Art director


Dear Artist,

Back in my days of freelance skirmishes on the periphery of the advertising business, I was often confronted with a person known as “Art Director.” Apart from making occasional good suggestions, this individual would change copy, fonts, illustrations and otherwise red-pencil my brilliance. Time and again I was sent back to the drawing board. One time I had devised a program for a meat packer that involved billboards with a huge wiener being carried off by cute little cartooned picnicking ants. He removed the ants. “One does not want to draw attention to the negative side of picnics,” he told me. It was about this time that I decided that the advertising game was not for me.

Valuable lessons were learned in those atmospheric offices: However wrong, a second opinion is always interesting. However stupid, anything can be discussed. However wonderful, my greatest ideas — for some reason or other — might never see the light of day. As I was already out and about showing my paintings, I had come to the conclusion that the trick for fine artists was to have their own art director built in. While my wildest fantasy might be followed with impunity, the internal director was a useful partner and true friend who never got on my nerves or spoiled my fun. I rather came to like him. He was more sober than I, and he had a mature wisdom and taste that won my respect. He often suggested that I try harder and reach farther. And while he shot down a few of my “impossible projects,” I credit him with saving myself a lot of heartbreak.

Keeping the company of my internal art director also taught self-reliance and self-motivation. At any time of day or night I could enter his office. Being another part of me, he was always willing to make suggestions, give council or criticize current efforts. It was like looking without fear into a mirror. These two guys, well suited as partners, shone back at me. The Eastern mystic Rumi has said, “It is criticism that polishes your mirror.” I began to see that many admirable artists have also lived with a mirror and a similar dual nature. With superb levels of self-criticism and self-governance, they have strategically and tactfully raised themselves. Brilliant creators are simply folks who are brilliantly self-critical.

Best regards,


PS: “Tell me what company thou keepest, and I’ll tell thee what thou art.” (Miguel de Cervantes)

Esoterica: Many artists fear criticism and tighten up when they think they are going to get it. Learning to live with criticism is part of creative maturity. Advertising agencies thrive on it. Proper agency people may even become dependent on others for creative decision-making. When agency folks retire and become self-anointed artists, and I know lots of them, they often have trouble rationalizing the transition to self. At the same time many have learned to have no fear of criticism, self or otherwise. This is a good thing. “If criticism had any power to harm, the skunk would be extinct by now.” (Fred Allen)


Sober vs. Upstart directors
by Susan Avishai, Ottawa, ON, Canada


illustration for a children’s book by artist

Sometimes I think my own sober internal Art Director has too much influence. I need a little risk-taking Upstart sitting on the other shoulder whispering in my ear — Take a chance! Whaddya got to lose? Make a mess this time! Try something new and outrageous! The “mature and tasteful” Art Director seems to want me to continue doing what I do well, what sells, what’s likely to get shows. But the Upstart forces new growth.





Sensible choice of Art director
by Amber L Lycan, Winchester, VA, USA

I like this idea of having an internal art director to guide ideas and bodies of work. However, for some of us, this “inner critic” gets the upper hand, has a brutal disposition and nothing ever pleases him/her. Thankfully, it’s a temporary situation and can be rectified. If one’s inner critic/art director is like this, then the “artist” self begins to self-censor overmuch and becomes conditioned to not taking risks which are part of the creative process. It should be noted that the “artist” self does have a choice of “art directors.” Cultivating one who can be kindly objective with criticism, yet ruthlessly honest seems like a sensible path.


Tail wags dog
by Cindy Revell, Sherwood Park, AB, Canada


“A Fine Balance”
oil on canvas
by Cindy Revell

Before I went to work on my own as an illustrator and fine artist I worked as designer and illustrator for a company where I was told by the client that the dog’s happy, wagging tail looked too threatening. My best ideas were generally discarded while the rest were mucked, muddled, added to, subtracted from and generally messed with so badly that I would never want to admit to having had anything to do with them. Even now I occasionally get a client that makes changes that remind me of that dog’s threatening tail wag, but fortunately not too often.


Vision, production, and acceptance
by Geoffrey Jamieson, Calgary, AB, Canada

Your letter goes to almost the ground floor of artistic endeavour. The primary basis is always the vision, that exciting and indescribable urge to produce a specific work. Then comes consideration of the array of possible ways, techniques, materials and tools, followed by the actual production. The vision and the production must constantly interact, the latter questioning how well it is reflecting the former. But there is one additional factor that must be considered if the artist wants the work and his vision to have the best possible chance of being understood and/or accepted by others. A sentence from the Paris Review, although referring to writers, equally applies to artists: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”


Create your own challenges
by Don Getz, New Albany, IN, USA


“Goat Island”
watercolour painting
by Don Getz

After being away from the ad agency ‘life’ for 26 years, I was swooned back to it in January of 2004, with the promises of grandeur; an automobile book publisher’s art director. The life hasn’t changed and two years was enough for me. I’m again ‘spreading my wings’ — back to the easel and to my workshop travels. I have decided that you have to create your own ‘security blanket’ and go from there, accepting and creating your own challenges. And yes, it takes a lot of personal drive. I try to start a new painting late in the day, knowing that it is waiting for me in the morning and that usually gets me to the easel sooner than anything else. I’m still struggling with controlling time on the computer — that is a challenge!


Reflection guide
by Bob Abrahams, Australia


“Keene’s Point”
oil on board
by Bob Abrahams

Regular reflection on the progress of a project such as a recent painting or even as a daily reflection before retiring to bed on a day’s activities can be helpful to learning and planning. A suggested reflection guide would involve asking yourself the following questions:

What did I achieve?
What worked well and why?
Where could I have done better and how?
What will I do differently next time and why?
What resources or external assistance do I need to achieve?

In the reflection process there are no mistakes, only learning experiences. No self-judgements, criticism or self-pity — just get on with it.


Enlisting critics
by Cathmar Prange, Riverside, IA, USA

Regarding the art director, anyone who visits me must also visit my studio for a critique of my current project. Some are afraid they’ll hurt my feelings or say something stupid. I reassure them that we are in a conversation here about something I am not in love with. Some people who say they have no art experience offer good suggestions. Even people who say, “but I don’t know anything about art,” will tell me what they think if prodded with specific questions about their reactions. “Hey,” I tell them, “You don’t need to know anything about art. I’m the painter. You just need to see.” Then that internal art director you describe sifts the comments and figures out how to incorporate them, or not to incorporate them.


Happy to have him
by Michal Ashkenasi, Israel


“Fruit in Green”
by Michal Ashkenasi

Seems to me we have the same Art Director! Mine also is not always happy with my work and after I hang the work to dry for a couple of days, he/me looks it over with a new eye and there are lots of times he says to me: girly, this is not your best work! And the end of the matter is: I take it down and begin again, mostly with good results. I think it is the kind of mood we are in when we work. But I’m happy to have him with me as he does his work very well!




Self-emails for fresh critique
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA


“Night’s Mission”
watercolour painting
by Jeanne Long

I came upon the idea to e-mail a painting to myself as if I were being asked to criticize someone else’s work. I wanted to have my work go to an eager (and helpful) audience. Something surprising happened. I found out that I saw the painting with fresh eyes when it hit my in-box. I could see the flaws that I couldn’t see when I sent it, but had just vaguely sensed. I then proceeded to make the changes I deemed necessary and sent it off again — to myself — and repeated this process until I was happy with what I received. I think this has sharpened my own awareness and it has also kept me from burdening my online friends.



Living with ‘The Censor’
by Cathy Boyle, Halifax, NS, Canada

How do you differentiate between your Art Director and Julia Cameron’s Censor? It’s interesting that as I have been working through her book The Artist’s Way, and have been doing my daily (er…bi-weekly) journaling, I have become so much more aware of the voice inside my head that tells me what is wrong with my artistic ideas. Yet, I know that some of what that voice tells me is useful and I think that’s where your thoughts meld nicely with Julia’s. I guess my Censor might just have a split personality; what do you think?

(RG note) Thanks, Cathy. Similar idea, different names.


So much variety
by Karoll Dalyce Brinton, Sherwood Park, AB, Canada


“Mt. Athabasca at Columbia Icefields”
art print
by Karoll Dalyce Brinton

Art is such a personal thing that it’s an arduous task to advise anyone on what quality is. My own personal tastes cause me to look at some master artists’ work like I’ve just taken a spoonful of Buckley’s cough medicine. Other work, masterfully executed, sits in a corner of a gallery, barely recognized. The end result of my reflection produces a hairstyle unlike anything seen in a Vogue ‘avant garde’ magazine. More like my cat’s claw sharpening a totem pole. One of my gallery curators raves on and on about one artist whose work looks primitive, lack-lustre, and juvenile. While pounding my forehead about composition and loosening up, I think she’s just rather full of herself and has forgotten to take her sub-lingual lithium for the day. Nonetheless, I appreciate her and her business and “suck it up” for the sake of long-term business relationships. The only hand rail I count on with regard to being my own art director, is how each image makes me feel when I see it or think about it. If I cannot wait to paint or draw my next subject, that’s my inner director telling me that this would be good for me. What is good for me will connect me with the art directors and collectors that resonate with a similar passion for what is collectively perceived as beautiful. It is wonderful that there is so much variety for all of us to enjoy and appreciate.


Giving the art director a voice
by Kim Fancher Lordier, San Francisco, CA, USA


“Rugged Sunrise”
pastel on archival paper
by Kim Fancher Lordier

Educated at an academy in illustration, I took my portfolio, put it under my bed, and promptly became a flight attendant, never actually working under/with an art director. My internal director was not useful, quite condescending and very negative. For fifteen years I listened to her explain that I was not creative and had no internal drive and would never measure up, so I stayed in a safe comfort zone with my art — no exploration, no excitement, quite competent, but not incredible. Self-analysis was lacking on my part. I had great external support and a never-ending supply of, “Wow, this is beautiful, thank you, you are so talented,” but without belief, these kind words drift off and leave one empty. Similar to a shop-a-holic experiencing an immediate sense of gratification with a purchase, but the high ends abruptly and you are left with an empty feeling in your gut.

The external art director — an employer, a friend, a lover and/or mentor, serves many functions as critic, oppressor, supporter, inspiration… but until you give your internal director a voice, and that voice is positive and supportive, critical and inspirational, and most importantly allows you to fail without fear, the outside director can have too much influence and power over you. You are blessed to have found your internal director earlier than some. I have finally found mine and my future is bright, promising and explorative.


First art director was grandfather
by Scott Pynn, St. John, NB, Canada


“Deep Snow”
art print
by Scott Pynn

When I first started painting years ago I despised criticism. I would slave away for hours upon hours to produce what I thought was a great painting. My grandfather, who is also an artist, would always be the first to see it. We had a little ritual of placing the painting on the dining room table to view. He would look through squinted eyes, scanning, observing. He would get in real close then stand back, he would adjust the lights and squint again at another angle. The whole time I would sit, waiting for him to look at me and tell me it was perfect. He would look at me with a proud little smile and say that it was a beautiful painting but… my trees were wrong, my perspective was off, or “why didn’t you fix that little smudge?” a smudge so tiny that only he would ever notice. Disappointed by his harsh review I would snatch my painting up from the table and stamp back to the drawing board. I developed a mentality for perfection; my goal was to beat him to the punch. I worked even harder and over the years when we would have our dining room viewings there would be more praise than criticism, but he would always point out something I could have done better. It is because of his critical observation that I am now able to make a living from painting. Now when I am just about to declare a painting finished, I stand back and look for all the little smudges only Grandfather would see. When I fix those mistakes I can say my work is done. But even when the painting is hanging in a frame I can hear a little voice echoing in my head saying, “It’s beautiful, but you could have done that better.”


Art director guides design
by Mary Medrano, San Jose, CA, USA


“Blue Face”
acrylic on canvas
by Mary Medrano

I decided that the advertising game was not for me either, however, for a different reason. I was an Art Director at an advertising agency before I became a painter. I remember many meetings where I would listen to some unqualified person give their opinion about typography, design, color or any number of things. Every meeting turned into a lesson in design. After ten years of working in that field I got tired. I decided it was time for a change. The business is an excellent background for painting not only for being able to withstand a critique person to person, but for the knowledge of design. I see many good paintings that are lacking in design, and think about how they could be improved if the painter knew a little about design. So I look to that previous career as very important and am thankful for those people who knew little to nothing about design because it has helped me get to where I am today.


Hazards of editorial help
by Robert Wolff, Kea’au, HI, USA

My very first exposure to the art director phenomenon came many years ago, when an acquaintance, who taught “writing” at a small college, gave me 12 names of people who would be able to “give me hints about how to market my writing.” I sent out 12 manuscripts, got 11 back. The first one said something like, I like the book, but chapter 9 has to go! The second one said, I like chapter nine, but for heaven’s sake get rid of the rest; maybe you can rewrite the whole thing around chapter 9. What does one do in such circumstances? I decided I must be my own art director and self-publish. Then I discovered that authors are also supposed to be marketers. I let go, let the book find its own path through this strange world. It did, and eventually the rights were bought by a “real” publisher, who said they would do a “light edit.” The light edit meant every other sentence had to be changed. It was obvious that the editor did not understand what the book was about. The title was changed by a combination of two committees, the marketing and sales departments of the publisher.





The Welcoming Party

oil on linen painting
by Liz Reday, CA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Dar Hosta of Flemington, NJ who wrote, “I never completely like anything that I am working on until it is at least to the half-way mark. Now I know that this may be a result of my inner art director, and, boy, is she a staunch one, keeping me on my toes. Our inner art directors also temper our egos and help to keep us humble.”

And also oliver who wrote, “Artists need multiple personalities — the creator, the critic, the exhibitionist/showman, the leader, the empath, the introverted self aware/explorer, the business person. Many of these are not consistent with each other, but an artist needs to drive them to the extreme in order to be successful.”

And also Kate Jackson of Merced, CA, USA who wrote, “The other scary thing about coming from an ad background is that at first we try to paint for the market. A big mistake, I found. It does take a long time and a lot of paint to become our own artist.”

And also Charles Hoffmann of Michigan, USA who wrote, “Good design is self evident and needs little or no change or further criticism.”




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