My Negative Behavior & Mediocre Paintings

At some point during the past 30 years I must have offended a Florida artist by refusing to commission an article on his artwork, making negative comments during a critique, or rejecting his submissions to a juried show. I don’t remember him or the particular circumstances, but obviously he has a clear recollection of my criticism as well as the negative comments made by others. The artist recently wrote to tell me that “regardless of negative behavior toward my talent from amateurish, boring landscape artists like yourself,” he will be exhibiting his work in a museum. He then advised me to wrap my “snobby attitude along with your mediocre paintings and your magazine in a tight little bundle and sit on it.”

I wonder why an artist would be offended by comments made by people he considers “amateurish, boring landscape artists;” or why he thinks one exhibition automatically disproves the negative statements made about his artwork. Criticism is completely subjective, and what one expert dismisses another may embrace. If the evaluation is based on a professional’s training and experience, it can be helpful; and one rejection shouldn’t provoke an artist to become angry or unprofessional.

When artists start to argue with me about the comments I made about their artwork, I ask them to first tell me whether they are intending to change my mind or learn from the criticism. If they think they are going to change my opinion, I assure them they are wasting their time. If, on the other hand, they want to understand my comments I ask them to start the conversation by telling me what they were trying to accomplish when they created the work in question. I can then say why I think they didn’t achieve their objectives, or why I’m not personally interested in that kind of expression. At the end of the conversation, I hope they will either recognize that I am not part of the audience they want to speak to, or that the message they hoped I would receive just didn’t come across effectively.

If I thought the Florida artist wanted to do anything more than stroke his bruised ego, I would invite him to enter into this kind of dialogue. Hopefully we could then help each other get better at communicating through the visual arts.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

18 thoughts on “My Negative Behavior & Mediocre Paintings

  1. Good post Steve.

    My friend Kathy Anderson has entered many,many competitions. While she’s achieved top awards for some, her work has been rejected repeatedly along the way. when she receives a rejection or negative critique, she takes an honest look at her work.

    In fact, when Kathy gets rejections, she uses these experiences to analyze her work. She is determined to get better and better.

    If she had given up years ago when she was starting out, she wouldn’t be getting the kudos she gets today. I admire her for trusting the critic’s expertise and working to meet the challenge of becoming a better artist.

    Even when we artists do get to the point where our work is better, we never give up on working to the next level. Artistic success is a ladder with no top rung. The next step is ever before us.

  2. It seems every workshop I have attended had people there that were very defensive at the critic. And often there was the person that didn’t sitdown and watch the demos and didn’t paint the assignment.

    I wondered if they came to learn or just find an audience for their work? I pick an instructor because I think I want what they have to impart. I have been wrong and didn’t pick classes because I didn’t think I would get what I wanted for the direction I was going but sometimes I do wonder why some people show up to workshops without their open minds.

  3. A thoughtful post Steve,

    I can tell that the comments bothered you. That shows you to be consciencous in your critique and a caring person for the artists you are instructing and evaluating.

    But, there’s one in every crowd, to coin an old cliche’.

    One certainly has to learn how to receive critque in the art or writing profession; even if one runs up against an instructor who is so full of himself, he gives neqative scathing comments to everyone in order to solidify his own importance. Yes, there are some of those. Yet, there is something to learn from them. I’ve gone home from a critique and screamed at the top of my lungs, “what an idiot!” And then, several months later, looked at the painting only to admit that he was right!

    You probably pointed out the faults that the painter recognized in himself and his painting. It’s hard to accept when someone else recognizes what you already know or had hoped to hide.

    I’ve read your “little magazine” for nearly fifteen years and have never found it less than honest, impartial and instructive.

    Keep up the good work. I would love to have you critique one of my paintings at an art show.


  4. Whistler vs. Ruskin. The Florida artist may well have learned from your critique but a bruised ego is never healed. Whoever said “Sticks and Stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” , must have been a shut-in. Plus I’d like to meet the artist that isn’t him/herself perpetually dissastisfied with their own work. I did a portrait of my father – in – law years ago for a very fancy black tie birthday bash given in his honor and I framed it and put it at the entrance to the ballroom so people could see it as they walked in. Now he was(died in 2003) a famous”Indiana Jones type scientist. But I painted him in a Sargent-esque pose in a tux, in a dark library with his hand on a globe. Anyone who knew him and his work saw him in jungle fatigues or a robe and slippers. Before the party took off I was sitting next to two Asian ladies and I turned to them and asked “What do you think of the painting?” Looking for an opportunity to say I painted that, they immediately said “Oh it’s horrible, that’s not Harmon!” I still remember that as if it just happened. They were right!

  5. I believe most artists are very sensitive. Probably all human beings are very sensitive. I know that I have a hard time when I am criticized. I’ve worked hard for so many years it seems to me like I should be very well accepted. I guess I’m the one with the problem. I love Lori’s response. And I must say that have been several time, many times actually, where I have been rejected and it makes me mad. So I take that anger and put it in a painting working harder than ever. Usually the subject matter is something red. My goal is to make sure everyone that looks at the painting will see it and red does the trick. I will print out Lori’s response. I need to remember it.

  6. Great responses from all!

    To those of you who jury shows….PLEASE take note that each artist you turn away will be feeling rejected. It is imperative that the pieces you jury in be the absolutely best of the submissions.

    A few years back, I was floored to have a work not accepted in a show only to see some really BAD pieces hung. I’m not just being resentful here – one of the paintings looked a young child’s landscape of a sun going down behind a hill with a lollipop tree to one side and the sun’s reflection in a pond that was off-center to the sun. Even the gallery staff was flabbergasted and said the juror mentioned that the artist needed encouragement. Well, I have worked hard for years and didn’t need the discouragement! In spite of the many awards and accolades I’ve received since, I’ll never be able to lose my bad feeling toward that juror.

  7. I like everyone’s response. Yes, we artists are probably the most sensitive and bruises hurt. I carry my share, in the art world and personal life. It’s how one handles the bruises that is important and that is the maturing process.

    Try writing novels. Talk about rejection.

    I think Steve’s problem was how the artist responded, and at a later date, particularly if he makes a concerted effort to give his critiques in good faith. This I’m sure we all feel he does, or we would not be in this forum.

    Sensitive? I even worry about how one might take my comments in the forum.

    When I was a lad of twelve or ten, my dad read stories and poems to me from a book of works by Rudyard Kipling. His favorite poem was “If”. I thought that if I heard “If” one more time, I would barf on his shoes just out of spite. Now that I’m old and gray, I read it once a month, with tears in my eyes. The old man had wisdom.


  8. I was intrigued by the title of the email for this blog so I opened it with interest. Thinking that it was about one’s own need to face poor habits and paintings that don’t meet the grade (we all have them), I was surprised that it was a reaction to comments made by a tender artist who had been hurt by rejection from the powers-that-be so to speak.

    I was an art therapist for 11 years. I have been a fine artist for as long as I can remember, but I have been making my living at it for a number of years. Naturally I am interested in the psychology of art. Whether you are or not, if you are an artist, you have a psychological aspect to your artmaking.

    There are several aspects to Stephen’s posting that are relevant to the psychology of art making.

    First, that there is criticism and rejection in the art world. It is meant, I believe, to weed out the “good” from the “bad” and also as a way to teach artists how to “improve” their work. Most art is made to eventually be seen by others, so it makes sense that we should need this feedback. I often wonder why there are so many art competitions and why we keep entering them. There is a reason. It fufills a need, or needs.

    The second aspect is that all art, art instruciton, and art criticism is subjective. That is why I put the words in the above paragraph in quotes. We all have opinions, most of them pretty strong, but usually different from the next person. Each person has a set of experiences that make him/her view art differently. In addition, the differences we have in terms of our biology make us see the world and art differently. There are facinating bits of knowledge emerging from research about the biology of sight, of preference, of memory, and of the brain and how it functions. (see for example “Art and Vision: The Biology of Seeing” by Margaret Livingstone).

    Third, that we have egos that get bruised. All people have this, not just artists. It is just that we put such a tender and personal part of ourselves out there for criticism and rejection that they get bruised so much. There are differences here too, some folks are more tender than others just from a biological make-up viewpoint, artists who are just starting out are a little more sensitive, and people who have suffered criticism or abuse in thier childhood tend to have a more difficult time with it. Protecting the ego is a defense mechanism (remember Freud from psych 101?) and we all need our defense mechanisms. It is just sometimes they get out of control and can hurt our relationships and our art.

    What I have observed of human nature and of art is that the psychological aspects of being an artist are just as important as the technical aspects. Your art can be crippled by your mind just as easily as by lack of experience or training. It is hard to be an artist, the pay is not great and your boss sometimes is a real pain. Building pschological skills as an artist is a way to improve your art.

    I would like to see more about this in the art magazines. I have been reading American Artist for so long that I am no longer as excited by the technical aspects that are presented. I love to watch “reality” TV shows that feature competitions that involve creativity and subjectivity (Project Runway, Dancing with the Stars, Top Design). Even though I know the content is edited, it still offers a look into the experience of putting oneself out there as a creative person and “throwing your hat in the ring” so to speak. I often wonder what a “top painter” show would be like (oh the horror!) and how I would respond.

  9. I am a “striiving” artist still after many years of trying. So far all my submissions have been rejected (ceramic sculpture, oil paintings) except for one purchase award years ago. Yes, as we all know, rejections hurt, but are handleable with time. The one thing I wish is that the juror(s) had the time to state why the rejection occurred so I could learn from it. I know they are under the constraint of time, but if I feel a work is good enough to submit and I am told it isn’t, where do I go to see how to make it better,or improve the next attempt?

  10. This is an interesting blog/subject. I especially enjoyed what “tfrugoli” had to say. yes, we all have egos that get bruised. I hope that the original bruised ego feels better now after having bruised Steve’s ego (which probably wasn’t all that bruised since he has experienced such success with the magazine’s popularity and has much support) For me, I try to remember what I read on Betty Billups blog years ago “Jurying is more a statement regarding the juror, than it is about the art being reviewed.” I believe this to be true, but still, like Kenneth Kant, I sometimes wish that along with those “rejection letters” came a glimmer of hope that we’re “on the right track”, or even just the simple and hard truth that our work needs “work”…that’s why I really like the “critique my art” forum here! ( Your work gets “fresh new eyes” on it, and lots of helpful advice!) I also know that to be a “successful teacher”, one has to know as much “how” to critique as “what” to critique.

  11. This afternoon, I found myself thinking about this blog, and decided to put down a few things that came to mind.

    I can certainly understand how it feels to have your work rejected from a person who has credentials in the art world… it has happened to me. I also know how good it feels to get my work accepted into a prestigious competition. BUT… what really baffles me about how the artist responded to his rejection is that he sought to criticize the juror’s work rather than looking at his own work objectively.

    Whether Steve is a great artist is not really the important thing here. While many jurors are artists, many are not. It doesn’t always take an artist to recognize quality. Steve knows great art when he sees it – whether he chooses to paint or not is inconsequential.

    How about collectors? Do they know professional from amateur work? I bet most of them do. Some of them would make excellent jurors – because they’ve seen a lot of artwork over the years and have put their money on the line to purchase it. Would collectors be fair judges? Probably no more than anyone else who loves art. The process of judging is subjective – has something to do with personal taste.

    When we enter a competition, we do so with the assumption that the juror knows something about what professional artwork looks like. In the case of Steve, he knows what great work looks like on many levels and with many styles. How many people in this world know as much as he does about art? Very few.

    So my point is: the artist who responded negatively was wasting his time by trying to say that Steve is a poor judge because of his painting skills. Steve has done some beautiful paintings, but I bet he was a good art critic even before he painted.

  12. I appreciate all this feed back. I hope everyone understands I am trying to be helpful and not just soothe my bruised ego.

    I interviewed Craig Nelson this afternoon and he made an interesting comment that I think is fitting. In all his years of teaching, the students who make the least amount of progress are those who are so self-satisfied that they won’t look critically at their work or accept the suggestions of the instructor; and those who make the greatest strides are those who take the instructor’s comments to heart and try to address the weaknesses that have been identified.

    Sure criticism is subjective, and negative comments hurt our feelings. But they also give us a way of looking objectively at work that is so personal we can’t separate ourselves from it.

    When it’s all said and done, I really would like my friend in Florida to enjoy what he is doing and share it with people who will gain from his creative efforts. That’s the goal we all want to achieve.

    Steve Doherty

  13. Great blog and great comments

    What struck me is the fact that the complainer apparently didn’t tell Steve when he was offended. If his work has improved, he may owe his success to the critique that has driven him to work harder to disprove it.

    The American Artists Magazine has profiles of artists at various skill levels. At times, I had thought that the work shown was not of the highest quality. But those articles offered some unique lessons and me gave hope. If the magazine had only shown museum quality works, I may have stopped trying to paint years ago.

    I want to take this opportunity to thank Steve for his efforts and giving us all a perspective of artists making art.

    Thanks Steve!

  14. As an artist, I require criticism or there will be no growth in my work. So I ask for it and never take it personally if a quiver full of critical arrows is verbally shot at one of my paintings. As so many of the writers before me have stated, how can we learn without getting some help in seeing what it is about our work that needs to improve?

    What I do take personally is the manner is which the criticism is delivered. Arrogant remarks, snide remarks, “loftier than thou” remarks, dismissive remarks, what have you, is the issue here. It’s painful to be on the receiving end, gets me really angry, and worst of all, I learn nothing because my energy is consumed by negative emotions.

    In brief, to all jurors and critics: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

  15. I met Mr. M.Stephen Doherty at a Portrait Seminar in Chicago many years ago. His name continues to inspire me because of his kindness, humility, common sense and fabulous mind, as well as his desire to ‘spread the Gospel of Good Art’ now for over quarter of a Century. He has treated us with knowledge about so many other good and kind Artists during that time- Artists that we would never have known existed except for his writings. As I read the many supportive comments in the blog, it seems that Mr. Doherty is held in very high esteem by a huge majority everywhere. Long may he continue!

  16. Good for you. While I can identify with having my ego bruised at times by critiques, I can also say that when the comments were constructive, and I feel sure that we all have received comments that were snide or negative in a way only to be mean, it will help your artwork grow. I know that peer comments have been as helpful as those from notable artists and usually easier to get. Yes we all would like to only hear where we have achieved a step more toward greatness but the fact is that if we don’t take into account what others notice we lose the ability to make our work better in probably much less time.

  17. It seems we are all sensitive human beings. It’s just who we are. Also, some artists are so attached to their work, they can’t sell it or give it away but hoard every single piece as if it were a child – one wouldn’t give away a child just because he/she has a dozen of them! I try to distance myself from my work. Sometimes that means setting it aside for a few days and looking at it again with fresh eyes. However, critiques from others are always useful tools and should be used – but taken with a grain of salt when you know someone is always unusually harsh or unusually kind. Maybe we won’t ever develop the thick skin to say, “Well, that happened,” and move on when our feelings are hurt. But we can try to be less self-centered and let the art speak for itself. And also know there will always be judges who don’t pick us for whatever reason. The fact that this one person’s comments caused you some distress, Steve, tells me you are also a sensitive human being – good for you!

  18. I do think that how feedback is given is important. I have taken many workshops over the years and have been amazed at how skillful instructors can descern what the student is doing well and what can be improved. Early on I just thought it was “bad art” (that’s what you learn in college art departments-how to dismiss art). I am so grateful to have had those great models of compassion and intruction because I try to emulate them when I teach or critique.

    When I first started taking workshops I had a BFA, but no real painting skills to speak of (a common experience). I had a great deal of difficulty taking in the comments of the instructors, because I couldn’t understand what they were saying. It was like a new language for me even though I had studied art for 5 years in college. Also, I was stubborn regarding trying things that I thought did not define “my art.” For example, “I like thick paint not soft edges.” As the years went by I discovered the usefulness of soft edges. It was an emotionally difficult period, because that kind of drastic growth can be painful. But growth it was. Plus, in graduate school for art therapy, I was taught to question everything. So I may have appeared to be a resistant student, but really I needed time to digest.

    There is a fine line between taking in and using a critique and letting it change your whole conception of your art. If art were not a personal expression it would be just craft. So we need to dance with the critique not marry it.

    I also wonder, too, if we are pressured by society to be a “good artist,” so that if we show that we have some weakness we become a let down. Since childhood, I have always been praised for my art skill. My art defined me, particularly being a “good artist.” Since my overactive ego has gotten in the way of my art so many times I have just about beaten him into a pulp. Underneath all that emerged a sense of confidence, but also insecurity. I think that ego was covering up the insecurity. I am learning to dance with my new partners confidence and insecurity and seeing were that takes me. Although, I don’t give as much time to insecurity. The very nature of being an artist is that you are never done, you are always evolving so, yeah, there will be weaknesses. It helps me know what to work on in my next painting.