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 Brené 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 Brené 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


Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Riding The Rollercoaster


Waiting In Line

As artists, we’re intimately acquainted with the highs and lows rollercoaster ride of the creative journey. When we reach our pinnacles of success, we feel buoyant and bright, invigorated and intoxicated by our well-earned sense of achievement. So fueled, we become enthusiastically motivated for the next project, hungry to hop back on that coaster to hurdle towards our next creative joy ride. 

But we can crash and burn, too. 

We’ve all augured into our own dismal lows. Maybe we believe we failed somehow and so feel inadequate, frustrated, even despondent. A despairing shadow becomes cast onto everything we touch and then nothing comes together as we’d hoped. So we slump in our studios, believing the situation is hopeless in our struggle against some impossible barrier. Sometimes this feeling can be so strong, it keeps us out of our studio altogether. 

This is normal. 

Like the balance of yin and yang, the ups and downs of the creative process are part of our private lives as artists. Just as our greatest highs give us wings, there will come an inevitable crash landing. Periodic disillusionment in either our skills, achievements, or our direction is just part and parcel of our journey. We all get a bit lost along the way! But sometimes what’s a minor setback can instead bubble up to feel like a major catastrophe, backing us into a tight, ever-shrinking corner. What’s the result? Crushing disillusionment.

So when it comes to riding out these inescapable lows, the name of the game becomes one of coping mechanisms rather than denial. A strategy rather than stasis. Truly, our creative drive is a precious thing worth protecting because without a doubt, disillusionment is a miserable state of mind for an artist. So our ability to pull out of this nosedive is crucial for maintaining our momentum, or that’s to say, disillusionment can be managed, even overcome with a tactical approach.

So how do we keep our fires burning brilliantly when it appears circumstances want to snuff them out? How do we stay joyous and motivated even when disillusion looms its ugly head? 

First, we should understand the nature of our chosen art form and harbor no illusions. Only by seeing this animal for what it is can we learn how to live with it. To that end, there are six realizations we should reconcile to keep disillusionment in perspective…

Pulling Down The Bar

Reframe Our Creative Space

When disillusion tarnishes our efforts, what was once enjoyable can feel more like drudgery, can’t it? More like a chore. But here’s the thing — being creative, having the ability and the means to make our Visions real is a true blessing. It’s also a blessing not everyone has the luxury of experiencing to the fullest, if at all. So consider this, rather than thinking, “I have to do [insert task]” reframe it into, “I get to do [insert task].” Completely changes the perspective, doesn’t it? Sometimes all we need is a shift in our view. In so many ways, context is everything especially when it comes to art. Because — hey — there have been days where I get up and think, “Oh man…not that today!” Like sanding — who likes sanding?! But then I reorient my thinking to “I get to” and voilá! There I go, sanding! Another trick I use through particularly tedious stages is envisioning a couple of days from now when it’s done, like projecting my life forwards through it and imagining how the piece will look afterwards and how awesome I’ll feel about that. That kind of carrot can really help me slog through even the most maddening steps. Or yet another tactic is to simply be literal about things and take it all in micro-baby steps. For instance, we did a massive house clean-out two years ago where we got rid of pretty much 70% of everything we owned (it’s amazing how life debris builds up after twenty years!). But the job itself was so overwhelming, it completely numbed my mind into inaction. So daunting! So what I did was to break the whole task down into the tiniest, even the most mundane steps and focus just on that one step. Like, “I will pick up this pillow and put it into the bag,” or “I will take this this excess Tupperware to the donation box.” Chip away at the whole job like that and believe it or not, you’ll be done sooner than you think. Baby step baby step baby step your way to success! So, for example, think of this approach: “I will pick up the sandpaper and sand that left shoulder,” then do just that then, “I will pick up this emery board and sand the right front hoof,” then do just that and so on. Just keep moving forwards in small incremental steps even if it’s slow going. Chip away chip away chip away! Another strategy is to reward yourself with something fun for every blecky, boring part you have to do. For instance, if you have to dremel something down a lot which is noisy, messy, and tedious, reward yourself later with, say, painting something or working on the expression of another piece or even just taking your dog for a walk. Whatever trips your trigger, make that the reward and it can be surprising just how well that works. Now if you ultimately need a break to regroup — do it! Try always to avoid forcing yourself through a piece because, for one, that rarely works to satisfaction and, two, it creates a negative feedback loop that can make us come to associate creativity with unwelcome feelings, and that’s always a quick path to systemic disillusionment. Try to always keep the creativity feedback loop positive!

The first thing to embrace then is keeping our focus oriented on gratitude and keeping The Big Picture in mind. Think of how great it’ll be when the piece is completed — because, yes, there is an end, really! — and how awesome it’ll feel. Stay on target. Stay focused on the light at the end of the tunnel. You got this.

In Our Towers

We are alone when we create because, ultimately, art is a solitary endeavor. Don’t we mostly work sequestered in our studios, quiet in our own thoughts and aspirations? Don’t we set our own goals and silently do what we can to meet them? And even if we create with others around, as in a demo, classroom, retreat, or collaboration, aren’t we still inside our own heads the moment we focus, the world narrowed down to a fine point with our piece? Probably “yes,” right? That’s because art isn’t done as a team even when there’s active collaboration going on. That nexus with the piece exists only inside us. 

Art starts alone — and convinces society later. 

— Douglas Davis

Each one of us also experiences our own unique challenges and responds in our own unique manner, and methods and interpretations are as singular as each artist. We also engineer our own strategies based on our own prerogatives and determine whether we’ve fulfilled them based on our own internal judgments. And only we can determine when our work is done. 

The urge, ability and vision to create is a solo endeavor. 

— Linda Archinal

What does that mean? That it’s all on us. The buck stops here. We succeed alone and we fail alone. When we’ve triumphed then — what a great feeling! What a high! So reaffirming and confidence-building. Yet like a cruel devil on our shoulder, maybe a little voice whispers in our ear, “Maybe you didn’t stretch yourself enough?”, or, ”Maybe next time won’t be such a success,” or ”Can you do so well again?,” or worse, “That piece isn’t as good as you think it is.” And so the balance tips to the other direction, and if you’re an overthinker — ooooo boy — now there’s a lovely walk in the park. Or maybe our piece failed outright. Maybe it just faceplanted. Hey — it happens to every artist for any number of reasons. When this happens…my gosh though…does that dredge up the most self-punishing thoughts! So much so, it can even paralyze some artists!

With this barrage, we may turn to family or friends for affirmation, support, and encouragement. As surely as they love us though, it may be difficult for them to comprehend how artists so deeply internalize their creative experience. This means that we pretty much live with either the wins or losses in our own internal landscape, even fighting our own emotional battles solo. Yet not everyone’s nature matches well with this kind of solitary psychological minefield. In fact, many artists are ill-suited for it so when they hit a low, they truly become crestfallen and can feel quite isolated despite being surrounding by loving peeps trying to reinforce their self-worth. 

Of course, when one is faced with a canvas, one is no longer alone, and the sense of solitude diminishes. This can be an agreeable passage of time. In fact, solitude then becomes a kind of companion. 

— Pierre Alechinsky

Moreover, sometimes we only learn whether we succeeded or failed after the fact in the arena of public opinion. It’s such a delight to have our piece strike an unexpected cord and meet with great acclaim! What a fantastic surprise! But by the same token, what a terrible shock to be so proud of our creation only to be blindsided by wholesale bashing, typically in inconsiderate and discourteous voices. Inevitably then, many artists develop a thick layer of trepidation with the completion of each piece and take a deep breath with a debut. It’s no surprise then that experiencing this kind of anxiety alone can truly be difficult for some tender souls. 

Now to help compartmentalize all this, a handy tactic is to consider this concept: The ancient Greeks regarded the artistic gift as a function of a Muse. Here, there’s an outside influence, force, or inspiration compelling us to create the piece so in a sense, our piece isn’t our sole creation. Something else had a hand in it, too. Therefore, if we created a stellar piece, our Muse definitely “showed up” and helped us to rock it! But if our piece flopped, our Muse just didn’t deliver. So altogether, this perspective displaces the blame from off our identity and self-worth and onto the mercurial reality of creating art because sometimes — yeah — our Muse just bails on us! That’s normal. And that’s okay! Creativity is a total mystery that just happens to fail us all at some point. But this handy concept can help us from internalizing too deeply any perceived failure which, if left unchecked, is a guaranteed open door to deep disillusionment. So if we’re not in control so much at all, then we’re not entirely “to blame,” are we? Let’s give ourselves permission to ease up on ourselves and accept the grey area of creativity and Fate.

So, the second thing we must accept is that our chosen activity is a solitary experience. We stand alone, triumph alone, and fail alone so unless we learn to cope alone, we’re going to be in for a rough ride smack dap right into disillusionment. 

Charging Windmills 

Realistic art is inherently comparative, i.e. competitive. Whether we compare our new work against our older pieces, or against the living subject, or against our expectations, or against the works of other artists, we’re forced to gauge our progress through comparison. Realism simply has prerequisite boundaries we have to compare against every step of the way. And this can be a real problem as Mark Twain points out, “Comparison is the death of joy.” So this means we’re working in a genre that intrinsically invites disillusion right from the get-go.

Add to this the fact that nothing we could ever create will be truly technically realistic. We’re fallible. We aren’t DNA. No matter how hard we try, Nature will always outdo us. In essence then, we’ve set up an impossible Don Quixote task for ourselves which we’ll perpetually chase with our enthusiastic ambitions, but always falling short of spearing our coveted target. With this kind of self-defeating relationship with our work, it’s no wonder disillusionment happens from time to time.

It also means that we exist on a sliding scale of ability because our mind can comprehend only so much at any given stage of development. We simply progress at our own pace and become aware of things in our own time, which is something no amount of outside input can completely counteract. Wrap it all up and this means we’re vulnerable to our own tunnel vision, our own blindspots and biases which will keep us ever-missing our goals despite our best efforts. This is how artists can keep making the same mistakes despite critique or get stuck in a habitual rut. Ultimately then, working within realism can also mean living with self-doubt, a difficult place for creativity for sure. 

In lieu of all this, the pursuit of perfection can either be a healthy fuel for improvement or douse our urge to create entirely so we need to be very clear where we stand with it. But the thing is, we all experience both edges of that sword at different stages of our journey so it’s how we cope that will spell the different outcomes. 

In a nutshell then, the third thing we should accept is that we’ve chosen a challenging and meticulous art form, and therefore one often inherently frustrating, even maddening. We have to make peace with that.

Moving Targets 

Not only are our targets difficult to reach, they move! With the completion of each new piece — with each new comparison — we re-evaluate our goals and evolve. So we can’t stand around to improve — we have to get moving! Realism demands we chase after it, which is why those who settle for “good enough” can plateau rather quickly. Indeed, this genre is constantly moving forwards and unless we do, too, we’re going to get left in the dust.

Just be prepared though — we’re going to trip. Hitting the proverbial pavement isn’t pleasant and can knock the creative wind clean out of us for a time. We may feel embarrassed for stumbling and disappointed in ourselves which adds further toxicity to that emotional brew. Yet every rider must get up and start riding again, and so must we. Get back on that horse!

Or sometimes we lose sight of our target or get distracted by new ones and get lost. For instance, we can inadvertently lose sight of our initial goals as we work and so start to feel confused or overwhelmed, even a sense of defeat if we get buried by it. Yet it’s okay to change our minds, even midstride, as long as we pick new goals that are a good fit for the moment and the piece. It’s very easy to get sidetracked by lots of shiny aspirations, but if our developmental stage isn’t ready for them or we don’t stay sufficiently focused, we might find ourselves spinning our wheels between interchanging targets and right into disillusionment. Exasperation can happen a lot faster than we know! But even so, sometimes the lesson isn’t found in the success but in the setback. When this happens, learn from it, move on, and get back on track knowing there’s always a way through it.

Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. 

— Joseph Campbell

Nevertheless, there are false targets out there, too. A fresh perspective can definitely take the art form to new heights, but some not so much. Indeed, I’ve seen some faddish painting techniques come and go that were certainly splashy, but not so realistic. It happens. So be careful to measure a fad against your own goals before simply accepting it all at face value. By that token, we can also create our own false targets that can steer us off course. For instance, blindspots can make us believe we’ve created a problem area when, in fact, it’s just fine, or on the other hand, we can’t see an error at all. Or if we’ve been working on a piece for so long, we’ve developed creative fatigue and so familiar aspects start to feel weird and wrong — a strange phenomenon. Plus, overworking a piece is a very real thing and so we may inadvertently destroy parts we particularly like. We may even come to believe we’ve lost our inspiration for the piece — not so — or even our Muse — definitely not so — when all we really need is a break to refresh and regroup.

So the fourth aspect we should accept is that this art form tends to most reward those who periodically chose the moving targets to stay on their toes. Stepping outside our comfort zones isn’t only fun, its necessary from time to time.

Chasing The Glory

Absolutely, soak up those positive comments! It’s not only awesome, but practically speaking, it’s necessary to counterbalance the negativity of the tone deaf, the inconsiderate, or the jerks. So bask in it, baby! You’ve earned it! All your hard work, dedication, struggles, and passion paid off! It’s important to pat yourself on the back, too, especially with your great successes, so don’t feel that it’s arrogant or narcissistic. It’s not. It’s healthy, affirming, and empowering! Know your worth and know the beauty of your abilities. That’s confidence, my friend, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

All that said though, weighting feedback does best with cool objectivity. That’s not easy to be sure, but try to get to that end of the spectrum as much as you can. Above all, keep it in context. Consider the source, beware the delivery, mind the knowledge base, recognize the motivation, weigh the aesthetic, and analyze the relevance. Think on this, too — don’t get too caught up in either the glowing comments or pummeling criticisms. Try to come back to the middle ground. Why? Well, if we aren’t careful, either end of that spectrum can create a false sense of where we are developmentally by either dragging us too low or elevating us too high. We want to keep our feet on the ground to be responsive in any direction we need to go, even when it surprises us. Now why for that? Well, one of the fastest routes to disillusionment is a rude surprise born of a false notion of where we are in our skills. We need to be truthful with ourselves and wrapped up in that is how we handle feedback. Stay as grounded as you can and take what you can use then let the rest slide like water off a duck’s back. Because if we’re to trust anyone, it should be ourselves most of all. Indeed, self-doubt can be devastatingly disorienting and disillusionment isn’t far behind. So ultimately, having our rock to stand on helps us to avoid many traps of public opinion, gives us the gumption to defend our work when needed, and gifts us with a sense of artistic self-awareness that serves our progress well.

So the fifth aspect we should accept is that while lots of positive reinforcement is great, we can’t let it go to our heads. Likewise, we can’t deflate so completely with unwelcome feedback either. Try to maintain an even keel to stay flexible and adaptive and, mostly, to stay enthusiastic. Indeed, our creative joy is our single most lethal weapon against disillusionment so protect it with perspective and context.

We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about. 

— Charles Kingsley

Losing Steam

Because — yeah — sometimes disillusionment happens because we simply lose our enthusiasm, even our inspiration. For instance, we may no longer be passionate about creating realism right now and so other art forms now are capturing our attention. Sometimes we can just lose interest in the piece itself, even get lost in the process and just peter out. The Muse is a mercurial thing that can’t be forced. Realism just may not inspire our Muse all the time. If we press the issue though, disillusionment can build as we desperately push our Muse to deliver, turning a pleasurable experience sour. If creating art becomes a chore then, something is very wrong so regroup and rethink. Because the thing is, if we’re unable to break this cycle, the feedback loop then becomes geared to process irritation and discouragement rather than excitement, and — wow — is that a welcome mat for disillusionment. 

So the sixth realization we best accept is that our Muse may not cooperate all the time when it comes to pursuing realism, but forcing it usually fails. We have to go with the flow or find a way to work through it while preserving our joyful engagement.

Holding On Tight, Screaming

Okay, so now that we know a bit about the nature of our chosen art form and how it tends to invite disillusionment by its very nature...what do we do now? Be proactive! We have to actively protect our enthusiasm and to this end, we do this by developing mediating strategies — because the only way around it is really just through it. So what are some tactics? Luckily, there are quite a few… 

Maintain Perspective 

Keep things in context. You are an artist and your artistic style and prerogative are unique. You create the way you do because of who you are — not the other way around. You’re the one and only vessel in all the Universe that your art can come through and it’s as singular and special as you are. Therefore, your worth isn’t dependent on what other people think of your art, only on what you think of your art. So never forget — the first and only person to please with your art is yourself.

Because understand that not everyone will like your work. It’s a big world out there with many different tastes and your “flavor” may not appeal to everyone. And that’s okay! So while your art may come from the heart, learn not to internalize other people’s opinions of it — either good or bad. Try not to get swept up in the squall of opinion out there or worse, get lost trying to please everyone. Your personal connection to your art is an imperative so keep others from disrupting that synergy. In short, don’t create your art based on chasing down people’s approval and don’t fixate on who likes or dislikes your work. Who cares? Stop keeping score! You’ll drive yourself crazy and, ultimately, does it really matter? No. 

Instead, create work on your own terms, authentically and unapologetically. When you create authentically with joy in your heart, it shows in your work and the rest will fall into place. Yet this joy can only emerge when you create to amuse yourself, when you create in the manner you were meant to in carefree freedom. Don’t forget that the act of artistic creation is one rooted in love, joy, and introspection — cultivate them! 

But perhaps most of all, give yourself time to surprise yourself. You may want to scream at how you keep hitting roadblocks or not progress as quickly as you’d like…but give yourself time. Because believe me, you’ll happily surprise yourself if you keep at it!

No person who is enthusiastic about his work has anything to fear from life. 

— Samuel Goldwyn

Stay Open Minded 

Disillusionment can be a symptom of being stuck. Undeniably, a rut can lead to a kind of boredom that saps passion right out of the studio and — whomp — there’s disillusionment. But if you keep your mind open and your options plentiful, you’ll constantly challenge yourself with all sorts of different directions. Keeping your skills stretched to the point of breaking, too, is far more important than many artists realize. It doesn’t have to be all the time, but if you don’t periodically push yourself beyond what you think you can do, you’re tempting apathy. Those proverbial walls are there to prove to yourself how much you really want something, right? Because every once and awhile, a piece should feel like jumping off a cliff into the unknown if even just a little bit. With this will come a kind of high, not only from this act of wild abandonment, but in each little triumph that you unexpectedly won! You’ll also find greater zeal in conquering the challenges that pop up and find they become deeper learning experiences. There’s something to be said about damning the torpedoes — you become more committed as your gumption flares up in a way no other approach can inspire. Audaciousness is such a great way to tap into your passion, and all great art is first a product of passion. And if there’s one thing that can atomize disillusionment on the first shot, it’s passion!

Make this a habit then and the more likely you’ll jump to new points of progress quicker. This is because pushing yourself opens your mind to the possibilities and in them rest plentiful stepping-stones of learning and all manner of artistic expression. More still, you’ll remain aware that you don’t know everything and that there’s always another and perhaps a better way to render reality and so you start looking for them. In this way then we create a new positive feedback loop that keeps us constantly busy-minded with our art and with this state of mind, a rut just doesn’t stand a chance of taking root. So what’s the best balm for boredom? A reachable challenge! Stay curious! Be bold! Explore without fear!

Nothing splendid was ever created in cold blood. Heat is required to forge anything. Every great accomplishment is the story of a flaming heart. 

— Arnold H. Glasgow

This does beg mentioning though: Don’t confuse evolution with “selling out.” Being able to recognize the need to evolve and then knowing how to update your methods without losing yourself in the process is important. Indeed, the difference between evolutionary improvement and pandering to fad is an important distinction. The trick is evolving while still staying true to yourself and we do this by creating always tapped into our love and joy which will keep us honest and authentic.

Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Appreciate Irony 

As you gain experience and develop a portfolio, you’ll find that your view of what you create may not be the same others share. That’s to say, how we see our piece isn’t necessarily the same way others see it. This isn’t a bad thing! Art is open to interpretation and the experience of the viewer, even realism, and so everyone brings with them their own unique perspective, right? That’s one of the cool things about art! So once we learn to nestle our own meaning in our hearts, we can learn to “let our piece go” to allow others to nestle it into theirs in their own unique way. If we allow our work to have a fresh new life in the eyes of other folks, too, this can circle back to inspire and delight us in wonderful and unexpected ways.

For example, some of our biggest misfires (as we may think of them) often turn out to be our most popular pieces. We may genuinely believe we’ve faceplanted when, in fact, our stumbles may strike an unexpected chord to find surprising wild success. I can’t tell you how many times the ceramic pieces I thought were the biggest fails ended up selling first and those I thought were the best just sat there! Even the chachki pieces I disliked the most ended up being the most loved by others. Seriously — it’s such a common phenomenon among artists, it’s wild! Similarly, those pieces you believe will be the hardest sells, those that you believed would flop, often become the most well-received in ways you couldn’t have predicted. Stormwatch was that way for me. I genuinely believed he would completely fail, but I sculpted him anyway and look what happened! And this happens all the time with artists. And I’ve known plenty of pieces over the years I would have bet on to be crazy successes completely nosedive, often for reasons I can’t fathom.

Don’t let this ironic twist of Fate go unnoticed — pay attention and learn. In those moments lie gems of insight about yourself, your artistic direction, your creative motivations, and how your work is perceived. Even more, it can help us loosen up creatively and learn to lean into our inspirations more for their own sake rather than worrying about how our pieces will resonate. If we can embrace irony more, the more we learn to create for ourselves and so our work becomes more genuine and distinctive. Even more though, we disconnect our expectations from disillusionment because we just throw everything into the wind. Truly, without fixed expectations but by staying open and responsive, disillusionment has a hard time clinging to our experience.

Above all though, cultivate a healthy sense of humor. Learn to smile as a first reaction rather than grumble. It’s fun to be pleasantly surprised, isn’t it? And it’s curious to be taken aback. Honestly, if there’s one thing that’s always surprising, it’s how the folks react to each new piece. Truly, more often than not, creating art is laden with irony.

Build Bonds 

Since being an artist is a solitary endeavor, we often long to reach out to like-minded peers for encouragement, support, and community. So find a supportive social group that’s healthy for you and your expectations and engage. 

This isn’t the easiest thing to do though. While the obvious choice would be a large public forum, this rarely pans out well for an artist. Most public forums don’t filter members and many are unmoderated (or poorly moderated), and while other artists may be there, there’s probably many more non-artists there, too. Public forums usually aren’t limited to only professionals, either, so a significant proportion of the participants aren’t beholden to a certain standard of behavior. This jumbled mix seldom creates a balanced place for an artist since you become a target to a percentage of people. Plus, not being artists, let alone a working artist, they have difficulty seeing the world from your point of view. More extreme, some may view an artist as “other” which can inevitably meet with negative consequences with that sort of objectification. Indeed, I’ve known so many artists becoming very disillusioned with their work and with the community in general through exactly this mechanism. The moment you feel an “ick factor” on a public forum then — leave. No forum is worth sacrificing your joy.

Rather, look for social media, organizations, clubs, groups, or forums dedicated to artists or the large percentage of them are artists. They are out there. This is where you’ll find folks who already share many commonalities with you whether or not they work in your same discipline. You’ll also find a different standard of behavior, not just because many of them are professionals, but because they already see the world through the same lens. You’ll also find many opportunities and insights there that can keep you interested and growing in your creativity in more targeted ways. 

Another option is a small private mailing list of close friends or family, whether involved in your art or not. You can create such a list or be lucky enough to join one. Small, private forums often are much better than large and public ones because when you have a private party with close friends, it’s less likely to implode. 

We all need encouragement and support from time to time so find the right place, invest yourself, and you can reconcile your isolation as an artist while also absorbing inspiration from other dynamic minds. This one-two punch is a clean shot to knocking out disillusionment!


We cannot create in a vacuum. If we don’t keep tabs on our development, we can go sideways which invites eventual disillusion through frustration and discouragement. We need reference points to measure where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going because while artistic evolution can be rather chaotic, making sense of our progress needs a bit more order all the same. So take periodic stock of your body of work and analyze it with a cool, objective eye. Notice the things you still like about it as well as those things you’d rather change, and especially those things you regard as learning experiences. Sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we’re even able to notice a previous blindspot, too. Absolutely, the ability to objectively analyze your work is crucial. And it’s not just for your own journey, either. Others are assessing your work, and with differing degrees of insight, so if you’re unable to defend it, disillusionment isn’t far behind. In short, you need your own rock to stand on in order to expertly manage feedback as well as know where you want to take your goals.

Above all, maintain quality, even in work you may regard as “quickies.” Quality never goes out of style! Use quality materials with sound methods and work on meticulous craftsmanship to ensure a collector’s investment. When we take pride in our processes, we validate our sense of self-worth and that the time we devote to our craft is time well spent. However, quality doesn’t mean just good quality materials — it also means good quality interpretations. Remember that realism is constantly being pushed out farther and farther so unless you’re staying current with the evolving standards, you can become frustrated by the reception of your work over time. 

Don’t take praise at face value. Decide for yourself what excellence is and challenge yourself to meet those standards. So consider setting new quality goals from time to time because the process of reevaluation should ultimately result in stretching yourself artistically. But also cultivate humility. Only by jettisoning our pretense can we recognize our hiccups while also valuing our successes without letting them go to our heads. 

Every new painting starts out as a comeback. 

— Joseph P. Blodgett

Boiled down, good work earns genuine and enthusiastic approval, and therefore self-generates success. When you stay on top of your game, your sense of satisfaction stays high and your motivation is always primed. Plus, you’re able to indulge your whims and new directions more than if you’re always scrambling. In short, good work makes an artist’s life much happier. 

I don’t think of myself as making art. I do what I do because I want to, because painting is the best way I’ve found to get along with myself. 

— Robert Rauschenberg

Dating or Marriage? 

It’s helpful to have a clear understanding of why you chose equine realism as an art form. It’s not enough to say, “Because I like it,” either. It’s no easy discipline and so a compass fixed on deeper meanings will help us boldly forge ahead on track despite the potholes. So dig deep. Once you’ve nabbed it then, revisit it from time to time to affirm your commitment because it’s deceptively easy to get sidetracked in this genre. Also take stock of your goals — do they further your commitment or contradict it as you grow? The more they diverge over time, the more it becomes time to rethink your reasons why.

The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution. 

— Paul Cezanne

You also need to decide if you’re creating within this art form just for casual fun and a low-key hobby, or more as a hardcore personal challenge, even as a profession. Whichever motivates you will determine how intense your involvement will be which has a direct bearing on how you manage disillusionment. 

For example, if it’s just for fun and frustration erupts, it’s much easier to walk away because the level of investment is far less. In a sense, it’s more like dating than a marriage. On the other hand, invested dedication requires far more energy and commitment like a marriage. More is on the line and so our creative undertakings take on a heavier weight because the stakes are higher and the standards more intense. While this focus can propel our progress to dizzying heights when it’s a healthy relationship, it has the potential to leave us vulnerable to disillusion if the relationship turns sour. Therefore, “married” artists sometimes have to work harder to keep the relationship a happy one. In other words, if more invested folks don’t actively strategize to keep disillusion at bay, they’re going to suffer burn out, psychological fatigue, resentment, frustration, despondency, even strong feelings of inadequacy. Intense investment simply means more intense tactics to combat the side effects.

Yet while all this may seem an obvious realization that comes with the territory, too many artists neglect make this kind of distinction. Inevitably then, they end up in the wrong kind of “relationship” which has only one outcome — disillusion. For instance, some want the fame that comes with “marriage-level” work but are unable or unwilling to dedicate themselves to that kind of intensity. As a result, for example, we can hear the frustration in the complaint, “I guess I just don’t have what it takes to create top quality work!” Conversely, other artists may have achieved “marriage-level” status but revert back to “dating” for whatever reason and then wonder why their reputation suffers. This outcome can be heard in the embittered comment, “People used to like my work — what do people want nowadays? People are just stupid!” 

There’s no shame in choosing a more casual involvement over an intense one — one isn’t better than the other, only different. And there’s loads of room of all sorts of motivations of all kinds! The point is to be very clear of what you want to invest and if your expectations align or disillusion isn’t far behind. So whether you want to take your commitment to the next level, ratchet it down a notch, or even get a divorce is up to you. Just understand that how people respond to your work often mirrors your relationship with it. 

You can accelerate your development by giving yourself a fresh set of challenges, or the same set viewed from a different angle, every day. Explore a different path – if it’s a dead end, explore another. 

— Paul Foxton 

Value Yourself 

Don’t minimize your efforts or talents! Respect yourself and your abilities. Value what works in your art and seek to make it truly bloom. And there are small miracles in every piece so learn to recognize them to give you something to build on. Because really, if all you do is find fault with your work (or fault in other’s work), you’re creating a worrisome feedback loop. That kind of downer grind isn’t only unhelpful on many levels, but it tends to attract people who have nothing positive to offer which only feeds a negative vibe towards disillusionment. 

Now on that note — yes — practice makes perfect, that doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself in the process, does it? No! When it comes to art, things come in their own time and cannot be forced. Just let it happen and don’t be so hard on yourself. We can only tackle what we’re ready to tackle and only absorb what we’re ready to absorb at that moment. Knowledge bases and skillsets take time to develop and everything is a process of building blocks. Be patient and kind to yourself. As my good friend, Ed Gonzales says, “each horse is practice for the next.” 

Likewise, practice patting yourself on the back. No — seriously. Learn to recognize what you got right or what challenges you tackled and take a moment to appreciate that. It’s through stretching our skills that we find motivating progress so feed that with some self-congratulations and — yes — even if we got too enthusiastic and bit of more than we could chew and faceplanted. Especially then! Hey — it happens to all of us at some point so don’t beat yourself up so much. Take note, be proud that you were so bold and forward-thinking, and simply rethink the problem in another way. Who knows, maybe that will switch on a new light bulb! Progress and innovation may require pushing envelopes to the breaking point, but they’re also full of beneficial sideways surprises so don’t let discouragement keep them from you. 

Nevertheless, don’t let weak areas slide for the sake of your self-esteem either. Doing so really isn’t a means to prop yourself up but a surefire way to be disappointed on some level later. Sure, it’s easier to say, “Oh well, my body shading is nice enough to make up for the blobby white markings,” but if you don’t attend to habitual problem areas in your work, that can erode your self-esteem over time. So don’t shortchange yourself. Give yourself the opportunity to wow yourself with how talented you truly are! 

Welcome Change 

As we grow as artists, not only does our art evolve, but we should expect our goals and interests to evolve, too. This is normal. Don’t be afraid of it! Really, just because what you did in the past was a winning combination doesn’t mean that evolution will lead to ruin of your reputation, customer base, or livelihood. And if you do lose a few collectors as a result, chances are you’ll gain others anyway, right? And maybe a couple of collectors may grumble, but is your artistic journey about you or them? Creating art is a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat situation: You won’t know if change is good or bad until you actually open that box, so to speak. So open it! With art, change is good more times than not so why deny yourself an unrealized potential because of anxiety? And worry over what? Be true to your big ideas — you had them for a reason! And the truth is if you’re fearful and resistant to growth, you risk plateauing and eventual disillusionment isn’t far behind. Explore, expand, experiment, imagine, reimagine, and stretch as you wish — it’s good for you and your work. 

When you are through changing, you are through. 

— Bruce Barton

Explore and Seek 

To that end — actively explore! Try creating work in entirely different styles, genres, or with other subject matter. We can’t ignore how demanding and sometimes confining equine realism can be and our Muse may need variety every so often so set out a buffet.

Along with that, consider some field study and field trips. Attend horse shows and stables, even snap some reference photos. Visit galleries, museum exhibits, and art shows. Go on studio tours or visit foundries. Attend or host retreats, classes, and workshops. Try other art forms and experiment with new media. For example, try sculpting a bust or bas-relief if all you’ve done is full-body sculptures, or try pastels or color pencil if you’ve only worked in oils or acrylics. Sculpt a dog or antelope, or maybe even a Pegasus or Unicorn! Think outside the box! And hey — take some art classes, even in some creative outlet, interpretation, or skillset totally different than equine realism.

Nothing changes until something moves. 

— Albert Einstein

Because here’s the thing: Expanding your creative options can recharge your motivation and refresh your eye in exciting and unexpected ways. You may discover a lot about yourself, too, which certainly is a big boost to your motivation. Don’t be afraid then of getting a little crazy with exploring wildly different creative outlets because there’s no wrong choice here. Whatever tickles your fancy — pursue it! Truly, everything you experience will inform your studio!

Most of all, don’t be concerned if your attention becomes increasingly drawn to these new options — there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, you may find a need to develop these other options parallel to your realistic work to keep your creative energy burying the needle. And it’s okay to “leave home” to return later — nothing has to be permanent. That’s the exciting prospect of learning and art — we don’t only have to stay open-minded about our art but about ourselves, too! You have a tremendous amount of potential locked up on there — let it out!

Not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves, are triumph and defeat. 

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Baby Steppin’ 

If you find yourself daunted or unmotivated in your studio, rethink your work load. Perhaps just shuffling pieces around may be the trick. Really, sometimes it’s better to put aside the piece that’s really hairing you out and work instead on a less stressful thing. Think about it — you can either waste time procrastinating or endlessly fighting a problem piece, or better use that time and energy to work on something else more productive at the moment. Heck, just picking up something more inviting to work on can be enough to get us over a hump. Pace yourself. Work your way up to those pieces that make you want to scream and only when you’re ready with a positive frame of mind. If we try to slog though a troublesome completion, we’re just conditioning ourselves for disillusionment.

So consider having lots of little sideline projects waiting in the wings to fiddle with when you need an injection of low-pressure or experimentation. Maintaining the sense of fun in the studio is great in so many ways, especially to keep our spirits up and creativity geared forwards. A happy studio is a productive studio! In a nutshell then, if you reach a road block, don’t stop! Simply take a detour and explore the new path. Whatever it takes, just keep moving! For instance, when I get exasperated with a piece, I’ll detour and work on illustrations, writing, sketches, or artistic exercises. I’ll explore my references and horse books, looking for more inspiration. I just switch gears in the knowing I’ll return later with a fresh eye and renewed enthusiasm.

To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward. 

— Margaret Fairless Barber

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder 

Sometimes all you need is a vacation from the studio. Let’s be honest with ourselves — as artists we tend towards a workaholic attitude, don’t we? What’s better than doing what we love to do? Well, doing more of it! Yet this can inadvertently cause burn out or a frazzled state of mind because we all need a break from time to time, right? Taking periodic steps away really does help to maintain a strong sense of motivation by creating a healthy balance between you and your art. Thusly refreshed then, your head is often swimming with new creative ideas because your subroutines just needed to work outside of a single-minded focus. This means our downtime is just as important as our active time! It’s a little counter-intuitive but so true that applying our mind to other interests can often result in better work later. 

Getting Out Of The Studio 

Similarly, don’t sacrifice other facets of your life for your art — your “other” self is as important as the self in your studio. Family, friends, pets, extra-curricular activities, and even travel all play significant parts in your life that support your art life in systemic ways, practically and emotionally. Indeed, a well-balanced life contributes to reinforced artistic motivation because balance offers distance and perspective which are essential for mediating disillusionment. Balance also provides inspiration and new ideas, infusing freshness and innovation into our body of work. And most of all, balance reminds us that while we may be artists, we’re also so much more than that, too! We’re multi-faceted, fascinating individuals with vibrant, interesting lives and so our identity is so much more complex than just the life in our studio. So basically, balance pulls us out of our art-heads so we can reorient our identities and ambitions to remember all the good stuff that motivates us so well. Truly, working in your studio with blinders on and without breaks only gives disillusionment the opportunity burn you out, numb your Eye, exhaust you psychologically, or push you into creative fatigue. So go out and experience life with loved ones! There’s no better cure for a funk! 

Pulling Into The Station — We Survived!

Being prepared and ever-vigilant against the quiet intrusion of disillusionment is active duty. And it can take a lot of honesty and introspection to stay aware enough to spot those moments it can pounce. Because know it or not, every day in our studio is actually a series of motivation-induced moments strung together by a continuum of passion. Each moment inspires the next and so it goes until we complete our piece. Good strategy works to protect that delicate chain of emotional events to keep them tumbling forwards with love and zeal. And while each of us experiences disillusionment periodically, how we work to reclaim our happiness speaks a lot about our dedication. Truly, we reaffirm our commitment with each new piece we complete and in this way, each completion is a statement of sorts. Yet there’s no shame in admitting you may no longer find inspiration in equine realism for a time or even permanently. Just don’t let disillusionment keep you from being creative altogether! 

Art is a very joyous obsession that has one large drawback – the frustration that is involved with the middle of the process, when things can go either way. 

— Travis Bowles

Just remember the yin and yang. Our darkest moments give us the opportunity to take pause and change our direction to see ourselves and our art in a new light. In reality then, our disillusion really is a kind of gift without which we may never be given that moment to grow. So when we feel at our weakest that’s really our moment when we can find our true strength! Don’t be afraid to reach deep down to rediscover yourself and your art. There are great things in store for you if you’re willing to see The Big Picture and reconsider your strategies. Creativity is really about movement, of “moving around” in our ideas, skills, and expectations so the moment we “sit still” is the moment we open the door to disillusionment through plateaus, creative fatigue, burn out, and all the rest. Keep moving!

Ultimately though, the best strategy to squish disillusionment is fully understanding yourself as an artist — knowing what keeps you motivated, engineering a studio life that cultivates those motivations, and then bounding after those carrots in earnest. This will lead you always to artistic happiness and enthusiasm, or as Elizabeth Gilbert would put it, you’ll always “find your way home.” If there’s one thing that can conquer disillusion then, it’s holding the love for creativity and our subject closest to our hearts. Love always points the way so follow where it leads because believe it or not, you’ll love where it takes you and so will we!

Happiness is inward and not outward, and so it does not depend on what we have, but on what we are. 

— Henry Van Dyke

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