How to Get Useful Feedback as an Artist
Portfolio crits are kinda bullshit. That’s part why we haven’t done a lot of crits on the show. They never seem to be as useful as they feel like they should be. In reality, most of the advice in the totality of portfolio reviews can be boiled down into a single tweet. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Noah Bradley write that tweet. You can probably write your own. I’m gonna shoot one off the top of the dome right now:
Show art that represents the work you want to make professionally.
a. Especially on hands.
b. Especially on faces.
Create strong silhouettes.
Take your time.
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But seriously, if sharing this information lead to better outcomes, everyone would be fucking awesome at art. We generally like this kind of advice because it’s easy to agree with and it feels actionable. But it’s not that simple. This kind of generalized advice reminds us of the important things we know we should be doing but can leave the impression that there is something missing. It creates the illusion that there is a magical next step that separates the greats from the normals. A fantastical piece of wisdom that will transform us into something greater than ourselves.
This is why I’m so excited that we’re doing mentoring on One Fantastic Week these days. I want to move past crits and talk with artists in a way that can actually affect them positively. I want these more holistic conversations to be the standard in our community.
Having a Bigger Conversation
We don’t get to be anyone besides ourselves. Having a conversation about improving at art needs to start by taking a serious look at the reality of our lives and what’s really happening every day. I call these, “THE BASICS”:
Health (physical and mental)
I once started to mentor a guy who wanted to start creating his own original IP but he failed to mention that his wife was 9 months pregnant with their first child. He didn’t think that was going to affect things. (what the fuck man!) She gave birth one week later and he dropped the mentorship.
Most of the hurdles that cause people to stumble in their career come down to these basics. We cannot talk about the state of an art career outside the context of the life of which it is a part. It’s fun to imagine an idealized version of ourselves that accomplished great things inside a fantastical new life, but those fantasies need to be kept at an arm's distance. To be serious about our professional growth, we must always keep the reality of our lives as part of our plans for the future.
Confronting the Lies we Tell Ourselves
People are unreliable narrators of their own story. Even to ourselves. We naturally drift into dishonest narratives about who we are and what we want. If people were truly honest about their goals, most of us would start off portfolio reviews by saying “I’m not sure what my goals are but I’m scared I’m never going to be good enough to achieve them.” Failing to be this honest is normal.
Is this you? Welcome to the circle of trust. We’re all safe here.
When I’m consulting with someone about their art, I’m not looking for their artistic weaknesses, I’m searching for a gap in their understanding of themselves. Self deception, bad faith, blind spots. This is where real learning lives. My goal isn’t to transform people into better artists, that’s their job. As a teacher, I aspire to do a good job holding up the mirror.
If you are looking to do a better job learning on your own, you shouldn’t be concerned with your known weaknesses. Building up a weakness just requires some time and attention. So, if you are really struggling, then you can be sure that you are missing something. There is some unknown force acting on your life and your growth. Find your assumptions and turn them over one by one. In the great game of Minesweeper, you’ve out a flag down on some random empty tile. Finding it will give you the perspective you need to make progress.
Questions to Reflect On
Here’s some questions I like to ask people when I’m working with them. Hopefully, you’ll find these useful to ask yourself.
What were you into when you were a teenager?
People consider their current vision of themselves too seriously. There is a lot of insight into what we want for the future by looking to our past interests. Our teenage selves are still buried in the attic space of our heads. Since they aren’t caught up in the practical concerns that our adults selves get lost in, they can be a great source of information about what we really want. Ask them what’s good.
What’s the easiest part about making art (for you)?
I’m always trying to get people to make “easy” art. This is because it’s difficult for us to self assess what is easy for us in particular compared to other people. Attempting to make “easy” art can be a shortcut to help people discover what comes natural.
What piece of art made you most happy while you were working on it?
There are a million ways to make art the right way. Finding the way that’s right for you takes experimentation and a careful self examination. Paying careful attention to what aspects of the art process gives you joy can lead to insights into how you can adjust your work process for better results.
What are you not showing?
People suck at telling stories about themselves. It’s too easy to edit out the most important parts of our own narratives because we take them for granted. Just as easily, people edit out meaningful parts of their artistic journey because they don’t understand what’s significant about them. Seeing a curated portfolio is a great first step, but picking through the cut content is often even more revealing.
Pete is an independent artist and the creator of Angelarium (www.angelarium.net). His passion lies at the intersection of art and entrepreneurship.