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Coping with Difficulties: A Conversation

Rebecca Crowell and me at my exhibition at the Burlington Art Centre, December 2013

This blog is another in the series of co-blogs between myself and Rebecca Crowell. We are good friends who often discuss issues about art and painting in our private correspondence. In the hopes that sharing some of these thoughts would interest and engage others,  the idea of a co-blog was born. To read our first co-blog, which we posted almost exactly one year ago, please click here.

Rebecca: You and I have had a few emails back and forth lately about the need to develop a "thick skin" as artists in order to deal with some of the difficult things that come our way. It's funny, I can recall in detail quite a few negative things that have been said or written about my work, but if you asked me to remember even a few of the (far more common) positive remarks I've received, I'd be quite a bit more vague. Recalling negative experiences more easily than positive ones is apparently part of the human condition. See this NYTimes article. Yet as artists we will always run into rejection, discouragement, and people who don't "get" our work.. How do we develop the necessary "thick skin" to cope with this?

Janice: I think the discussion itself is really important!  It’s helpful for artists working in any creative field to know that those concerns affect us all no matter our level of skill or experience. When we post our news on social network sites like Facebook and in blog posts, it's generally the positive things that we report, like getting an exhibition, or making a sale, getting an award or an artist residency.  We don't often share the darker side of being a painter.  That comes with the territory too:  the rejections, the criticism, the times when sales are slow, the times you flounder for ideas and feel that you might just throw in the brush!  So it's a good question, Rebecca: how do we handle rejection in order to keep going?

Rebecca: Well, I think we need confidence in ourselves as artists, but that's really too easy an answer.  I know that even as an experienced (and generally confident) artist, I am still shaken by some forms of rejection in the art world. And even when I tell myself all the rational reasons why the negative thing doesn't matter, or is just part of the art world game, I can feel hurt.  So, while building confidence is important, it’s not the whole answer, and neither are rational statements about how things work in the art world. Yes, residencies and grants go to only a small percentage of applicants, galleries are overwhelmed with submissions, our way of painting will not appeal to everyone, all artists have ebbs and flows of income--we know these things. They may be helpful,  and they’re definitely the things friends and family bring up to try and help us feel better. But we can still end up feeling distressed and rejected.   

Maybe the first thing is to simply accept that we're going to hurt sometimes--we need to look that right in the face.  Sometimes we're going to feel awful, no way around it. 

Janice:   I think that it's important for  artists to discuss this with each other as we're doing here.  Knowing that others feel the same and have been through similar situations is important.  It doesn't matter your level of proficiency or how many years you have painted.  If you're an artist who keeps pushing their boundaries, exploring and growing, you're likely to run into people who liked your old work better, or galleries who don't want you to change.  In my own work, I aim to push myself to that edge of discomfort.  While it is a very fragile, exposed place, I like to see that vulnerability in my own work and I like to see that in other artist's work too, like in your new series Rebecca.  So maybe the answer can be found in courage and persistence.

Rebecca: this makes me think it is not confidence-as-an artist (in the sense of success or experience) that is needed so much as general confidence-as-a-person. Knowing from experience that we can handle all kinds of difficulties in life. This helps us believe that we are strong at the core, even while knowing there will be pain. 

It's a good thing to keep in mind because as you say, as artists we put ourselves into potentially negative situations all the time! If we’re going to keep pushing boundaries in our work, we do need to be brave. And yet our skin can't be too thick if we are to remain sensitive and vulnerable.  

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about embracing your pain tenderly, as if it were a baby. That seems to me to say it is possible to love the pain as part of being human, but it’s not a good idea to grip it tightly and hold onto it forever. 

Janice:  One thing that is hugely important in an art practice is to try to separate ourselves from our work.  We are not our work.  Knowing and believing that can take the edge off of negative comments. While it's important that we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into our work and hold nothing back, we are still more than the paintings we create. Life is more than that.  Here's a cartoon I came across that says this in another way.

Rebecca: Yes, that's great! I think that is really important. It's so easy to take the bad stuff so personally.  Yet, even as we create the work there is always the need to separate ourselves, step back and assess, edit and evaluate. I wonder if that is a part of the process that needs to be strong in order to deal with all the difficult stuff we encounter in the art world.  Even while we may disagree with someone else's attitudes or beliefs about our work, the ability to be objective allows for other points of view.  

Janice:  While we know these things in our heads, it's sometimes difficult to remember them.  When we encounter rejection, the critical voice that seems to live somewhere inside our heads  jumps in and adds more disapproval. Last fall I had just completed work for my current exhibition and I was really pleased with it.  I had applied to an artist residency much earlier in the summer, and  I learned that day in October, that my application was rejected.  Although I had just completed a huge work cycle and produced a series of paintings that I loved, that one email completely threw me off.  I couldn't paint at all that day and the critic was very loud in my ear.  I got into my car that afternoon and turned on the engine.  Instead of music, I heard the voice of a man who was not the regular announcer say,  "If you hear a voice in your head that says you cannot paint, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.".  Stunned by the synchronicity, I stopped the car to write it down. It was exactly what I needed to hear. 

I think actually that it’s important that as artists, we continue to have thin and vulnerable skins that enable us to relate in a sensitive way to the world around us.  And to allow that there will be all sorts of rejections and hard lessons. The important thing is to keep working, in spite of criticism and rejection or the voice of the inner critic, which can be the harshest of all.  What makes an artist is the ability to continue. To show up for work.


  1. Do you really think you can separate yourself from your art? I know the theory, but is it possible?

  2. Janice and Rebecca,

    I've learned to look at negative criticism realistically. At least what my perception of reality is. For example, if there are 100 viewers who like abstract/contemporary not everyone is going to like my specific style. To me, its as simple as that.

    See you next month, Janice.

    Ted Butler

  3. Hello Janice and Rebecca,

    I am a new artist to the world of Cold Wax (keeping my watercolours...just expanding!) and found your work/blog thru Rebecca and the Cold Wax page. I am enjoying these joint blog posts...I am a "late to art" person, and so appreciate those discussions. Also enjoyed this discussion on criticism, perception of yourself/art image. The cartoon link and web page for Stephen McCranie is very cool and helpful stuff to pursue and ponder also...thx. I try to see art as an "expression" of me...all my experiences, friends, life lessons, moments of pure joy or pain---it CANNOT be me...or otherwise there would be no creator, and no existence of any art. Holding that thought helps me to keep "falling forward"... Best to you both!


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