Saturday, June 4, 2022

Capturing The Moment: Some Tips For Catching The Fleeting In Our Art


There’s a lot going on in Nature’s Moment, isn’t there? Inertia, physics, textures, action and reaction, happenstance…it’s a lot of chaos. Glorious chaos! But how do we make sense of it all as artists? As realistic artists to boot? As artists we have to decipher, organize, and translate things in a way that allows us to compose a design, and one that’ll work logistically with our media and purposes. But as realistic artists, we have to do so in a way that makes technical, believable sense but still works as an artistic composition. 

Complicating matters, Nature isn’t always as expected! The body can achieve any number of odd, even goofy poses within its limitations and not all of them may be particularly workable with our design goals. Heck — some can even just look downright wrong, like if we actually rendered it as it was, someone would insist that we made a big mistake. Really, sometimes we would need that reference photo to defend our creative choice. But isn’t that amazing?! So many options, so many unexpected choices! Such is the nature of life with all the biology, physics, chance, and emotion encapsulated in any given discreet Moment so take the good with the goofy — because goofy can be good! Sometimes that little bit of awkwardness is just the complement needed to take the piece over the top with realism. Moment just happens and learning to identify, strategize, and infuse it into our art is an art unto itself, but a skill we can learn all the same. But how do we do that?

Well, first of all, what the heck is a “Moment” anyway? Simply put, it’s merely a split second of frozen time, a snapshot of life. That’s all, just a “freeze!” But make no mistake, a lot happens in a Moment! Movement, posture, expression, texture, goo, physics, action and reaction, cause and effect, tensions and relaxations, chance, balancing and counterbalancing, environmental effects…a host of observable things is crammed in there which when included, can take the realism of any piece to a whole new level. Indeed, every Moment is defined by all those little details of life that add so much energy and distinctiveness in the best ways. The pooching of a capillary, a flick of a mane tuft, a twitch of the muzzle, the brightening of an eye, the wrinkling of skin, a distortion of a muscle, a stretching of fascia, the balance shift from one leg to another, a rotation of the spine, flying dirt clumps, a flicker of eyewhites, a swish of the tail…things like this are happening all the time to change our subject and, absolutely, every little bit counts. Going further, there’s also the idea of the “Living Moment" as a reminder that not only is this snapshot energized by life itself, but it exists in a continuum of Moments strung together implying the existence of a pre- and post-history of our piece’s depicted Moment. Based on this then is the narrative, or the overarching storyline, the supportive backstory of our piece that can guide our creative decisions and fuel our inspiration. So it’s between the Moment and the narrative that our piece gains context, something that often lends more depth and emotional weight which can impact the viewer more deeply.

But — yes — all that stuff going on is a lot to take in and decipher. So again, how do we do that? Well, there are some artistic ideas we can apply here to help organize and showcase that busy Moment to make designing our work easier and more effective. Why is that important? Well, by lending structure to our process, we gain the clarity and incremental control needed to account for all that’s in our chosen Moment, and in a way that won’t overwhelm us or cause us to miss anything, either. Plus, when we have structure, we’re asked to pay a bit more attention and so can often pick out more things from our references or life study to infuse into our clay or pigment. When we get good at this, we learn to pick up on a Moment’s goings on automatically — we learn to See better. All those observable little touches will simply jump out at us more, and often as exciting new novelties we can explore in sculpture or paintwork. When we get really good, we can create beyond our reference photo with a more developed mental library, knowledge base, and the confidence to take our design any direction we want. And when we get really super good, we can use artistic tricks to even manipulate and magnify that inspiring Moment to really get the point across in our piece. All of that is the goal. So what are some of these ideas? Well, there’s a few of them and they’re very easy to apply so let’s dive in!

Establish a Baseline

Okay — so we’re looking at a horse and trying to decipher the Moment, but how do we pick all the good stuff out when there’s so much going on? Where do we start? Well, think of a horse in a neutral position: Posture relaxed and standing square, head in a straight, relaxed position, ears forward, and mane the tail down and straight, skin relaxed and goo more or less inactivated, muscles and tendons relaxed, and the expression is calm. That’s our template, our starting point so now anything that changes this neutral pose, tension, balance, texture, expression, and whatnot will be features of that Moment. (Now — yes — the neutral pose itself is a Moment, too! But we have to start somewhere, right?) Make this a habit in our study and the features of any given Moment will begin to really pop out, making our job all the easier and our explorations more curious, fruitful, and fun. In fact, it's not a bad idea to start making a list of all we See as a training exercise, detailing every aspect we can pick out. At first it may be general and span several Moments (like for life study), but do this enough and we can begin to pick out more things within a single Moment and then we're well on our way.

The Camera

Yep, the good ‘ol photograph is a tremendous tool for capturing Moments, by definition. So get a good camera, learn to use it, get out there and snap away, and most of all, really study the photos. Get down into every inch and study, asking questions like “Why is this bit doing this?”, and “How does this bit affect this bit and why?”, “Can I decipher what’s anatomically happening by taking clues from the Moment?”, and “Is this bit relevant to my piece?” With the body, look for cause and effect, passive physics (like with the hair), oddities and deviations from the expected, similarities and patterns between Moments, unique aspects or elements specific to that Moment, and other such details. What’s the expression? The gestures conveying that expression? (Look throughout the body as horses express with their entire selves.) The posture? Even a standing horse is moving and even a calm horse is expressing — every Moment is loaded with fascinating information so pay close attention to what’s captured in that photo. Study the ground, too. What's the footing? And what is it doing in response to the movement? Look, See, all of it. Then try to imagine all that in your media, imagine sculpting or painting it. How would we do that? What techniques are usable here? What tools and methods would we use? Do we need to create new ones to capture a particular element? Do these fun bits here — will they work with our concept? Then study other Moments, i.e. photos — loads of them — to compare and contrast to tease out both the commonalities and the unique features that can add such a fun touch to our piece. And photos can come from anywhere like ads, social media, magazines, stud books, books, calendars — any photograph — so we should absorb as much as we can. In fact, the apt student will study every photo encountered automatically, mining it for information and popping that into a mental library. Indeed, horse pictures truly stop being just pretty horse pictures and horse picture books become treasure troves of data! 

When confident with photos then, take it to life study — get out there and soak up the Living Moment as much as possible with the real deal. Really See the subject, every square inch and study how everything works together, affected by and affecting everything else in a don’t-blink cause-and-effect continuum. There is no better teacher than the horse. And if we can, get up close and personal, really get in there to study — get close. And touch if we can to program it all in by running our hands over areas and feeling textures. In fact, grooming is a tremendously helpful way to program stuff into our noggins! Never pass up an opportunity to groom a horse!

Make all this a regular habit and our mental library and knowledge base will burgeon with options and possibilities but even more importantly, we’ll develop a more open mind about what Nature is truly capable of doing and so our previous “safer,” more conventional expectations won’t corral us so much anymore. And though we’ll become more prone to express our new discoveries, we’ll have those facts to back us up if needed. And all this open-minded discovery feeds our curiosity which further fuels more proactive study, and so it goes. Pretty soon, we’re humming along, able to decipher Moments as second nature as our confidence bumps up a notch and our work levels up! A photo can truly say a thousand words and learning to speak more of them will only make our sentences all the richer and our stories all the more interesting.

Consider the Narrative

We’re inspired to create our pieces for a reason…something within that Moment moves us, energizes us, interests us and so we’re driven to capture that. If we can pinpoint what that is from the get-go, we can actually design our entire piece to not only capture that Moment faithfully, but amplify it even more. Like let’s think on the concept that captured our attention — was it a mood, posture, structure, gesture, movement, idea, event or even something like music, film, or a theater performance? Hey, inspiration can come from anywhere! Or was it an emotion that was strongly attached to our inspiring Moment? Like was it a sense of drama? Spontaneity? Serenity? Romance? Quirkiness? Expression? Power? Aggression? Nobility? Dreaminess? Strength? Speed? It doesn’t have to be just one, either. Maybe there are a few themes at play, no problem! Or perhaps the intricacy or oddness of a pattern or curious tone of a coat or interesting ripple of a muscle is what captured our imagination — that counts, too. Or perhaps there’s an inspired storyline, a backstory, an imagined motivation that’s guiding the construction of our piece’s Moment? It could also be a special personality, a unique character we've met who has enticed our creativity? Few things are more inspirational than a special equine someone we've met.

Whatever the Moment’s inspiration is, lock onto it and create everything from that point and you’ll find that your Vision won’t only remain intact but will now have an intensified power that will really tell a stronger story. In other words, think of the narrative as the starting point to map out the rest of our design choices. In turn, our Moment for our narrative tells the story itself through its components so we're now asked to identify more of those to tell a more complete and compelling narrative, and so it goes.

“Traveling Eye”

The Moment is a complicated place with a lot going on, but not all of it will serve our piece exactly as we might need. To remedy this, there’s the concept of “flow,” of how the eye “travels” over the sculpture as a function of its design. That’s to say, it’s how the eye is drawn from interest point to interest point and where it travels inbetween to get there. Do that cleverly and it’ll all marry together to create a cohesive, “flowing” piece that keeps the eye from “stopping” or “shooting out” while preserving the Moment all the same. Indeed, we want to keep the eye moving around “inside” the confines of the piece as much as possible so the idea here is the continuance of line, form, effect, detail, color, and negative space that pulls it around. As such, we’ll usually end up with something that most people find very attractive, only they can’t quite put their finger on why, it just seems especially engaging all by itself. 

We can also use flow to showcase those portions of the work we really want to highlight, bringing us back to our inspiring Moment. What aspects of our chosen Moment do we want to bring to the fore? Like maybe we really like that expression, so how can we make that centerstage? Or maybe we love the twist of the body and want to bring that to attention. Our imagined backstory needs to be front and center, so how can we develop that with the Moment we're presented? Plus, which aspects can be distilled down to traveling eye concepts? Is there a flick of the mane that’ll turn the eye back to the face? Is the angle of that articulated hindleg a nice foil to the tuck of the head? And hey, look — can we use that flip of the tail to pull the eye back to the body and ultimately back to the face? Take an inventory of all the the features of our references that’ll draw attention where we want it and use those…and those aspects that distract, consider ways to amend them. And that’s the trick here because when it comes to realism, sometimes we simply can’t erase bits of reality since those components need to be there in that certain way due to the nature of the Moment. So then, how do we work around them? Well, we turn them into focal points! Instead of denying ‘em, own ‘em! And then also look for passive things we can tweak (like hair) to manipulate the eye over these areas. Plus, this is where paintwork can come in especially handy because we can use pigment to draw the eye around those portions as well.   

Because — yes — the traveling eye concept works beautifully for painting, too! Indeed, one of the things that many painters will do is doctor color and pattern a little bit to best flatter the piece. For instance, maybe adding that kissy spot is just the ticket to pull attention down to the nicely sculpted muzzle, or maybe an ermine spot will do nicely to pull the eye back to the detailed hind foot. Or perhaps we need to change the border of this tobiano spot just a bit to better balance out with the outstretched foreleg, or maybe those intense pangare effects could use some complementary balancing with some complex mane and tail shadings. Or it could be that the strong dark sooty shoulder we just painted could use a small hind half-sock for visual balance, pulling the eye back and forth; otherwise it’s just going to get stuck on that sooty area. Things like that are just some of the many considerations involved with designing an effective paint job. Now clearly, painters who do this know what they’re doing — they understand color, effect, and pattern enough to tinker with the rules — because while this approach can be an incredibly helpful method, if we don't know the rules, we're going to get into trouble. Really, it's one of the many reasons why a basic understanding of equine color genetics can be so helpful. 

But it doesn’t end there — here’s a fun kicker for the mix: If we infuse a unique oddity into the flow, some bit that just seems novel, we can actually make the piece more memorable by intensifying the narrative of the Moment. Opposites can indeed magnify each other. We can think of these little events as “organic chaos,” that life chaos intrinsic to all Moments that once you start looking, you See it everywhere! So fun! But what in the world is “organic chaos”? Well, it’s everything that life tweaks as a function of every fleeting Moment, the actual components of the Living Moment itself, and it’s sometimes things we don’t conventionally expect. Like it could be the unexpected ripple of flesh, a random flick of a tuft of hair, a curious articulation of a leg, a momentary tweak in expression that adds a nuance, a squishing of wrinkles that seem to have popped up out of nowhere, a crinkling of fascia that creates a momentary texture, a morphing of muscle from motion, and so many others. This is where texture, fleshy morphing, expression, posture, gesture, and hair can really shine, too, along with extra touches in paintwork that add Momentary details. For instance, a flicked ear or swishy tail can go far to complement a standing piece, a cheeky expression using eye whites can help balance out a loud paint job, a novel flick of the mane can add a point of interest that makes the head and neck position so much more accentuated, some loud cat-tracking on the shoulder will pull the eye in a desired direction, or some subtle highlight and shading will place the eye on the nice muscling on the hindquarter. Considerations like that can be stacked and all add up. But organic chaos is also the genetic luck of the dice, the look of genetic randomness in a coat or structure. For example, how the ticking or lacy effects on a pattern look so randomized rather than regimented and orderly, or how an individual may have a particularly eccentric profile or tail carriage. In a very real sense, capturing organic chaos is perhaps the most difficult aspect of realism in either sculpture or paintwork only because the human brain is designed specifically to identify and recreate patterns, the exact opposite job! So be extra mindful of such features in a Moment because they're going to need special attention to get just right.

What’s more, flow can be used to amplify the visual of physics like making sculptures of running horses look like they’re going faster or bucking horses really look like they’re putting in extra effort. Like if we make the mane especially chaotic on a cavorting horse, not only do we add a lot of drama, but we make it look like that horse is really moving spontaneously and energetically. Now imagine that same piece with a more relaxed, subdued mane — quite a different effect, isn’t it? And sometimes we might want that more subdued effect! There is no real right and wrong answer with these things given they remain faithful to structure, physics, and our narrative. The point is then to identify and develop strategic focal points so we can best serve the Moment contained within our narrative, our concept. 

Speaking of which, we can also use flow to “contain the energy” so it feeds back on itself, ramping up the viewer’s engagement even more. For example, we can use tendrils of mane flipping back to direct the eye back to the face, or the tendrils of the tail to shoot the eye back onto the body, strategic patches of color, pattern, or effect that keep the eye shifting between the neck, barrel, and hindquarter, or a leg marking that pulls the eye away from a complicated face to bounce back and forth. The more points that ping pong between each other, the better, because the last thing we want is for the eye to immediately shoot out of the piece altogether or get stuck in one place — surefire ways to lose the viewer’s interest.  

Wrap it all up then and the traveling eye or flow is a unifier, amplifier, magnifier, and organizer of the Moment in your piece. It’s not surprising then that a lack of “flow” can result in a disjointed, awkward effect that visually interferes rather than forwards. It can even turn the viewer off entirely. Haven’t we all seen a piece and thought, “Gosh that bit is really distracting.” That’s when flow has been disrupted and it can really make or break an otherwise great piece.

Negative Space

Our piece isn’t just the sum of its parts…it’s the sum of its non-parts, too! In other words, the empty spaces, the holes between the positive spaces, the actual sculpture, count too. Indeed, there exists in negative space a whole ‘nuther sculpture around our piece which can be cajoled into visual partnership, too. So quite literally, all those empty spaces between the hair tendrils, between the legs, between the neck and the body and all those others are just as important as they relate to the whole picture and each other. 

Here's an example of some general negative spaces and notice how they balance with the mare. For example, note how the head and neck position is mirrored by the negative space between the hind legs or how the big space under the belly helps to counterbalance the flippy tail.

As such, mapping out negative space can be a useful tool for deciphering positive space by problem solving “backwards” and providing a kind of second check system. So study the negative spaces in references and ask, “How does this relate to the horse’s structure or movement or posture?”, and “How does this negative space relate to other negative spaces?”, and “How does this negative space serve the flow of my piece?”, and “How does the shape of this negative space shape my sculpture?” For instance, a big billowing mane is nicely balanced with an active tail not just with the tail shape, but also by the big space left open between it and the body. Or the negative space between the hindlegs serves to balance that wild expression we’ve infused into the eye. Or the negative spaces between mane tendrils can counterbalance active forelegs. See how that works? You can build on each element with negative space to add more interest yet the effects of it are so subtle, the piece never feels forced or contrived. So learn to manipulate negative space well enough and we gain an under-the-radar tool with a big pay off.

Shaping Up

Know it or not, shapes can induce an emotional reaction. It may be unconscious, but we just tend to react differently to a circle, square, triangle, or trapezoid. Knowing how to engineer things using shapes then can really intensify our narrative’s Moment. Wait…what?…how?!

Well, for example, a triangle is a very dramatic shape, isn’t it? This is why it works so well to increase the sense of chaos or drama in the composition. Indeed, base any sculpture on a triangle and — bam — instant flair. On the other hand, a circle tends to instill a more coiled, controlled, intimate, dreamy, introspective feel. It’s also a very classic composition which is why those based on circles tend to have a rather stately, “classic,” even “traditional” feel to them. Likewise, a square tends to heighten steadfast stability, pride, and strength with its straight lines and measured negative spaces. On the other hand, a trapezoid introduces a bit of chaos and drama into the mix, like the triangle, but with a touch of stability, like a square. And we can layer them, too, since the regions of the body can be broken down into shapes as well. Like the circle composition of the tucked head and neck adds sweetness and dreaminess to the solid, stately stance of a standing pose. Then add in a bit of oddity — like twist the head a little bit and laterally bend the neck a snidge around — and BAM, we have instant charm.

Here are some basic illustrations about how shape can influence the impact and help to guide our creative choices. Notice how each one has a different "feel" to it?

For more, designing the piece based on a shape is also a useful method for establishing a “containment field” for the eye that helps to guide all following creative choices. Like if we know our sculpture is based on a circle from the get-go, we can construct traveling eye pathways that work on that circle to intensify that impression. Think about it, a circle, square, triangle, or trapezoid all have different types of containment fields, all which have the potential to serve our Moment in different ways. For instance, maybe tucking the head just a little bit more and adding a curve to a tail tendril can pull the eye in a circle better to reinforce a romantic, dreamy feeling or maybe a flick of an ear and a swish of the mane can add a triangular aspect to lend drama and energy. When we have an overall guiding shape, how we strategize our choices takes on a more organized focus which can really forward our Moment’s narrative. 

What’s the point? Shapes help us organize and prioritize our intentions and are so easily buildable and adaptable, they help us to take our concept where it wants to go. In other words, it’s fun and useful to think beyond simply just what pose we want or just what’s depicted in our reference photo, but how we can forward our chosen Moment through more deliberate choices, and using shapes can be a baseline for this. Definitely, a shape can also be that enigmatic extra “something” that just rings true in ways that lie just outside the viewer’s awareness. The piece just seems so intrinsically “romantic,” or “stately,” or “wild” or whatever, but the viewer cannot pinpoint exactly why — well, it’s probably a shape at work. 

Line ‘em Up

Similar to shape, the use of line can activate the eye and instill more “feel” into the composition, too. For example, straight vertical or horizontal lines emphasize stability, control, and rigidity, while in contrast, diagonals amplify drama, tension, and energy. Also, the use of line can be done with both the sculptural aspects and the paintwork elements, so have some fun with both facets of design. For example, placing a rather up and down lighting strike tobiano markings on a moving piece can “root” it somehow to accentuate mass, control, and steadiness while, conversely, slapping a curvaceous pinto pattern onto that same piece can change it completely by creating a chaotic, energetic, dynamic feeling. We can even move the eye around. Let’s take diagonals, for example, which are really useful for this. Take that very same piece and paint it rich, dark chestnut then place a pale flaxen mane on it, a lovely red tail and pair them with a hind leg sock. The eye is pulled back and forth over the dark body diagonally between the lightness of the mane and the tail and the sock, creating a very active eye that’s constantly moving over the piece. Or take a concept that’s standing square and simply shift a leg diagonally — the front leg back or the hind leg forwards, for example — and we have more energy (through the diagonal line plus a new triangle in negative space) plus a new focal point to build on. So the more things we can line up and get our eye to travel to, the better. The name of the game is visual ping pong in all the piece’s interest points within the containment field of the shape, and deliberately “lining up shots” is a highly effective way to inject more energy into our piece.

This guy helps to illustrate many of the ideas here. For starters, notice how the tail echoes the arch of the neck? The bend of the foreleg, too? How the dapples pull the eye away from the face and towards the tail, to bounce back again? How the ermine spot on the right hind leg, the one under the belly, seems to "root" him somehow, making that foot seem like it's really carrying weight? How the diagonal set of the head position, right fore leg, and right hind leg lend energy and a bit of drama as opposed to being straight up and down? See how the turned ear creates a subtle curve with the right fore leg that sisters the curve created by the hindquarter and right hind leg? What else can you see?

Volley Back

On that note, we can use posture or the passive physics of the mane, tail, and feathers to bounce the eye back into the piece for another round of activation. Like if our eye tends to shoot out of the piece in one area — sometimes it can’t be helped because of realism’s believability confines — we can use the position of the head and neck or leg, or the curvature of a hair tendril to loop the eye back into the piece. Really, sometimes just a flicked tendril of mane will do it which is why, in particular, the hair is such a powerful tool for traveling eye manipulation. Put it to work — it’s fun and fascinating! Point being, pay attention to any areas where the eye tends to shoot out of the piece and try to counteract that with other design choices. We usually want to contain the energy of the depicted Moment and we help to do that by volleying any loose energy back into the piece with pinpointed, strategic tweaking.

Patchwork Strategy

Using areas of detail or color can also work to pull the eye around the piece to lend both cohesion and contrast for some drama that just seems so natural, it seems invisibly executed. Really, a splash of color here or a dollop of detail there can really work wonders to tease the eye around the piece without it ever knowing it’s being played. Because as we designed certain areas to be highly detailed like the face, the shoes, the hair, the ticking, we also designed areas that attract the eye, so put these areas to work! Use them to pull that eye around. Like a common mistake is to make a highly detailed head but relatively little attention paid to the rest of the body. The thing is, body regions should have a comparative amount of detail to both make for a cohesive piece and to keep the eye from inevitably stopping at the most detailed area. In particular, we have our work cut out for us with the face which is naturally highly detailed, and so we’re naturally, even automatically drawn there as a visual species. So as a sculptor or painter, we should be strategizing ways to pull the eye away from the face and back over the piece because this will inevitably create an active system since we’re typically always drawn back to the face. For this with paintwork, for example, dapples, effects, markings, and patterns can be used effectively to move the eye around. Just as effective though is the use of strategic color blocking or intensity of color on targeted areas of the body to activate the eye and counterbalance other focal points. Take a dark sooty bay, for example, those patches of brighter reds on that dark body act as magnets that pull the eye over the piece so don’t discount the power of your palette! Or perhaps a star and hind sock will pull the eye diagonally across the piece but then add a tuft of uplifted mane, and the eye is now traveling in a loop, point to point to point, between those three markers. There are also tricks we can use like placing a sock on a foot that’s placed farthest out from the body to really draw the eye back there for more drama whereas placing that sock on a leg that’s more under the body will place the eye in a more centered spot and so lend a greater sense of stability and weight. Or with sculpture, for instance, that patch of wrinkles will be an instant focal point so think about a strategic touch to another part of the piece, or even something in the paintwork that will create a volley-back dynamic. Or that strong expression we sculpted will do even better with a complementary counterbalance such as a flicked tail or active hind leg. It all depends on our goals for the piece so play with things to see how they all work to shift the energy of the Moment in the composition.

This flashy fellow also illustrates a lot of the principles discussed here. Note how the dappled sooty shoulder and neck on the front half counterbalance the loud pattern on the back half? How the flamboyant flip of the tail balances with the arch of the head carriage and flippy mane and the fore legs? How the shape angulation of the right hind leg mirrors that of the left fore leg? How the bay patch on the flank balances with the white patch on the triceps? How the big blaze on the face draws the eye which is then bounces to the big patches of coat color on the hindquarter and back again across the body? How the flow of the spots from the flank goes up to the crest to take us back to the head to then be draw to the left fore leg and back to the flank? What else can you find?

Now granted, sometimes we can’t design every little thing about a piece because realism dictates certain things have to be a certain way. Like we can’t design like Dali or Picasso and put body parts in fantastical positions that serve an abstracted composition. We have rules. But this is precisely where knowing what to strategically tweak and how we can tweak it can be so helpful. Really, the rules are there as definite guides, but don’t forget just as Nature plays with them, so can we!


But don’t stop there! We can layer all these components together to create complex “eye-tracking” pathways over each other, increasing the complexity, intensity, impact, and sophistication of our depicted Moment. Hey, draw in these lines on a photo of our piece and it might look like a ball of yarn! That’s good! Absolutely, the more the eye is drawn from point to point, detail to detail, space to space, the more the eye participates with the piece and so the more engaging our composition. Really, sometimes folks don’t know quite what appeals to them about a sculpture, but chances are it’s the subtle engineering that went into every aspect of the piece that helps to draw them in and hold their attention. 

Everything Counts

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make or break a piece. A simple angulation, little detail, or perhaps a use of color can either add the final perfect touch or the touch that distracts. Let’s say you’ve created a lovely sculpture of a galloping mare in the extended phase of the gallop, designing her to accentuate a sense of speed and energy, and have painted her a lovely deep-shaded bay. Yet you’ve neglected to tone down that orange undercolor on the hip area there and it has no counterbalance and so the eye is continually drawn to it, away the rest of her wonderful aspects. Because the eye can’t ignore it and gets stuck there, it becomes a distraction, a visual nuisance. So what could we have done in the sculpture or paintwork to add counterbalance? Everything builds on everything else. Or for another example, you’ve created a beautiful piece based on a circle, designed to exude drama and romance. However, that hindleg is placed a bit too outside the line of the circle which is stopping the eye and compromising its flow. But just pull that hindleg a bit more forwards and the problem is fixed and we have a more flowing, engaging piece all of a sudden. Every aspect counts. 

When it comes to the details contained in our Moment, it can be handy to have some of those elements work together fluidly to create a more flowing, cohesive piece even if we have to tweak a thing or two. We are talking about art, after all. Indeed, if we can tweak an element or two to forward the overall impression of the sculpture in some way, we can engage the viewer more all while reinforcing a more compelling story.

Another Point of View

Similarly, sometimes we need to See things from another perspective to tease out what’s actually going on in a Moment and we can do this with some simple artistic exercises that give us a brand new viewpoint or "fresh eye."

For one, we can create a situation that entirely removes distraction so we can really focus on what we’re looking at. We do this by creating an actual kind of picture frame that filters everything else out when studying references, and we simply use a plain sheet of printing paper. For this, take a sheet and cut out a 1” square window in the middle. Doesn’t have to be perfect, we just want a window of about 1x1” big. (The smaller the reference photo, the smaller the window.) Then lay that sheet on top of your reference photo and study only those things inside the window, slowly going over the entire image. What can we see? Texture. Delineations of muscles, tendons, and ligaments? Color, pattern, detail and effect? Shapes and curves? Concavities and protrusions? Details like wrinkles, veins, capillaries, nerves? Little fleshy smooshy fun? The more we can pick out, the better because, in fact, there are loads of things packed into every inch, isn’t there? Things we maybe didn’t see before because we were distracted by the whole? But make this an artistic exercise with every reference photo and we train our Eye to really start picking out things all by itself as we learn to See with more acuity. 

For another exercise, invert the image in a photo editing program so the light areas become dark and the dark areas become light. This is especially useful for pattern interpretation, and especially with dappling or appaloosa spots because this technique really makes them stand out in a fresh new way. But it works well for deciphering muscles, legs, and facial structure, too. Basically, by seeing a feature with a fresh eye like this, that shock to the system reorients our objectivity and so we’re often able to pick out additional information we couldn’t See before. 

For another, we can reverse our references and an image of our piece to See things backwards, which is another handy way to regain an instant fresh eye. Our eye can become accustomed to what it's seeing and so will miss things it otherwise might have caught, so switching things up like this can go far to recalibrate its ability to pick things out again. Honestly, it's pretty uncanny how different something can look backwards! 

Similarly, another useful trick is to regularly look at our piece “reversed” in a hand mirror to give us an instant fresh perspective. Just periodically stopping and checking our work this way can help us problem solve on the fly with an instant fresh eye. As mentioned, our Eye can become habituated to a certain viewpoint, a certain way of Seeing our piece, and so many issues can become invisible to it over time. No worries — it’s normal, a part of the process, so we just work around it and using a handmirror like this is a particularly effective trick. Boom — things invisible to us before can become really obvious and we’re left wondering, “How did I not see that?!” Try this with references, too! It can really help us See things in a new way and even pick out features of a Moment we might have missed otherwise.

Another trick is to shrink down or enlarge our reference photo to the size of the sculpture we’re working on to get a better sense of scale, something particularly helpful with painting patterns, dapples, and effects as well as for facial, wrinkle, or detail sculpting where scale can be a big concern. Scale is everything when it comes to realistic equine art — in fact, we can argue that achieving perfect scale is all that we’re really striving for. That our job is simply a study of accurate scale, of proportion. Think about it, get everything put together in perfect scale and we automatically have ourselves a finished, nicely done piece, right? This is why if one aspect is out of scale, it becomes a distraction, doesn’t it? It’s a sink that traps the eye there, making it a quick way to prevent the brain from suspending reality, too. So if we want to forward our Moment best, keep things in as perfect scale as possible, even if that means mimicking features or effects rather than literally translating them (like on the smaller scales). For instance, the hair by hair technique sure is pretty and can be immensely convincing for certain effects, but it can easily go out of scale if we aren’t ever-vigilant. Or focusing too intently on sculpting the eye or a nostril often causes it to become too big, or the same thing can happen to the entire head. Or not being careful with the nail heads we apply to the hooves can cause them to grow too large and blobby rather than staying tiny and rectangular. Or perhaps we lose sight of the big picture and so our muscles become too enlarged or bulky, well beyond what our references show. The point is that what we intently focus on has a tendency to grow in scale, so paying attention to scale at every step is a highly effective way to ensure the realism of our Moment.

Sculpt or paint upside down, again trying to shock the system with a new perspective. This technique is particularly helpful because it abstracts everything and forces our brain to stop anticipating things and to just render what’s there. This can be important at times because the brain is absolutely fixated on its preferred formulas, regimentation, and habits and will always unconsciously default to them if we aren’t careful. Now all this is just fine because these things are sometimes necessary for realism, right? We have biological patterns we’re tasked with duplicating on every piece, yes? And our habits feed our artistic style, that special “look” to our portfolio that makes our work so distinctive and lends such diversity to this art form. And sometimes regimentation is necessary for certain aspects of structure or coat effects. But at the same time, we do need to break beyond them at key times to really capture the organic chaos of our Moment more accurately. So definitely, we can’t be too married to our formulas, regimentation, and habits; otherwise we’re going to miss all that. On the other hand though, if we get confused in an area, just turning everything upside down usually makes deciphering things easier and more effective because our expectations are taken out of the equation. "If in doubt, turn it about!" So if we’re tackling a particularly complex area, think about rendering it upside down first for an immediate refreshed point of view. We can always turn it right side any time, but starting out upside down can be a handy trick for tricky areas. Indeed, our expectations can really hose up our efforts and can even hold us back which is why maintaining an open mind with as little expectation as possible is so key for rendering realism. Nature just throws too many curveballs! It’s so organic, adaptive, and loosey-goosey with some of its rules that if we aren’t open to all that, we can miss all that great stuff!


Nature always provides a multitude of little gifts for our work if we learn to See them, and it’s the Moment that encapsulates all those fleeting little treasures into a tidy “present” that can be so fascinating and inspiring, laden with new options and possibilities. Nevertheless, both the sculpturework and the paintwork should stand alone as well as work together in all this. In other words, the “naked” sculpture should be so well designed, it doesn’t need paintwork, that it could simply be left unpainted and still work beautifully. Likewise, the paintwork should stand alone on its own merits, too, and work to enhance rather than distract or compromise the overall impression. These two need to be worlds unto themselves before they work together, but — yes — work together they can, and beautifully! So feel free to layer all these ideas together between the sculpture and paintwork which can be designed as simple or as complex as we want them to be, so have at it! Really, no matter how we put it all together, providing some continuity for the eye will ramp up the appeal of any piece. 

Because, wow — yes — there’s a lot going on in any given Moment. It’s a lot to take in, process, and incorporate so we have to be meticulous, observant, and above all, curious. Truly, a healthy dose of curiosity in everything we do instantly injects our efforts with more potency and intent so slather that stuff around! When we always make one of our goals that of exploration and discovery, we aren’t only going to pick out more Moment fodder, but progress a lot faster doing it. So make it a kind of treasure hunt to pick out a Moment’s features to then strategize them. It’s amazing what we’ll find once we start looking and fascinating to see just how much it can improve our work.

Because it’s our eye that first draws us into a piece and once attracted, it likes to participate. Adding in features of the Moment does a lot for this as well as jacking up the believability of our piece. Yet if we go further and use them strategically, we can really imbue our piece with a lot more impact to engage the viewer more deliberately and dynamically. The point is, with a little bit of forethought, we can design many elements of our piece to capture not only more of the Moment's reality but also in a way that grabs the viewer and holds on. Sure, working on a whim is super fun — never stop doing that — but injecting a bit of strategy here and there can be even better for adding interest factors with purpose.

Wrap it all up then and the trick the Moment actually gifts us with is the power to make informed, credible decisions from a bigger menu of viable possibilities. And that’s the name of the game in realism: Ferreting out options. Why? Well, it helps us avoid stylistic habits or formulaic interpretations that can cause our portfolio to plateau or homogenize. If the Moment is different every second, so must be our work, right? If Nature deviates from the expected formula at times, so must we, yes? The Moment also encourages us to remain students with open minds and risk-taking hearts, resistant to conventional or “safe” expectations, including our own. It frees us from the confines of anatomy charts and diagrams and especially from other peoples’ rigid idea of what’s “right,” allowing our inspiration to go where life itself leads. We also gain the ability to mine more information from our references and life study, always a welcome outcome by making our work more realistic and accelerating our progress. Absolutely, the more we See, the more lifelike and immediate our work. We also gain confidence and invigorated curiosity because we’re able to make more expansive and conscious creative choices rather than simply parroting what we half-see. This, in turn, gifts us with the freedom to take our piece in any direction we want but with the authority to back it up, and that’s an incredibly freeing place to create. But perhaps most of all, sculpting or painting becomes an exploration, a new opportunity for discovery of all the secrets a Moment holds for us, compelling us to dig deeper into it, our knowledge base, our skillset, and ourselves. Make that a mantra and every Moment will become a gifted meditation, one that will steadily and surely inspire our skills forward. There is always more to See in a Moment and so always more to infuse into our work  what a wonderful proposition!

Moment by Moment, we develop a body of work because that’s all we ever sculpt or paint, right? The Living Moment. That’s it. But look what power it has! Look at all the possibilities already created and countless more still to come! It’s nuts and nuts awesome! Truly, we can focus on a single subject our entire life and never even touch the tip of the iceberg! How fabulous is that?! Every Moment is a singular dollop of time, laden with its own unique beauty, profundity, magic, and possibility worthy of our attention. So slow down, stop, pay attention — it’s good for you and your art. Take the time to notice all the gems nestled in every Moment and our storytelling will be all the richer for it. When we start to consider what a Moment is truly offering then, we not only gain more subject fodder, but even better, a deeper appreciation of the present and through this, perhaps a deeper connection to our subject. Because that’s what being an equine artist is really about — telling an equine story, and the Moment shows us so clearly how beautiful, intriguing, and complex a story that can truly be.

“Always hold fast to the present. Every situation, indeed every moment, is of infinite value, for it is the representative of a whole eternity.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The Critic In The Creative Space

As artists, our lives run the gamut of emotion, experience, motivation, inspiration, flailing, and challenges. It’s a big swirling soup of inspired life, full of delights and satisfaction spiced with personal testing and tenacity. Undoubtedly it’s a magical way to live, truly a blessing! Even if we can only dip our toes in-between other demands, every minute in our creative space is a gift. This isn’t referencing an actual space in your house though — this is the internal space that exists inside of you, that “home” in your soul that shelters your brand of joy, enthusiasm, purpose, dedication, and inspiration when you create your art. It’s your power source, your engine, your creative nexus that generates momentum for your creative aspirations. We may have fought hard for our creative space, too, and work diligently to keep its fires stoked. Honestly, life has this annoying penchant for dousing the flames, doesn’t it? Every child starts out as an artist but, somehow, that gets lost along the way for many of us. And the world constantly imposes its stresses and pressures on your creative space, yet it’s a fragile place, its furnace easily dampened by the right triggers. Indeed for some, it can snuff out altogether. So it takes a kind of devotion and militant optimism to cultivate your creative space...but the real trick is to preserve it.

To do that then, you know what it also takes? A wall. An impenetrable thick wall lined with rail guns.

Because you know who can bust into your creative space and pollute it, even render it uninhabitable?

The critic. And it surely seems that everybody is one.

Like we explored in Pickled Art, there are simply some types out there who’ll crash your creative party at the first opportunity if you let them. Some folks simply want your art to be their art, they want your vision to be their vision, they want your style to be their style, they want your goals to be their goals, and so they’re going to launch criticisms at you to make that happen. In this way, art just seems to attract criticism like moths to a flame. Indeed, where else though would a stranger or amateur just “cold call” an expert and tell them how to do their job?! Oh, wait…we live in the age of social media. <rolling eyes> Because boy, this can sure rattle your confidence, spike your self-doubt, pop your balloon, tarnish your experience, raise your blood pressure, and maybe even ruin the piece completely for you. And if it becomes a pattern of public treatment, it can dampen your desire to create anything at all. Some critics are even so obnoxious, you come to question human decency and the very tenor of this community. Yet you can’t argue, placate, or reason with them — they just escalate, double down, or worse, flip things around and gaslight you as the villain when you pushback.

So why do people do this? Perhaps they aren’t creative and so see you as a means to their end. Perhaps they’re dissatisfied in their own creativity and so try to bend yours to their ideals. Maybe they just feel self-important and want to throw their weight around. Maybe they seek to belittle and bully out of some twisted agenda. Perhaps some people just like to tear others down because their own baggage compels them. Maybe your work has made them feel insecure somehow so they lash out with criticism. Maybe they need to inflate their sense of self-worth and so use you to step on. Maybe they simply have no clue or care with how they come across. And probably for some, the temptation to help may be fueling their opinion with the well intentioned rationale, “But how will they ever learn?,” without realizing that what they’re doing is inherently problematic. Whatever the reason, we find that six basic strategies tend to be launched the most:

1. “Cold commentary”: This is the infamous uninvited criticism, unsolicited advice, or unwelcome “helpful” opinion. Truly, if you’ve ever shown your work to another person, you know what that is, and if you’re active with your work on social media, you definitely know what that is. Because there’s always one promise when you display your work: Negative feedback, and the more of a public figure you are, the more ardent it’ll be. As BrenĂ© Brown would put it, if you choose to go into the arena, you’ll surely get your ass kicked. You’re simply going to get beaten up with opinionated judgments because you’ve become a lightening rod, a magnet, a target. That’s just the way of it. Curiously, too, that uninvited critic will often frame their behavior as giving you a “constructive critique” as if forcing their opinion down your throat was a positive, something worthy of gratitude even. Yet when you beg to differ on that point, watch how quickly they gaslight you as the bad guy. But don’t let them make you doubt yourself because here’s the truth of it: The only critique that’s actually constructive is that which was specifically requested. Regardless, be able to defend your work and your choices, be very clear on your Vision, have a toolbox of coping mechanisms, work to develop your poise and confidence, and above all, understand in no uncertain terms that not all opinions are created equal and most are really just detritus. In fact, the opinions that are typically the most insightful tend to be the very ones that will wait for your invitation, when you’re ready to absorb what they have to share. They'll also have the wisdom to respect your creative space and act to preserve your experience despite all the “even ifs,” “buts,” and “what abouts” because they understand that your enthusiasm is far more important at that moment than “perfection.”

2. Passive aggression: We’ve all heard it — either people telling you outright how you should create your piece or saying it needs to be a certain way to be “perfect.” You want your forelock up, but someone says it would be “perfect” down instead, or you want your Quarter Horse bucking but someone says that she’d be “perfect” jogging instead. In short, the piece needs to adhere to their vision and not yours to be “perfect.” Here, perfection has been weaponized and this little trick manifests in all sorts of ways from the “I’d like it better if” to “If only” to “but it would be better if” to “I like it but….” Now it’s up to you whether you want to chase after someone else’s “perfect,” but just know there’s a sure deal with that devil: You’ll mostly likely sacrifice your Voice and eventually become disillusioned. Your Voice doesn't like compromise or being diluted, does it? No — it wants its own Truth in 100% purity. And here’s the kicker: That’s what makes it perfect! If you remain faithful to your Voice then, its fruits will be all the sweeter no matter how others try to sour it.

3. Comparison: There are plenty of people out there comparing artists, even ranking them, so at some point, you’ll be compared to another artist which can surely be complimentary, but it can be hurtful if that comparison is thoughtless or ill-matched. The truth is every artist is their own Universe, distinct, autonomous, and self-contained, so to make comparisons then is, in essence, to diminish the compared by pairing apples and oranges, or by pigeoning-holing a square peg into a round hole or, even more, by over-simplifying things so much that the nuances and differences — where the magic happens — are lost outright and we lose the essence of things. Sure, one artist can influence another, it happens all the time, but that’s where the comparison should end. Beyond that is the special magic that asks for our respect and the space to exist on its own terms. As Taylor Swift sings: 

And we see you over there on the internet

Comparing all the girls who are killing it

But we figured you out

We all know now, we all got crowns

You need to calm down

4. Weaponizing subjectivity: All art is subjective — yes, even realistic art has a goodly degree. For one, we have the murky waters of taste, whim, options, possibilities, and spectrums that lend so much welcome diversity to the art form. Yet there’s a hefty dose of subjectivity even in those anatomical technical specs, too, because they really aren't such a hard fast objective baseline as one might think! Really, if you truly understand anatomy, you’re fully aware that Nature is crammed with possibility, oddity, happenstance, and moment that will spin structure and motion into alternates that can be well-removed from what we’d think of as normal, even possible. “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Yet note how many critics rest their comments on their brand of subjectivity rather than actual facts, or rather, on their very narrow base of experience or taste rather than a broader and more informed viewpoint. Indeed, there’s a huge difference between something “looking wrong” and actually being wrong. Undeniably, there’s plenty in life that looks wrong, but is still technically correct! But the typical critic will use subjectivity as a bludgeon to make your piece fit their more limited knowledge base and safer, "less odd" tastes. This is exactly how we risk homogeneity and dumb down our work if we “groupthink create” because most people out there simply don’t have the Eye, haven't done the esoteric study, haven’t gone down the rabbit holes, aren’t pushing the envelopes, aren’t exploring the options, and just aren’t looking for the same things you are — they want something that fits inside their safe little box. And is that really how you want to define your work if that’s not your goal? And is that influence suited for your creative space?

5. Ignoring “creative consent”: Creative consent entails the boundaries that automatically initiate the moment a piece is displayed which pertain to the artist's agency over their own creative experience. This means that we do not step into their creative space and impose ourselves uninvited. Put another way, it means we never negatively comment on a piece unless the artist has expressly asked for a critique from us. And simply displaying a piece is not consent to criticism or critique. So just because an artist displays their work doesn't mean that's an open invitation for our corrections or an impromptu lesson, even if well-intended. Instead, that artist is sharing their work for their own reasons we’re not privy to and — trust me — if they truly want pointers, they’ll ask for them. Until that happens, however, let that artist have a safe space to show off their hard work, joy, love, flailing, curiosities, challenges, sacrifice, discipline, failures, and dreams. Which brings us to…

6. The belief that artists are “asking for it”: There’s a contingent out there who believe that artists ask for criticism simply because they choose to display their work — that the mere act of showing their work to others is the invitation itself. Wow, that’s a presumption. What’s more, that a person is so entitled to their opinion that they should voice it even when it’s hurtful or thoughtless. We often hear the rapid-fire justification of “it’s just my opinion,” don’t we? The catchall phrase of the critic and often the mantra of the destructive ones. But there’s this, too — isn’t the rationale “they were asking for it” the alarming excuse of every abuser? But — hey — just because a cosplayer may dress a certain way doesn’t mean they’re asking to be groped! Likewise, just because an artist displays their work doesn’t mean they’re looking for your “help” or other criticisms. Granted, they don’t expect everyone to love it, but what should be present is a safe, respectful, thoughtful space all the same. Truly, if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. The Golden Rule always applies here. Just because one has a criticism doesn’t mean it’s correct, doesn’t mean it’s necessary for the artist to know, and definitely doesn’t mean it has to be voiced because — no — the artist just isn’t “asking for it.”

So what’s the solution to this onslaught of criticism intruding into your creative space? Ignore it all. Flat out ignore all of it. Don’t accept what they’re throwing at you. You “don’t receive that,” as @elysemyers on TikTok advises. Don’t even engage if you can avoid it. Absolutely, silence can be a powerful response. Besides, you’ll never change anyone’s mind about whether or not they like your work so don’t even try. The fact is that some people don’t understand — or care — that what they’re doing is hurtful. They also don’t realize that their behavior doesn’t speak to the truth of your piece but to their own baggage. So just let it all slide out of your psyche like water off a duck’s back. Not important. Not relevant. Not worth your joy, energy, or time. Not received. You have better things to do like getting back to work in the studio and better voices in your head like those that inspire new work and cheerleader you on. Don’t give this kind of icky feedback bits of your life. It doesn’t deserve it.

Why? Because what this icky feedback is doing is crashing into your sacred space, uninvited, unwanted, unwarranted, with the sole purpose of bursting your bubble with their demands, their expectations, and their vision. But they aren’t your demands, your expectations, or your Vision, are they? And who’s art are you creating? Theirs or yours? Remember, the Universe made you the sole vessel for your art, not theirs! You don’t need their voices in your head — it’s distracting, muddling, compromising, and saps too much of your energy. Your Voice is the only one that matters, and it’s more than enough and worthy! It’s powerful, vibrant, and critical for the health and diversity of our art form. We need every Voice, in its full potency, to keep our art form dynamic, growing, evolving, and multi-faceted for every taste. Indeed, if we succumb to the demands of public opinion — opinions which will never be pleased anyway — all we’re doing is dumbing down our Vision, stifling the power of our Voice, and all the while injecting confusion and disillusionment into our creative space. Who cares what other people think. Really — who cares! If you love creating your art, that’s the only thing that actually matters. Heck, you don't even have to like what you're creating, just keep doing it with enthusiasm. See, if you keep at it, you'll get to a point somewhere down the line where you will love your art but you'll never get there if you stop! Besides, being creative is good for you so "just keep swimmin'."

And there’s this, too — pandering to public opinion is also introducing their errors, skews, biases, and misinterpretations into your work. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen an artist input an error, diminish their awesome piece, or come to doubt themselves when they were actually right, all because they listened to public opinion. And I’ve seen plenty a piece robbed of its vital energy and lively novelty by a misplaced demand for a "better" (read: “safer”) interpretation. Really, truth be told, the groupthink usually isn’t nuanced enough to get it right, or more pointedly, just not right enough. Many also prefer what’s “safe” over what’s possible, locking out oodles of exciting options. If you’re creating to chase public opinion then, you’re going to get into trouble pretty quickly with self-doubt, confusion, frustration, exasperation, disillusion, block, paralysis, fear, and maybe even defeat and despair. Why? Because you’ll never make the public happy no matter how much you change your art. Read that again. Without a doubt, no matter how hard you try, even if you changed everything about your art, a significant enough portion of the public will still be dissatisfied and have no qualms about letting you know. So let it go. Let it all go. Besides, they aren’t your people! Believe me when I tell you then that you’re better off unapologetically creating for your own reasons, without waver. Never sacrifice your Voice or Vision on the altar of public opinion. Do you really want to create according to your own comments section, constantly and impossibly chasing after all that like doomed Don Quixote? Or do you want to create authentically, joyfully, and on your own terms with confidence and authority? There’s only one way to do that and that’s by preserving the sanctity of your creative space even if that means ignoring negative cold comments entirely. There’s nothing wrong with a one-way street if that preserves your inner sanctum.

Really, I’ve been at this for over thirty years, and I still outright ignore all the critical comments in my feeds. Yes — even those trying to be “helpful.” I even block chronic offenders. Why? Because they fail to respect the sanctity of the creative space — and its fragility. See, it’s emotion that keeps the artist going — love, determination, gumption, discipline, joy, enthusiasm, stubbornness, disquiet, curiosity, motivation, thrill, inspiration, delight — it's all fuel for your creative space. But feelings are fragile things, aren’t they? When the right button is pushed, very quickly they can flip into their unhelpful counterparts fear, block, paralysis, frustration, exasperation, doubt, indifference, disillusionment, disenchantment, resentment, and despair. And perhaps the most fragile emotion of all is enthusiasm — it’s quivering and vulnerable, easily succumbing to negative input. Yet “perfection” is an abstract with no feelings whatsoever, it’s inert and even more, impossible to attain. So which one is more important to preserve for longterm progress? Plus no one knows but the artist all the challenges, struggles, frustrations, despairs, tears, sweat, triumphs, backstory, and joys any given piece has entailed nor does anyone but the artist know the goals, Vision, motivations, and end game of it neither. Only the artist is truly privy to the full backstory which means all criticism is missing so much sensitive information, it tends to do a lot more overarching harm than good. 

How? Well aside from the emotional impact, which can be crippling, every artist is on their own learning curve, aren’t they? (As is everyone with a criticism.) Yet we have no idea where they are on that curve, do we? None. Indeed, the wrong bit of advice at the wrong time or even the right bit of advice delivered wrongly can be rather detrimental to their longterm progress. So trust that the artist will figure things out in their own time, in their own way as they progress on their own learning curve. Honestly, pelting an artist with “helpful criticisms” is a surefire way to eventually shut them down, even if peppered with plenty of compliments. As such, it’s also a great way to make them stressed, anxious, distrusting, and embittered. Because there’s this, too: There’s no balancing between good and bad comments. Really, you can tell an artist ten glorious compliments but it’ll be the one criticism that will ring in their heads forever the loudest. This is due to the artistic temperament for one, but also to a “negative bias” hardwired in the human psyche. We simply lend more weight to the negatives because they were the ones that could hurt us throughout our evolution. Therefore, the artist has to be in a specific ready state to receive criticism well enough that its harm is minimized and its benefits maximized — and only the artist knows when that is though and will then ask for a critique. But until that happens, only offer support and encouragement. Honestly, there’s no “helpful” comment that’s worth potentially sacrificing an artist’s enthusiasm since one sideways criticism can even ruin the entire piece for them. Really, I’ve known too many pieces getting trashed as a result. So again, the rule is to wait for a clear request for a critique from the artist; otherwise, keep all criticism to yourself or offer only positives. Yes — only positives. Even if you think the piece is riddled with problems, it’s far more important to preserve the artist’s enthusiasm. And absolutely, no matter how many issues a piece may have, there’s always something positive that can be said about it even if it’s all the hard work and love the artist has poured into its creation. Find and focus on those positives and chances are that artist will grow, improve, and evolve, and probably much faster with their enthusiasm intact. And no, this isn’t being disingenuous or blowing sunshine up you now what. It’s helping to protect the fragility of their creative space which is far more helpful in the long run. Because just as much, this creative niche is freakin’ hard enough on its artists already. Frankly, it’s brutal and usually unnecessarily so. So why add to this corrosion when it can be so easily neutralized by positive support?

So — yes — I only focus on the good comments. Now one could easily argue that’s creating in an echo chamber, only hearing what I want to hear, and yes — that’s true, it is. But creating something and putting it out there in public is an act of such tremendous vulnerability, that’s hard enough, thank you. And frightening! Every artist, on some level, takes a deep breath of trepidation with every debut. Creating is hard enough and showing ya’ll what we create is harder still so giving the whole experience a softer landing isn’t being fake, it’s being considerate. And it’s also precisely how we reinforce all the good juju that motivates artists even more to create all the cool stuff we love! It’s no surprise that the more positive reinforcement an artist gets, the more creatively invigorated they tend to become and so the more exciting work for you! 

And artists — remember this — your creative space is your own best excuse to filter commentary. You only have a finite amount of energy any given day so do you really want to waste it on anything unwelcome that could drain it? Think about that. Because isn’t your energy best spent in the studio? Never expend your energy on those who don’t serve it — they aren’t your people. Be very clear, for your own sake. Yet even more precious is your time. As an artist, all you will ever have are two things: You talent and your time. And while the former is limitless, it’s the latter that’s the limiter and the most limited resource. So respect yourself — don’t waste it on things that’ll only impede, muddle, paralyze, or distract you. You don’t need all those negative voices in your head, that pit in your gut, and that self-doubt in your heart getting in your way, especially when it was all avoidable. Again, your time is best spent in the studio, creating more of the work only you can.

Always remember that your creative space is your sanctuary to succeed, fail, experiment, explore, grow, stretch, faceplant, ponder, and marvel. Only one person should be in that pilot seat, that throne, that nexus — you. No one else should have a seat there. And never forget your power there, too. You are full of potency, purpose, and intent. Your art is an extension of all of you so let it shine through uninhibited and bold — create out loud! You don’t need to justify anything here either. Know that you deserve your creative space not because of your talent or your success, but because it was always yours from the start. Indeed, no matter how you triumph or stumble, false start or plow forwards, charge through or careen off the map, you’re worthy of the creative space the Universe made specifically for you. By the same token though, the only person who can let it all fall apart is also you. If you chose not to defend or tend it, it can crumble apart and you may find your creative drive fizzling away into disillusion. It cannot withstand the outside onslaught on its own. 

Now this isn’t to say never seek outside opinion and feedback. Really, many artists reap the benefits of critique! But the key concept here is this: Let it be on your own terms. Let it be invited and controlled so it’ll exist within boundaries of your own making. So for that, identify those peers you believe mirror your goals because they’ll be the ones to actually guide you best with your piece. For example, artistic peers whose work you admire are often good choices. Ideally, too, they should also have the social graces to deliver their insights in a way that won’t corrode your enthusiasm, confuse the issues, or over-season your work with their vision. But a peer is going to just get it — they get the whole process thing, the journey thing, the ugly stage thing, the motivation thing, all of it. They simply speak your language, making them uniquely positioned to deliver a truly enlightening critique that can bump your piece up a few notches.

Even so, you are never obligated to accept anyone’s opinion of your work, no matter who is giving it. Really, if you believe it wrong or an ill-fit for your Vision, take what you can learn and dump the rest. Your Vision is yours alone in the entire Universe. No one could ever create the same way you do even if they tried, even if they were technically trained to copy you. You are singular and in the moment as are all your choices and consequences expressed in your art, and all those add up uniquely on each piece. So always follow your gut. Not your mind, not your heart — your gut. It’ll steer you true in the long run. Really, if some comment makes your nose twitch, it’s the Universe telling you to stand your ground. Draw that line in the sand, claim your creative space, and stand your ground. Even if you’re only one up against many — stand your ground. Chances are your gut is right even if that’s not obvious anytime soon. Just don’t confuse this though and end up becoming stubborn, resistant, and close-minded. There’s a huge difference between what your gut is telling you and being too rigidly minded.

Because — yes — maybe sometimes you’re wrong. Hey, it happens and it’s important to now how and when this is the case. Always remember that different Eyes catch different things, different knowledge bases contain different data, different perspectives weigh different things — and no Eye, knowledge base, or perspective is truly complete. Every single one has gaps and blindspots, even if we’ve been at this for decades. Absorb, cogitate, research, and decide what to use then with a critique because we have to get our bearings with that, too. And the key concept here is “research” because if you’re wrestling with a particular point your peer has made — good — put it to the test. Research it and investigate. See, the true value of a good peer critique isn’t to tweak your piece — that’s incidental — it’s to beef up your knowledge base and expand your toolbox in new ways. Indeed, that’s a great way to frame peer critiques in general — they’re guides that point you to new doors and offer you the keys with fresh insights and new techniques. So walk through those doors, go down those rabbit holes, recalibrate your knowledge base because, truly, the best way to use their input is as a springboard for further exploration. Just keep this in mind — try not to get frustrated if you still don’t quite get something they’ve pointed out. It just may not be the right time yet. We can only absorb what we’re ready to absorb at that moment; everything happens in its own time. Trust that you’ll progress at your own pace, and when that happens, it’ll absorb a lot deeper than if it was implemented half-understood and half-impressed, and most likely creating new systemic mistakes. Rushing things before we’re ready can generate bad habits so be patient with yourself and put a pin in it. You can always circle back later. 

And this also isn’t to say that collaboration is a bad thing either. So much fun and incredible work can be had with collaborating with other artists! Absolutely, if you get an opportunity to collaborate with an artist you admire — do it! Just be sure in that moment between you and the piece that only you is present with your own Voice and Vision. Indeed, isn’t the reason the other artist is collaborating with you is to work with your own individual awesomeness? They’re there for your talent! Not theirs — yours! So express it 100% as that best honors their efforts, too. 

The points is that growth isn't necessarily served best by the critic, despite what they insist otherwise, because there are plenty of other ways to stretch and correct that don't threaten to implode your inner arting landscape. We can take the insights of our guides, the synergy with our collaborators, the lessons of our own mistakes, the march of our learning curve, the explorations of our study, and the growth of our artistic evolution and mash it all up into our own brand of progress. Stay true to yourself, loyal to your creative space, and faithful to your Vision and you got this.  

So what are some ways we can sail these waters without our boats getting tipped over? Well, for starters, it’s good to accept a few things as part and parcel of the beast. First, not everyone will like our work and that’s perfectly okay. More still, we don’t need everyone to like our work, and that’s even better. Heck, we don’t need anyone to like our work, the best case scenario. Seriously, the more you can detach yourself from a need for acceptance, the more you’re going to realize there’s only one person you should be pleasing — yourself. Never chase public opinion. Never place someone’s criticism above your own regard for your own efforts. Never put someone else in a position of power over your own agency. If creating your art pleases you — regardless of its nature — that’s all that matters. Because there’s this, too you aren’t going to like what you’re doing all the time! Absolutely, there are going to be plenty of times when you just cannot stand it, or are filled with doubts, or are so meh about it, you wonder why you’re even bothering. This is all perfectly normal. Yet listen to what Martha Graham advised Agnes de Mille — it’s absolutely spot on:

     The greatest thing she ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was i a Schrafft's restaurant over a soda. I confessed the I  had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have a peculiar and unusual gift, and you have so far used about one-third of your talent."

     "But," I said, "when i see my world I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied."

     "No artist is pleased."

     "But then there is no satisfaction?"

  "No satisfaction whatever at any time," she cried out passionately. "There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."

Second, realize that creating art is a highly personal act defined by and dependent on vulnerability. Read that again. Yet many will insist that artists not take criticism “personally” — but how is that even possible when creating art is one of the most personal acts a person can ever do! Instead then the name of the game is management because every criticism can stick in your craw on some level, even if just a sliver, and we need strategies to work it out of our psyche, encapsulate it, or, better yet, block it outright. Third, accept that you’re engaging in something that automatically comes with the surefire promise of negative feedback — you’re never going to avoid it. You can dodge it, you can bounce it off, but it’ll be fired at you forever. You’re dealing with a crocodile, not a lamb. Fourth, clearly understand that any criticism doesn’t mean you’re a failure as an artist or as a person. Please take this to heart! I know it’s hard when you’ve thrown so much of yourself into your work, but don’t pitch into that pothole. It’s bad for you, bad for your art, and honestly, it’s a bald-faced lie your lovely little inner gremlin just loves to blather in your ear. So when it comes to coping mechanisms, that includes your internal critic, too. Fifth, perfectionism can be a traumatizing tyrant if you let it — so don’t let it. Honestly, come to accept that your work — any work — will never be perfect. We’re human and so we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to fall short in some way, we’re going to miss the target because only Nature can make a perfect horse and our Vision is only ever perfect in our heads. Even more though, that this isn’t just okay, it’s a good thing! Chasing after perfection is how we improve, right? It gives us goals to achieve, something new to learn, and a new way to surprise ourselves. Just don’t let perfection rob your efforts of enthusiasm and intent — just as much as you embrace it to learn, learn to let it go and move on. Indeed, chasing after perfection can be our single biggest impediment to progress! Remember then that your enthusiasm will ensure progress all by itself so just keep at it and know that it’s surely coming. Just as much, too, some pieces can often just take control — it can take on a life of its own and evolve away from your original vision. It just happens! And if you try to shoehorn it back into your box, it'll fight you every step of the way. So let it evolve, let it take control, let it self-actualize. You are the only way, the only conduit, it can ever materialize the way it was meant to; otherwise its true form will be lost to the world forever. Sixth, know thyself. If uninvited criticism really doesn’t bother you — good for you! You’re one of the few who can naturally compartmentalize it effectively. But if you cannot — which is many artists — train yourself with coping strategies to manage the impact and longterm effects. There’s no right or wrong way to be in this, either — you’re perfect just as you are. And seventh, know very clearly that when you chase public opinion, confusion and disillusion aren’t far behind with a muddled Vision and homogenized Voice. In short, “creating by committee” usually means your work will get dumbed-down and you’ll become disenchanted in your own creative space. Instead, the better option is to identify those who have goals aligned with yours and privately seek their input. This way you’ll have more reliable information, a more focused delivery, more targeted help, less scattershot ideas, and more respectful treatment of your Vision and creative space. Add all this up then and we’re gifted with poise, confidence, and authority — a solid tripod of support — three things that will then flip around to further shield you from unwelcome criticism. Wall fortified!

And fortification is certainly necessary because what a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that dealing with criticism is a cumulative proposition. It all stacks up. No criticism exists in a vacuum — it amalgams with all the others you’ve ever gotten into a big, roiling ball of awful in your gut. If that ball gets big enough then, you tend to run into problems with self-doubt, disillusion, bitterness, anger, paralysis, and frustration. So while someone just wants to correct “one little thing,” that might just be the one little thing that breaks the camel’s back. We don’t know, do we? We just don’t know where that artist is in their journey, at all. No clue. Is it kind then, wise then, productive then to just chime in because we can? Think again. Because what people also don’t understand about criticisms is that they stay with you — forever. On some level, in some way, they’re remembered and often with more weight than a compliment. Indeed, the power of a single criticism can be crushing, yet look how many people wield theirs so recklessly and thoughtlessly! Is it any wonder then why that wall is so necessary? Yet when an artist tries to define their boundaries for their own protection, look how quickly someone accuses them of having an outrageous ego, or of being too sensitive, or of being too arrogant, or being too [insert insult]. Ya can’t win for losing!

So what are some practicalities when dealing with uninvited criticism? Viscerally knowing it needs management is one thing, but what are some actual strategies for doing that? Luckily, there are plenty. First of all, understand that you never have to accept any uninvited criticism no matter who it comes from. Just because someone lobs a comment your way doesn’t mean you have to catch it. Let it drop to the ground. What’s more, you never have to say “thank you” for it. Be calm and polite, but still, you don’t have to thank anyone if you don’t want to. See, uninvited criticism is simply bad behavior. Do you validate bad behavior? This doesn’t mean you go ballistic, however — always be calm, polite, and professional — but you don’t have to meet bad behavior with obsequiousness either. Really, the only time a criticism is ever appropriate and should ever be thanked is when you clearly invited it. At all other times, criticism deserves nothing from you but your indifference. And eventually these types, or most of them, will get a clue and simply pipe down. Anyone who doesn’t — block them. You owe them nothing. Only you know your Vision, your style, your direction, and what you want to get out of your work and no one has a right to be in your creative space if you don’t want them there. Honestly, those trying to crash it are the ones with the issues — not you! It always says far more about them than it ever does about you and your art. Keep that close to heart, flat out ignore the bad junk in the comments section, and keep that wall up and you’ll be able to handle pretty much anything hurled your way.

There is one particularly useful in-person tactic when dealing with an uninvited critic, too — let them hear their own voice. How do we do that? Well, take a breath first and gather yourself so you don’t have a knee-jerk reaction. Then imagine yourself as a mirror reflecting their words back onto them. You’re not receiving what they’re saying, you’re bouncing it back. To do that, remain still, maintain eye contact and when they’re done, repeat their words back to them in a deadpan tone, with a final, “How interesting” or “how curious.” More times than not, you’ll see that critic become uncomfortable and maybe even just leave the scene. However, social media is another equation entirely and in this case, it’s typically effective to simply ignore it — don’t even engage — and if it’s bad enough, delete and block. You don’t owe anyone a response. If someone is a wrong note, is crossing your boundaries, is harshing your mellow, is rattling your cage, or is simply being an annoyance, it’s absolutely okay to jettison them. Indeed, it’s smart to prune your social media to best serve your interests because that sets the tone and helps to shield your enthusiasm.

Now if a criticism is so egregious that it warrants a rebuttal — that’s your choice. Just use facts such as your references and hard data to back up your position. Point out how their position is flawed and how and why their behavior is problematic and unwelcome, but without making any of it personal. In short, address the behavior and the criticism, not the person. Above all, always be level-headed, concise, polite, reasonable, and take the high road because your reaction will be weighted more heavily than the person who caused the problem in the first place. (Unfair, yes, but true.) Yet if someone was outright abusive — give it to them both barrels. But again, be polite, firm, concise, professional, and make it very clear you’re not interested in a “lesson.” It’s okay to show your annoyance, too. Then leave the scene — don’t engage after that, just leave. Say your piece and leave, and block if necessary.

It should also be mentioned that whether we’re stalwart with unsolicited criticism or if we’re very sensitive to it — there is no right or wrong way to be! Everyone is different. Truly, it’s not inherently superior to not care. Granted, detachment is a super handy buffer yet by the same token, one of the things that can make your work so great is precisely your sensitivity, the depth of your responsiveness to the world around you. Really, your sensitivity might very well be your best asset! So when you shut that down, you shut down those very things that connect you so deeply to your art, your Voice, and your Vision. Don’t do that. The fact is that every artist develops their own way of navigating the ugliness out there custom tailored to their personality and motivations — and there’s no better or worse way to do that. Whatever works for you is the best way given you maintain your composure and enthusiasm.

Now some people will insist an artist should listen to all criticisms no matter their nature because there’s always a something useful to be found, right? But this is literally saying we should swim in offal in the hopes of grabbing a single pearl, and in offal that will never wash off. Is this really the most effective long game when we can stay out of the mess with a private critique as an alternative? Because honestly, swimming after soiled pearls is a problematic proposition, especially in the age of social media. Let’s face it — not all criticism is well intended. In fact, a lot of it is malicious or not delivered well enough to even qualify as well-intentioned, and there are few things more permanently destructive than the ill-meant comment. Why expose yourself to that when the alternative is so much nicer? Plus, what swimming after soiled pearls actually does is permanently implant a cacophony of bad voices in your head that grind away at your creative space, stacking up and amplifying with each passing day. It just makes that swarming ball of ick in your gut bigger. Honesty, few things are more disruptive and demoralizing that a shrill chorus of negative voices stuck in your head! The fact is only a tiny fraction of artists out there can manage swimming in offal well enough to stay motivated as most tend to become embittered or disillusioned on some level. So better safe than sorry, yes? Because, again, if you’re ever in doubt with your work, privately seek peer critique because you’re going to find a bigger, better, and cleaner pile of pearls there. Every artist should always be playing the long game. Read that again.

Another management tactic is to always consider the source of a criticism. Where’s it coming from? Who is it coming from? Are they qualified? Do they match your goals? How are they coming at you? Is it just some troll? Is there an agenda? What’s the real purpose of the criticism? These questions can lend a perspective that can deflect such things really well. Indeed, take all criticism with a hefty grain of salt! Because here's the deal: When you weight someone's opinion, you're assigning it value, or rather you have to assign it value for it to affect you. But does it have value? Does it really? Because once you realize that you can choose whose opinion matters, you also realize that most peoples' opinions don't. They aren't in your shoes, living your Truth. So sure, they can have an opinion, but big whoop. You still aren’t obligated to accept it no matter who is saying it, where it’s coming from, how it’s being presented, or what the agenda is. Let it go and move on. You have better things to do like getting back to work.

Develop a healthy sense of purpose. When we believe that what we’re doing is important beyond ourselves — because it is — our efforts begin to transcend the everyday petty world of criticism and take on more weight and so more forceful momentum. Truly, the more “mass” your motivations have, the more unstoppable your efforts become, so kick it into gear! Think of what you’re doing as a massive train that once fueled with purpose, gains increasing amounts of momentum until its mass is going so fast and powerfully, it’ll simply crush any criticism thrown onto your tracks. That’s exactly how it works. When you know — finally realize — that what you’re doing is incredibly important for yourself, for our genre, for the Universe, your efforts take on a whole new level of meaning that literally no criticism can discourage. Cultivate your purpose and cultivate a new highly effective forcefield. 

Likewise, stay focused. Your purpose gives you momentum but you need focus to direct it — look forwards. You can glance backwards and to the side if you need to at times, but don’t stay focused there because you’ll crash — eyes forward. Indeed, the best answer to any criticism-induced disillusion is to simply get back to work. Elizabeth Gilbert beautifully refers to this as “going home,” always returning to that place that brings you deep personal joy when you create. Just “get back to the salt mines” like a diligent, determined little pit pony because there’s tremendous sanctuary and power in simply pulling your cart with resolve. Head down, eyes forward, shoulder into the harness — pull. You have better things to do.

When you have purpose and focus then, you tend to develop a more disciplined attitude about what you’re doing, too. In short, you gain direction. As such, you get so busily and happily wrapped up in what you’re doing, you no longer have the wherewithal to worry about criticism. Hey — you have stuff to do! Gotta go — bye! And uninvited critics just don’t have a prayer against that! They just can’t get your time and energy when it’s instead directed exactly where it belongs. Absolutely, the best answer to every single uninvited criticism is creating new work.

Be patient with yourself. Not everything will be understood all at once, not everything will be mastered all at once, and not everything will be within your grasp all at once. It all takes time — its own time, going at its own pace that cannot be forced or sped up. This is because improvement is a process, not an end game, so one thing builds on another on another in a crazy jigsaw way — learning isn’t linear! — and so it goes. So while you struggle today, know that you’ll come to the problem more expertly in your own time as long as you keep at it. Absolutely, the moment you stop is the moment you’ll never get there! Yet criticism has a sneaky way of making us very impatient with ourselves — don’t let that happen. Take a breath. Relax. Be kind to yourself and apply even more patience to your own progress. It will come — just give yourself the space to get there in your own time and purge those voices that dog your heels because they know nothing of your journey.

Learn to detach yourself from your art a bit. Doesn’t have to be completely — we don’t want completely — but just enough that you can put some distance between you and it when needed. Why? Because this comes in handy when managing your emotions by giving you the space to pluck yourself out of the situation when you’re pelted by critics. When there’s distance, what they’re saying becomes less about you and more about them. Indeed, the ancient Greeks had a handy trick for this — the concept of the Muse. Here they believed that art was created not entirely by you, but by an outside influence that came to visit you. In short, you aren’t wholly responsible for your own art since your Muse shares your efforts. So if a piece “failed,” it wasn’t you who failed, it was your Muse that hosed up. See — there’s distance. And the fact of the matter is this — even the best artist ever will create duds, will make mistakes, will land short of “perfect.” Every artist has a bad art day. All of us will faceplant many many times throughout our journey. In fact, if we aren’t faceplanting, we aren’t stretching, and if we aren’t stretching, we aren’t progressing as well as we could be. Mistakes are part of the process and journey, too, a critically necessary part. In this, adopting this concept of the Muse in some measure can be a tremendous buffer that better shields us from our own inner critic as well, and anything we can arm ourselves with against that is a blessing.

Know who your peeps are — and who they aren’t. Being very clear about who is your target audience is serious need-to-know information for any artist, especially a working artist. Because your work won’t appeal to everyone and so you’ll find that a lot of the criticism comes from this sector of the community — ignore them. Seriously, just ignore them. They aren’t your people nor do they ever intend to be, and you don’t need to give them any power in your agency no matter who they are! Really, just don’t. You’ll never win them over anyway so just stop compromising yourself trying to appeal to them. In response then, consider this: Amplify your work! Create even louder! Find new ways to diversify and expand your options to slather more of it around. Instead, focus on your fans, those people your art does speak to and who support it. Aside from yourself, they’re the ones you’re creating for, right? Keep giving them what they love and feed on their positive synergy — they’re your cheerleaders so throw them pom poms! What’s more, these are the people you should be listening to if you ever wish to vet public opinion. The thing is, because they care about your work, they’re probably going to care about you, too, and so come to your request with more thoughtfulness than someone who doesn’t give two wits or is even inimical. And even if the latter might have something useful to offer, you still don’t need that negative energy in your creative space. Absolutely, the threat of pollution always outweighs the pearl because plenty of pearls can be found in your positive base, too — so tap that instead.

Understand that the delivery of a criticism is as important as what’s said and so you’re allowed to shut it out or even shut it down simply because of that. Truly, that information can be found elsewhere from someone else kinder so feel free to set boundaries. And don’t let anyone confuse you on that point — you’re allowed to set boundaries! And in doing so, you aren’t avoiding progress but building a creative space that best cultivates your enthusiasm to keep disillusion at bay. Why is that more important? Because it’s your enthusiasm that keeps you moving forwards, it’s the very fuel for progress. Criticisms don’t do that — it’s enthusiasm that keeps you going. And you know what can kill enthusiasm? Criticism. So you know what most threatens future progress? Disillusion caused by criticism. Keep those contained then and you’re automatically on the best path to rapid improvement. So if anyone accuses you of only hearing what you want to hear, of creating an echo chamber— fine. They’re right. What they don’t understand is that preserving your enthusiasm is much more important than getting things "perfect." A bit counter-intuitive, yes, but it’s true. Remember — play the long game.

In line with that though is the pollution you introduce into your own creative space. Keep it clean! If there’s one person harder on an artist than a critic, it’s the artist themselves! We can truly be our own worst gremlin, can’t we? But it’s easier said than done to say “stop it” because you can’t, can you? Of course you can’t. You care about your work so much and it’s only natural to want to honor your Vision with your very best effort. But keep it in check by maintaining perspective and never forgetting that the kindness you show others should also extend to yourself. And just as much as you criticize your efforts find ways to praise them, too! Look at all the beautiful work you’ve created! You did that! Out of everyone in the Universe throughout time, you did that! And sure — it’s not perfect. So what? Nothing is. Even the world’s most gifted and highly trained artists always create imperfect work and that’s okay. Wabi sabi, baby! Indeed, that helps to make it so special! We’re human, we’re the sum of our positives and negatives so extend that consideration to your art. And stop with the comparisons. You have your own unique magic — you don’t need anyone else’s! “Comparison is the death of joy” said Mark Twain and he was absolutely right. Let go of any bitterness, resentment, envy, and jealously — they’re a noxious brew that’ll only corrode your creative space. Your talent is enough, you are enough. Instead, turn all that into admiration and be happy for your peers when they succeed. Gosh, the world is hard enough so when they succeed, really, we all do, right? And when they push a boundary out, that's one more limitation gone! Let them inspire you and fill you full of renewed ambition then. And remember, they’re in that arena right by your side, getting their asses kicked, too. There’s this as well — if you can see that another artist’s work is on another level, it means you have a good Eye, right? You just have to put in the work to get more skilled so gather up your gumption and courage and keep going! It’ll come! Also, stop undermining your progress. Yes, the negatives often seem more important than the positives when hellbent on progress, but the truth is all the good stuff is just as critical. Seek balance in your perspective that regards your setbacks and progress in equal measure. Indeed, tactical self-heeling is necessary to spur our growth, true, but doing that all the time can be an exhausting, discouraging grind. Give yourself some breathing room. Honestly, how far you've come with what you had to work with and within the limitations that corralled you...what you've accomplished so far is dang impressive! Keep at it! You're doing great!

Okay now — brass tacks time — you’ve been blasted by a critic. What do you do? First thing — breathe. Take another breath. And now another. Chill. Absolutely, before responding to unwelcome criticism, cool down. Relax and regain your poise and composure. Never just react in the heat of the moment. Take a step back and regroup. And remember who you are — reclaim yourself! It’s so easy to get knocked off your feet by the impact, to have your sense of self wrenched from you by shame and self-doubt. It’s a shock — yes — but snatch it back. It’s yours so don’t let anyone rob it from you. Also remember that you don’t have to catch what they’re throwing, so sidestep and let it fall to the ground. It’s a hot potato — don’t grab it! That’s a lot to juggle very quickly out of the blue, but with some practice — yes, practice — it becomes more second nature, like a reflex. Now then, decide if it even needs a response with the full understanding that flat-out ignoring them is a great option. Silence can say a lot. Here’s the thing, too, the particularly obnoxious offenders have an uncanny ability to zero in on an easy target so the more wall-like you become, the less they get out of you and so eventually come to leave you alone. Because be careful what you feed with your attention. Whatever you encourage with your energy is what you’ll get back in spades, which is precisely why ignoring critics can be an effective long game. However, if a rebuttal is necessary, go for it. And if their behavior was particularly callous, let them have it. Just exercise a lot of wisdom, goodly professionalism, and play the long game. You might also be reassured to see that others will rise to your defense as well, which is even better because it sends the critic a very clear message about what’s acceptable behavior in our community.

Recognize this effect too: When your work makes an impact that means it generated a strong reaction, good or bad. Bingo — mission accomplished! Good job! One of the greatest goals with our art is to connect with people in some way, to evoke something inside them. Now while a lot of that will be awesome, not all of it will be — such is inevitability. But still — excellent work! Yet quite a few people aren’t emotionally self-aware so they just knee-jerk react to their emotions or attempt to avoid them which means they can become uncomfortable in their own skins if your work triggers them. For instance, a classic reaction comes from insecurity. Here, your work may threaten someone’s sense of identity or superiority in some way and so they need to reassert their authority to make their world seem right again. It’s not your work, it’s them. Another classic example is the critic pandering to their ego. Quite often the critic has a truly tremendous sense of self-importance (an accusation they often throw at artists) and so they really aren’t looking to actually help — they’re looking to impress. Another possible situation is envy, resentment, and bitterness compelling the critic to just lash out from their own place of weakness and vulnerability. Some critics even react with weaponized behavior because they feel affronted on some level that may have nothing to do with your work. Heck, maybe they're just displacing their stress onto you, being so haired out. So never forget that a critic’s behavior often says far more about them than about you and your art. Step back, consider its value, then let it all evaporate away like a passing storm cloud. There are better things to spend your precious energies on. 

And now let’s just get this out there: Anger isn’t always a bad thing. Most of us though have been taught that it is, and so if we get angry, we’re automatically the bad guy, right? But that isn’t the case. Anger just is, it’s a normal human reaction to something that strokes us the wrong way because, in all truth, anger can be a rational reaction to a critic. But how do we manage it when we have to take the high road? A better way to frame it then is this — your anger is a signal. Something is wrong, something is off — what is it? What’s your anger trying to tell you? Have your boundaries been crossed? Have you been treated discourteously? Have your rights been infringed? Have your feelings been abused? Pin down exactly what is riling your ire and you’ll gain control of yourself and the situation quickly.

Know this, too: Your art is the best rebuttal. The Truth is in your work. Let it speak for you. Everything you’re about with your creativity is there clear as day in your art, so step back and let it do the talking. Plus, your art isn’t the sum of people’s opinions, is it? So stop internalizing them, stop giving those opinions so much power in your creative space. Once you come to realize that your work exists for itself — and that’s enough — it becomes its own best defense and you gain another new protective force shield.

Now, all this said, we can say there’s one exception in which a criticism should be given centerstage: When that comment addresses inhuman treatment of the animal or that which is depicted in our work. In this case, we should listen because our choice of subject matter does indeed reveal a lot about our knowledge base, ethics, and priorities. Absolutely, what we chose to portray isn’t to be taken lightly since we’re dealing with an animal deeply seated in many problematic systems. And don’t we want our love of equines to truly match what comes out of our studios? Indeed, if we say “I love children” but choose subject matter depicting violence and depravity towards them, how is that being genuine? If we say, “I love dogs,” but choose to portray terrible things happening to them, what does that actually say about our true motivations? Sure, such things may happen in life, but is that really an expression of admiration and affection? Is that what love would really choose to validate? There’s a huge difference between loving equines and loving the idea of equines, of loving a discipline and loving the idea of a discipline. Frankly, simply parroting what we see in life and then ignoring the truth of it is disingenuous — and people notice. If you choose this path then, know that your road will be paved with constant criticism — and you’ve earned it.

After all is said and done, however, it’s deep wisdom to fully embrace and radiate this quote by BrenĂ© Brown: “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” Hands down, mic drop, 100% spot on correct. Those who aren’t in the proverbial arena also getting bloodied simply don’t warrant a voice in your creative space. They’re sitting it out, safely on the sidelines while you’re the one doing all the work and taking all the hits. That means what you’re creating — and getting beaten up in the arena for — is automatically more meaningful and amazing than what they’re doing. You’re the one who's “showing up,” you’re the one putting yourself out there with courageous vulnerability, you’re the one taking all the risks and making all the effort, you’re the one creating something brand new that’s never existed before — you’ve already won the argument. Let the critics yap on then as they always will — ignore them. You don’t need their energy. Get up, dust yourself off, shake it out, and get back to work. You’re already a champion!

The fact is any criticism given outside of an invited request is out of line and a detrimental intrusion into your creative space — and it’s okay to be clear on that. Yes, there are some artists who just seem to manage the situation really well, emerging seemingly unscathed from the exchanges, but frankly, they’re the exception, not the rule. Instead, most artists are affected by critics on some level, some deeply so. So know thyself and be ready — it’ll happen at some point. There’s always that guy in every crowd. And when we’re blindsided, especially in public, coming up with the perfect response can be difficult. Just never forget that even the greatest artists in history had to field critics, too, some of them alarmingly abusive. Yet they never let this discourage them, allowing it instead to feed their determination to make them stronger, more resilient, more resolved, and driving them back into the studio to get back to work. Let that be the case for you, too. Let these experiences toughen your wall and keenly recalibrate your railguns. It doesn’t have to toughen you up though — you’re perfect just the way you are — just let it toughen your defenses. You can create a force shield around you that’ll repel pretty much anything someone could launch your way without sacrificing who you are.

Even so, being beaten up in the arena is still going to be ouchy at some point no matter what we do for protection. Someone will blindside us, someone will hit the right button, someone will simply be so obnoxious, they get a volley over the wall. But with these pinpointed strategies, we can learn to dodge the worst of it, deflect what we can, and if we get hit, bounce back quicker and with our creative space intact. But even that said, being bloodied in that arena still isn’t right, is it? Here’s the thing — it’s a big crazy world out there, yes, but isn’t our niche rather close knit and relatively insular? So can’t we do better by each other? The world out there is ugly enough — why add more ick? And sure, we do have to make judgments in our niche because we have objective reality to compare against, but we can still do that with a bit more kindness, courtesy, and wisdom, can’t we? Especially in public when so many artists are in earshot of every word? And instead of blathering about what we dislike, why not talk up what we love? Again, if you have nothing nice to say about something, say nothing at all.

Criticism will always be the counterpart to creating art. It’s been its noisy partner from Day One and shows no signs of piping down. Yet while there’s no way to stop it, we can create workarounds to funnel it down other pathways rather than directly dumping into our creative space like an oily, gritty sludge. We can also pop up force shields to deflect and bounce back its barbs and darts, and we have our railguns to shoot incoming projectiles right out of the sky. And in places where it can be a particular minefield, we can simply avoid them like many public forums and social media groups, especially those that lack decent moderation. It should be noted though that while we don’t have to live behind the wall — we need to be ourselves, right? — it’s our creative space that should nestle behind it. We can still feed off people’s ideas, suggestions, and insights, of course, but keep it safely behind there since one unguarded moment can be devastating. Even so, sometimes taking a hit is unavoidable because it just comes from out of left field, even from friends or family, and right when you weren't expecting it. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen an artist unintentionally crushed by one thoughtless comment from a loved one or friend. Here’s where your defenses and coping skills will really be tested — and in a very intimate way — so take the opportunity to learn from the experience itself because if you can withstand such things from them, you can surely withstand anything from strangers and definitely from trolls.

Because — yeah — you can come back stronger than you were before. Take a hit? Get back up. Shake it off. Shoulders back, chin up. You’re stronger than you know, more talented than they imply, and more special than the world would have you believe — now prove it. And guess what — you just got more XP! Use the situation to deepen your resolve, renew your dedication, recharge your gumption as a charged alchemy that reinvigorates your enthusiasm. When you come back with that kind of fire in your belly, what criticism could possibly discourage you? And you don’t have to come back fighting either if you don’t want to! Not all battles have to be fought to be won. Often times the better tactic is to just get back to work, tossing your hair and banging out your art with love and delight. Truly, the one thing criticism can never touch is you living your best art life. As was said in Star Wars The Last Jedi, “That's how we're gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love." Never forget that the Truth is in your work. It will always speak loudest for you, best defend your efforts, and exist for its own sake regardless of what others try to tear down. And remember that a criticism says more about the critic than it does about you and what you’re creating. They’ve just played their cards — badly — only they don’t know you’re playing with an Ace up your sleeve and a stacked deck! Keep your Poker Face and play the long game, and you’ll call their bluff every single time. Zen masta! So party on in your creative space, get back to it, and get back into that arena. You got this.

You can't make your choices based on what critics think. You have to make your choices based on what's honest for you.

~ Nicolas Cage

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