How to (Graciously) Accept Praise for your Art

Speak only if it improves upon the silence.

— Mahatma Gandhi

I recently did something I'm not proud of.

Something I urge all artists to avoid.

It happened at the opening reception of my first group exhibition since COVID.

A charming woman approached me with kind words about the artwork I was showing. I thanked her, then she paid another compliment. Then another.

I began to squirm.

I didn't feel the art was worthy of the praise she was giving. And so began the self-critical diatribe:

Oh, I should have done such-and-such differently...
Oh, there are so many other great talents in this show...
This piece belongs in the trash bin...

Bla, bla, bla.

And the worst part?

I know how tactless such a response is. I've known it for years.

A compliment is a beautiful gift someone is handing you. When you dismiss the compliment you reject the gift. And the giver.

Why would any sane person do such a thing?

I see it as arrogance cloaked in modesty. It's another way of saying, I'm so much better than the artwork you're looking at. Or, This would have been a masterpiece if not for this or that.

It also translates into Look how modest I am, which is as immodest as it gets.

Granted, it's normal to feel awkward at an exhibition, especially if you haven't shown in a while or if you haven't shown much at all. You're exposed.

The art you created in private has suddenly gone public for all to see and criticize. It's tempting to highlight any flaws before someone else does and get the humiliation over and done with.

I get it. I really do.

But this is old stuff. The cliche We are our own worst critics may be true. But it's boring. There's nothing new or mildly interesting about the self-deprecating rants of artists.

And the conversation doesn't have to end with our agreeing or disagreeing with the feedback we get. Feedback is an opening. It's a way of saying, "Tell me more about your work".

When you self-criticize, however, you shut the conversation down. Or worse, you pressure the other person to compliment you again, which is supremely annoying.

OK, so how do you avoid this blunder in the future?

Start with Two Words:
"Thank You"

First, and like any behavior you'd like to change, practice.

Say the words, Thank You, a dozen or so times, ideally when you're alone so nobody thinks you're nuts.

Seriously, give it a try. Better yet, practice in front of a mirror, as an actor would. Get comfortable saying Thank You, again and again, until the words feel completely natural.

Imagine the praise landing on you as you welcome the nice feeling that goes with it. If you find this hard to do when you're alone it'll be impossible in a crowded room.

Zip it

Then, and this is quiet.

That may sound harsh, but try to hear the words Be Quiet, in your mind, to ensure you actually do. This is the part I find the hardest.

People who over-explain are often trying to divert attention (ask any police officer what over-explaining means to them). It's an attempt to throw the other person off the trail leading to one's missteps.

That little pause, however–and a few seconds worth is plenty–shows you've heard their words and are touched by them. Respond too quickly and it appears you weren't really listening.

Keep the Conversation Going

As mentioned in the earlier post, we learn more from our successes than our failures. We just need to know what those successes are.

Asking, "What do you like about my work" is clumsy and you don't want to put anyone on the spot.

But "What kind of art do you like", or, "Do you go to many exhibitions?" are perfectly legitimate questions that can give insight into how, or if, your work resonates.

At the very least, you've shown interest in your newest fan.


OK, you've listened, thanked them, and begun a conversation. Now give them a little bonus.

What unusual details can you share about your work? Something only you know?

Maybe it changed dramatically over time.

Maybe your cat clawed off a section that you had to repaint later (yes, that happened to me). Or your drawing fell off a gallery wall and the glass frame smashed into a thousand pieces (that too).

When you share in this way you welcome others to your circle.

Reverse Roles

Next chance you get, tell another artist how much you love their work, provided you actually do. Then study their reaction.

If they're gracious, you have an example to follow. If they're boorish, you know what to run from. Either way, you've given a gift yourself and learned in the process.

This is also a great confidence-builder because it reveals confidence. Talent can be daunting, but when you applaud someone else's talent and do it sincerely, you pick yourself up a notch.

Leave the Selling to the Salespeople

It's painful hearing an artist hard-selling their own work at a show. 

Reason one is that most artists, with few exceptions, are lousy salespeople.

Selling is an art in itself that takes years of dedication to master. Gallery and museum professionals are trained and experienced. They're not personally invested in the work so they're comfortable explaining it.

As an artist, it's impossible to appear confident to a collector when you're hungry for your next sale.

Reason two:
It's inappropriate. 

People attend exhibitions to be inspired and possibly meet the artist, not to be sold by them.

So if someone asks about availability or prices–and this happens–better to direct them to the gallery staff. It shows integrity and they'll do a better job.

Lastly, Give Yourself a Break

We're artists, not stage performers.

Many of us are introverted. We tend to work in solitude and communicate through our art more than our words.

Receiving can be more powerful than responding. If someone praises your work and you don't know what to say, just smile and let the work speak for you.

Discussing your own art can feel empty or inadequate. Non-artists seem to understand this and will usually cut us some slack for any faux pas in social interactions.

But these are opportunities. Blowing a few of them won't damage your career forever, but they shouldn't be squandered either.

So, again, practice, particularly before an event.

You can be humble and confident at the same time.

You can be your worst critic or your best representative. It's all in the energy you put out.