Petrified by rejection

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Dear Artist,

Yesterday, I received an email: “I began my journey at the University of Toledo in Fine Art. Lacking confidence, I switched to Art Education. I felt I couldn’t take the rejection from galleries and shows and what it takes to be a real artist. I just wanted to paint beautiful things — I wasn’t looking for angst or meaning or whatever it is that the experts say makes art. I actually won a scholarship for ‘student with the most promising portfolio’ but, nevertheless, my work wasn’t accepted into the annual student show. I was defeated. I didn’t pick up a brush for seven years. This year I started again — one small painting a day. Suddenly people are showing interest and I’m invited into shows. I had almost given up in despair because I was petrified by rejection — maybe I still am. How does someone get past that?”

kristen-dukat11

untitled
alcohol ink on 4×4 white glazed tile
by Kristen Dukat, 2012

A crisis of confidence happens more often in art school than when folks work on their own. The teaching environment, for many reasons, has the ability to destabilize and bring out fears like the fear of rejection. Not surprisingly, the lone worker is often better able to focus and build an image of self-worth. While the private studio can be a place of self-delusion and misguided progress, it is the freer environment. Artists need private ego-force to thrive.

You can’t blame teachers, and you don’t want to blame yourself. There is someone you can blame — his name is Buggg. Buggg is an incredibly ugly humanoid monster with long spikey wattles hanging from his misshapen face. He’s been with you from when you were a kid. There’s a Buggg that hangs out with all of us. He lurks behind you, walks with you, sleeps with you. His sole aim is to see that you don’t realize your dreams.

At art school your Buggg grew very big and strong. The seven years mentioned was the time it took to knock him down to size. You did it by making those small paintings. Buggg doesn’t like to see those paintings because they put him in his place. Keep making art and your Buggg will grow small and inactive. When you have made a lot more paintings, your Buggg will be quite stiff and you will be no longer petrified.

kristen-dukat10

Wheely Willy and Dreama
6×6 oil on panel
by Kristen Dukat, 2012

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “Evolution has programmed us to feel rejection in our guts. This is how the tribe enforced obedience, by wielding the threat of expulsion. Fear of rejection isn’t just psychological; it’s biological. It’s in our cells.” (Steven Pressfield)

Esoterica: Buggg also wants us to procrastinate, use soporifics, be destructive and to sabotage ourselves. He wants us to fear rather than embrace. He wants us to criticize rather than encourage. He wants us to see evil where there is good and he wants us to demonize others. He wants us to be neurotic and paranoid rather than trusting. He wants us to hate rather than love. Buggg is more than an art problem, he is a menace to all mankind. By knowing about him we are better able to beat him.

This letter was originally published as “Petrified by rejection” on August 2, 2011.

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37 Comments

  1. Thanks for the advice, I need to hear that. Beautiful paintings, I like the little guy on the bike – so adorable. The visual content is so rich and I think, the shadow made the picture. Really enjoyed this post. :-)

    • I too, enjoy gazing at the small but vibrant bicycle painting. At first glance, I thought the background was just there, to fill in space. As I studied the work further, and took in the shadow cast on the blue background , it all came together! Nice work

  2. It is an absolute shame that young artists think that a gallery or art administrator’s acceptance is criteria for a successful career as an artist.

    Having made my living on the sales of my work for thirty seven years, I can truthfully say that my work grew only after I stopped listening to the galleries I was exhibiting in and their “this is what sells”
    directions, and started listening to my own self and painted what I felt.

    The concept of doing your own thing, no matter what level the work is, is being lost to the insistence of gallery representation as a criteria for what is good in art. Artists need to take back and own the creative business, not just businessmen……….what sells is not always soulful, but what an artist paints from their soul always is.

    • All fine and good for you to say don’t listen to galleries, which I don’t, but getting your work seen and perhaps selling some is really tough. I don’t have a gallery, but I have sold some work without mush marketing on my part. I’m fortunate in that the money is less important than the making of my paintings. Most people that see my work like it and some buy right out of my studio. But it would be great to get the kind of exposure a gallery can give.- Steve

    • Well said, Carole. All too often galleries can be a negative force in the development of an artist, especially those just starting out. Not all but, many gallery owners/directors assume the pernicious role of art director resulting in the artist attempting to paint someone else’s idea rather than their own. The young artist might enjoy fleeting success, in the end the result will be frustration , wrenching fear of failure, and loss of confidence in one’s own vision. As the late great Yogi Berra said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up where you don’t want to be.”

    • Carole, Your words are so true. I felt so trapped for awhile, nothing worked. Then I looked beyond the horizon over the near hills, and things began to open. It takes lots of work and listening to the voice deep within.

  3. hey I agree with you about Buggg….he’s always pointing the finger, condemning every move you make. There is no freedom when you listen to his accusations. He will highlight all the faults, and have you imprisoned in a self built hell all your own! in Christian circles, he is called the ‘evil one’, or more specifically the devil, or ‘Satan’…and he is right there, trying his hardest to pull down your self worth.. I don’t listen to him anymore…my bible tells me there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…and if I resist the devil, he will flee! I believe that. Well, anyway, I love your artwork, especially ‘Wheely Willy and Dreama’ However you did it, you brought that little guy to life! He looks like he’s having so much fun, no troubles or cares in the world…just peddling along!

  4. Great letter. Galleries are in the business of making money, not encouraging artists unfortunately. Paint for yourself, and paint a lot. You and those around you will see the growth and confidence. Shows and jurying is subjective. Your work is lovely. Don’t be discouraged

  5. I was happily painting away every day in the garage and turning out a nice selection of landscapes and selling these at local art shows. Then, one day, I decided to improve my technique and knowledge, so I went to a newly formed art school, all smiles.

    There, after two hard years of drawing and painting assignments to please the teachers, I quit. It all seemed a pointless exercise unless your desire was to become an art teacher. Remember the old adage “Those can do, and those who can’t teach!” Well, there was only one teacher at the college who could actually paint and he was the principal., so he ran the show, and I must say that, as a mature student, I had a ball, but I never learned how to paint.

    Sadly, I put my brushes down for fifteen years and moved in another direction. Teachers and institutions can do tremendous harm to sensitive individuals. I would never recommend attending an art school if your aim is to be the artist you were born to be. They say that after ten thousand hours of anything, you will become an expert in your field. The way to paint is to paint. . .

    • Thanks so much for your “lack of confidence” fear of rejection admissions. I love your painting. I have just started doing large canvases. I paint a little on it each day. I never know where it is going but that’s the fun of it. Good luck with getting your work out there. I will be interested in hearing from you again. Thia

  6. Conversely for me, college gave me the confidence to experiment and push myself beyond my self imposed limits. I attended a teacher training college as an art specialist. I had teachers as my lecturers and they knew how to encourage the best out of each of us. Every art student in my year left with distinction. The need to try out new things has never left me, even if that meant I wasn’t necessarily saleable. People like what I do and buy it. Their patronage meant I could open my own gallery and show my own work. Gallery co-operatives are also popular here, with artists sharing the costs of exhibiting as well as the restrictions of ownership.

  7. Thank you for the wonderful article..

    I remember a quote somewhere that said something like…when someone is mean to you, it says nothing about who you are, but a lot about who they are. I know personally that being an artist today is hard; there are so many of us; so do it for the love of it…keep pushing on….never give up….keep learning….and prove them wrong!

  8. I am disappointed to realize that technology is snatching away the need for manual effort in portrait or caricature art. These 3d figurines and all that selfie stuff.
    Do please tell me someone, that I am wrong.

    • It can seem as if technology is making up defunct, but not really. Mass manufactured items are soulless (there’s no heart beating under the plastic). Real art always has a heart. When it comes to portraits; people who’ve never had a decent portrait done of them (from life) have no idea what they really look like no matter how many selfies they take. A talented portrait artist will capture a likeness and the soul. I used to sit around sketching my friends as we talked. I’ll never forget the time I sketched this one friend who had low self-esteem. I handed her the sketch and she just stared at it in shock. “Do I really look like that?” as in did she look that good. Yes, I said. You do. I don’t make people look better. Cameras always distort the face. They never offer a true image though I still love taking photos of people.

  9. I disagree about the teacher comment (and I have taught just a little, so I’m hardly a professional). A good teacher is invaluable. The problem is, a lot of artists have trouble teaching because there’s nothing like doing art to rob us of coherent speech! :-D

    So a good teacher is invaluable:
    someone who knows the skills backwards and forwards and can impart them
    someone who understands we all have our own voice an encourages us to stretch our skills
    someone who can empathize with and nurture our desire as artists to communicate
    someone who can see an error and help us correct it so we don’t “paint ourselves into a corner” and give up out of sheer frustration when we hit a wall.

    I have a canvas painting I’ve been sitting on for a year because I just can’t get the eyes right and don’t want to make it worse! :-D Right now I could use a good teacher. Perhaps I will invoke the ghost of one of my favorite old art teachers, have her peek over my shoulder and tell me what she sees.

    That little “buggg” you speak of really does seem like a demon, but as your post also suggests, it’s a self-protective mechanism. Sometimes it stymies us. But when we listen to & acknowledge its nattering little voice, we can turn the tables on it:
    “Thank you very much for letting me know your concerns. Now, kindly pipe down and stay out of my way.”

    (This is a watered down version of “STFU!”) ;-) So important not to beat ourselves up.

    To just do the work.

    My friend Artifex_Prime has done a phenomenal series of portraits of one man (actor Nathan Fillion, who has a fascinating combination of wild expressiveness and a classically beautiful face). Artifex’s portraits are like the Haystack paintings: all similar, but with amazing differences. She’s working on the 10,000 principle and it’s amazing to see her progress.
    http://artifex-prime.tumblr.com/archive

    • Amen.I was a teacher for 40years from 1st grade to PHD students and all the steps in-between. Not art but math education infused with art. (The connection is obvious if you think about it.) I don’t believe I wasted my life because I couldn’t do anything else.I think my students would agree.

      • I would like to learn more about infusing math learning with art. it is wonderful to hear from someone with so much experience in that area!

        • Karen, Thank you for your positive comments. There is a great article in Wikipedia under mathematics education and art. N. B. Tessellations, my favorite, Here students can create their own pattern to tessellate. (as in Escher) While also discovering which geometric shapes tessellate.

      • Good teachers are beyond measure! They lift you up, help you to stand on your own, and point you on your way! Remember, if you are able to read this, you can thank a teacher!

  10. William Burrell on

    Enjoyed your article. I was a college art teacher for 34 years, before I retired. When I began I kept in mind that I always wanted to uplift rather than beat down. Some would say “that’s no way to help students grow.” I would disagree of course. I have always felt that building only goes “up” and oppressive criticism only tears down. In the course of 34 years I had many students who wanted to improve and many did. I also had many students who turned to blaming others, failing to do the “work,” and laboring under the delusion that talking was learning. Sadly they often did not improve. The weren’t bad people they just didn’t really have the idea of what they wanted or needed to do. Most of us struggle with rejection.it isn’t util we realize that we work for work. We make art because that is what we are driven to. Those who are popular and talented are doubly blessed. But acclaim alone will never be enough.

  11. Teaching art for many years was truly a dream come true for me. Working as an artist has allowed me to give away what I know, practising what I preach.

    I have come to know that there is good and bad (bugg) in every aspect of life. We can make the monsters big or small in our own situations. For me, critical feedback helped me to grow as an artist. Often we don’t want to hear the negative in our work, but when we allow opportunities to really listen to what others say, we can put it in our back pocket to retrieve when needed next time. Accept critical feedback as a tool and grow as an artist. Would you rather do the same method for 20 years only wishing someone told you sooner?

  12. I painted portraits on my own until I saw thatI did not know how to paint the darks. Then I studied with Dan Greene for five years and learned how to paint in oils and pastels. It showed me that one good teacher was worth fifty books on the subject. However after leaving Dan I had to stop trying to paint like him and develop my own wayof painting the face and figure. That has taken me a lifetime and at 88 years I am still at it and loving what comes up from within. I think the most important thing is to believe in yourself. Caulder said , “If I like it that is all that matters.” So I put that quote in my studio and if I like it it is OK and ifI don’t like it I gesso over it. I do like both of your paintings , especially the brilliant colors. So believe in yourself and keep on painting !!!

    • I call bullshit on you “working with” ANY professional artist for five years. This whole “studied under” bullshit artists spout off these days is getting on my nerves.

  13. The art world is full of teachers who can hardly paint themselves. This is now so common and I can site a bucket full of names. The only thing that can truly teach you to paint is yourself. Paint often and look at how the experts paint. Don’t spend years at art school – spend years painting as much as you can and picking up tips from those who know how.
    Painting for a living involves producing work that other people like. We must like it and others must like it.

  14. I am an art teacher and artist and love every moment of teaching. It is the greatest joy to see a student’s eyes light up when a painting works. I always encourage and often ask my students where they think the painting could be improved. My philosophy is to point out all the good things in a work – nice colours , shapes, composition etc. I then point out the improvements that could be made to give the work that extra ‘umphh’ – just a few tweaks here and there. I know how important painting is to me and my passion is see more and more folk painting , drawing etc and enjoying the process.

    • Absolutely perfect! You get it, Chammi! Points For improvement, as they say at Toastmasters, not criticism. What a difference the framing of words can make. In the TM club I belonged to, the members were given little pieces of paper to provide written points for improvement to the speaker at the end of his/her presentation. Those little PFIs, framed positively, were what I looked forward to more than anything. I clipped them all together and then I would study them carefully to learn where and how I could improve. Then I would try to implement them in my next speech.

      Fortunately for me, when I started painting in later life, the art instructors who came into my life embraced the teaching philosophy that you do. And that has made all the difference…….

      Cheers,

      Verna

  15. Shelley Ashfield on

    Thanks for the letter – it described the story of my life.
    I am 53 and I’ve conquered many things: I regularly speak in public; I write; I paint; I choreograph and dance; I learn new things on the job all the time…but the dark root – expecting to be rejected and acting defensively – never quite went away. The husband called me on it one more time yesterday evening – after 26 years of marriage. And I told him what had happened to me in school. Again and again, from the time I stepped into kindergarten on. Finally it made sense to him, and he didn’t blame me for it.

  16. It’s also possible to deal with Buggg directly. Two excellent books on the topic, with very different approaches (one or the other might work for you) are “Taming Your Inner Gremlin” by Rick Carson, and “Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within” by Ron Brown. Brown’s book, in particular, has helped me turn Buggg into an ally rather than a judge.

  17. I loved the article and the comments. The “bugg” brought to mind the image of a large Charles Demuth looking spider living on my back…when did it start weaving a suffocating cocoon over my head? And how did I let it get so thick? Those horrible experiences of rejection can do so much damage. I really appreciate reading the experience of the artist who put down their paintbrush for fifteen years…and then picked it up again. We can do it! :)

    The comment about the art teachers really made me think over my own experiences. I’ve had a mixed bag of creative teachers. Some were great teachers who helped me improve, some acted like it was their mission to destroy me. I’ve never realised it before, but the teachers who were really good at teaching were invariably talented artists who were creating work they loved. The not so helpful teachers own work was mediocre or they were obviously creatively unhappy doing stilted work and they seemed to delight in wounding young artists. Sad people! With hindsight I wish I’d been able to serve as apprentice and work seven years learning my craft. That would have been far more cheaper and far less emotionally destructive.

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