Monday, July 13, 2009

Artists and attitude

T.C. Steele 1847-1926 The clam digger images from

I like the color in this painting. It looks to me like a funny place to dig clams. Usually where there is big surf I expect to find rock, but clams come from mudflats. Maybe the clams in Ohio, where this artist was from, operate in a different manner. Crafty bivalves.

I am writing this post tonight as a response to some things that came up in the comments. I was asked how to weather tough critiques.

It is always hard keeping a reasonable attitude about your work. I have heard it said that when you look in the mirror you see what you think of yourself. When you look at your paintings you are not looking in a mirror. The painting is something you have made, its a thing. You are you, and not your painting. You need to keep those separate if you want to handle stiff critiques. If you can separate well enough to listen to a critique of your painting, without thinking it is a critique of you, that will help .

I think there are only a few times when a tough critique is called for.
One is when a student is being groomed to be a professional by a master in an atelier environment. Another is a student who is either "stuck" or wants to kick their painting up a level and asks for a bone shaking critique. The last instance is in the case of another pro, who asks for advice and who I know wants to hear what I think, and not some weak jive with the corners rounded off.

Artists who do angry or abusive critiques at amateurs in workshops or kids in art school are out of line in my opinion. There are times when you get a student who is so sleepy and unmotivated you want to wake em up. But I don't think that is kind. So I try to give them some tools to improve their painting, but I don't practice psychology, so I don't try to fix anybody. I am a downloader not a cheerleader. You bring the motivation and I will bring the information.

I have known a few painters who have been unable to keep a grip on what they are, sometimes they think, and will tell you they are GREAT, other times they are in despair about their art. While all of us have a little of that, these artists are either insufferable or pitiful by turns. Again, I don't know how to fix em. Sometimes these guys need to tear you down to make themselves feel OK. When they are teachers they can make students unhappy without making them any better.

On the other hand, there are students who are so full of themselves that you have to wonder why they come to a class. If you make any criticism of their art they are deeply offended. They are hypersensitive, its like their nervous system is on the outside. I used to lose a student every workshop to this syndrome. But I don't much anymore. I guess I have gotten better at reading the students and I watch carefully for the warning signs of this malaise. These students incidentally, seldom progress much, they may be OK for an amateur, but they often are comfortably locked into a level that they never transcend. I think that is because they lack a capacity for self examination. Painting is HARD, if you want to get better at it you must be self critical and willing to grow out of the easy habits you have developed. If you want to be an extraordinary painter , you will need to go to extraordinary lengths to get there.

Years ago I used to paint landscapes with some friends on a farm in Wisconsin. In the evening we would cook dinner and critique each others work. We developed a rule that you could not speak until after they had finished critiquing your painting. No more explaining or saying it isn't done, or "I was going to do that", or "that's really the way it looked". No defense allowed, you had to listen without speaking. It was a great system and I recommend it. When someone is critiquing your work remain silent unless they ask you a question. You might nod or say uh-huh as they pause and look at you, but let them do all the talking.

All this leads me to another point. I don't think you should ever make excuses for, or defend your art. If some one happens upon you painting, even if you are getting killed out there, don't say " I just started this one" or "the light changed" just let them make up their own mind, which they will do anyway. Most of the time people are easily impressed and their opinion is meaningless anyway. Unless of course they want to buy your art. that is the highest compliment they can pay you.


Gregory Becker said...

I love the paintings you chose for this post.
I like what you've said in this post.
"When you look at your paintings you are not looking in a mirror. The painting is something you have made, its a thing. You are you, and not your painting. You need to keep those separate if you want to handle stiff critiques."
That helps.
"You bring the motivation and I will bring the information."
This is a statement of trust. This is you saying I really want you to reach your greatest potential.
Based on this blog and your advice within it I must conclude that you're trustworthy.
My best friends are honest with me constantly and I with them. We don't always like what each other says, but we dont stop being friends.
So, in the spirit of artistic friendship I should want honesty.
That is, for me, an easy conclusion to come to.
I guess what I am saying is that I want to be great at what I do. I want to surround myself with others who want that for themselves and for me.
Another thing is the thought of becoming still for too long.
I dont want to end up leveling off at some point. That for me is more terrifying than any harsh critique.
Thanks for the post it challenged me to reconsider my position on this.
If I do send something for critique I want you to know I would want you to be honest. I realize now that I wouldn't get anything out of it otherwise.

Rae O'Shea said...

I've never seen the point in sugar-coating critiques. You aren't going to learn anything if you're unwilling to listen to what you're doing wrong. I also never thought your criticism was unduly harsh so I suspect the people who got offended and left your workshop just didn't want to hear anything negative at all. This is probably a by-product of the meaningless ego-massaging done by so many parents and teachers today. Just keep telling it like it is.

Deb said...

Okay, this is the kind of thing that you just don't get in the books, in the workshops, or even in "art school". And this is real life. It speaks of your long experience in dealing with people, as well as being an artist yourself and having gone through the process.
I've often wondered how it is that we often, as artists, can't seem to objectively view our art. We see what we want to see or something. I have in mind a particular friend who has been painting for over 20 years, and produces nice, but (IMO) just average work. And that person cannot seem to recognize that. These folks take critiques hard because they have an artificial view of their work.
Well, anyway, I for one WANT the critique - if I am doing something wrong, it is probably because I don't know better, and I WANT somebody to tell me so I can change. I personally desperately WANT to improve, and I'm willing to take some dissection to get there. I got started in this pursuit late in life, and feel like I just can't waste time worrying about protecting my sensitive nature. So, Bring on the knife!
"undskin" metaphorical tough hide.
ex. "It takes a good undskin to learn and grow as a painter." said...

Hi Stapelton,
My guess with the title is that along the line someone confused "mussels" with clams. Having lived along the sea rocks of Revere, this was a common sight and activity and on the rocky jetties. You won't find clams there.

Critiques..been on the receiving end of some tough ones as I diverged from my teachers. It was OK..I hear my own drums and I can always you a valuable insight. I grew up with a mean brother in a really tough city neighborhood. I have that "undskin". Irregardless of what you may think about my work, twice a year I am invited to an Ivy League graduate school to help critique the master drawing class. The students are serious, hard working and can be, but not always, non conventional. However one time I had to call the bluff of a student who put work before us that I suspected was a joke.(in the vein of art can be anything ..just watch what I can pull over).
Anyway , he was shocked when I told him that I didn't "get" his ugly knife marks on found used sheet rock. This student later told the instructor that he had NEVER been spoken to that way. However,he did repeat the semester. At the next semester's critique he presented work that was polished, sophisticated and well executed and beautiful. He came over and shook my hand and thanked me. Moral: Good students (as in willing and able to learn) will always appreciate honesty. And I always try to keep the intention of the student's work apart from my personal tastes.It's not always easy.

Simone said...

I started reading at the suggestion of Mary Byrom whom you apparently met at a paint out in Kennebunkport.

This is a great piece, a well written commentary on a subject keenly understood. I am going to borrow the "I am a downloader..." line if you don't mind.

Also, thanks for being a diligent writer. Reading the thoughts of someone as established and seasoned as yourself is a great influence and an agent for growth.

Jesse said...

I really miss a good critique. I double majored, Illustration/Fine Arts. The fine arts crits where pretty soft and tender. But the crits in the Illustration classes were no hold bared. No excuses accepted. It was great! A teacher once asked me if I had done a drawing with my left hand. (it was just bad).

The only way to grow is to know what the problems are. You can't fix it if you don't know what's wrong.

Jeremy Elder said...

I don't see why people take critiques so personal. Criticism is the only way I can get better, so I am very thankful for it.

Maybe those clam diggers are from the West Coast.

Jesse said...


No rocky clam digging over here! Although I have seen Geoducks(look it up)in beach clay.

The guy is also seems to be using a pick axe, which is a little unusual to get the clams as well.

Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. Kearns,
I recently spoke to Frank Ordaz, who highly recommended your blog. Excellent insight here. I appreciate your words of wisdom and look forward to future posts.

CAVIS said...
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CAVIS said...

Hi Stapleton. I´m Marcelo, from Brazil, and I always read your blog. It´s really honest and good, and I even quoted you in a university essay (on the theme of classicis x romantics). I think you could say some more about the critique in which one turns good things into bad things. To students following the classical tradition, this happens all the time, and it´s very anoying.

This semester at the university I had done some pretty good studies from the model by myself and brought them to class. My professor said that that was bad art because I just wanted to show "my technical skill", my themes were "too classic and happy", and the addition of the two made my art inocuous. Later,I brought in again a head study also done from the model, and he said that that was silly. For the rest of the semester, I brought some badly finished watercolors on the theme of "Brazilian history", and he liked them much more. I can´t help but to believe that he was satisfied with the lessening of the quality of the execution, what made him feel relieved about his own painting skills (he also paints), because the theme was completely tradicional and uncreative (history painting!!!. Does anyone deserve it?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have been doing crits online every month. Why don't you watch one go by and see what you think. I will do another.
It is very common to see people who level off and never progress beyond a certain point. There are people you meet teaching workshops who apply none of what you teach them. it always seemed odd that they would pay to ber there, be there, and then ignore the instruction. Still they gotta right its their ticket!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Often the one I used to lose wasd one of those people whop you meet and wonder from the beginning, "whats wrong with this picture".

The whole art teaching as ego-massasge thing sets people up for a real fall when they hit the real world.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I really have no idea what they teach in art school now, I suppose it varies. I was there almost 40 years ago now. I think sometimes nothing has changed.Some of the readers of this blog seem to be getting a pretty good education out in California.
It is a little strange critiquing art online. I like to do it in person much better.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Revere, did you know ( I will bet you do ) that revere had a group of painters working there around 1890 or so. There is a book on them. I have seen it but I don't own it.
Although students appreciate honesty, that is easy enough to come up with. The hard things are giving good advice, kindness, and knowing what they can learn where they are now.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. I am diligent I have written about 190 of these posts in a row now.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is so true, how can you fix something unless you know it is wrong?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Some of them do, and I have been "hurt" a time or two and had people try to wound me many time s since.12 years with my own gallery toughened me up a bit.
Are their clams on the west coast? Do they come when you whistle through your fingers?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks for those geoducks,I don't think we have those in the east. Weird.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks for checking in.I had teachers like that too. I think if you can, it is a good idea to see a teachers work before signing up for their class. It would save a lot of headaches and maybe weed out some of the teachers who are dead wood.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I have always felt that it is far more loving to tell someone when there work is troubled than to not. If someone has the information and knowledge to share, it takes time and effort to pass it on. Other wise it makes more sense for that person to ignore the uneducated and go to the studio to do their own work.
I tell my students that "I am not critiquing 'you', I am trying to be a fresh eye to your work. Showing you what you are not seeing." I trash their work with humor and do it in such a way to let them know that I think they can do better. Plus, I trash it if it is trash. If they are doing well, I let them continue- though there is almost always something to say.
Anyone that fights me in a class, gets a pat on the back and I say "well, you seem to have this under control, keep it up."
I move on and cash their check.

jeff f said...

I guess an opening should be like a driving, and one should not drink and drive. All eyes are on you so I suppose one should be aware of that.

Personally I have one glass of wine at the beginning to calm my nerves and soda water for the rest of the night. After I'm home I have another glass or two.

As for critiques, well I think a good painter should know when he or she paints a dog or painting worthy of having fish thrown at them.

I was working on this still life for over a week and yesterday I looked long and hard at it and scraped it all off and started from scratch. This dog was barking at me... woof this is awful, woof woof...

jeff f said...

With students I try to always say that's pretty good and then start to talk about the work, get them to open up and see things like ellipses that are off or perspective that is not working. I ask questions and sometimes they see the mistake and they get that oh wow moment.

With figure drawing I find most people tend to make the model to rigid. People come to drawing with a lot baggage and preconceived ideas or habits based on doodling, which is not perceptional drawing.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have patted those same backs. I also have a special grin I use on those occasions. Sort of a cruel rictus.

Stapleton Kearns said...
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Stapleton Kearns said...

undskin= to remove the dermis as in; the pedant undskinned the fledgling painter like Marsyas with a chainsaw.