Everyone is a Critic

[pix_dropcap]T[/pix_dropcap]he digital age has given way to opinions and criticism from virtually everyone, many of which are either unsolicited or malicious. The internet has given people a veil of anonymity through which they don’t have to look the person in the eye or deal with the consequences. Like mob mentality, the glowing computer screen has bolstered their bravado.

Regardless of your profession, you are going to meet criticism at every turn. How you deal with that criticism can either break or make you. I’m probably not the best person to give advice concerning trolls since I tend disregard my own advice, but maybe I can help other people.

This isn’t a rant about not wanting to hear or receive criticism, this is about the difference between constructive and nonconstructive criticism.

Oil paintings and one pastel drawing from my Heads & Hands II class back when I was 22 years old.
Oil paintings and one pastel drawing from my Heads & Hands II class back when I was 22 years old.

Most nonconstructive criticism can be relegated to the “troll” territory. Much of it is said with the intention of hurting the other person while making themselves feel better. In the past I’ve had people tell me that I should be killed because they didn’t like my painting. I’ve had people tell me that I should be “dragged out into the street and shot” or that I should be fired from my job because I’m a lazy digital artist with no imagination. I’ve had people tell me that I single-handedly “lowered the bar for the entire art world.”

Did any of those comments help me become a better artist? No. Did any of them need to be said to me? Absolutely not. I can tell you this, I’ve never had anyone say anything remotely similar to these things in person. Again, the veil of the internet emboldens these people to say horrible things.

I received this comment on Twitter about my Arcbound Ravager illustration for Magic: The Gathering – Aether Revolt. Since this was posted publicly for everyone to see, I should probably just use the person’s real Twitter name, but I figured I should take the high road.

Twitter User – “Doesn’t even look good.”
Me – “Well, sorry you feel that way.”
Twitter User – “There’s nothing distinctive about it. Look at the classic AR art – it’s a symbol; strong image.”
Me – “I never said mine was better. You are free to not like my art, but I’m not sure why you feel the need to tell me so.”
Twitter User – “So you can improve you fuck wit.”
Me – “So telling me “doesn’t even look good” is supposed to make me a better artist? Ok, got it. Thanks for the constructive crit.”

As you can see, there was nothing constructive about this person’s criticism of my painting. I broke my first rule of “never engage a troll,” but against my better judgement, I responded to their original comment. Needless to say, I blocked this person after being called a “fuck wit.” I can guarantee you that this person’s original comment of “doesn’t even look good” was not said with the intention of making me a better artist, like they claimed. This was a knee-jerk reaction with the intention of simply letting me know they don’t like my art. They didn’t take any time or effort to try and give me constructive feedback that would actually help me become a better artist.

Here is another comment I received on YouTube.

YouTube User 
Hahaha painting, what a joke. You’re drawing on photoshop. How could you respectfully call this a painting? 😂 painting takes a hell of a lot more skill than photoshop

Considering I graduated cum laude with a BFA in traditional illustration from the Academy of Art University where I was trained in traditional media such as oils, acrylics, watercolor, gouache, and pastels, I think I know what it takes. You are welcome to become a successful digital painter since you claim it’s so easy.

YouTube User
I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m saying it’s embarrassing to call yourself a painter when you work in photoshop, and if you ever did actually receive any training in any of those areas you’d realize that photoshop takes a hell of a lot less skill that actually doing art

YouTube User
if you wanna be a digital artist then don’t try and do this faux painting bull shit. It’s not like you needed to do this on photoshop to have this image on a computer, you could have painted it in real life and easily gotten a high resolution photo of it and put it online. Instead you don’t have the skills to be a painter yet you like the painterly look, so you do this bullshit in photoshop. Real artists have their work hung in museums. You’re a drawer. You think any museum or private would ever look at your photoshop and think that it’s worth being hung in front of thousands of people, or worth being paid thousands or millions of dollars for. You switch your “painting” around, completely inverting the image, you click and select her all and move her around. You could do any of this in real painting. I’d you call yourself a painter, or even an artist, then that’s just embarrassing.

I’ll have to change my resume to “professional drawer.” Thanks for the tip.

Back when I was growing up, I was taught “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I guess this person never heard of that. Of course that proverb is a little oversimplified. It doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to ever say anything that isn’t nice, but telling someone “doesn’t even look good” doesn’t help me become a better artist, it doesn’t help me identify what was wrong with my painting, and it doesn’t make me feel good. The only person it helps is the person who said it. It makes them feel superior because their opinion matters more than another’s.

Don’t get me wrong, I welcome constructive criticism because it actually helps me become a better artist. Tact goes a long way. If you take the time to give me constructive criticism, I’ll be much more amenable. If you start the conversation with things like “doesn’t even look good” or calling me a “fuck wit,” I’m obviously going to be much more defensive and not willing to listen to anything else you have to say.

Here is a great example of giving someone constructive criticism. This is a review that was left on Amazon regarding my book Elysium.

“Great artist. Very memorable, captivating pieces if you love fantasy art. I didn’t give it 5 stars like many others though, everyone has their own perspectives and reasons; me, I would have enjoyed more variety in color and poses. I understand that that artist is commissioned for specific pieces, but it doesn’t feel like he takes much risks. I’m not sure how many pieces he worked on to be exclusively for this book, but that would have been a great opportunity to get out of his comfort zone. It feels like he has a formula that works and is in a safe place at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, I became an instant fan, the book is high quality, I agree with many of the reviewers, but didn’t give it the 5 stars because every other work was a little expected, don’t mean to be critical at all, I wish I could do what he does, and enjoyed the artist hard work and dialogue per piece, but since this seemed like a past to present look into what the artist has done, maybe a time line/dates, some pieces that didn’t make the cut…something a little extra would have made it 5 stars for me.”

This person’s feedback actually completely changed how I look at my own work. I received this review more than two years ago but I still constantly think about what they said whenever I start a painting. Am I being too cautious? Am I just doing what I always do? Now I always try to break away from my norm in order to create a better painting. How can I change the camera angle to something I don’t normally use? How can I change the lighting? How can I push the colors or the composition? I am grateful for this person’s feedback because I believe it has made me a better artist.

How to Deal with Criticism

Learning how to deal with criticism, both positive and negative, is something that you will have to deal with on a daily basis as an artist. If you let it, negative criticism can destroy you. I’m guilty of letting one negative comment ruin my entire day. I tend to listen to and believe negative criticism; I dwell on it for days or weeks at a time.

If you don’t quickly develop a thick skin regarding feedback, then you won’t last long in this industry. Not only will every fan of the IP you are working on have a strong opinion, but you will receive feedback from art directors (and sometimes others) for every painting you do. Sometimes you’ll have to completely start over because the art director doesn’t like your work. You need to learn to roll with the punches and realize that this industry is about meeting the goals of your client, not necessarily your own.

My first suggestion for dealing with negative criticism is to “never engage a troll.” Arguing with trolls is a pointless battle because you will never win. These people thrive on negativity and conflict. No matter how well you articulate your point or how many facts you present, you will never win. You won’t change their mind, you will only fuel the fire. The troll will continue to find ways to harm you. Usually if you ignore them, they will go away because they aren’t receiving the reaction they wanted. Like the typical schoolyard bully, if you ignore them they will go away, although sometimes you need to stand up for yourself and punch them in the face. I say that metaphorically, I’m not condoning violence.

Easier said than done. I know that I shouldn’t respond to people like that, but sometimes I do. My wife always tells me “don’t respond to them” as I’m furiously pounding out a response on my keyboard. I’ve never been one to back down from a fight, so it’s difficult for me to ignore trolls.

As for dealing with constructive feedback, you need to have an open mind. I’ve seen a lot of artists ignore constructive feedback because they felt they were better than the critic. They were the artist and therefore they could do what they wanted. They didn’t need others telling them how they could improve, they simply wanted pats on the back. I’ve had artists personally tell me they didn’t care about the feedback I gave them because they liked doing things a certain way and would continue to do things their way. Sure, you don’t always have to agree with critiques, but you should at least be open to them.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of disregarding feedback from people who aren’t artists because “they don’t know what they are talking about.” While I can understand the logic, I also think this line of thinking is misplaced. Generally speaking, most of the people looking at your art are going to be people who have no training in art whatsoever, therefore their opinions matter. If you create a book cover that the general public doesn’t like, then their opinion is going to have a huge impact on your career. They might not be able to create a better painting themselves or articulate why they don’t like the painting, but their criticism is valid.

In those terms, I don’t think you should ever immediately disregard someone’s opinion just because they aren’t an artist. If their feedback is “doesn’t even look good,” then sure, they aren’t helping. If their feedback is “for some reason this painting is making me feel uneasy,” then you can try to find out why. Maybe there are tangents in your painting or maybe your composition is too cramped, who knows. At least you can begin to narrow down the problem and find a possible solution.

At some point you have to put your ego away and realize you aren’t perfect. You aren’t the best artist in the world and there are always things you can learn. You have to be willing to listen and make an effort to improve.

The second thing to keep in mind is that these opinions are just that, opinions. Someone’s negative opinion doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth of the matter. If clients are hiring you, trust in the fact that they are hiring you for a reason. If they believed your art was horrible, why would they be hiring you? If clients aren’t hiring you, then maybe it’s time to look at your own work with a critical eye and find out why.

My third piece of advice is to avoid looking at posts and forums about your work. Places like that tend to attract trolls and you will inevitably find comments like “this sucks” or “the artist should be killed.” I found that out the hard way.

How to Give Constructive Feedback

How you phrase things can greatly affect the outcome. In simple terms, don’t be a jerk. Find things that the artist can change or fix and be more specific as to why you don’t like the painting. Instead of saying “that character is stupid” you could say “this character could be better if the design was more cohesive” or “this character could be better if the design was more functional.” That gives the artist something to look at and fix. Saying “that character is stupid” doesn’t let the artist know what to change or fix. It doesn’t tell them anything at all. It shows that you didn’t take the time or care enough to provide constructive feedback and that you only wanted to hurt the artist with your opinion.

This can apply to the way art directors give feedback as well. I’ve actually had art directors tell me “this is the dumbest character I’ve ever seen.” That didn’t help me figure out what they wanted. It didn’t get me closer to my goal. It didn’t give me a direction to go in and it didn’t give me any new ideas. It just halted production because I didn’t know what to do, and honestly, I didn’t feel like continuing after receiving feedback like that. An art director needs to be able to tell the artist what they are looking for. If they say “I don’t like this” but don’t provide any concrete information about what they DO want, how are you supposed to get there?

You don’t need to kiss the artist’s butt in order to give constructive feedback, just be open and polite with the feedback you do give. I’m not looking for people to pat me on the back, but I’m also not looking for people to tell me my art sucks with no input for how to improve. You are free to think my art sucks. I don’t think I’m a very good artist and I know my art isn’t for everyone. If the extent of your feedback about my art is “doesn’t even look good” then you can please keep that to yourself and move along.

One Reply to “Everyone is a Critic”
  1. [quote East Bay Ray] The Internet has unleashed the Id. I can’t agree more. Just yesterday someone wrote that Bernini was not an artist, that his statues show craftsmanship at most and not so good even, cause the hands of Pluto were too big on his Proserpina piece.
    Bernini was 23 years old when he finished that masterpiece by the way. I wonder what the troll achieved/will achieve at that age … probably only an increased amount of gunk between his keyboard.
    Good/helpful critique is indeed sparse. Don’t let some trolling keks steal away your precious time 🙂

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