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Fear of Rejection

September 8, 2008
Tierra 7, Acrylic on Panel

Tierra 7, Acrylic on Panel, 16 x 16 x 2

As children we are all artists up to a point, because of our spontaneity, our sheer joy in self-expression, and our unself-consciousness. Then, unfortunately, socialization begins and we become self-conscious and fearful. We begin to be told over and over that there is a right way and a “wrong” way, that we should hold the pencil this way, and that there are no purple trees. We start to develop an inner critic.

If we showed an unusual early interest in art, we may have been fortunate enough to have had adults in our lives who noticed this talent and encouraged us by supplying us with art lessons and materials. They may even have put our work on display around the house and at school.

But well-meaning adults too often are overly judgmental about children’s explorations into art. Many of them are outside of the comfortable circle of family and friends. Sadly, even teachers are sometimes guilty of this.  (I’ve written before about “judging” children’s art exhibits.) Sometimes a negative response can be subtle, such as not being included in the elementary school art exhibit, a facial expression, seeing our art in the trash can, or the question “what is it?”

Therefore, I think we’ve all experienced negative reactions to our art at some time in our lives, and the younger we were when they happened, the more entrenched they are. These responses become internalized and then re-emerge when, as adults, we are confronted with the idea of exposing our art to the outside world. The fear and dread is always there. Some of us may be frozen in our tracks and completely hold back because of this fear. Some of us forge ahead in spite of it.

I will always remember my first years of doing outdoor art festivals. My paintings were abstract. I didn’t get into all the shows I applied for. But when I did get in, I would sometimes get an award — sometimes not. I would get mixed reviews from the crowds that walked by. At every single show I would invariably hear the comment not meant for my ears, “my grandkid could do that!” That went a long way toward toughening my skin.

Our deepest feelings are so enmeshed in the art that we do. It is a piece of us. We are exposed and vulnerable. When we come to the point that we are entering a lot of juried competitions, there will be rejection, guaranteed.

When we get up our courage to approach galleries with our portfolios, not all of them are going to say yes. Even when we’ve passed all those hurdles, and the press begins to take notice, we had better be ready to ignore negative reviews, because if we’ve gotten that far in our careers, we are sure to have those too.

Here are some ways to get over our fear of rejection:

  • Juries, judges, gallery owners, and museum directors are individuals. There are a million reasons they may or may not choose you, a lot of them having nothing at all to do with you or your work. It’s a numbers game, so practice makes perfect here. You have to keep trying, and get a lot of rejections in order to blunt the experience, to make it recede to its proper place in the larger scheme of positive and negative. If they offer a critique, rather than being offended, look for nuggets of truth between the lines and resolve to get better.
  • Surround yourself with other artists who are willing to give you an honest critique that is directed toward the work itself and is trusted not to be seen as personal. Ideally this would be a group who meets on a regular basis.
  • Attend classes and workshops that force you to stretch and grow. It’s not helpful to our growth to just retreat within the comfort, approval and encouragement of our families and friends, who are always going to say nice things about our art because they like us and don’t want to hurt our feelings.
  • Join groups online that are doing art that at least equals or surpasses your own. Join in the discussion and learn from them. I might add that it’s not helpful to join online groups that only cheerlead for each other.

So my question for you is: How influential is your inner critic on the work that you produce and how you approach the outside world with that work? Is fear holding you back in any way? And if so, how are you working to overcome it? If you are fearless about your art, will you teach the rest of us some of the things you’ve done to get there?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Annette permalink
    September 8, 2008 11:13 am

    When I showed my preschool director mother the pieces I had begun during my whirlwind tour with Linda and our day with you, she said, “It looks like what we did in kindergarten.” Oh, dear, I am still my mother’s child.

    “Spontaneity, joyous self-expression and unself-consciousness” were certainly present in those pieces. I decided that the comment might not be meant as one, but that it just MIGHT BE A COMPLIMENT!

    BTW thanks for showing me how to work with NO FEAR.

  2. September 8, 2008 12:16 pm

    Annette, it was a fun day for sure! I’m so glad you decided to play. My mother was a dyed-in-the-wool realist painter. Since she’s been gone for a long time now, to this day I still wonder what she’d say about some of the paintings that I’m doing now. You’re right — our Moms are always right there with us.

  3. September 8, 2008 1:10 pm

    Oh gee, Martha…what a subject!
    I think, in some ways, I am my own worst critic, or maybe the best – hard to know. I had some confidence in earlier work – figuratives and overall they were much less complex in depiction than this idiotic obsession with abstraction. I don’t remember being discouraged as a child, but I was always doubting my own abilities. In the few areas of life where I excelled, it seemed more cut-and-dried, i.e. piano (played by ear and then progressed to doing quite well with training, exams, competitions, etc.

    I over-plan, over-assess and, in the end, the few that get to live are most of the time something I consider mediocre. And I hate mediocrity!

    Oddly, the sale of one of my recent pieces, which happened to fly right out from under my nose, turns out to have been my own personal favourite. I know you addressed this a few entries back. This piece was one I’d almost left for dead but now it turns out that I consider it a success despite the fact that it was the most spontaneous and briefest time spent at the easel. Still not sure how to assimilate this ‘lesson’.

    I wish I had more to contribute to this but I really don’t. The fear is constant and everytime I begin again AGAIN, it returns full-blown and stilting. I’ll surely be watching for others’ posts on this subject along with your own and hope to learn something.

    Oh! A funny little footnote – yesterday, at a celebration of my mother’s 89th birthday, we were talking about art. Mother’s appreciation has always seemed to apply only to ‘pretty’ landscapes and flowers. She mentioned that she wishes that she had learned to appreciate abstract art. Because, after all, it must take a certain amount of skill since so many people seemed to like it. I told her there’s still time. And gave her a hug. 😀

    Hope the skies have let up for you for awhile! : )

  4. September 8, 2008 1:21 pm

    I might have to think on this a bit more. Fear of rejection, I think, so universal. Even for those who don’t like to admit it.
    I think one of the tactics I’ve chosen to overcome this is “making my own path”. Finding alternative venues for showing and selling art. For example: gift shop/home decor store over gallery. Even restaurants and lounges. Where the process is generally between you and the establishment’s owner and much more relaxed.
    Bypassing a formal jurying process and getting the opportunity to gain feedback from an audience is a great way to build up your confidence as an artist. Having the knowledge that on a real level, folk enjoy your work, helps you remain standing tall (or maybe bend but not break) when a pesky juried show or gallery rejection comes along.

  5. September 8, 2008 2:13 pm

    Perhaps your art is a reaction to your mothers art?
    Sorry that is too simple I know. yaken to extreems it can mean the artist becoming a reclouse as in this link whicj I really must do more research on!
    How many unknown painter have not been discoverd?
    This was also raised on post ago9 in fact iused the same link)
    as always much to think about and i jhope you will remain safe hurricane pending?

  6. September 8, 2008 4:07 pm

    Karen, I don’t think the fear ever really goes away. And isn’t it funny how some artworks’ are not a direct result of the time spent on them? But they are a product of all the years leading up to them! I also love your story about your mom.

    John, you really do have a wonderful formula for creating your own success by keeping control of how and where your work gets out there. Think of it! You may never have to give over to that whole competition game. Not a bad plan at all!!

    Chris, what an amazing article on Joash Woodrow. Much food for thought there. Imagine the discovery of a lifetime of incredible undiscovered work. Regarding my art as a reaction to my mother’s art — I don’t really think so. I only think of her influence as the fact she was doing something exciting and fulfilling besides being a mother and a teacher. I saw the “artist” part of her as something to emulate. When she was alive, we had some good-natured discussions about realism vs. abstract art, but it was just a matter of our differences in taste. She didn’t see much point in abstract art, and stayed true to her own path. But I think she was proud of my achievements.

    Just so you know — I visited Bob’s blog and couldn’t believe we’re all talking about this!

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