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Maria J. William

Growing as an Artist (Part II: Hearing Criticism)

posted by marrael 2011-11-07 23:24:47

I didn't go to art school, for a lot of reasons that were unique to my background and experiences, but when I did take art classes up to college (nothing beyond the 101 level, alas), my art teachers were supportive and encouraging. I do wonder what it would have been like to be an art school graduate, but I also loved the crazy college ride I took (Journalism and a whole smattering of art history, literature and philosophy classes)... and, er... gosh, what was the topic of this entry again? Oh, right--growing as an artist.

The few years I got to attend GenCon (when it was still in Wisconsin!), I made sure to sign up for the Portfolio Review slots offered by Wizards of the Coast art directors. I recognised this was the best, immediate way to show my work to the people I wanted to work for (one day), and to hear how I sucked. (OK, I'll grant no one ever wants to hear how they suck. But if you accept already the idea that you suck, even in the smallest way somewhere somehow, it becomes easier to hear it spelled out.) The slots always had the first name of the art director available to crit your work, and by the time I was signing up, all the slots by A, B, and C had been taken up, and only slots by art director D were available. I shrugged my shoulders at the time, and signed up for a slot with D.

Chances are there may be readers who will one day read this and figure out who D was/is, and I have nothing but respect for this person, who gave me very kind but also objective, well-balanced and helpful feedback, and at a level I could understand at the time (because at the time I was really, in terms of technical level, a n00b). I was enlightened on my strengths (two) but also my main problem areas (also two), and the person really was kind, because I definitely had many weaknesses, some that took me years to figure out. (Maybe art school could have sped up the process.) But I was given just two things (contrast, anatomy) to work on after the review. And I walked away feeling a little disappointed in my work and its reception, but also (mostly) positive, with goals to aim for. Then I tried to share with another aspiring artist at the con my portfolio review experience.

"Who did you get?" was the first question asked of me. I replied, saying it was D.

"Oh no! D is mean! No one likes D. I'm sorry." Or words to that effect. It didn't take me long to realise that there was a reason D's slots were the only ones still available when I signed up. I said D hadn't seemed mean, but had pointed out a lot of flaws.

"Yeah! And that was what D did with me. Kept pointing out the bad stuff! That's why I don't review with D anymore." 

I am, of course, paraphrasing as I can only do 10 years after the fact. Anyway, having seen this artist's work, I could easily imagine, even then, what D would have said about it. I kept my trap shut. But I realised while I had gotten out of the portfolio review exactly what I'd expected and needed (knowledge of what I was lacking, ie. reasons why my dream wasn't yet reality), while this other artist hadn't (same dream, but who knows what expectations). He wasn't alone; I could only conclude all the other artists who hadn't wanted a review by D didn't want to hear bad stuff either. 
The point of this long story (there is one!) is that bad stuff, or criticism, whether provided by others or oneself, is necessary for growth. Anyone who's only ever showered by compliments, or who only wants compliments, may have flaws they'll never know. If they don't get off their own beaten path, not even to risk a few knocks to the ego, it's a slim chance (or a very slow process) that their work will progress beyond what they're comfortable doing. But if growing and improving is part of an artist's aim, then venturing out of the comfort zone is necessary. Hearing criticism is necessary. Listening to that criticism is necessary. Work is necessary--there aren't shortcuts. 

The growing artist has a choice: their "growth energy" can either be put into tearing down critics of their art, or working on understanding the criticism(s) and making their work/style/methods stronger for it. Understanding, and learning to see with the critic's eye is crucial to improving one's art. I will not be the first artist to put forward that learning to make art is a long process of learning how to see. 

Learning how to see will be in the subject of next post in this series.

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Growing as an Artist (Part III: Learning to See, Making It Work) >>