested in some of my pieces, and when I arrived I was told that they decided to go with another artist. I was very disappointed, and there have been many times in my life, with art, and outside of art that rejection has hit me hard. I have tried to develope a thick skin and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but your article really helped at a time when thick skin just wasn't helping. I have taped it to the inside of my sketchbook, (cause that is were I turn when I am depressed) so that I can look at it and hopefully it will help again next time. Thank you for such a great article.

Sandy Askey-Adams
Yes, that I agree with as I had mentioned in an above comment about doing something very similar to that.

At times I wish I had a tape recorder even to save the words when there are kind compliments....then just click the button to hear the words again when needed to be heard.

richard christian nelson
Thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts and reactions. It really seems that we're dealing with some universal emotions here! The idea that anything I've written may lighten anyone's load even a bit is awesome. Enjoy the ups, endure the downs, and keep working.

Joanne Benson
The portrait of the child was lovely. Sorry that your client wasn't pleased. This post is timely for me as well. I recently completed a large size commission for a dear friend. She is at a distance and I emailed her samples of landscape studies and she chose elements from the various studies. I took elements from the studies and incorporated her suggestions but the final painting didn't resemble any one study. I didn't email her the final as she opted to be surprised. When I finally delivered the painting, her reaction was less than I had hoped for. Although she said it was nice, she pointed out an element she thought would be more prominent and also said that the painting wasn't what she expected. I told her she wasn't obligated to take the painting and that I wanted her to love it. She hung it and it was prominently displayed for a charity event at her home that weekend and received many complements. In the end she took the painting but I don't have a positive feeling about the whole experience. I haven't deposited her check yet and I'm not sure what to do. I know she wouldn't want to hurt my feelings. We have chatted online about other things since and the painting was not brought up. I have discussed this with a few friends and their initial reaction was to just let it go. I thought maybe I should double check with her and offer to do a replacement if she isn't happy with it. I guess I needed more positive stroking when I delivered the work and I have been torturing myself about it. Any thoughts? As an aside, I donated a painting to the charity event, displayed some work and donated a percent of sales to the charity and gave her another small painting that she admired while I was visiting. The painting is displayed at the top of my blog currently.

mimi torchia boothby watercolors
Joanne, let it go. She showed it and got a lot of positive feedback and she paid you fairly without complaint. Deposit that check!

Karen Winters
When I work with client I do not allow 'surprises' for the very reason you have discovered. Especially at the beginning of a piece I show them a mock-up (usually done in Photoshop) of the major elements and how the finished painting will be composed. That's when major adjustments can be easily made, if need be. They know my style so they understand it will not be photorealistic. I show the client a high resolution photo of the finished painting for their approval before they send their final check. As a rule, however, I don't send work in progress photos because most non-painters don't know how to understand a painting that is incomplete. By sending good planning mock-ups and good final photos it keeps everybody on the same page so there is not the opportunity for misunderstandings and/or hurt feelings. I know this doesn't help with your current situation, but maybe it will help prevent future issues.

Sandy Askey-Adams
Hello Joanne...

I agree. Although it is hard to do so, LET IT GO.

IF that is the painting pictured above her sofa showing on your Blog.... ..(is it her sofa?)... it goes well there.
I really think that if she truly did not like it at all, she would have found a way to tell you one way or another. She obviously likes it...and the compliments she has received on it may have been what she needed to hear.

Some people do not totally know their own mind...not trying to be mean, but some have to get their O.K. feelings about something from outside sources/other people at times because they do not have the complete ocnfidence to trust their own judgment.

I think giving her a small painting then should have more than helped her feelings about the commissioned painting.

We learn lessons evey single day. Some not easy to accept.

Joanne Benson
Hi Mimi, Karen and Sandy,
Thanks for taking the time to reply to my query.

You are absolutely right about getting approvals. I had sent her a number of small studies and an image of another painting of the same scene that I had done previously. She made comments and suggestions and I thought I had it all covered. I usually do commissions where I am working off of a photo of someone's house or pet, etc. There isn't much wiggle room there. This was the first decorative/landscape commission and the first really large piece I have done. Next time I will send a digital image for final approval. I agree with your comments about not sending a partially completed image. Most non artists just can't deal with that. I wasn't thrilled with the colors in my photos though and even photo suite didn't adjust them to my satisfaction.

Mimi and Sandy,
Thanks for checking out my blog. That was the painting over her sofa. I really thought it looked stunning in the room. It is a contemporary house with 30 foot vaulted ceilings. I guess time will tell. If she frames it, then I will know she likes it. She seemed to think it needed framing. A matter of personal taste. If it were me, I would have left it like that for a more contemporary look.

Thanks again ladies!

Phyllis Tarlow
Wow, Richard, you sure touched on a subject many, if not, most of us have dealt with more than once. One of the reasons I started to turn towards landscapes a number of years ago, was because from time to time with portrait commissions, things like clients who just couldn't be satisfied would come up and it could be very frustrating and hard to take and leave me feeling very shaky for a while.

A couple of times, I just decided the best thing was to call it quits and walk away, nicely but firmly. Other times, I bent over backwards to give the client what she or he wanted and, in the end, they were very happy with what I had done. I guess it depends on whether I think there is merit in what they are asking and how they present their criticism.

I, too, really like your phrase about the wave. If we plan to remain artists, it's all we really can do--just keep moving ahead and not allowing anything to so crush us that we give up.

As an artist my artworks are out there in the public domain at the risk of rejection by both the general public and the art galleries who are inundated by waves of hopefuls also trying to reaching out through their art.

Vincent Van Gogh reputedly sold only one painting while alive. He was not understood at the time but his work is now loved. MOMA, decline a gift from Andy Warhol in 1956 then in 1961 it turned Yoko Ono away, they have now re-assessed those decisions.

While we, as today's artists, may not presume to put ourselves in that league as the above mentioned artists, we can realize that everyone faces this rejection. We are all rejected by someone, somewhere. Just do not let this rejection kill that personal creative vision.

Rejection is nothing new, but it still does not feel good. As sensitive as artists are to their subject matter, in order to bring their work to the world, they must cultivate a disapproval-resistant skin or simply put a thick skin. Artists need to develop their passion along with an attitude that will not look to others for approval.

Art is so very personal that we often see it as representing ourselves. So when it”s torn to shreds or even mildly criticized, artists can be devastated with their egos taking a knock.

As an artist you have to be open to criticism; there”s no way around it. And if you”re in business you need to welcome and respond to it. Particularly if your business is selling your own art because your confidence will inspire collectors to purchase it.

You need to maintain that perspective that not everyone is going to like your work. Not everyone likes mine and I don”t care, its their loss etc. Because I only need a few select collectors every year to like my art just enough to buy it.

Success can also have a side -effect in that it can elevate an artist to an unrealistic self-worth. Therefore, in spite of success or failure, the artist must be faithful to their personal artistic vision.

There is a message in any artwork and It and really does not matter if its not understood, it might be one day perhaps?

richard christian nelson
So many excellent thoughts and related experiences. Thanks for your responses and openness. My resolve is solid until the next big whack!

I'm so glad I came across your blog and this article in particular!!

As someone who is trying to shy away from perfectionism and be more open/relaxed this concept is very dear to me. I have spent a great deal of time and energy basing my success and value upon other's opinions and shall we say "ratings". It's a cycle which I am slowly working to break.

This obviously comes about in my artwork too. I really tuned in when you stated..."is it worth the effort to try to salvage the situation or is it best to accept the disappointment and move on? We cannot please everyone and some will prove impossible to please, no matter how hard we try. I think the key is to not internalize a lasting sense of failure"... At the end of the day the even can only affect us to the degree that we let it and your article really puts it all into perspective.

Can't please the entire world, so what, life's too short, move on and seize the next opportunity. I love it!

richard christian nelson
Thanks Vanessa! Like many things it may be 'easier said than done', but we can try!

Esther J. Williams
Richard I am sorry you had a painful critique on that commission. Art is subject to many interpretations, it starts conversations, people will say what is in their gut without thought most often. With a personal portrait, they feel righteous, regardless of what they think the artist might feel, to state opinions. I hear people cut down other artists works all the time, no matter what subject it is. So, with that in mind, I realize that not everyone has the same opinion of my art.
I was recently glossed over at a judged show when I thought I had entered my personal best work. When the awards were announced, they did not call my name. Sure, it shocked me, I truly felt I entered a winner this time. It was a damn fine work of art that I excelled in creating. My past judgement in entering pieces in this show were right on and received awards. Well, we can`t win them all. So, I walked away thinking, those judges were of differing opinions that did not add up to giving my piece high notice and scores. Hmm, I certainly felt rejected to a degree. Only at the reception I heard countless compliments on the piece. Several times I was standing behind other artists and they didn`t know I was there. To my fortune, they said they loved that work of art, it stopped them in their tracks. I listened to that eagerly and figured the piece had public appeal, but not the judges appeal. I felt good by that, I know I can`t make every judge happy all the time. I went home and painted like I always did, feeling my validation still ticking. Just a little wounded. All wounds do heal eventually. Better luck next time they say!

Bill Shafer
Its always good to hear other's testimony. I took up painting six
years ago to supplement retirement. Still to this day is not working
out for me. O sure I'll sell one now and then. But the rejection part,
I've aways welcomed as a leaning curve. Sure my feelings might get hurt, but it just makes my determination just as strong as my
so please don't stop painting
Bill Shafer

ps please judge my work and reply.


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