The brush-off


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Deborah Ridgley of Cincinnati, Ohio wrote, “I just submitted a body of work to a club and got rejected. They said something like, ‘You obviously have talent — however, we did not like your backgrounds.’ I’m trying to brush myself off and pick up a brush again. It’s hard.”

Thanks, Deborah. Everybody here knows what you’re talking about. Here are a few thoughts. A while ago my son Dave told his best friend Brad that he was going to ask a beautiful television personality, Tamara Taggart, to go out with him. Brad said, “Are you nuts? She won’t go out with you.” Nevertheless, Dave asked her. After a while she went on a date with him. Dave and Tamara soon began to see things in each other that weren’t evident on the surface. Curiosity turned to friendship, glitter turned to love. Last Saturday night Dave and Tamara were married. Brad was best man.

There are several points of interest here. Dave, a professional musician, was totally used to rejection. Secondly, he was prepared to be patient. Thirdly, he knew that character and quality, when present, generally get noticed sooner or later.

The problem arises when we start to think that rejection is going to be a big deal. It isn’t. Juror decisions, for example, are only opinions. In the arts, opinions are among the cheapest of commodities — and often among the most stupid. What is important is a forthright direction on the part of the artist — a kind of intelligent foolhardiness that can drive a creative person to fine tune at his or her own speed. While this growth, style development and character are sometimes noticed by even the more highly educated critics, what has more lasting value is how ordinary people connect. Fact is, ordinary people are perfectly clever at spotting the good stuff. This democratic opinion can be had in a barber shop or any commercial gallery. It may take subterfuge to get into one, but that’s where the action is.

Our human landscape is overburdened with competitions and contests. Art need not be a contest. Art is a personal quest for quality. Quality is the forerunner of acceptance. Character is the forerunner of quality. Be your own discriminating connoisseur. It’s this understanding that can take you down the aisle to creative happiness.

Best regards,


PS: “I really wish I was less of a thinking man, and more a fool who’s not afraid of rejection.” (Billy Joel)

Esoterica: Another approach, particularly for those among us who are Highly sensitive persons, is to simply avoid potential rejection. Don’t put your stuff out there in anything but a commercial environment. In this environment it’s the dealer who gets the rejections. Believing in you, a dealer goes to work to influence the public — one at a time. Because you’re not personally present, you’re unlikely to get a personal brush-off. Art dealing — one of the oldest professions — leads to pleasant, anonymous “green feedback,” and leaves the artist to be as freely foolish as might be necessary for a happy life.


Set a rejection quota
by Brian L. Jones, Cortaro, AZ, USA


“Toward Apache Wind”
oil painting
by Brian L. Jones

We artists need to turn rejection on its head. If we are not getting any rejections this month, either our last name is Wyeth or we are not positing our work before the world. We ought to rather set a rejection quota for each month or year. I believe it was Henri who noted that nobody went looking for Leonardo. I must believe my work contains value enough to place it before the world or go back to square one.

“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” (Robert Henri)


Best paintings sell first
by Sharon Pitts, Montclair, NJ, USA


“Magnolias II”
watercolour painting
by Sharon Pitts

I have been in the art world for over 30 years and have experienced most of the positive and negative that can happen to an artist. One behavior that I have always indulged in when rejected is to throw the rejection slip away and keep painting. It has proved a very good idea. The other is to honestly consider the opinion of the juror and ask myself if there is any truth to be learned from their comments. Having been a juror, I know how difficult it is to choose a high quality, balanced show from the submissions. Lastly, I must agree that the general public is a lot smarter than generally believed. My best paintings sell first.


Heard on the street
by Aleta Pippin, Santa Fe, NM, USA


“Inspired Response”
oil painting
by Aleta Pippin

I belong to the Santa Fe Society of Artists. During the summer, we are out almost every weekend from May to the middle of October selling our art in a street venue. When you sell your art in this sort of venue, you hear all of the comments. It’s as if the person standing in the booth doesn’t have ears. Some people are extremely insensitive, saying things like, “My child could have done that.” You do develop a thick skin, learning that one person will reject your art, while another will love it.

The only question that an artist needs to ask is “Am I going to stop painting because of someone else’s opinion?” If you love what you’re doing, nothing should be able to stop you.


Sorry — or is that congratulations?
by Sharon Himes, Snow Hill, MD, USA


“Dragon’s Dawn”
watercolour painting
by Sharon Himes

Some years ago a professional artist friend sent a slide into a competition. Weeks later, she had forgotten she had entered, so sent in another slide of the same painting. When the jurying was done she received a “Sorry, you were not accepted” letter and in the mail a few days later a “Congratulations, you’re in” letter. The juror had first rejected, and then selected the exact same work!



Suit of shame
by James Culleton, Montreal, PQ, Canada

Rejection is a part of my practice. In tribute to this, I’ve been collecting my letters of rejection in a book I’ve called The Book of Shame, more of something I can flip through as a reminder of all the things that I aspire to rather than something I feel bad about. The flip side of this book is The Book of Fame, where I have collected all of my successes. Having both of these items as reminders have been an important part of my development as an artist, a reminder to continue applying, and to continue practicing art regardless of countless rejections. My eventual project with these letters is to make a suit of shame. A flimsy suit of paper rejection letters that I could wear to an appointment to protect me from further shame.


Get tough first
by Mary L. Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“Cloud Burst”
oil painting
by Mary L. Moquin

Artists shouldn’t enter the arena of competitions until they are tough enough to realize it is only opinion and not a reflection on their worth. It is equally dangerous to lull yourself into thinking you are ‘great’ just because you get into or place in a show. Georgia O’Keeffe once said something about being her own critic, and that others’ praise or criticism all go down the same drain. I think that is good advice. Staying true to your unique vision instead of chasing the opinions of others is often difficult. We all want to be accepted, but in the end it is the truly original that are remembered. Art is a game of endurance. Only the tough and dedicated, that keep striving, survive.


Integrity acknowledges all contradictions
by Suzanne Partridge, United Kingdom


oil painting
by Suzanne Partridge

The only goal in life is to live up to your own integrity. This you should strive for regardless of the approval of others. So why then am I spending another fortune (£300) to get decent slides of my work, plus all the entry fees, to enter another batch of painting competitions? The “judges” will view my slides for a fraction of a second before losing them, and then pocket my entry fee. Maybe achieving recognition is my goal. As long as I keep getting rejected, I know I must be doing something right. My integrity must acknowledge all my contradictions.


From where the sun shines
by Gregory Packard, Ranchester, WY, USA


“Gathering Sunshine”
oil painting
by Gregory Packard

One of the great joys of painting is being able to express yourself in an unbridled manner, to be yourself in spite of what anybody and everybody else thinks, including the so-called experts. When an artist gives that freedom away, her art goes from being a manifestation of the soul to a manifestation of the ego. You may as well till up the garden when in full bloom because at that point it’ll no longer grow anything that is nourishing. I think most of us find this out the hard way. Most artists must take this time-honored journey. Artists have a choice to make — to be nourished from the inside (their heart) or from the outside (the world). Choosing the heart does not mean an artist has to be a recluse and avoid joining clubs or entering shows. Rather, it is simply a matter of recognizing from where the sun shines.


Boot Camp for Rejection
by Minaz Jantz, Vancouver, BC, Canada


Minaz Jantz

Weekend work for 4 years as a demo-queen serving out free sips of liquor was boot camp for rejection. Unbelievable as it seems when those of us say nothing is free and voila!… I had a job giving away something really for free. The hundreds of rejections I would receive on weekends were staggering. My boss said I was one of his best demo women and had great sales. Instead of taking it as a slap in the face I learned to creatively detach to study all the different ways people would reject me — their body language, face contortions, and responses. Yes, my artwork still gets rejected for even the most ridiculous responses. It pinches for a minute and then I remember why I am an artist. Get even, get happy.


Problems with backgrounds
by Melissa Elliott, Encino, CA, USA

In your reply to Deborah today, the one thing you didn’t address is the possibility that there may be a problem with her backgrounds. The first thing the art teacher with whom I study has always emphasized is not to paint your foreground and background as if they are two separate entities, but to address the entire canvas (or piece of paper or whatever) simultaneously — to work on both foreground and background together as you proceed through the piece from start to finish. That way, it doesn’t look as if you did the foreground/subject of the piece and then put the rest in as an afterthought, but rather as if it were planned as one organic whole, which is the objective. It sounds like simple advice, but is surprisingly hard to achieve for most of us, who are used to thinking of the subject as all-important and the background as, well, background! It might be useful to Deborah not to take their criticism to heart so that it makes her stop painting, but nonetheless to give credence to the idea that they might be onto something and take a critical look herself at the unity of her work. All criticism, just or unjust, is an opportunity for reflection and change.


Revisiting artwork
by Cathy Morton, New Zealand

I too have just had the brush-off from an art competition. The day that I got that letter I felt rather down about it, even though I had said to myself all along that it wasn’t that important. Because of this I was determined to combat the flat feeling as I had other work I wanted to do and couldn’t think about it while I was feeling low. So I went and visited some of my artwork that friends had commissioned me to do. (A piece I had only finished a week before) Because it hadn’t been around me long before I gave it away, it was fantastic to see it again hanging on someone’s wall in their pride of place, and it just picked my spirits back up again.


Why bother?
by Faith Puleston, Wetter, Germany


original painting
by Faith Puleston

At the moment, the popular TV series Superstar is running here in Germany. Each week one of the candidates is voted out by receiving the least number of votes from the phone-in. And every week they pick the weakest performer of those still in the race, independently of what the jury has had to say. The ordinary TV public, mostly without any qualification except their personal preferences, rejects one of those singers. So what! No comfort for the loser? What about those who did vote for him or her? They count, too and in the end they may be right. In other words, it’s pretty well potluck whether what you do is going to be liked. So why bother about the inevitable?


Accepted or not, we’re stronger
by Sue Shuker, Ottawa, ON, Canada

As a lead member and head of exhibitions for the 5-year-old Ottawa Mixed Media Artists, we have discussed the pros and cons of juried exhibitions endless times. While the journey to personal satisfaction with our work should be less concerned with the opinions of others, and more an expression of our own selves, there are other factors at work. In order to sell our work, and make back some small portion of our cost, we need to find a suitable venue to show it to its best advantage. A ‘good’ venue will bring in the buyers and the people who are in a position to offer us other venues which will again, hopefully, bring in the buyers. Obviously any artist who wishes to be seen, or to sell, needs a good venue now and again. Because of the huge number of artists and the small number of venues, there has to be some way of deciding who gets in.

As a group, we wish to put our best face forward for the reputation which we want to develop, the respect we feel due, and for the new members we wish to attract. So we take part in juried shows and in the process, inevitably, feelings are hurt. I have always felt that no juror can avoid the immediate reaction of personal taste.

While I have been rejected by jurors myself (and was certainly hurt and angry the first time), I believe that whether we are accepted or not, it makes us stronger. We create a piece of artwork and believe in it and ourselves enough to throw it to the lions. We are prepared to argue that it is good, if not exceptional, work and this reinforces our own self-worth. It’s unfortunate that most of the time we are unable to actually argue any points with jurors, but that’s another matter…


Payoff for HSP
by William Lathrop, Evansville, WI, USA


“Northern Lake”
oil painting
by William Lathrop

I would classify myself as a highly sensitive person. I bet a larger percentage of artists are highly sensitive than the 15% of the general population. I think this sensitivity is perhaps what helps lead us to the artistic discoveries we make. I have found that when I am rejected, and it happens often, rather than becoming depressed, I become more determined — determined to show those who rejected me what a big mistake they made. Get mad, and show them — it can be very motivating.


‘Museum’ art different
by Petra Voegtle, Munich, Germany


“Putri Dedes”
wood carving
by Petra Voegtle

I disagree with this letter and I think you are contradicting your own words. Comparing human relationships with people’s attitude towards art reveals certain similarities. It is true that in today’s society people look for superficial qualities rather than inner values. People have lost patience and willingness to invest in a relationship — instead expectations are high and if those are not fulfilled the consequences are clear. Your example is only one of those rare exceptions.

There is a big difference whether you are talking about commercial or “museum” art. The attitude towards commercial art goes a similar way as mentioned above: instead of looking for quality and refraining on a few valuable pieces, people are rather looking for cheap deals — the more the better. Therefore I really doubt that “ordinary people are perfectly clever at spotting the good stuff” and that quality is a key to the majority. Instead, it is rather trend and hype mostly driven by the media and special connections. Patrons with well-filled purses are normally looking for speculative objects. Badly advised, those investments may easily end up in a bubble. Investments in an emerging artist are rare — very rare. Quality can be the key here. But I doubt that the “ordinary people” really are prepared to pay for quality in art because buying art is driven by emotion and sentiment — not objective judgment. I even doubt that people really check out a piece for its workmanship and whether it may last a couple of months or 100 years. I bet if you offer two similar pieces, the choice would be for the cheaper not the qualitative better (and more expensive).

This said I still consider creating quality in art as a part of character in a person that deserves recognition and appreciation one day.


Window of three minutes for a song
by Micki Fuhrman, Nashville, TN, USA


“Back Porch Torch”
album cover
by Micki Fuhrman

I am a songwriter in Nashville. I’ve gotten a few “cuts” by recording artists and I’m trying to create a little buzz with a CD collection of new works titled Back Porch Torch. In these songs, I attempt to paint my impressions of rural landscapes passing by car windows, capture the shadows on old faces, and freeze that moment when emotion turns from hopelessness to love… or vice versa. My “canvas” is a window of about three minutes of time. Rejection is a commodity that runs deep in the mean streets of Nashville. I couldn’t let another week go by without thanking you for the many times you have made me smile, lifted my creative spirits and inspired me to lay hands on my piano and create another work. I print and cut out snippets of your letters and tuck them in my writing notebook to affirm my creative identity and to help me laugh off the naysayers… many of which are in my own head.





Hero Worship

oil painting on masonite
by Dana Ellyn, Washington, DC, 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 SallyAnn Mickel of Monkton, MD who wrote, “I can’t remember how many times I have had artwork rejected by jurors only to sell the paintings to ‘ordinary people’ who walk away from my studio with smiles on their faces.”

And also Hiria Ratahi of New Zealand who wrote, “I am a new exploring artist, and quick to defend myself when criticism is passed on my work. Having read the above I can become less defensive and take my art as being as unique as my handwriting.”

And also Patricia Peterson of New York who wrote, “Creative happiness forgives all the disappointments and difficulties that get you there — and ultimately has no bearing on time or money. Recognition of quality is exhilarating for everyone.”

And also Joe Bush who wrote, “The real thing that matters is our own opinion of our own work in our lifetime quest of quality artwork.”

And also Jo VanderWoude of Sioux Falls, SD who wrote, “This past year I received more rejections than successes but I did have my artwork featured on the cover of a magazine and was a featured artist in another magazine. You haven’t failed until you quit trying.”

And also Janet Warrick who wrote, “Rejection is a speck, like a bit of unwanted debris, embedded like a pebble in our psyche, and it stays there niggling away and undermining our self-confidence until we feel strong enough to pull it out.”

And also Jamie Lavin of Gardner, Kansas who wrote, “Winston Churchill‘s famous words: ‘Never, ever give up!’ In England’s darkest days before and during the battle of Britain, Churchill stood up and said how it was ‘England’s finest hour!’ I figure if it’s good enough for wartime, it’s good enough for me.”

And also Laura Orchard of Santa Fe, NM who wrote, “Although I’ve never received a penny from the Pollack-Krasner or the Guggenheim Foundations, the surprising benefit I gleaned from going through the application process and then being rejected year after year (after year) was that I had to repeatedly hone my vision and describe my work to strangers.”

And also Cathy W of Australia who wrote, “Clubs are often controlled by people who like to be in charge of clubs, rather than because they are good art critics. I prefer to be critiqued by an art lecturer, a gallery person, or a peer.”

And also Lynn Weisbach of Roswell, GA who wrote, “When I get my rejections, I just remember the Impressionists were rejected too.”

And also Herawati Aziz of Jakarta, Indonesia who wrote, “Your letter has convinced me, again and again, that I should just go ahead with my painting and consider it as ‘my life’ as ‘this is what I do’… It took me more than thirty years to come to this.”




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