Friday, January 11, 2008

Getting Discouraged - Part 2 of 4 - Nancy Doyle

Following is the 2nd segment of Nancy Doyle's article,
"Getting Discouraged"


Criticism can come from many quarters; from your roommate, your best friend, your worst enemy, a teacher, an art critic, and more. It can also be hurtful and discouraging, even devastating.

A casual remark can sometimes be disconcerting; "What is that supposed to be?", "That doesn't look anything like me", "It's so green", "This is finished?", "You're not supposed to use blue and red together in a painting". These are remarks made by ordinary people. The words of a teacher or art critic can be even more pointed and powerful. Teachers usually mean well, but sometimes they can say things that are off the beam. I had a teacher who told me that I should not put religious and non-religious items in the same drawing; (I had drawn a religious statue next to a plant.) These suggestions leave you scratching your head; when I was older I looked back and realized that this teacher was completely wrong. Try to put things said in perspective. Not everyone, teachers included, knows what they are talking about. Because they have a position of authority doesn't mean that they are always right. In art school, a painting instructor said that my idea of putting a vase of flowers in a portrait was "too sentimental"; I listened to him, and added an industrial sink instead. I've regretted it since; flowers were part of the expression I was aiming for - an Impressionistic feel for the image, and a direction I wanted my painting to go in. Because of his advice, this direction had to wait another 4 years to begin. Don't let someone waste your valuable time. In particular, don't let someone keep you from doing what you really want to do.

Often, we remember vividly these disparaging remarks - we can quote them, word for word. In art schools, professors sometimes seem to enjoy these putdowns, or at least feel justified in their criticism. I've seen students reduced to tears after a harsh "crit." I have always failed to see what the value of this kind of criticism is; perhaps to discourage a mediocre student from majoring in art. I just feel that none of us is that all-knowing, or has that much authority, that we can afford to break a spirit. Cezanne and Van Gogh, two of the best painters ever, both lacked 'facility' , meaning that nothing came easily for either of them. Their early drawings are very "bad." But this lack of facility proved to be a bonus for them, in that they were forced to produce original work - honest work, not the "polished" stuff of the prize students of their day (whose names are long forgotten).

I once had a student in my drawing class who seemed to have absolutely no perceptual ability. If I set up a still life with a bottle on the left, she would draw it on the right; I began to wonder if she was dyslexic. After a few weeks of class, she came to me in tears, saying that it was hopeless, that she could never learn to draw - she wanted to drop out of the class. She was a dance major; I felt that sooner or later she would be able to bring her dance experience to the drawing class - as the arts are all cousins. I encouraged her to try it for just a few more weeks. The following week, I showed slides of drawings in class. One slide in particular was a da Vinci ink drawing of a copse of trees, a very simple sketch. For some reason, she was inspired by this drawing; she began drawing landscapes outside, and they were wonderful. She was all fired up after that, and her work got better and better. Eventually, she became a drawing teacher herself. This experience proved to me that my feeling about criticism was true - that we never know who will succeed, or when.

Teachers can be very intimidating. An art critic in a newspaper or magazine can also be harmful. Their erudite and critical prose is perhaps designed to impress or intimidate; they perhaps think that their ability to criticize reflects their discriminating taste and sophistication. Far from it. A critic's true job is not to "criticize," but rather to elucidate and illuminate the work. The fact is that very few critics are remembered, whereas many of the artists they have belittled will be remembered forever. The magazine Art News has some really good critics, whose reviews are printed in the back of the magazine. Here it is easy to see the difference between a good and bad critic. One of these well written reviews (not necessarily positive) can also be a work of art - thoughtfully written, insightful, with pertinent background information on the artist and his or her historical context, etc. These enlightened reviewers illuminate the work for us, they help us to understand the artist's intentions and context. To have a negative review in a national publication can be decimating for an artist; I have met artists who experienced this, one of whom almost stopped painting because of it. These reviewers have a lot of power, in that sense; and also because their words in a major publication can "make or break" an artist, in the eyes of galleries, curators, etc. This is not what art is about.

Dealing with criticism:

Consider the source. Does the person have art training or experience? Is the person able to be objective? Does the person have a similar sensibility to me? How intelligent is this person? This goes both ways - if the person is intelligent, has training, has no axe to grind - perhaps some of what they are saying is true. We need to accept criticism without necessarily buying into it, or at least suspend our judgment. We need to consider it, over time, to see if there is anything we can gain from it. We can't take it personally; we can't feel that it renders us worthless as artists or people. If we look at it without our egos, we may glean great insight and help to make our work better. If we look at it in terms of helping us to be better artists - all of us can always be better - we just might find a breakthrough in our work, we might really grow from it. I once had a professor, whom I respected greatly, give frank and specific information about weak points in my work. I could see that he was right, and I was able to absorb and benefit from this information. I felt grateful to him for helping me improve my work. He gave the advice straight-on, without a personal attack at me.

On the other hand, when someone makes a critique into a verbal or personal assault, there is no value to this, to the critic or to the artist. When I read a scathing review, in which nothing positive is mentioned, I smell a rat. Does this person have an axe to grind? Particularly when the artist being roasted is a serious artist, with training, experience and something to say - which happens. Jasper Johns, the well known American artist, was once so roasted by a young, unknown reviewer; where is the value in this? It reveals more about the reviewer than about the artist. There is very little serious art about which nothing good can be said.

Protect yourself. I have found that if I show someone a painting before it is finished, a remark they make might affect the outcome of the work, in a less than positive way. Not just because they might say something critical - even a casual remark may make me think differently about what I am trying to do. Matisse referred to the initial impulse of an artwork as the conception, and recommended that artists remain true to this initial conception. Sometimes a casual remark can alter the execution of the work, particularly because an unfinished painting can look very different from what the final product will be. And in the case of someone being critical of the unfinished work, this may also cause self-doubt or confusion, which may interfere with the artist's state of mind or self-confidence. So I generally recommend not showing half-finished work to anyone, unless they are a trusted friend, or a fellow artist who is familiar with your work.

I also recommend not talking about ideas you have before you carry them out. For some reason, I have found that doing this dissipates the impulse somewhat; like the saying of it eliminates the need to actually make it. Also, in telling someone you take a chance that they may make a disconcerting remark, perhaps discouraging or critical. I've found that we need to nurture ourselves and our work. When the work is finished, then others can see and comment; no matter what they say, the work has been completed and realized, so nothing can alter it.

Be your own worst critic. We need to learn to separate our artwork from our egos. The quality of our work doesn't reflect our value as people. We are all growing and learning; we all need to improve our work. Don't be afraid to look at your work squarely, to find weak spots and negative tendencies. The more we can do this, the better our work will become. Don't try to compete with others - compete with yourself, and with the great artists (aim high). If you are constantly striving to improve your work, by working, by looking at good art, reading about art, talking with others about it, listening to what good artists have to say about the creative process - your work will reflect this personal artistic growth and depth.

This can be done with individual works, and with your work in general. Often when we have been working intensely on an image, we are too close to it and can't see it anymore. If this happens, stay away for a few days; often when you come back, you can spot the problem areas right away. Another trick painters use is to turn the work upside down; sometimes unbalanced design or proportions stick out like a sore thumb. Another way to find the problem area is to cover different areas with your hand or piece of paper; when you find that the rest of the painting works with one area covered, this is your problem area. Then you can try to find alternatives for this area - correct the drawing, change the color or value, eliminate the area, etc.

For general criticism of your work, seek out a respected fellow artist or teacher for honest, constructive advice. As always, you can keep the advice, or discard it; art-making is a process of self-discovery. If it is relevant to you, keep it; if not, discard it. One sign for me is whether the criticism pushes me forward or holds me back; if it demoralizes me enough for me to stop working, I usually discard it. Whatever makes me want to work harder, or inspires me, I hold onto. So, anything that is good for the work stays; anything that is bad for it has to go. We learn about good art by looking at art of the present and past; we look at Cezanne and others, whose work we know to be excellent. The more we learn about good art, the more we can be objective about our own work.

Student versus artist: When we are first learning about art, say the first 5-10 years of study, our goal is to learn as much as possible, to become a good artist (produce good work), and to experiment with new ideas and methods. For this reason, we have teachers and fellow students criticize our work in class, and we study design elements and principles, color theory, drawing, etc. At this stage we are making mistakes, and listening to advice and criticism, with an open mind. After this period, a young artist is still somewhat open, but is now more focused on his or her own vision (what is meaningful to them). We start zeroing in on our vision, we are less self-conscious about our work. We still experiment; but our acceptance of criticism is more selective than before. Finally, when we start to mature as artists, we keep only criticism and advice that is pertinent to our vision. In other words, our goal is not just to produce good work - it is to produce our own work - to produce a body of work that reflects our personal vision. So, now it is not just about correct technique, or good design, or following rules; it is not about formal perfection, or technical perfection. As Bob Dylan said, "I am not a musician - Segovia is a musician - I am an artist." He is not concerned with being the best guitar player, or the best singer; he is concerned with creating the music that will best carry his artistic vision, his view of the universe translated into art.

So when we think of criticism in this sense, it may or may not pertain to our work; if someone doesn't understand what we are trying to express, as mature artists, this means that the criticism is not relevant to us. So we need to discard it.

To read this article in its entirety without having to waitfor me to post the remaining 2 segments:
To learn more about Nancy Doyle and to view her art:

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