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The Virtuoso Octopus

by Carolyn Henderson on 1/10/2012 9:14:33 AM

This article is by Carolyn Henderson, the managing half of Steve Henderson Fine Art. She is a Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews and her  freelance writing appears in regional newspapers, online magazines, and her humor blog, Middle-Aged Plague.


In our dating days, the Norwegian Artist took me by the university art building to view a collection of sculptures done by various students.


“What do you think of this one?” he asked.


A basketball on a cube.


“Interesting interplay of the round form in contrast with the angularity of the square,” I replied. (This might be a good time to mention that I was an English major.)


“How about this one?”


A collection of raisins – or were they rabbit pellets? – stuck to the outside of a jar.


“Such external textural variety in conjunction with the smooth, almost icy glacial exterior of the primary form,” I observed.


“And . . . how about this one?”


An octopus wrapped around a violin.


That one had me nonplussed, but I plunged recklessly ahead:


“How imaginative! It’s playful, whimsical . . . interesting.”


Only after I shut up did it occur to me that the Norwegian was taking a sculpture class this quarter.


“Um . . . is one of these sculptures yours?”


“Well, yes, as a matter of fact one of them is. The octopus with the violin.”


Oh dear God. What had I said about it?


Apparently I hadn’t messed up too badly, because the man seemed pleased, our dating relationship progressed, and eventually, when we married, the octopus joined the household as well.


Raised in a family of either scientists or word smiths, I had no background in art, artists, art-speak, or visual aesthetics, and when I shocked my extensive clan of PhDs by throwing my lot in with a bearded Bohemian, I found myself in a new world, with a different mindset, and a completely different vocabulary from molecular biology, organic chemistry, and the parsing and diagramming of sentences.


When the Norwegian Artist finished a painting, he wanted my opinion on it – seriously, actually, and considerably beyond, “That’s really nice, honey,” but while I could go into great detail as to why “exemplary” was a superlative adjective to “exceptional” in a particular sentence, I really didn’t know how to accurately and meaningfully analyze his work.


But he taught me.


On our limited budget, we visited galleries, student shows, and free museums, and the Norwegian talked about the work; dismantled its construction; pointed out detail here, lack of it there; critiqued an immaturity of perspective; praised a limited, bold use of color in an unexpected corner of the piece; explained the style; discussed art movements and their historical significance, answered my questions; addressed my challenges; respected my opinions – in short, he trained me to look at paintings and sculpture beyond, “Oh how pretty! It looks just like a photograph!”


Or, “That’s really nice, honey.”


Now, when the Norwegian Artist unveils his latest work, not only I, but the progeny as well, is able to give intelligent, articulate commentary on the piece as a whole and the sum of its parts – usually, if there’s a problem and we catch it, he knows it already and we provide unwelcome confirmation, but more than once we have connected to an unexpected twist in his style or approach that he was vaguely aware of but not sure of how to pursue until we said something.


If you’ve got family or close friends with whom you regularly interact, you have a potential treasure, insofar as critiquing your art goes. Like me, they may not have a background in the visual arts, but just because they’re not paid art critics doesn’t mean that they can’t critique your art. Given a chance, they want to help you move forward, but they may not know how.


Take the time to train them – show them art, all sorts of it, and explain why you think it’s good or bad. Describe and discuss perspective, composition, color, form, contrast, light and shadow. Talk to them about your own pieces and point out what you like and don’t like about what you’ve done, and listen to them when they tell you what they are seeing, and not seeing, in your work.


You don’t have to agree with them, as long as you are aware that the most irritatingly bothersome things they point out are probably so because, deep down, those things bother you as well, and you were hoping that no one would notice. Believe me, it’s as hard for them to point it out as it is for you to hear it.


But do not underestimate the inestimable value of a well-meaning, supportive, geographically close person who not only cares about you, but cares about art – your art – and knows enough to speak reasonably intelligently about it. 


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Topics: advice for artists | art appreciation | art collectors | art criticism | Carolyn Henderson | FineArtViews | originality | support local art 

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mimi boothby watercolors
Oh yes. My husband, an unschooled "non-artistic" person, was first very uncomfortable when I asked him to critique a painting. All sorts of issues flew into the room. He looked at one of my first watercolors and said "you missed a spot" where white paper was showing through. "Well, maybe this won't work" was my reaction even though I thanked him and continued to ask.. It's been about 6 years since then and as I have grown as a painter, his critical eye has grown too. The other day, I showed him a painting, and his clever trained eye got right to the point and he said; "Did you mean for that rock to look like a tail coming out of that Sand cat??" GASP... he was right. I fixed it. He's always been a wonderful partner, but to add to his list of attributes, his help with my paintings has been a constant (even when he was in the hospital!), just one more thing about him that I am grateful for.

Jill Banks
I love this one ... as well as all your other articles. My husband has been trained, like you, to be able to evaluate art -- including mine -- and his opinions help me grow. The fact that he doesn't just love everything -- that he's a real critic -- makes me fight that much harder to win him over.

A teacher of mine once commented that another artist didn't grow because he refused to invite/listen to criticism.

Reading your post will make me add inviting critiques to this evening's blog post on "What I Will Do in 2012." Thanks so much!

Kerry Remp
Wow! Exactly how I feel at times when I ask my wife what she thinks of my latest creation! She is so (seemingly) critical of some things because "she just doesn't understand it." Or rather, because as you succinctly state, she sees it's flaws that I know are there but hope to hide from others....

I've learned to objectively consider her thoughts (after I get past the 'cringe' phase sometimes) knowing that BECAUSE she looks at things in a completely different manner, I NEED to get those inputs before I release something to the world.

Thanks for the great article confirming that I really do need to know how the octopus with a violin looks.

Robert Sloan
This is so true across all the arts. It's brilliant advice. I just got one of the best thorough novel critiques in my life from my Swedish pastel teacher. She reads English novels and literature, she's fluent enough to enjoy them and analyze them. She spotted a tendency to go too far in correcting a flaw that meant my prose "went in the other ditch" and suggested shifting the tone for one of the characters, not all of them, to vary it. She noticed where the plot was strongest and that the beginning needed structural work.

I too when asked to comment on work I don't understand or work I don't like, step back to describe it and analyze it in its own terms. If it does what the artist intended, that becomes a useful compliment. Your Norwegian artist probably did intend some whimsy with the octopus wrapped around a violin.

If I tell someone an abstract that makes me uncomfortable "This disturbs me," and talk about my feelings, then analyze how the colors and forms create that impression, it does two things. It's just clear honest feedback. Most usually take it as complimentary.

If it didn't come out the way they intended, the more detailed the analysis, the more likely I handed them a key to doing what they intended in that analysis.

jack white
Carolyn, you brought a smile this morning. I had been painting about 25 years and just finished what I considered one of my best paintings. At dinner I said to my first wife, "You never comment on my work."

She continued to eat, answering with food in her mouth. "You know you are good, you don't need me to tell you. You hear how great you are from you fans." I all of our years together she never made a positive statement about my art. (smile)

I'm sure she could have helped a lot in my early years. Like pointing out my horse had three legs.


Carol Schmauder
I agree with the previous comments: this is great advice, Carolyn. When I create a new painting and ask my family members about it they either "love it" (which is most often the case) or they just say "nice". It would be great if they knew how to give a beneficial critique so I could work on problems that are involved.

Susan Holland
I am blowing a kiss at you and Steve, Carolyn. It is not a surprise that even the most dedicated data-nerd will have some insights into the "other world" of aesthetics. If you could just teach them to talk a language you can both agree on, you have got a fine critic/reviewer of art that, after all, hangs on walls in front of everyone...not just arty folk.

Thanks for taking us into your family circle, and reminding us that they are "the world."

Kathy Chin
Thanks Carolyn for talking about something we all face. Obviously we are our own worst critics, but sometimes family members can be a close second. Yes they support us, but as you say, don't always know what to say. It's most helpful to get constructive criticism, but sometimes it's hard to get a scrunched up face and an unintelligible "bllllagh" or something similar. And sometimes it gets even worse after you ask why not? "I don't know why, I just don't like it" doesn't give you much to grow on.

Thank you Carolyn for suggesting that the person may not know enough about the work to give constructive criticism. Of course, on the other hand, "bllllagh" does mean something...

Sharon Hicks
What a great piece! Witty, well written, and oh so true. I've been a member of artist groups for over 30 yrs now, and the worst possible critiques I've ever sat through consisted of little more than "I really like this one", or "the colours are really good", or "great job!". And that was from so-called art professionals we had hired to do a proper critique. How can we expect our family members or friends to do any better if we don't educate them?

Great suggestions, well put.

Oh dear, now I've just done the same thing ... LOL ... perhaps I should take the time to critique the writing ...

But no, my current project (one of many) awaits some finishing touches ... not enough hours in the day.

Carolyn Henderson
Mimi: One time when I was looking at the Norwegian Artist's nearly finished work, I commented, "What is that cloak-garbed man doing in the very back, near those rocks?"

"That's another rock. But you're right, it looks like a man."

Sometimes the artist gets so absorbed in the 99 percent, he loses sight of that little tiny 1 percent that jumps out.

Jill: Criticism is so difficult to take, that's why I choose carefully who I will accept it from -- don't want the dynamics of human likes and dislikes and insecurities to get in the way!

Last week I completed a Middle Aged Plague article that I read aloud to both the Son and Heir and the Norwegian Artist. They didn't have to critique it. Their polite, uncomfortable silence told me what I already knew -- I had missed the boat, and the story needed some serious editing.

Kerry: Criticism is a negative word for a reason, because generally it is associated with pointing out what is wrong. For this reason, I prefer the word "critique," because it carries more of the idea that we point out the positive as well as the negative. As you observe, it's hard to deal with all the things we've done "wrong," and it takes some time of reflection to synthesize what was said without tossing the brushes in the corner and saying, "That's it. I'm done."

Jack: well, there are three-legged horses out there, aren't there? Or perhaps it needed to use the restroom. Funny how easy it is to miss the obvious things.

It's interesting how a task like critiquing someone's work can grow into something more, and the more one gets to know the artist, the more one knows how to speak.

Carol: if my mind is working properly, I'm thinking that next week's post is addressed to friends and family members, giving them some tips on how to go beyond, "How nice!" or "Cool. I think."

Susan: so right you are -- art hangs on the walls of regular, ordinary people, and if we can find a regular, ordinary person in our life who can be trained to speak the talk and know what to look for, we have a valuable resource indeed.

Kathy: You're right -- people don't know what to say or how to say it; they want to help out the artist, but they don't want to hurt him/her either, but often, ironically, they wind up doing this because they feel that they have to be "arty" and point out all sorts of perceived flaws.

Sharon: thank you, and by all means, "Great suggestions, well put," works really well with me! As a writer, my goal is to resonate with words, and while I realize that not every story will click with every reader (in the same way that not every sculpture or painting catches the eye of every reader), it is most gratifying when someone, somewhere responds positively.

I really love the readers of this site -- your insight, acumen, enthusiasm, good nature, and willingness to share and encourage send out a beacon of goodness and joy!

K. Henderson
Actually, I like to ask the "I only know what I like" crowd because, quite frankly, the people who buy my work don't analyze the texture, color placement, composition etc. They buy it because they like it. That's it.

Donald Fox
Good criticism isn't always in the form of commentary. A well-placed, insightful question can generate great feedback that the artist provides him or her self while answering (What is that cloak-garbed man...? Why is the light here instead of there given the light source?).

My wife is a great critic for her first response is always emotional, and she's very adept at verbalizing her feelings. Most artists want viewers to have a feeling response in the presence of the work. If my wife feels something, I know others will too.

Thanks for an engaging article.

Marian Fortunati
As usual, good advice, Carolyn.
I have to admit, though, that when my husband started giving me unsolicited critiques, I found it irritating.
Now, however, he's learned and I've learned to ASK for his opinion. He usually has some very good advice which will enhance my paintings. I sometimes do the same thing (ask for a critique) when my son and his wife come over for dinner each week.
Each of them usually has a point to offer which I find useful.
My grandson, however, just tells me what I need to do without me asking. Somehow, it's okay when unsolicited advice comes from him.
Now why is that??

mimi boothby
Marian, that's called BAGGAGE. :-)

Susan Holland
Marian, that is called the innocence factor...and your grandson's instructions should be taken seriously. I am one of those who thinks children are the purest artists.

:-) Susan

George De Chiara
My wife and I are going down a very similar road Carolyn. She did take an art history course in collage, but that's about it so I've been trying to teach her more about art and how to critique it. It's much more satisfying now when she can actually comment on my work with more than something like "That's nice". In return she's been teaching me how to become a better writer. Did I mention she's also an English major.

Robert Sloan
Okay... I wondered why mine was the only comment liking and reflecting your essay that didn't get a reply. I think I may have got it.

I veered off topic into something I've faced many times with friends, with family and of course I adapted to my blunt, honest and brilliant perfectionist musician daughter. She gives critique. I give critique. Both of us are used to giving feedback with useful critique.

Excellent, useful, effective, on-target critique that pulls no punches whatsoever and she often forgets to put in anything positive. I adopted her as a teenager, if I'd been in charge of her little-girl music lessons I would have taught her to spot positives as part of the flow much earlier on. Many discussions later, she'll sandwich some positives in there.

But her idea of a good critique is in the style of one expert to another. "You want me to give you that one flaw you can't see that's keeping it from being perfect, fast, so you can get on with it."

This is discouraging. It's devastating to beginners, apply it and if they're determined enough to do it, they grow up into my daughter never expecting praise to have content.

I on the other hand, the minute I know something, I teach it. I'm totally used to grabbing friends who sadly or jealously say "I wish I could draw like that," drag them into it, shove materials at them, get them drawing and then critique for the first few sessions with "That is really cool. You've got a very steady line. These two colors go well together and they give it a lot of zing. The proportions on that eye are perfect." I'll filter it as completely as my daughter's music teachers filtered her critiques.

I did this to a dozen friends in the 1980s because I was sick of having no one to hang out and draw with. We were getting together for fun, no one took the monthly get-together seriously until we sat back and realized that the slowest beginner with the lousiest drawings had just sold one. In a ludicrously short period of time, and that any of us would have bought it on subject.

I mentioned the Scary Territory for friends and family. "I don't like it."

"I don't like" it is one of two things, or a combination. It might be that there's a flaw in it that's technical and just bugs me. Easy enough to give useful technique feedback about the flaw. The other half is "I would never, in a million years, want to hang a painting of a fluffy baby bunny cuddling a baby chick in the sunshine with a farm in the background. This is so completely not me that the best of this style and subject will actually bug me more than some newbie trying to get it right."

My friend is actually a fuzzy bunny lover.

My friend puts up with may frequent cat picture posts on Facebook and I am pretty sure deep down she sometimes looks at my wildlife paintings with a pang of "Eeep, it eats baby bunnies and little chicks." My fuzzy buddy is an obligate carnivore with very big teath and some of the bunny crowd really don't like cats.

So if I don't like something on first glance, I look twice. If it's a professional or anywhere near professional quality, especially if the artist is someone I don't know, my way of handling "I don't like it" is to look twice and see why. Analyzing it by describing it accurately can help me understand whether it's a brilliant work in the style of a famous school that I can't stand any of them (identifying the style usually leaves the artist feeling good about it, he or she worked hard at studying that school or doesn't hate it and didn't realize it was an influence).

Or the analysis comes up "This is perfect and it's not my thing. It's even more annoying because it's perfect." That's where I can be polite about not shoving it up their nose that I'm not into rabbits and baby chicks and just focus on its positives.

I reacted emotionally not to your example of the octopus and the violin because I would've liked it and I would've said either "whimsy" or "surreal" on not knowing the artist - and then depending on how much I liked it, circled around making "I might buy this one" noises. Because if I was wealthy enough to have a living room, I would get a kick out of watching people try to figure that out, grin or laugh every time they showed up for a party.

Abstracts were hard for me for years. I had to fall back on emotional reactions because as a painter, composition was unconscious till the past two years. I couldn't wrap my head around it to plan it, either it worked or didn't. The qualities that make an abstract work or not don't rest on subject, but I came to life as a storyteller looking for art that has, well, plot and characters and setting? I respond immediately to abstraction that does. A piece of Maori art or Celtic knotwork done well delights me - its stories are something I've met and patterned cultural works like that look as if there's a tribe behind them even if the artist just invented it. But loose works are much harder to figure out.

I still don't paint them. They're not my thing. But I've gotten to the point of understanding why artists better than I am will look at early stages in a painting and go "that's beautiful," or even "don't add another stroke."

It takes the sting out of "I don't like it" to break it into those two categories. Describing it separately for its technical qualities and connection to art history is the useful feedback. Even saying, as my daughter has occasionally grudged, "This is done well, beautiful example of what it is, but I'm not into that genre" has a lot less sting because it throws it back into reality. I wasn't a customer for the raisin jar sculpture.

On the other hand, writing this post and imagining both, including my having the budget to buy something at the event, I would have walked out with the octopus without realizing that someone else would look at the raisin jar the same way I would. Have as much fun if I went over to their parties figuring out what to say about it.

My daughter was afraid to say anything about my writing for a long time because she knew how depressed I got at any setbacks or rejection, how many hangups I had about it. A lot of them in retrospect have to do with trying to maintain morale while living with chronic pain. If I'm taking my pain pills, critique is useful and I can distinguish it from the personal criticism that in some nasty situations bordered on or went into abuse. The wounds that caused those jitters about my writing came from someone who systematically discouraged anything that I could actually do within the limits of my disabilities while encouraging anything that was out of reach, so that if I tried for anything, I'd fall flat on my face.

I do not know, when I put a book into print or an artwork in front of the public, what that person's backstory is. I don't know if I have painted something they have a phobia about so beautifully that it seems alive. There are people who get panic attacks at seeing cats in exactly the way I used to at roaches - I desensitized but it was over a long difficult decade of self help books and effort. Someone could break into a sweat and have to leave the room - and that's not because I'm a bad painter. It'd happen at my best.

It got reinforced over the years by friends and family members praising my art along with total strangers - and friends, even intimate friends, afraid of what would happen if I showed them a manuscript. How could they stand to torture me if they didn't like it?

It takes maybe two seconds to look at a cool painting and like it. Even at the stage of "That's so cool" and hang it on the fridge, general personal approval and recognition Rob is the friend who can draw. If non-artists can tell what the subject is, that politeness and support is easy and a significant number of them want to take it home.

It takes fifteen or twenty minutes of anxiety reading through an insecure friend's new story or chapter with the dread that if you say something nice, you'll be expected to read and enjoy the whole thing. Even if it's a genre you would never buy except as a gift for someone who likes it. I didn't understand this and it was a vicious cycle that gave me some years of misery. I finally understood that logistic and quit asking for feedback on stories from anyone but fellow writers, who owe me one for the critique I gave them.

When I learned to rehearse back cover blurbs instead of giving large quotes, sometimes friends started wanting to read it. I got my "cheer me up" appreciation from drawing well and support for the forbidden career from those writer friends who actually liked it when they came in to critique. Until I got skilled enough that artist friends started bugging me for a good read. That is, up to competence, where for what it is, it's decently done and satisfies the people who will always read a story with a vampire in it or always buy a painting with a cat in it.

Critique and Criticism are two different things.

"I'm not into bunnies" is not going to discourage the bunny painter. It's just going to separate me from her most intense marketing efforts and since she likes cute things, if she wants some of my spending money, she'll paint a kitten. "Rob would like this one."

Most non-artists wind up sorting out what they like on subject and will like it as soon as skill reaches moderate competence. Yet another painting of a barn at sunset might look ordinary to an art appreciator, nothing special about it - but it's still well done and the someone who fell in love with her husband at sunset near a barn like that will find it more emotionally powerful than something that would belong in the Louvre.

It's always personal.

But personal when labeled as such is not a slap in the face to the artist's confidence. It's not saying "you're such a lousy painter no one will ever like it." It's just feedback that says "and when you do a kitten, I might be interested" if I'm specific enough to mention "The fur texture is beautiful and if you did a kitten that well I'd be tempted." Cute Baby Things crosses Anything Feline, both of us know there are bunny fans who'd jump on it as long as they can tell what it is.

Which is why learning art appreciation, music appreciation, arts appreciation is so vital. Because without that, just being polite or just not wanting to discourage anyone from an arts career leaves those stuttering moments of not being able to give clear enough feedback the artist can tell whether I'm a future customer or just an appreciator. It's useful.

People who haven't learned art appreciation can't tell whether it's something technical or something personal and emotional. If their dog died on exactly that kind of icy winter day with muted sunlight and the trees looked like that, learning to enjoy that painting might take years of therapy. If it was their kid, they never will.

It can make critique from friends and family awkward and sometimes hard to use. It takes listening with a grain of salt for the details. Past a certain level of basic skill, non artists probably like most of it on a "That's nice" level. Or they really want you to improve because they really like it and are comparing it to their favorites.

There's personal sabotage, hopefully not from family members, not always conscious. If they'd rather you spent your time doing something they liked better, they're not as likely to distinguish technical points over wishing you'd do bunnies. They may compare your fine art to the latest crafts book pattern for decorative painting. Or dislike the genre and go on a rant about lousy famous painters and how crazy it is they make so much money.

Most artist have a few people in their lives whose feedback is more frustrating than useful. They can be diehard fans that never give actual feedback, unconditionally love all of it and say "I like the colors." Or disapprove of any avant garde and think you'd do better if you watched one of those Bob Ross videos. Past a certain basic level of skill, a lot of acquaintances will compliment it to the skies and try to get free art feeling you owe it to them for the compliments.

Because the mind distorting discouragement of writing and overwhelming praise of art that I knew failed, I wound up learning to critique criticism and ask where it was coming from. People who disapprove of reading as a way to spend leisure time will not encourage a young person to become a writer. But if they remember artists getting a good job from the WPA to do big public murals, that's a good job and you could do well at it.

The people I least wanted to listen to occasionally had a useful comment. The ones that picked up my spirits most got the useful observations across to me a lot easier.

Eventually, once I started hanging around professional artists and studying art more, I came to distinguish "I like the colors" as a polite way to find something nice to say about it and "I like the colors" from a professional much better than I am, who noticed that one painting wasn't as muddy as several previous ones and wanted to reinforce a simpler color harmony.

It's where "I don't like it for personal reasons that would take all night to explain" and "I see a technical area where it could improve" collide that the mind-bender happens and until an artist or writer has enough confidence to look close at the feedback without being discouraged from doing it at all, it's harder to fish out the technical from the personal. With scared beginners I hold back "not my thing" for a different conversation just to take the sting out of it. With confident professionals, it's not even relevant to them if it's not my thing, once I focus on the technical I've given them the kind of feedback they hoped for.

I've come out of the closet as a writer who paints. In terms of earning a living, I've got physical limits that prevent me from producing enough good works to paint full time. Otherwise I'd be a writer-and-painter without worrying about how the time split between them. The best way for me to have both is to write about art and continue to grow as an artist so that my works are useful to artists who may prefer painting as their main profession. Or just enjoy improving their painting.

So there's where I was coming from in the comment that didn't get answered. I brought up the taboo - what non artists face every time an artist shows them something. What if I don't like it? How do I say something nice if I can't stand it? How do I keep from looking like an idiot if this is actually brilliant and I don't get it?

I'll also share one last personal discovery. Educating myself on the things I don't like - nonobjective abstracts topped the list - helped me understand and improve in the things I did. I found out that at least 90 percent of the abstracts I didn't like carried nihilistic themes and I was reacting passionately in exactly the way the artist intended. Artists who pick a fight with me in nonverbal ways with their paintings will get a rise out of me, because I'm human.

I didn't understand why one in ten did make me smile and seemed as delightful as a good Celtic Knotwork carpet page. So that's where I agree with the original article. Art appreciation includes a long deep look at what I don't like to understand why I don't like it, when that's conscious I can tell the artist honestly that yes - the painting succeeded in disturbing me.

jack white

I look at LOT of artist websites. I have emails daily wanting me to look at their work. When I see work with promise I spend time to hand out praises. When I see hopeless work, I answer, "Your art is interesting."

I make a point to never hurt feelings. NEVER.

I have found family and friends are the worst possible person you can get to critic your work. Some think everything we do is great and other members don't think we can do anything good.

I depend on the buying public to judge my work. They are the ones spending their hard earned money to buy what I make.


mimi boothby watercolors
Robert, don't take it personally. She skipped me once too. I assure you, she didn't mean anything by it.
I appreciate what you are saying about the non-artist not being sure whether his opinion makes him look dumb. I am the same way with music. My son is a professional musician and I am the first to admit that my tastes are rather unsophisticated, while he, on the other hand loves stuff that I don't even think is music.
The art world is the same way. And to get a good critique out of that somebody, who really does feel intimidated by your question, is to assure them that their opinion IS important.

Susan Holland
Robert, (off subject, sort of)
A bit of feedback on your art: I enjoyed looking at your wild cat pastel very much. Do you ever do pet portraits? I found that to be a more than active pursuit-- I ended up getting sort of burned out doing pet portraits and finally went on to other subject matter (also animate). Nice cat! You could specialize in cats, betcha!

Robert Sloan
Mimi, thank you! That's a lot of relief. I wasn't sure if I'd said something that offended her.

Susan, thank you! Yes, I do pet portraits. I've even reached a point where I can do justice to a dog - my most recent canine portrait was one of my greatest successes in animal portraits. Laughing Dog was a cute animal with a memorable expression and I captured her perfectly. She had a really tricky mouth and I got it, got her sweet personality and great energetic happy mood conveyed in the painting.

I like specializing primarily in cats and I'm careful about my commission queue. The only problem is that health trips me up so often that I have trouble with deadlines. So I never take more than a couple of commissions at a time. I'm one session short of finishing my latest cat and one session short of finishing my first-ever book cover commission. I will be opening up to do new ones as soon as I do - probably by announcing it on Facebook.

This month's a little tight. No problem if I finish my current commissions and do a couple more of them, only a problem if I get too many sick days and can't do -- four productive days of painting before the end of the month. They're popular enough that even specializing in cats I can probably get the sales by the end of the month. Most of the time "I'm open for a new cat commission" gets me a pet portrait commission within a couple of days.

So you nailed exactly what I've been doing to get on my feet since the move! It'd be nice to get on my feet again and budget some time for long term goals and art that isn't planned, but if I get a Google Adsense check, that happy time is right in hand when these are done. I don't need to announce that I'm open till I'm ready to do one.

I love doing them and Laughing Dog now has me confident about doing dogs and puppies, or even rabbits or other animals, as well as cats. My main specialty is cats though. If someone asks for something I'm not confident about doing well enough, I'll usually refer it to a friend doing pet portraits with more experience on that animal.

Robert Sloan
I think it's that the demand for good sensitive pet portraits that get the likeness and the personality - that are good portraits that happen to be of an animal rather than just copying the photo - exceeds the number of artists capable of doing them. Commission work isn't always as exciting as doing original paintings the moment I get inspired by a view or a concept. But it comes close when I'm painting cats of any age or species.

I've even gotten a kick out of painting newborn kittens with their eyes squeezed shut and toothless pink mouths squeaking. Their feet are different at that stage and their little ears stick out of the sides of their head. Yet they're cats, even that young I can see the distinctive feline muzzle and face so perfect in miniature. I'd also enjoy doing a portrait of an elderly cat sometime. I've known some beautiful ones - a grand old gray longhair who was 28 years old and purred when I petted her. That's the sort of thing I do on my own when I'm not writing novels or doing commissions.

Erica Keener
Carolyn, I wish I had someone to give me some helpful feedback. I've tried working on my husband, but he is very uncomfortable with it. "I don't know anything about art" is always his excuse. I've finally gotten him to the point where he will let me know if he sees anything blatantly wrong, but I think that's as much as I will ever get out of him. My friends are mostly in the "looks nice" camp, and those that could be helpful live nowhere near me and can't see the originals. I've really only had one critique and found it very helpful, but that was more than two years ago and I'd love to get another. Unfortunately my local, small town arts group is very limited in resources and personnel and busy kids make it hard for me go very far to look for something else. If anyone has any suggestions on how to get around all of this, I'd love to hear them!

Carolyn Henderson
Robert: Like Jack, I do not intentionally hurt feelings -- there are more than enough people in this world who will do that for us!

I review comments from my FASO article Tuesday morning, in between several writing deadlines and at the beginning of a short day -- Tuesday is a regular travel day, and yet the full day's work needs to be done by 1 p.m. I inadvertently missed both your and Mimi's comments -- although the terms "brilliant" should have stopped me short. Thank you!

You have a very good teaching style, recognizing that beginners especially need encouragement at a time when, ironically, there is less to encourage. But if they're ever going to get there, they can't drop out because someone's pointed out all the things that are wrong.

K: An excellent point and an astute observation.

Donald: Questions are a great technique, and put people less on the defensive, and when they're non yes/no, you can feel your way around the situation for the next question. Good psychology.

Marian: Susan and Mimi have good points -- youth speaks up, and it's surprising what we can pick up from them, after we pick through the, um, attitude (dealing with my teenage and 20-something progeny has taught me a lot more than just today's music fads!)

Mimi: thank you.

Erica: That is difficult, and I am sorry for your frustration. It is tempting, I am sure, to grab strangers from the grocery store and ask them for their opinion, which, come to think of it, isn't so very odd after all. Again, as K. Henderson says, it is the reaction of people, just people, that leads to the sale.

George: You and your wife sound a lot like me and my Norwegian -- the writer and the visual artist actually share a lot, and the more you two view/read one another's work and give feedback on it, the more you'll find that you're speaking, and using, the same language!

Robert Sloan
Wow, thank you. I think the emotional stamina to keep going when someone points out everything that's wrong comes with confidence. The best way to build it is skill and being able to disagree with false negatives.

I use that positive filter in two situations. Beginners who would quit and believe they have no talent, and others who while skilled don't believe they're any good at it because they're under pressure from sabotaging past or present relationships.

When friends get discouraged I slant it a bit more toward positive. I still solve the problems but put a little more work into mentioning the positives if they seem discouraged, because I've known too many artists in all fields to torture themselves with extreme perfectionism.

Come to think of it, that also comes in at the situation where a nervous perfectionist is about to destroy one of their best works by overworking it and worrying too much, pushing it past the point where it's done and no improvement is possible. This is easier to spot in arts that I'm educated in than those I'm not. I couldn't tell at all on a chef's work or most musicians. In art or writing, I can spot it.

And maybe that's just one of the common critique points. "Put the tools down and step away from the painting. This is done. It's finite perfection. Think about where to exhibit it and what to work on next, you can't improve this any more without overworking it." A negative, just one of many true things to say to a painter who's on the verge of goofing up.

Carolyn Henderson
Robert: Steve stops when he's finished what he wanted to say in the painting. Years ago, that was difficult, because it wasn't in his default setting, so he would set the work aside for a space and re-visit it. Now, he knows the feeling of when he's done, and when he's pushing himself beyond being done.

You have said it indeed with the perfectionist part -- if you want to see perfectionists out of control, visit a quilting convention! (I say this as a non-perfectionist quilter who has seen too many people be scared off by perfectly matching points and eminently consistent quarter-inch seams. Basically, guys, we're cutting apart fabric and putting it back together.)

I agree with you that you can't overdo positively reinforcing people, providing that you're doing it in a non-Barbie! way. Genuine encouragement (which takes creativity to find sometimes) is so much more effective than ripping apart.

Donna Robillard
My husband is my best critic. He had never been exposed to any of this art stuff, and when I started taking some classes he would learn when I explained what I happened to be working on and what the focus was. He has a very keen eye and tells me when he thinks something is not right, but he is very good to tell me when he likes something, too. I probably would not be as far along as I am if it hadn't been for him.

Jana Botkin
I've learned to ask for my husband's opinion (he drives big yellow machines) when I want hard truth. It is easier to accept it from him while I can still fix things than to take pieces to a show and wonder why no one likes them!

Carolyn, I'd love a tutorial on how to comment and critique art. Perhaps the Norwegian Artist could address this in a series on his blog too? I loved reading what you said to him about those sculptures compared to what you were thinking!

And, your articles and comments are so fun to read because of your personal responses to the comments. Thank you for taking the time to check back and respond!

Robert Sloan
Thanks, Carolyn. I'm not sure what the "Barbie way" is but it sounds unpleasant. Shallow? Less concerned about the art than about seeming like a nice person? Not real clear on that.

It does take creativity to critique, more so if I have a strong negative reaction. I just had so much anger at the way my writing got sabotaged that I made a promise to myself not to do that to others. Practice helped.

Carolyn Henderson
Donna: When spouses work together like this, we all win! There's nothing better than living with the very person who knows your art, knows about art, and knows you -- a triple play that produces a home run every time. (And that is probably the last sports analogy you will ever get out of me, and I sure hope that I got it right.)

Jana: I am absolutely humbled and inspired as I read the comments from the artists on this site. I haven't encountered another place like it, where readers comment far beyond, "Cool. Man." and offer their experiences and insight. It's as if three or four articles were written for every one officially published. It is an absolute joy to be able to participate in the comment process, and watch the direction that the topics take.

I will add the tutorial idea to both my and the Norwegian Artist's list of things to do. While Steve does art critiques for fellow artists, he hasn't put into words the process that he goes through so that I can articulate it in an article. We'll work on it!

(I like your description of your husband. Any man who drives big yellow machines knows what needs to be done, and gets it that way. Practicality is a wonderful gift.)

Robert: My College Girl teaches swim classes to children, and she has noted that her method is not that of many of the bouncy blond Barbie girls (is an image being implanted here?) who coo and ah, "Oh, you do just SOOOOOO Super Duper Dupie!"

CG approaches her class of minnows with more of a benevolent drill sergeant approach -- praising and offering encouragement on the slightest thing that they do right to get them to move more in that direction, but leveling them with "the look" (perfected by all older sisters) when they splash behind her back and exhibit serious signs of not listening.

Interestingly, many of her Level 1 students, who need to do no more than get their face in the water, learn the rudiments of Level 2 before the six-week session is up.

Robert Sloan
Ahh! You just meant Content-Free Enthusiasm. More than "that's nice" but no specifics to make it useful as critique too. That's an important point.

I can remember getting that kind of encouragement as a kid and it was withering. If I ruined a drawing and some adult raved about how wonderful it was, I didn't trust their opinions when I showed them something that came out well.

Teachers and others that could tell which of a group of my drawings was the best one and praised that got a lot more credibility. The ones that just said "That's nice" whether it was good or not, they were nice but I didn't trust their opinions as useful - and that's at best, when they were accompanied by candy or small gifts and clearly just meant "I love you because we're family."

At worst, they scared me with the thought that I could wind up caught in a lifelong terrible lie. Getting famous for bad drawings was a personal nightmare, especially if better ones didn't sell. It's only now after some fairly advanced courses that I'm seeing it's more rare than I feared, finding ways to accurately judge quality on nonrepresentational works.

Carolyn Henderson
"Content-Free Enthusiasm"

You know, I like Barbie! Way. Better visual.

Robert Sloan
LOL you've got a point! I just had to figure out what you meant.

Steve Washburn
"I plunged recklessly ahead:"
I really enjoy your style! I still laugh every time I think of "We repeated repeatedly" from your Coyote
piece. THANKS!


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