Nest, Detail, Oil on Wood Panel
How to Deal with Rejection as an Artist
February 3, 2020 7 Comments
A Boo is a Lot Louder Than a Cheer
Thank you for submitting your artwork. Our jurors reviewed hundreds of submissions from all over the country. We’re sorry to inform you, however…
Sucks, doesn’t it?
Anyone telling you otherwise is either lying or delusional in my not-so-humble opinion.
A gallery or juror rejecting your art can leave you feeling like you’re being dumped. Both experiences can make you feel unworthy, plain and simple, and no amount of reassurance will ease that feeling:
“It’s not you, it’s me.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
Problem for artists is that rejection is unavoidable.
Most galleries are drowning in unsolicited artist submissions as they fight to stay in business. Grants, scholarships, and residencies go to just a fraction of applicants.
How then do you persevere without losing your confidence, your sanity, or both?
“You deserve better than me.”
“That’s true. Who doesn’t?”
I won’t repeat the same advice you’ve heard a thousand times (don’t take it personally, learn from the experience, bla bla) but will share some personal strategies that I find actually do work.
Hopefully, they’ll keep you in the game too.
First, Invite Humiliation
Oil on Linen on Aluminium Panel
26 x 22 cm.
This is a powerful technique but it’s not for everyone.
It involves throwing yourself into humiliating situations, as many as you can bear, and developing a thick skin in the process. It’s like getting a flu shot, but instead of one a year, go for one a month.
A blogger I admire suggests lying on the floor of a busy department store or train station as an exercise that inures you to the disapproval of strangers.
Extreme, yes, and I don’t advise it myself.
But you could volunteer to give an artist talk if you’re afraid of public speaking–and who isn’t? Or approach a gallery or museum you feel is way out of your league.
One of two things will happen: you’ll either succeed or you’ll bounce back a little tougher than you were before.
Know the Universe Makes No Mistakes
I wish this quote weren't so overused, because I love it.
But ask yourself, how many soul-crushing disappointments in your life or career have enabled something wonderful to happen? Think of all the high achievers who rebounded and triumphed after they failed:
• A rising portrait artist is shredded by critics, flees to another country, and becomes a phenomenon.
• A young CEO is fired, then becomes a billionaire while transforming the world.
On the flip side are the hoards of the miserably successful, who became that way after the wrong doors opened for them.
The point is to think long-term and big-picture. The disappointment that just killed your day could be the best thing for you in the long run, as disappointments often are.
Every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being re-directed to something better.
Keep Yourself in Motion
I love my fellow artists, I really do.
But it's maddening to hear them say things like I submitted my images but haven't heard back yet; still waiting.
Waiting? Why not jump on something else in the meantime? Why wait by the phone only to feel crushed when the call doesn't come?
Three or more possibilities in the works will keep you energized, and improve your odds of success. Imagine a high school student chasing the dream colleges and the safe colleges at the same time. Aim high and play it safe; you'll be surprised how often the big opportunities go your way.
Know What You're Really After
Houseplant on Tiles, 2017
Oil on panel, 16 x 16 in.
Marketing gurus recommend a five-percent customer conversion rate for businesses. Same goes for individuals. So if you’re getting one result out of twenty attempts, then guess what?
You are succeeding.
Two for twenty means you’re killing it. Consider the numbers:
Ten open-call submissions a year, each with a $40 entry fee, means a $400 yearly investment in your life’s passion. That’s the price of a few restaurant dinners you can live without (a Disneyworld ticket is $115). The cost of these shows is no reason to avoid them.
And the best part?
Your exhibition list will grow faster than you realize.
The first goal for any emerging artist is to build a resume–your gateway to future shows, sales, and opportunities. No one asks about your failures and you don’t have to share them. You’ll forget them yourself in time.
Ignore the Haters
One harsh reality is that no matter how talented you are, no matter how hard you work, no matter how rigorous your training, there are people out there who won’t like your work. Some will actually hate it.
Let that sink in for a moment. Some people will hate your work.
What a completely dreadful thought. It seems so cruel and unfair.
Yes, some will love your art, but they’re the minority. And I know how pessimistic this sounds, but it isn’t. It’s simply the nature of art, one of the most personal and subjective things in human experience.
You’ll always have your fans. They’re the ones who feel your work speaks to them, personally and directly. Who feel your work belongs to them, whether they own it or not.
Who think of you as their artist.
And these, fellow artists, are the people we want in our lives. Which brings us to the next tip:
Narrow Your Focus
I know someone who sells over half his output to just six collectors. You read that right.
For decades, the same six people have consistently bought this artist’s work, which isn’t cheap, for themselves and for others. The other 7.7 billion people on the planet don’t matter to him.
Because painters aren’t like writers or screen actors who need a million adoring fans. A small, loyal following and few solid relationships, and you’re set.
So focus on those who could potentially love your work (I’d recommend more than six). If they respond, keep them posted on your new works and activities. The rest of the world you can forget–you can’t be everything to everyone and your time is precious.
Dean Fisher, Painting in Big Sur, CA
This is the business we’ve chosen.
~ Hymen Roth
Artists are sensitive, vulnerable creatures. We wouldn’t have anything to express otherwise.
But we’re seldom credited for toughness or resilience, critical traits for anyone forging a career. The reality is that some of the world’s greatest talents were the most stubborn, persistent S.O.Bs that ever wielded a brush.
Maybe they were born that way. Or maybe they were toughened by years of persistence.
Either way, as unpleasant as it sounds and to the point of this post, practice being rejected.
Just let it happen. Let the door slam in your face so many times that it doesn’t faze you anymore. Desensitize that fragile side as you put your art, and yourself, out into the world.
If you’re an introvert, try to remember all the wonderful talents who were just like you but went for it anyway.
Yes, rejection sucks and we all hate it.
But it won’t kill you.
And it doesn’t have to hold you back.
The only real power it has is that it will tempt you to conform, but only if you let it.