External validation


Dear Artist,

An artist who wishes anonymity asks, “What of artists who get hooked on external validation? What do you think of artists who constantly seek some sort of approval from their peers, in clubs, even online?”


“Artists Sketching in the White Mountains”
1868 oil on panel
by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

At the risk of being one of those who divide the world into two main kinds of people, there are two main types of artists: Those who have a need to listen to the opinions of others, and those who do not. Having said that, this habit can come and go — leopards can change their spots. There are pitfalls for both types. The first may have their vision so diluted by the input of others that there is little left of originality. The second may be imprisoned by what they already know.


“Long Branch, New Jersey”
1869 oil on canvas
by Winslow Homer

There are theories about where all this comes from. Here’s one: If you think back to your childhood you will remember two types of parental remark. In a general way, one was, “That’s very good, keep it up.” The other was, “That’s not very good, don’t do that.” All parents of all time have a predominance of one behaviour over the other. But that’s not the interesting part. If you came from the first type of environment and you continue to seek personal validation, you are probably seeking reaffirmation that your parents were correct in their early assessment. If, on the other hand, you received the second type of parental attention, you likely need positive affirmation to disprove the negative comments of your parents.

There’s a big difference. It seems the first are likely to be seekers of constructive criticism. The second are likely in need of validation at all costs. Furthermore, and thankfully, it’s been my observation that many artists, perhaps because of their contrary nature, are able to access and exploit tendencies which are the opposite of what might be expected.

I’m an advocate of self-validation. It’s an acquired skill. Encouragement, yes. Constructive criticism, yes. But artists should be aware that petty stroking could be the source of arrested productivity. An artist’s job includes the avoidance of premature closure by the begged or gratuitous approval of others.


“Summer Night”
1890 oil on canvas
by Winslow Homer

Best regards,


PS: “Work independently and solve your own problems.” (Winslow Homer) “Nothing is more apt to deceive us than our own judgement of our work. We derive more benefit from having our faults pointed out by our enemies than from hearing the opinions of friends.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Esoterica: Artists have not always tolerated the opinions of others. They admit to little influence, believe for the most part in their own direction and in some ways insist on being the center of the universe. Often, while nominally encouraged, they had critical parents. Some of these artists were Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jackson Pollock. The list is long. “We need no advice but approval.” (Coco Chanel)

This letter was originally published as “External validation” on May 14, 2002.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.” (Elizabeth Gilbert)




  1. So heartening to read this! My aunt once said I was mad – then paused to add: but then, all the best and most interesting people are a little mad… She, it must be said, was the Queen of Eccentrics!

  2. Again, another timely article. Just this morning I was feeling neglected because of lack of approval of a Facebook post. But, its not just social media, although that’s quickest, but at everywhere my work is seen. Afterwards I’m always frustrated by my own desire for approval. The irony is that I strive to be an edgy artist….

    • Hi James, looked at your website, and I just wanted to tell you that I admired a lot of your work, and particularly admire the spirit of experimentation with which you do your art. The end product of the spray painting netting is hauntingly lovely – and I hope you will work on the florals again too, as they were very beautiful works in process, I thought. And I just thought I would tell you this because after all who doesn’t want external validation sometimes?! I don’t need to be told I am an artist – known that for many,many years, but I do often wonder if/how my work speaks to others, and it is nice to be told when it does communicate.

  3. I have never cared what someone thinks of the paintings I do. When money got tight a few years ago I really began to paint more and more of what “I” wanted to do. Explored compositional approaches, color wheels used in and through history. Also I have learned a lot about the chemistry of art. Have looked at interesting techniques and approaches by contemporary artists. Have looked at thousands of pictures in galleries, museums and online as well. All of this pointing to the long term rather than the short term and often repetitive short term. When you acquire enough knowledge you do not need anyone else’s input.

  4. John Francis on

    Thought-provoking, to say the least. These days with Twitter and Facebook posts, it seems more like people are constantly seeking ‘validation’ for its own sake. Your numbers of ‘friends’ and ‘likes’ provides a running tally of how much ‘social equity’ you have. An abstract ‘currency’ to measure your ‘net worth’. Are people talking about you today? That is why I don’t subscribe to ‘any of the above’. Andy Warhol’s famous “15 minutes” has shrunk to a mere 5 minutes and progressively continues shrinking on small handheld screens.
    How many types of people there are in the world these days is a fair question. Social media hasn’t helped in answering.
    My Dad told me when I was 17: There are three types of people in the world. Those who can count. Those who cannot.

  5. Excellent article. It seems that I am constantly “plagued” by the sin of coveting other artist’s talents . . . can I do that, how do I become so good, etc. ? Yet, when I begin to paint my thought is solely on studying the reference material, painting what I see in a way that I like best. Excellence in artistry is often rewarded by recognition as in shows and competitions, so it’s a field where peer review is so critical, so it seems that the majority of artists that I associate with, in one way or another, whether through the reward of a ribbon, the reward of a sale, or both, fall into the category of listening to the opinion of others.

  6. Earlene Holmstrom on

    There is a third kind of parent. The one who gushes so much over what you do that you don’t believe anyone’s opinion. One has to find self validation in that situation because you won’t believe it when anyone praises your work.

  7. I love all the comments above, and as always Robert’s letter is spot on. I always post to Facebook and Instagram my newest work. Self flagellation is my initial thought. Why am I doing this? Then I remember that in sharing I feel like I am anchoring those current glorious creations with a date and time stamp that will forever live on social media platforms. I know that they do not care who I am or what I am doing, or if I will ever do it again. When someone takes notice and perhaps shares my amazing work, I somehow feel justified in not caring if it sells one day. Sales, and awards throughout my career have been an icing on a cake I will never finish. Social media has allowed me to share my soul, and then has returned it to me laden with self criticism and much needed love.

  8. I hear too often from artists that external validation is not of any measurable worth. It really depends how you engage the world to receive it and why you are interested. Most other businesses have recognized the value of market research. As artists, most recognize the benefit of balanced critiques.

    I’d suggest that the only way for you to measure whether your work is being received by viewers as intended is to obtain some form of feedback. You can assess and decide which feedback to take seriously and which to ignore. But if you don’t make any attempt to elicit feedback you are painting in a dimly lit room. You may still succeed, but you have a stronger chance of success with some additional illumination. I encourage artists to engage people to get feedback. The key is not too appear desperate for baseless positive validation. Look for honest feedback, and learn to genuinely say thank you for the baseless kudos, but throw those kudos away favoring instead the comments that help you learn how viewers are meaningfully reacting to your work.

    It is more important to know what they see and how they interpret, than whether it s FANTASTIC or SUPERLATIVE or JUST EVERYTHING! ;)

  9. Another onteresting read. There are many stages of artistic development. Many personalities. Many subjective styles and explorations. Many vulnerabilities. Protect your creative flame from all harm. The best stage to seek out feedback is when you’re already strongly rooted in your own work. There is a big difference between quick social media validation and a genuinely useful critique. Those conversations can be deep and rich and inspiring – because they are about art, not about ego. Find your strength, master your innate abilities, say what you have to say in your own voice – and then talk about it. Cultivate a supportive, caring community of makers – after all, we are the ones who care the most.

  10. While the children of Robert Genn had excellent parenting- some of us- maybe many of us- grew up in more toxic environments- of many kinds. In my case- I didn’t fit within perceived and acceptable norms as set forth by religious and heterosexist expectations. That experience of toxic messaging as a child- to a child- is life-altering. When a core negativity is inherent in parent/child relations- a child grows up damaged- no matter how positive either parent was some of the time. No child has the mental/emotional understanding necessary to process such an experience- so that negativity is internalized- and can’t simply be dismissed as bad parenting- especially when compounded by community-based abuse. It takes too long to get over. Real wasted time.
    So for a reactive example of projection- I despised Bob Ross and his happy little trees. There wasn’t a happy tree in my environment anywhere. The one thing I did have was my creativity- and access to my own motivation and my own self-value. So I followed that path and learned early on not to need anyone’s validation.
    During my final college class of my freshman and only year- I misunderstood the time of the final critique- which didn’t really matter. I walked in with it already in progress- set my found-object piece of art down- turned around and walked back out the door- as I had no reason to stay. I’d intended to *clean the piece up a bit* and had a professor suggest that if it was found- why would I do that? So I figured if it didn’t need to be cleaned up- it also didn’t need either an explanation from me- or an assumption on my part that there was even a single person in the room whose opinion mattered- not just TO me- but at all. I never returned.
    Zen suggests Beginner’s Mind is the place to create from. But mastery- self-mastery- follows naturally by just doing the work- over time. Chasing after mastery means ego-validation is necessary. But signing something because it’s finished and it’s happy with itself- is egoless- pure.
    In a FB group- somebody made a dumb-ass comment and naturally- I challenged him. Somebody else stood up for me and paid me a very high mastery compliment. Made me laugh. Be your own parent. Be your own teacher. And just do the work. And be disruptive- if necessary. You’ll get there.

  11. Good article as always…I remember reading it many years ago !!! I always look for criticism and suggestions, but only to compare to what I have done, which more often than not, is exactly right !!

  12. It’s a luxury to be able to paint without depending too much on what others think about your work, or your choice to be an artist.

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