6 Ways Artists Handle Rejection and Cope With Critics

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

It doesn’t matter who you are, rejection hurts, and the painful truth is this, rejection is part of the everyday life of an artist. If you want to succeed you’d better learn to deal with it, so how do artists handle rejection?

Artists handle rejection best by seeing the humor, acknowledging the hurt, and laughing about it. Sharing the pain as a story or anecdote heals the wounds. Artists must accept that you can’t please everyone, and the best way to deal with art critics is to ignore them entirely.

It’s a fact of life all artists are criticized, dismissed, and patronized by complete strangers who think they know more, have seen better, or claim they can do better.

Let’s go over the most common ways you’ll get knocked back and how to handle the rejection without going potty.

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Artist dealing with rejection by critics.

1. How Artists Handle Rejection By Critics

The artists curse. We create while others criticize. It’s the price you pay for making your art public.

Some of it may be fair and well-intentioned but usually, it’s pointless nitpicking.

Like the chap who once said he’d never buy my prints because he didn’t like the title font – really? Or the woman who said my Zebra drawing would be better if only it was in color – think about it.

Luckily these kinds of criticisms are water off a duck’s back as far as I’m concerned. In one ear, out the other.

What grates more is any criticism of my drawing skills. If the commentator points out a genuine error, I will be the first to agree and explain the cause.
But it’s usually on the level of

  • “That’s photoshopped!”
  • “What is it?”
  • “Do you do anything else?”
  • “You’ve missed a bit”

Is the customer always right? Are they hell, but you don’t need to argue the point. If something jars with you, bite your tongue and move on.

You deal with a critic by not reacting to their opinion.

A lot of criticisms are totally unfair but you have to live with them. In my case, not everyone likes animals, black-and-white pictures, and even realism for that matter.

“Might as well just take a photograph”

Then there’s the emotional challenge:

  • “It’s too sad”
  • “It’s too mean”
  • “It’s too funny”

The public are a picky bunch, whatever you do, someone will find fault. One of my drawings has a tiger’s head poking up through the grass. For some viewers, a tiger looking back is a delight, while others complain that they can’t see it!

This tiger drawing is rejected by some
‘Tiger in the Grass’ by Kevin Hayler

You can play safe and make everything happy, cute, and fluffy but then again you have to draw the line somewhere.

Artist dealing with rejection. Disconnect between the art and artist

2. How to Handle Rejection by ‘Disconnect’

It comes as quite a shock to some people when they discover that the guy they see working at his easel has anything to do with the artwork right next to him. 

“Did you like, do these? What all of ’em?

Just as strangely, some people discuss your artwork and refer to you in the third person as if you weren’t even there. I’m often referred to as ‘they’. The disconnect is bewildering.

The flipside is a good one. You certainly get a more accurate idea of how people really think (or don’t).

No need for surveys, all you have to do is stand there, listen, and observe. If you think about it, you’ll never have more honest feedback.

Some people will instantly voice their opinions without thinking that you and your artwork might be linked somehow. It goes something like this;

“I don’t like that one, nor that… no… nope… hmm maybe, that’s quite nice… have you got a bigger one?

For similar reasons people are not being intentionally unkind when they casually flick through your portfolio like a pack of cheap postcards, but they are being thoughtless.

Sadly in the minds of many, you are only selling stuff. You’re a retailer and your arty-farty feelings are irrelevant. Be strong and see it for what it is, all they want is a picture (maybe) and you happen to sell pictures.

If you want some selling tips: How to Sell More Art: 9 Selling Skills For Artists

The ‘handmade by a master craftsman’ line only goes so far. In truth, the majority of people don’t really care. You would think that everyone would be fascinated by the backstory but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. You can end up talking into a vacuum.

The disconnect hits home when you explain how you created the artwork. You reveal how long it took to make, where you were at the time, and what you set out to achieve.

Just as you get into full flow describing how you felt and why the work is so unique you hear…

“Have you got a different one?”

There’s no danger of getting big-headed. There’s always someone to bring you down to earth.

In my experience, the only time it’s hard to deal with rejection is when your sales are slow and you start feeling sorry for yourself.

Every slight can quickly become personal. The injuries compound as time goes by. It’s a spiral of decline that becomes self-fulfilling as your mood crashes and it puts people off.

As soon as the sales pick up again, and your self-esteem returns, you hardly notice rejection. Funny that.

Artist dealing with public indifference

3. How To Handle Rejection From Indifference

This is a harder nut to crack.

How do you keep your sparkle when your prospect has no real interest in what you do in the first place?

You may well think that if they’re not interested they aren’t a customer anyway, but that’s not always the case so you must remain positive.

They might be buying a present for someone else who might like your art. Their Mum collects elephants and you sell elephant art. Ker-ching!

Rejection and motivation are bedfellows, read this for help: How to Motivate Yourself to Make Art: 11 Kickass Ways to Get Going

Do you have problems getting things done?
Maybe you need a helping hand.

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Often the rebuke comes in the form of an unfortunate turn of phrase or a dismissive remark or gesture.

  • “Yeah I’ll have that one, it’ll do”
  • “It’s not my cup of tea but I think she’ll like it”
  • ”Quite good, if you like this sort of thing

Often, one spouse will walk away and stop a few paces beyond and wait, or they may refuse to talk or simply turn their backs. All gestures of disapproval will scupper the sale.

Often one friend will talk the other out of making a purchase:

  • “Where are you going to put it?”
  • “It will clash”
  • “It’ll cost you a fortune to frame it”

I find people who whisper to each other in front of me disconcerting. Likewise, those folk who pretend not to hear me when they clearly heard my greeting.

Some people even raise their hand defensively the moment you utter a word, while others raise their voices and talk over you.

Much more likely is the monosyllabic reply intended to stop a conversation dead and quickly followed by walking away without a word.

These dynamics play out every day.

A thick skin is required and it might be deflating without an occasional sale and some crispy new notes in your hand.

I handle rejection by backing off. There’s no point in flogging a dead horse. It’s better to give your time and energy to those who appreciate what you do. Trying to win people over is too draining.

I find the best remedy for rejection is counting the wonga. It’s funny how cold hard cash heals the wounds so effectively, it’s the poultice for your damaged ego.

Artist dealing with Condescending remarks

4. How Artists Cope With Condescension

One of the most hurtful forms of rejection is being patronized.

It’s an unforeseen consequence of being perceived as being on the lower rungs of the ladder.

Artists who trade and are not represented in a gallery are looked down upon by some as having not ‘made it’.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had a consoling pat on the back along with encouraging words,

“Keep going, you’ll get there.”

Get where? Anyway, I’m nearly 60.

Of course, I know they mean well. They think I deserve fame, riches, and the rightful recognition I deserve.

That’s all very well but the underlying premise is the assumption that you have been, and still are, an abject failure. Poor you struggling away, trying to earn a crust with your charming little ‘hobby’.

Some people project so much cliched baggage onto you that they can’t see past their preconceptions at all. As one chap memorably remarked,

“Well if you were any good you wouldn’t be selling them here would you?”

I regularly get asked what I do for a living. It happens while I’m actually at work making my living. It’s inconceivable for some people that an artist can make any money at all.

Perhaps some of the most challenging encounters are those when your customer takes pity on you.

I’ve experienced it so many times and witnessed my admirer getting increasingly upset as they convince themselves that I’m selling myself painfully short. They bang on about the injustice of it all and invariably come out with that classic line;

“What a wasted talent”

I could scream sometimes.

But I handle rejection as best as I can, and that’s by making a sale. It’s only at that point that I sometimes reveal my ace and put the customer right.

I reveal how I make enough money during the summer to take 5 months off every year!

Works for me.

Artists dealing with rejection from defensive customers

5. How Artists Cope With Hurtful Knock-Backs

No one likes to be hustled and if you approach a member of the public directly they are more than likely, going to dismiss you out of hand.

I’ve experimented with more assertive forms of selling like placing folders in people’s hands and applying pressure and let me tell you, it sucks.

If you want to know what rejection feels like, try the hard sell. You will get so many knockbacks you will go home broken

The hard sell doesn’t really go hand in hand with making and selling art.

Hustling is all about a one-off gain and never about repeat trade.

If someone walks away from you having felt obliged to buy your print, you’ll never see them again. And they will let their friends know all about it too. Don’t do it, it’s a mug’s game.

This course on is biased towards the conventional business world but all the same psychology applies to selling your art.

I have a colleague, a portrait artist, who profiles his potential customers and targets them as they pass by.

Most rebuff him outright, others apologize politely and have to refuse his offer 10 times over before he finally gives up and lets them go.

He burns out quickly and spends the rest of the day depressed.

I find it excruciating to witness and yet he keeps doing it.

Keep any pitching generalized. Yes, you can call out as long as you do it with humor and some cheekiness. If you can entertain you will get an audience without being put in your place.

Dummy holding a sign about Bad Manners

6. How To Deal With Bad Manners

It’s a sad truth that we don’t communicate so well, our lives are too busy, too frenetic, and too isolated. City life is alienating, communities are broken and social media is probably the nail in the coffin.

People are wary of each other.

That means by implication, if you like to pass the time of day, you must be a NUTTER. 

Little wonder that your greetings and smiles are so often rebuffed.

The dilemma you face, as far as selling is concerned, that’s exactly what you have to do. You must smile, make eye contact, and say “Hi”.

It should be so easy and sometimes it is, they are the good days. If people reciprocate you can stay happy and make some money.

Alas, it’s not always like that, there are days when you find yourself in the land of the living dead.

Boy oh boy, people can be hard work.

Your smiles are not returned, your cheery hellos are met with silence and you wonder why the hell you bother.

It’s on days like these that experience really counts.

I’ve been selling for so long now that I know some days are complete duds. It’s boring and frustrating and the day will be a long one, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

It’s so easy to turn in on yourself and think it’s something to do with you or the quality of your work.

But dud days can happen at any time. It’s as if there is a contagious misery mood and almost everyone is affected.

One day people are polite and cheerful and the next day they are ill-mannered and moody.
Why? I dunno, but all traders will tell you the same thing.

I can write off the bad days because I know they are temporary. I get on with my artwork instead.

Sadly, I’ve seen new artists quit just because they were unlucky enough to start selling on a dud day. Their worst nightmares come true, no one seems to care, and the world obviously hates them and their art, so off they go.

Yet if they had started on a good day they would have gone home with a wad of cash, enthusiastic, and ready for more.

I liken it to fishing. If you catch a fish on your first day, you’ll become a fisherman. You’ll want that feeling again. If however, you catch nothing, you’ll probably give up and never bother again.

Still not sure? Maybe you need a pep talk?

How Artists Handle Rejection: Final Thoughts

Very few people are deliberately unkind, they just don’t think about what they’re saying. Many people are oblivious to the emotional ties you have to your own work. Indeed some people will never put two and two together at all.

Others assume you do everything out of love, it’s not real work, and you must be in a meditative state of endless pleasure. As such it can come as an unwelcome surprise when you put a financial value on your work.

People really don’t change and it’s pointless expecting them to regard your skill as worth a premium. Some will, but most won’t. Accept it.

Your mood will be directly linked to your sales success. With that in mind, you must be aware that not all days are made equal.

  • The best day to trade is a Saturday.
  • The beginning of the month tends to be better than the end.
  • School holidays can double your trade.
  • Summer and Christmas are peak seasons
  • Oct/Nov and Feb/Mar are the kiss of death.

Knowing and understanding this will help you to understand the sales flow and help you to handle rejection more easily.

zebras pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Stripes’ by Kevin Hayler

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How Do Artists Handle Rejection?
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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