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Stop Listening to Critics

by Mark Edward Adams on 7/20/2015 8:22:33 AM

This article is by regular contributing writer, Mark Edward Adams.  Mark is a modern sculptor born in Tucson, Arizona and raised in the Phoenix area in a family full of artists and musicians.  He was trained in classical figurative sculpture but eventually gravitated toward a modern expressive style focusing on animals.  His work has been exhibited at the Gilcrease Museum, Tampa Museum of Art, Brookgreene Gardens, and in private collections in the United States and Europe.  In 2013, Mark was awarded the prestigious “Beverly Hoyt Robertson Memorial Award” by the National Sculpture Society for an outstanding sculptor under the age of 40. He has been featured in a variety of publications including Western Art and Architecture, American Art Collector, Fine Art Connoisseur and on the NBC TV show “Art Pulse”.



Most people that critique your work do not know as much about art as you do.  They have not spent years learning the craft and immersing themselves in the history of art.  Often times their judgment is based on what they have seen casually in museums or galleries.  While one cannot state that a person’s feeling about a work of art is wrong, it can be detrimental to your progress as an artist if you listen to them.


An analogy of this occurrence can be seen in the culinary world with the celebrity chef Marco Pierre White.  He was the youngest chef to earn a Michelin star and would eventually run a three Michelin star restaurant.  In the world of fine dining, this is near perfection.   Then in 1999, he famously gave back his stars stating that he was tired of being judged by people who had less culinary knowledge than himself.  White understood that heeding the advice of these less knowledgeable food critics would prevent growth and innovation. 


This phenomenon can take on many forms in the art world.  I remember when I applied for membership to an art organization, I was rejected and they included a critique of my work. One of the main points of contention was that I could not properly render the legs of a horse.  If you look at my work you will notice that I often make the legs of my horses straight like sticks.  I am well aware that the legs of a horse are not like sticks and my stylization is not new in the art world.


I immediately knew these people who judged my work did not know the history of equine art.  They have most likely never studied the ancient Chinese horse sculpture of the Tang or Han dynasty.  And most likely they are not aware of artists such as Alberto Giacometti or Marino Marini who stylized their work in a similar manner to my own.  When they looked at my piece they only saw legs that did not match what they had seen in the past. 


If I took their critique seriously I would have changed my style so I could fit into their worldview of art.  If I followed this path I would have lost my personal style and it would have prevented my further growth as an artist.  I, instead, realized this organization was not for me.  The judges lacked some of the basics of art history. 


I point out this one event, yet this sort of judgment happens to artists all the time.  A random stranger may point out an error in your work or another artist who has a different style may give advice to improve a piece.  While these people may have good intentions, they know less about your artistic style than you do.  You should ignore their criticism completely. 


If you examine historical figures who were judged harshly by those who knew less you will find artists like Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Rodin, Turner, Modigliani, and Rothko.  Each of these artists were on the cutting edge of innovation and few people understood their intent in the early years. 


Rodin was judged so harshly for his sculpture of the French writer Balzac that it was removed the public view.  The sculpture of Balzac was very rough and impressionistic and was not an exact copy of Balzac’s exact physical appearance.  But Rodin knew his physical appearance by heart and even measured Balzacs’ old clothes from his tailor.  He spent months creating a realistic version of the man and realized that it should be distorted in order to capture the character of deceased writer.  Rodin understood the process far better than his judges.  Years later this piece would be viewed as a masterpiece. 


I am not advocating that you should stop listening to all critiques of your work.  Critiques are an essential component to your education as an artist.  But you should only be listening to people who definitely know more about your style than you do.  This is often from a mentor or accomplished teacher.  Besides giving critiques of your work, they can also dispel the erroneous remarks of others who judge your work.


The life of an artist is never easy.  In order to find your personal style and innovate, you must move past the judgments of those who know less.  This means you will have to grow a thick skin.  You must move forward with the confidence that your work can stand on its own despite harsh words from others.  As the director Francis Ford Coppola explained, the things that receive the most criticism in the beginning are often the same things that brings you the most praise later in life.  



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Related Posts:

The Art of Group Critique

The Problem With Art Criticism

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How to Ask For An Art Critique

Who Are YOU to Critique Art?

The Toughest Critics

Art Criticism and Generation Blank

Who Educates the Public about Art -- Art Critics or Artists?

Art Critics, Art Criticism, and the Political Machine

Topics: advice for artists | art criticism | FineArtViews | inspiration | Mark Edward Adams | originality 

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Walter Paul Bebirian
very interesting perspective - thanks!

one thing is for sure - if you focus on the business of art - what will matter to you is whether or not you find and satisfy customers for what you produce -

and if you are into the gallery and high end art of the market game then you are working within this price fixing world:

one reason that there is a need for critics may be because whether a person likes a piece or not they are usually - in the general public population end of things - apt to have been made to feel and then express that they really don't know or understand "art" and although that may simply be because they have been made - by watching or looking or seeing anything that goes on in the high end of the art world - to feel intimidated (especially with anything having to do with high prices) and therefore revert to the art critics opinion about different works or art -

so in reality - business wise - wether a critic praises or negates something as art has a lot to do with public perceptions and then the pricing of work in that high level - making it more desirable or at least of interest to more people while something that is not even reviewed or that is negatively reviewed will most probably not command much of a high price on any market - so the value of not listening to but gaining the interest and positive review from any critics or writers about your work definitely has some business value for sure -

Brian Sherwin
Art criticism boils down to little more than an opinion. Anyone can be a critic. In fact, some of the best art critics happen to be artists. Criticism is just an opinion -- one can only hope it is informed.

I'm glad you mentioned Modigliani. I firmly believe he would have surpassed Picasso had he not died so early.

Alan Richards
Good article. The way I interpret this is that the more criticism I receive, the better the artist I am. I must be an artistic genius!! Did I somehow miss the point?

Brian Sherwin
Walter -- I don't think the opinion of a pro art critic holds as much weight as it once did. Case in point: People often disagree with Jerry Saltz and Ken Johnson even though they happen to be two of the most notable art critics in the United States at this time. I'm sure art galleries and collectors use their words as a form of validation for the work. However, I'm guessing most people will make up their own mind...

Barbara Bush
Such great advice!

Elsie M Lucas
This writer is very empathetic and knowledgeable. He is well worth listening to. His advice is common-sense and factual. His only bias is to fair mindedness.
I always enjoy his insights.

Be Well and go Safely
Elsie in Humble, Tx.

Harley Bartlett
You bring up a great point with regards to how one may use it in teaching. Often, before I attempt to "help" a student I ask them about what they are doing, technically, visually, etc. While many are only trying to paint what they see, a teacher can't assume only that. Usually, in this discourse with the student, I'll bring up other artists/styles from history with regard to their painting. In this way I, and the student, are addressing art as a language - with many its dialects.

Marilyn Rose
Great article and great timing as always. I have knocked myself out trying to fit in, but about 3 years ago I took a sharp right turn and started down my own path. It's wonderful and I'm in love with painting again. Thanks again for voicing what so many of us feel, or will one day experience.

Brian Sherwin
Mark -- I'll add that stylization and distortion is fine. I personally enjoy works that involve distorted figures. However, it should never be used as an excuse for not understanding the basics of the form. I'm sure you'll agree.

Here's the thing: many artists will blast the 'this is my style!' rhetoric as a defense for lack of ability. In reality they have not learned how to portray proportions correctly. Nine times out of ten the artist in this scenario has spent little time drawing from life. Drawing is damn near a prerequisite for understanding form as far as I'm concerned.

I would argue that it is best for the artist to understand the form before distorting it. In other words, the desire to distort the figure is not a valid excuse for not knowing how to render a figure correctly in the first place. I can guarantee the distortions will be far more visually powerful if the artist truly understands the basics of the form he or she is distorting.

Linnea Pergola
I lloved this article. I too applied to an organization that specialized in horses and was rejected and given a grade! They gave me a D. I was crushed at the time but now I can laugh about it. My horses are not painted realistically and this group valued that. It was the wrong group.

Brian Sherwin
Linnea -- It always pays to do a little research before submitting artwork. Take a close look at past finalists if you decide to enter a juried show or competition. The artwork you observe will likely give you an idea of what the judges are looking for when they make their selections.

Here's the thing: it doesn't mean your artwork is horrible if it doesn't 'fit' under the scope what they are looking for. As you suggested, it means the show or competition is wrong for what you are doing as an artist.

There is no guarantee your work will do well even if it does fit. At the end of the day you're at the mercy of one opinion -- or a panel of opinions -- the opinions may have been very different had another judge or panel been selected.

Don't sweat it. :)

Sherri Lujan
Thank you for this bit of coaching. As an artist and empath, it can be stifling - As I remember an art organization which I tried to be a member whose officer made a very uneducated judgement on my work. It was a beautifully looking gallery which was in the community I lived in. I had just gotten awakened in my craft and was so jazzed to have sold a few of my originals when this happened. It's taken me almost three years to want to connect and be a part of any group of artists - but have found a band of more open minded souls who have received me and whatever I create.
Stevie Nicks, songwriter, musician and rock star - wrote a song and was told by another writer that "in music theory how she was writing was incorrect" - she responded with "you wouldn't say this to Bob Dylan." It resonated in me and helped me to IMUA. She's written so many great songs which have stood the test of time and will go on as some of the greatest music ever. Thanks for the encouragement. Smiling at the acceptance in me staying true to who I am and encouraging - I love what I do. Mahalo

Walter Paul Bebirian
Brian - that is true but I have a feeling that in the high end game there is more listening to the critics along with the dealers since they may all be working together in a way - even negative criticism is better than none- a known fact in the business world and so Robert Hughes negative remarks about Damien Hirst on his way into interview Alberto Mugrabi was an interesting plug indeed -

Great article, as usual!

And did you know that only 10 percent of gallery owners have a degree in art? I read that from one who made a personal study, and I have sure found that to be true. I have gotten comments form gallery owners that showed they were desperately ignorant about art. One said I should have painted red flowers--not white. One didn't even know how to look at a painting---he just looked at it from the side and real close up and never saw it standing back from it full front.

Mark Edward Adams
I wanted to clarify the intent behind the article. I am not making judgements about gallery owners or from an art marketing perspective. I am thinkiing in terms of a much larger picture. You cannot innovate if you are listening to other people crticize you. History shows that the greats never had a warm reception. Of course, you may never receive recognition, it is just part of it all.

I see too many artists taking a critique from someone they don't know so personal that is really hurts their progress. This is what artists need to avoid.


Rebecca Cook
I agree with this wholeheartedly. I have a very small handful of people whose opinions and critique comments I trust. After that, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I don't want to hear what they are. I learned this the hard way, and now am much happier with my creative progress.

John P. Weiss
I agree with Brian's comments above about distortion being fine, as long as you know how to do it properly. Fantasy artist Frank Frazetta was great at exaggerating the human body, to create more dynamic poses. But if you look at his early figure work, he understood anatomy.

Brian Sherwin
Mark -- you said, "History shows that the greats never had a warm reception. Of course, you may never receive recognition, it is just part of it all."

That is largely true. Think of Andy Warhol. Galleries loathed his work at first -- he barely got a shot. I've read that he came close to giving up a few times early on. He feared people would view him as just an illustrator. Obviously he kept pushing. Today you need only say his last name and people know who you are talking about -- luckily he was able to enjoy that level of fame for several decades before his passing. Few will reach that level...

You said, "I see too many artists taking a critique from someone they don't know so personal that it really hurts their progress. This is what artists need to avoid."

I've observed that as well. Shoot, the bickering can be nonstop on Facebook at times. Granted, you have to be cautious about false courtesy as well. Friends -- even artist friends -- may offer a critique that is sugar-coated in order to spare your feelings.

Sometimes the opinion of a stranger is far more valuable if you are honestly seeking feedback. However, you should never allow an opinion to cripple your efforts. I had to give and receive critiques numerous times during my college years. Let's just say it was vital to develop a thick skin. Baptism by fire -- participating in group critiques -- is one of the best ways to develop a thick skin.

Brian Sherwin
John -- Exactly. I've viewed thousands of drawings, paintings and sculptures in person. I clearly view a lot of art online as well (I'm sure that number is in the millions at this point. Ha!) I'm not really sure how to explain it -- but I know in my gut the difference between intentional, skillful distortion and lack of ability. I can easily spot common errors that give it away.

I've found that very few artists will openly admit they need more practice in anatomy. That goes tenfold if they happen to focus on figure painting. It is as if they assume they must give off the appearance of being a master at all times -- so they continue down the road... making the same mistakes. It is far better to admit when you need more practice... at least admit to yourself and do what is needed to improve.

Here's the thing: All they need to do is put in the time. You'd be surprised how quickly one can develop an eye for anatomy simply by drawing from life for an hour each day. Gesture drawings are a great way to train your brain for it -- great way to meaningfully explore distortion as well. Caution: The trained eye can tell when someone has learned to draw or paint the figure from photographs... nothing beats life. Granted, you can learn to offset the weirdness of photographs, for lack of a better way to put it -- but it is easier to go with life drawing from the start.

And another thing...

In a class I took; Dale Carnegie, they taught about "have you earned the right to speak on that subject?"

So one time a guy that obviously knew nothing about art, gave a critique on an artist. I asked him if he really felt he had earned the right to speak on the subject, and he replied that, yes, indeed, it was his American right. (sometimes stupid just can't be fixed)

Wow! You nailed it! Developing a thick skin is absolutely necessary. I will share your info with another artist friend.
Thanks for your direct but encouraging words.

Sharon Weaver
Critiques are like judging, it is only one persons opinion and you need to understand that every opinion is subjective. I was recently in a show where the only prize went to a beginner who had never done a show before. Several of the other artists where not happy with the selection but I have seen too many of these things to care anymore. For what ever reason that judge liked that painting the best. Even the winner was embarrassed with the selection. My advise is listen to criticism, analyze the information, and see if you agree. If you do, than take it to heart and change but if not let it roll off your back and go on creating as you have in the past.

Marilyn Rose
Maureen, you are so right about some gallery owners. I remember a particularly nasty criticism of my work from one who was very rude and egotistical, and I was crushed, convinced that I was totally worthless as an artist. But I thanked him politely for his time, and he said "I don't know anything about art but I know what I can sell." That put it all in perspective for me.

Walter Paul Bebirian
Marilyn - did you ever wonder after that particular nasty criticism - why he thought he could not sell your work?

it is puzzling to think why some people think that one thing will sell over another and yet there are situations where what was thought would never sell actually did a thousand times better than anything that people though would sell well -

Carol Hopper
This article is so important for artists, teachers, and critics. There is such a fine line between criticism that is helpful or unhelpful. Each of us needs to learn to follow our own intuition and know when to listen or dismiss. The key for me is to never take offense or to take the comments personally.

I recently attended a workshop where I felt the instructor was so careful to allow students to develop their own style, she was reluctant to offer needed instruction. How do you think this could be handled?

Deborah Ridgley
This same situation happened to me! I was applying for an associate status of a art club and I had submitted 5 portraits. The letter of rejection said, " We loved your portraits but we did not like your backgrounds... they are brushy and unfinished". Best thing that ever happened as I did not listen to them and moved on to another art club and kept painting in the same style and applied to that club and made Signature Status right away. You are so correct, as the judges opinions are just ONE opinion, and we as artist can not let that define us. Your letter today was encouraging and inspiring. Thank you for that!

Marian Fortunati
One day I'd like to meet you. I always enjoy reading the way you think about things.

Marilyn Rose
Walter, you know, it never occurred to me to question why the gallery wouldn't give me a chance. It was many years ago and I had such low self esteem that I figured I just wasn't good enough. What it did though, is to make me dig in that much deeper and work that much harder to be the best painter I can be. Every time I get a rejection from a gallery I just say to myself "I'll show 'em!" and I get back to work.

Gosh, Marilyn Rose, how could anyone be cruel to someone with a beautiful name like that!?

A gallery owner whom I encountered, that was extremely egotistical, and insulting too, said he knew how to sell and what sells. He went out of business 3 years later.

Marilyn Rose
Ha! Thanks Maureen. maybe he was just having a bad day. He's still in business, one of the most popular galleries in a large city. But as I mentioned before, he admitted that he knew nothing about art but he knew what he could sell. I wish him the best.

Walter Paul Bebirian
Marilyn - there is a story that I heard the other day about Stephen King - apparently there is a rule that an author cannot publish more than a certain number of books - so this famous author felt that he needed to create a fictitious name and present the books as being written by this other author - they did not sell that well under this other name and eventually one book store person looked into it and discovered that this new author and King were one and the same person - being found out King went on to publish the very same books under his own name and discovered to his surprise that they sold very very well - it was his name (brand) that had a lot to do with his success - not the quality of his books -

Marilyn Rose
Point taken1 Thanks Walter!

Walter Paul Bebirian
I found this article the other day when I looked up market manipulation (I don't know why I am driven to just start looking up things) and I think it is important enough for everyone to read and re read quite a number of times - perhaps once a week so that what this author is saying begins to sink in - and then perhaps from that point we might just have the right perspective to change things - (or not)

Walter Paul Bebirian
I can sell anything -

if a person wants something and it will be of value (in whatever way they so choose based on their personal needs and wants and perceptions) to make such a purchase - there is no reason why anyone else can sell something to someone better than I can -

Linda Eichorst

Thank you for this blog. Listening too literally to criticism caused me to stand still and then move in reverse in my art journey. I have now parted ways with that group and am beginning to feel some forward progress. It has been more than a year since I have put anything on my website because everything I attempted was substandard.

My art life is lonelier now, but I am beginning to find myself in my work again. I still have a lot to overcome, but getting there in my opinion, and now that is the only opinion that counts.

Marilyn Rose
Linda, I hear you loud and clear. It has only been in the last three years that I have begun to paint my subjects of choice in my unique way. For 20 years I chased every workshop and listened to every critique I could in hopes of pleasing ...who? Someone? Everyone? Certainly didn't please me!

If it is permitted to do so here, I would offer you a short article I wrote recently about how essential it is to find and use our own artistic voice without concern as to who it's pleasing, until it pleases you. It is a solitary road but you'll be in the best company - your own.

Maybe Mark will let me know if I may share that link with you here.

Fiona Stanbury
This post impressed me because one of the things you always face as an artist is constant criticism and you have to learn to navigate your way through it and sift out that which is not relevant to your vision.

I am an artist who lives in the UK, and my work does not fit the conservative town I live in, which though only 35 miles from London has a fairly fixed view of what art should be. (I exhibit in London, also have shown in Latvia, Greece, Cyprus and Belarus.)I have had some very negative comments from local artists, the worst being last year when I was being considered for a local art fair and I was told, 'You should go back to Cyprus, your work is not acceptable here,' (I lived in Cyprus for 14 years.) Though I did in the end have a piece accepted for the art fair, several negative comments came back to me from other artists who thought my colour was just random and 'mad.' (They had clearly never seen the paintings of Gillian Ayres or Howard Hodgkin.)

Over the years I learned to trust my intuition and to follow clues that are suggested by developments in my paintings,and stringent evaluation. This is more important to me than any criticism, especially from artists whose work is completely different. I have followed a heavy training (used to do portraits to commission), and as my work became increasingly abstract, different values came into focus. I'm not saying that I don't value comments and criticism (I get a lot on social media, and from artists at the top of their careers) but if my work is to be authentic it has to evolve from my own experience and rules, which of course is a slow process.

There is the market to consider too but I believe that if your work is showcased enough it eventually gets seen with more care and interest, and perhaps evaluated with more insight.

Having walked through all the negative comments last year, I had the honour this year of having a painting selected for the prestigious Beijing 6th International Art Biennale (to be held in Beijing in September) - an exhibition showcasing art from 100 countries. I'm one of 5 artists selected from the UK.

I would tell any young artists to listen to critics but only up to a point. Always listen to your inner voice the most! You are making your own world with your own rules. What is the point of painting someone else's world?

Marilyn Rose
Fiona, so great to hear that your consistent belief in your own artistic expression has paid off! Many congrats and I wish you the best.

I often wonder about artists who criticize another's work for being different. Is it because they feel threatened? I celebrate the difference! Why would I want everyone to paint like me? I want to stand out from the crowd and I love seeing others take off in their own direction.

Walter Paul Bebirian
great colors and shapes - Fiona -

Fiona Stanbury
Marilyn Rose, thank you. I think sometimes artists feel threatened because perhaps they believe painting should be following certain rules or values that are set in stone. Many of my local artists are mainly figurative and are evaluating art by a specific set of values. Everything that is an authentic response of an artist is a valid form of expression, and you can learn the 'rules' then go your own way. Diversity is to be enjoyed. I also think that when people don't know how to look at a painting, it is easier to label it as 'bad.' Or they have misconceptions about colour and abstraction.

Walter Paul Bebirian, thank you for looking at my paintings!

Walter Paul Bebirian
you are very welcome Fiona!

Brian Sherwin
Carol -- You said, "I recently attended a workshop where I felt the instructor was so careful to allow students to develop their own style, she was reluctant to offer needed instruction. How do you think this could be handled?"

This is why it is important for an art teacher to have a bit of grit. You must be able to keep control of your classroom -- be it a college classroom or workshop. Part of that involves not holding back when you know something must be said. In other words, you should not be afraid of your class. I'd say the instructor needs to keep that in mind..


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