Have you ever heard of the “negativity bias”?
It means that as humans, we tend to exaggerate and remember negative critiques much more strongly than positive feedback—no matter how much positive feedback we get. “Your brain is simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news,” explains Psychology Today, and research has proven it!
Not great news for artists.
Why? Because making art is such a highly subjective experience. You put your emotions, personal experiences, ideas—your whole self—into your work. That's what makes art powerful and relatable.
The problem is, your work is going to be critiqued.
It’s unavoidable, really. If you want to make a living from your work, you’re going to have to put it out there for the world to see—and judge. And, that means you’ll inevitably run into less than pleasant reviews of your work.
And we’re not going to lie, it stings. Even if ninety-nine times out of a hundred you get nothing but high praise, because of our brain’s negativity bias, one bad review can make us want to crawl under a rock and never come out again.
But if there is one thing we’re sure of, it’s that a bad critique does NOT make you a failure.
That’s why it’s so important to learn how to survive these negative critiques! And, not just survive, but evaluate and respond to them, so you can move on with your life and create more art with your head held high.
Read on to learn how to rise above negative critiques of your work:
Take a deep breath (or two or three)
An arrow just sailed straight through your heart—at least that’s what it feels like when you hear something unpleasant being said about your work.
You never know when these critiques will creep up. It could be in an email, a rejection letter, a social media comment, or even a face-to-face conversation. And no matter how level-headed you are, the sharp pain of that moment can cloud your judgment. So before you formulate a scathing reply, take a deep breath and give yourself five minutes to cool off.
Trust us, you’ll never regret having a professional response. A vengeful one, on the other hand…
Take a minute to look at the situation rationally and how you were feeling before the critique. Were your expectations for this interaction set unreasonably high? Have you been too emotionally attached to the piece? Did you mentally shut down the second a negative word was uttered?
Again, that pesky negativity bias can make us overexaggerate these situations in our mind.
Sometimes we set our expectations so high that anything less than a perfect review feels like a complete and utter failure. Give your anxiety a break for once! Be completely honest with yourself about the situation instead of jumping to the conclusion that it’s the end of the world—or at least your art career.
Even if you feel like your wounds are justified, you’ll need to proceed with a level head—and this next step might help.
Consider the source
Who's giving this critique? This is a really helpful question to tuck in your back pocket to help you sort through some of that bad blood.
Because, while it is important to listen to what each viewer of your work has to say, not all critics are created equal. To give yourself some perspective, you need to assess the source!
Ask yourself, who is this person? And are they familiar with your work, background, etc? What makes them qualified to be giving this particular feedback? Are they being objective or do they have ulterior motives?
It’s one thing to get a negative review from the likes of an established collector or gallery owner. But if it’s a random Instagram user, a jealous friend, or casual art gallery attendee offering a first impression, you don’t always need to take these critiques to heart. These people probably don’t understand the story behind your work, and may just like to hear themselves talk.
Another important question to focus on: are they expressing their own personal tastes or talking about the quality of the artwork as a whole? Because, in reality, the two are quite different, and you only need to worry about one.
Think about your own tastes!
You don’t like all of the art you see or the music that you hear, do you? But that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. You can appreciate it for what it is, the quality of the work, it’s positive impact on the community, etc. It’s just not what you’re into!
It’s true, not everyone is going to love every style of art. So, if a buyer admits that your work isn’t exactly their favorite, keep in mind that it may reflect more about their personal taste in art rather than your ability to create.
Sorting the well-intentioned, informed critiques from the rest will help the hurtful comments roll of your back.
A genuine source will remain objective, set personal tastes aside, and evaluate a piece based on their knowledge of you, the quality of your work, and how it fits into the bigger picture of the art market.
These are the critiques you want to pay attention to and take seriously.
Take what’s valuable and flush the rest
While it helps to think about the source of a negative art critique to possibly alleviate hurt feelings, that’s not to say a random show-goer won’t have any insight for you at all!
With each critique that you receive, ask yourself what was constructive about the criticism and what wasn't. Separate out the two, and only pull what you’d consider constructive advice for your art practice. It’s still important to consider its context and applicability to make sure you’re only taking the informed advice to heart.
If it’s not constructive, then it’s not worth your time and hurt feelings.
It’s not unheard of to find a critique too vague or downright confusing, either. If you get the chance, ask what concrete improvements they suggest you make. Asking for specific advice will not only give you a direction to go in, but it can help you see if what they are saying is substantial, unfounded, or simply trying to get under your skin.
Hint: always ignore the trolls.
If you do get something constructive to focus on, instead of dwelling on the negative criticism overall, look at it in a more positive light! While they didn’t connect to your work right now, it sounds like they believe in your ability to grow and improve. And by offering some concrete advice, they have even given you a roadmap.
Being an artist is not about being perfect. It’s about the process! If you wait to put your artwork out there when it’s perfect, you never will.
Critiques will come and go. Focus on making good work and getting better, and you’ll be just fine.
There’s nothing wrong with a second opinion
Anyone who has ever dared to create artwork for the world to see has received criticism at one point or another. Therefore, no one understands the struggle and pain of a harsh critique more than your peers!
So, if you’re ever having difficulty sorting out who’s who or what’s what when it comes to credible critiques, you can always ask for a second opinion.
Reach out to your art squad. Objectively and honestly, have them consider what about the critique makes sense and what they would suggest going forward. You can then make the final call about what to do next, knowing that you’ve weighed all of your options.
Finding other artists or mentors that you trust to give you honest feedback will only make your work and career stronger.
In the end, what do YOU like?
We think Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right–for you’ll be criticized anyway.”
As an artist, you have a viewpoint to be told and a style all your own.
You might want everyone to like your work, but that’s not going to happen. And, in fact, it’s better when not everyone does like your work. It means you are getting at something interesting and something different.
“It’s really scary putting yourself out there, especially when your work is so personal and then allowing the world to view it and judge it and critique it,” says artist Seren Moran. But successful artists know that their growth comes from within and not from external praise.
So, ask yourself, would you still make the work you make today if no one would ever see it? Would you paint or sculpt or draw that if you couldn’t show it to anyone?
If you are confident in your work and are on a constant journey to better yourself, then that’s what matters most. Staying true to yourself will ultimately help you find success and happiness in a creative career.
And while there will always be negative critiques, there will also be people who love and adore your art.