John Kissick on How to Accept and Build on Criticism

posted by Chris Valentine

Criticism is one of the toughest parts of any job, especially when you’re an artist and you feel that your work is so closely intertwined with you personally. Thus, for artists, learning how to accept criticism is one of the most important lessons they can learn as they embark on a career. Criticism is an inherent part of being an artist, so the earlier you can learn how to listen to the commentators that matter, tune out those that don’t, and adapt your artwork accordingly, the better off and more critically aware you will be.

John Kissick is a nationally recognized abstract painter and art professor from Guelph, Ontario, who currently teaches at the University of Guelph’s School of Fine Art and Music. He is also a widely published author on contemporary art. He provides some much-needed insight into handling criticism in the art world, including a few of his top tips for accepting criticism.

Learn How to Handle Criticism

According to Guelph artist John Kissick, in order to accept and usefully build on criticism, you must first learn how to handle feedback. Some artists are pros at handling criticism. This is because, if you went to art school, you likely experienced weekly critiques of your work, meaning you now know how to handle negative feedback. However, some artists who didn’t have this type of formal training may struggle with pointed criticism at first.

The key is learning how to handle constructive criticism. Step number one is to actively listen to the feedback you are receiving. Being willing to listen to and accept criticism from a peer is the hardest step, but it’s crucial to learning and improving your work. If all you are really looking for is unconditional support and a pat on the back, then any small critique is going to feel like a major blow. That is why whenever you put new artwork out there, whether it be on social media or at an in-person class, exhibit, or workshop, you need to be psychologically prepared for feedback of all kinds. Painter John Kissick claims that mentally preparing yourself for public exposure through both positive and negative feedback is key. If you aren’t prepared to handle both good and bad, then perhaps you shouldn’t be presenting it in public yet.

Further, if you feel you are ready to listen to feedback and do want to showcase your new art, don’t feel you have to agree with every interpretation that people have about your work.. Listen carefully, take everything in and consider its validity, hold on to that which seems useful and credible and leave that which doesn’t feel helpful.

Give Yourself Time to Respond

Artist John Kissick’s second tip for dealing with criticism is to give yourself plenty of time to respond to criticism. Time is absolutely crucial for gaining some perspective and sifting through feedback. It’s not uncommon for pointed criticism to stir up feelings of anger, resentment and possibly even rage in some people. That is why stepping back, weighing the commentary, even sleeping on it, before responding often really helps an artist gain some much needed perspective.

Giving yourself time is also an important lesson for those providing feedback. Just as you would want someone to give careful thought and attention to the feedback they provide, you should offer the same sensitivity and empathy to other artists. Really consider the work of art you’re asked to critique and whenever possible provide a possible solution for how the artist could improve upon the work in question. This is what separates constructive criticism from unhelpful commentary. Ultimately, taking one’s time to really engage with the work is extremely important for both parties and will ensure a respectful conversation.

Thank Your Critic

This might seem counterintuitive to how you’re feeling at the time (especially if the criticism is pointed,) but thanking your critic for their objective feedback can go a long way in paving the path to future conversations. Painter John Kissick says that whenever he’s received feedback from a fellow artist, critic or curator, whether positive or negative, he always goes out of his way to express his appreciation for their honest response. Even if this doesn’t always feel true in the moment, he knows that such feedback is crucial to his understanding on how his work is being received. Showing respect for such feedback, whether you agree with the opinions or not, is important in a community as small as the art community, which is built on long term relationships and mutual support.

Don’t Take it Personally

Another very important step for learning how to accept criticism is not to take it personally. This is one of the greatest struggles for any artist because artists often feel that their works represent themselves or are pieces of themselves. Thus, when the art is criticized, they feel they have been attacked personally. Again, John Kissick believes it’s natural, even inevitable in certain circumstances to feel this way, but ultimately it’s not helpful or healthy. It’s also almost guaranteed that this was not the intention of the individual who volunteered the feedback.

In order to help yourself not take every bit of negative feedback personally, John Kissick of Guelph, Ontario, advises artists to emotionally separate themselves from their work and create a critical distance which will allow for healthy criticism. To avoid feeling personally attacked, you need to keep some perspective and remind yourself that your art is not you.

Don’t Listen to Internet Trolls, Says John Kissick

In this day and age, it’s easy to feel like everyone’s a critic. With the rise of social media, artists have been able to curate an audience for their artwork that is much greater than ever before. But with more online fans comes more internet trolls. Knowing how to ignore these trolls is crucial.

In John Kissick’s mind, internet trolls and purposefully destructive and cowardly commentary should never get the time of day in your mind. Critiques from peers and individuals who have some relationship to your development should be listened to and considered, but noise from random strangers on the internet should not be given a second thought. Many artists have learned the hard way not to waste any amount of time or energy on such people, who have little interest in a real dialogue and are often simply playing out their own agenda, political or otherwise. That said, one lesson that can be derived from dealing with internet trolls is that not everyone will love your work. Art is subjective and it’s a simple fact that the art you create isn’t going to please everyone. If you haven’t learned this lesson yet, then posting your art on the internet will surely teach it to you, and it’s an important one to learn.

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