One of the toughest critics I ever encountered almost ruined my art career, before it had really begun. I was 28 years old and had just returned to school to finish my degree. I told myself, if I started back to university with just art classes alone (I was a journalism major), this would be my reward for navigating the “terrifying” registration process. Along with color theory assignments in acrylics, I began painting prolifically in watercolor. With the energy of the young, I was carrying 22 hours per semester, preparing a thesis on Giacometti as an independent study, and all while working full time as the editor of a small community newspaper in Kaufman, Texas. My boss had given me permission to attend full time, squeezing in studies at night and on weekends and between work assignments. My dream was to leave journalism behind and become a docent at a museum, with a PhD in art history. Some of my art teachers were encouraging and shared their passion for painting, others were less so.
I scraped pennies together to frame my watercolors (an expensive endeavor with mat and glass also being necessary) and began showing my work. I began selling my watercolors, and trading paintings for furniture. The painting process itself became more important than the dream of being a docent, and this is the point when I met the critic for the first time. She was at my first art show, and even though she knew how nervous I was, she pulled no punches. My work was not worthy, it looked nothing like the masters, and I would do well to consider giving up painting completely. She explained that I was a writer by trade, so I had no business trying to shift gears so late in life, and besides, I would never be able to catch up with the artists who started seriously pursuing their work in their 20s. She reminded me that most female artists do not pay the water bills and the mortgage with their art, they marry husbands whose paychecks allow them to pursue art. She looked pointedly at my bare wedding finger when she said this.
Then she began to pick apart one of my paintings, noting every detail that was wrong with it, and why it was unwise to have hung the piece in a public show. If you’ve ever encountered this awful critic, I hope she did not bring you to tears, as she did me, at the end of that long day. The good news is, she didn’t change my mind about art at all. But she sure helped me to build my backbone. She did slow me down quite a bit, causing me to stay in writing for another 15 years before taking the full time plunge into painting. When I was 45 years old, we became friends, and she encourages me now, instead of tearing me down, each time I finish a new painting. I would say we are even partners now. Things have changed a great deal. Who was this unrelenting, horrid, unforgivable art critic? She was me.
The biggest challenge in pursuing my dream was self-doubt. Until I kicked the doubt out of my studio, the journey was like a boxing match with a pro. If you’re currently wrestling with your inner critic, create a safe zone in your studio where no criticism is allowed. Give yourself permission on Tuesdays, for example, to paint anything you desire, on canvas paper, to be thrown away at the end of the day. Even if you have to draw a line around your easel with pink chalk, find a way to make it crystal clear that the judge and everything negative has left the room. Don’t get me wrong, the value of being an artist and selling work and having technically correct paintings is important. But what will keep you painting is the positive energy you feel each time you finish a new work. The more you love to paint, the more you paint. The more you paint, the better you become. And, suddenly, you are painting for all the right reasons. If you learn to quell that critical inner voice, you’ve found the last, most important tool that cannot be taken away by anyone: Joy.
Have you ever encountered an art critic who made you feel unworthy? I want to hear your story, you brave, fearless, beautiful artist, you! Everyone who leaves a comment will be entered to win a pad of archival Canvas paper and an original print of Bianca Terra White Sunflower, painted plein air in Le Marche, Italy. I’ll announce the winner next week right here!
PS – See all the sights of my recent trip to Italy in my new monthly online class, The Joyful Brush, in Petal Perks! Learn more here…