The Upside of Rejection

By Carolyn Edlund

Everyone experiences rejection. Here’s how to use the positive aspects of rejection to improve.


Artwork by Buddy Nestor


An artist recently expressed her frustration at being turned down over and over again for a solo show of her work. She had submitted proposals to university and public galleries, and arts organizations with gallery space for more than a year.

Her sculptures were a series of vaguely grotesque organic-looking fleshy pods, and other pieces that looked like body parts or aliens. Asked what was unique about them, she cited a technique she had invented to work with foam rubber, which was her material.

She had previously been in a highly successful group show that toured the country. Her sculptures in that show were female nudes which made a provocative statement on sexuality.

What happened here?

The artist failed to realize that her work in the successful show related to a highly charged topic, and one that would appeal to many gallery visitors, while her current work doesn’t connect with people emotionally. Nobody really cares about her foam rubber technique, and the shapeless forms of her work are more perplexing than interesting.

Grotesque or macabre art can definitely command attention and draw fans, from the curious to collectors to horror fans. But our artist in this case didn’t have work that reached that level. She didn’t have any idea of the audience she would appeal to when she sought her solo show, which was rejected by all venues.

Failure and Renewal

If you’ve been an artist for a while, you have also experienced rejection and failure. But these tough lessons can make a bigger difference in your career than successes can.

Failure can teach you that you must step up to a higher level in your art business and start working smarter.

Jewelry designer Charlotte Leavitt  received a stinging critique from a respected mentor that her line was common and not marketable, causing her to doubt herself and even shut her studio down for a while. But she came back to the drawing board with new ideas and started a business that really worked.

She learned that failure can teach you not to take things personally. Failure can teach you that you can’t take things for granted. And that you can’t play it safe. You must take risks.

Failure can teach you that “it’s a numbers game.” Most sales attempts don’t make it. Most people don’t want to see or buy your art. But that’s OK, because you can find your niche and your audience and grow your business there.

Failure can teach you that after experiencing it, you can come back anyway.

Billionaire author J.K. Rowling is famous for being a failure before she was a resounding success. She spoke about her experience:

I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

Has failure set you free? What have you learned the hard way that made all the difference?



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  1. I am a classic case of an all too sensitive artist, and what I do is so specific and individual to me, I don’t benefit from the credentials of being within a particular form or style – so rejection happens a lot. It’s so disheartening to get a no from someone that I so dearly want a yes from, almost subconscious in it’s affect.

    Still – When brushing of the dust of disappointment, I am all the more clear which audience is mine, which reviewers suit my music or my art, and where the people who want to read what I write about spend their time.

    Thanks for this article which reminds me of the great value of failure, I do not appreciate it enough.

    • Angela, I’m glad to hear that your disheartening experiences have also helped you to find your audience. It’s a tough but necessary part of the evolution of business for an artist who wants to sell or exhibit.

  2. What a great article. Thanks so much for putting this on your blog. We have all been there many times as artists. What has to happen is the re-inventing process. MaryJane.

  3. not until last summer, when i failed to get into the book, Strokes of Genius, did i really just want to throw in the towel. but after a few days of really feeling sorry for myself, i got a total sense of freedom…of not caring what anyone thought but me. i also realized it was one persons opinion and it actually ended up making me more determined than ever to succeed…on my terms of course.

    so, i agree with all you have written. i really don’t think failing and getting rejected is a bad thing at all…if we allow it to help us grow and expand into better artists, personally and creatively!!

    • Thanks for your insight and your honesty, Kathryn. There is no substitute for succeeding on your own terms. Congratulations on stepping into a new, larger “comfort zone.”

  4. This was a timely article. Over the years, I have submitted to various galleries and contests and, mostly, have been rejected. I’ve done small shows and small galleries, but haven’t tried for bigger. I even had my art reviewed by former Warhol handler Ivan Karp, who said I should be able to get a show if I walked around Chelsea. Did that one summer, and, nothing. On the other hand, when I say to my friends, ‘I can’t get a show anywhere’, they said, ‘Who have you submitted to?’ (Umm…I hadn’t submitted anything to galleries or art licensing companies for quite a while). So, I went to the other end of the rejection-fear spectrum, creating art I thought would sell. This went the same way: I got paralyzed because it was no longer fun, and it was not successful anyway.
    So, today, I’m doing what I want to do: a series of surreal paintings based in the book of Revelation. It will be what it will be, but at least I will have fun doing it and, somewhere, someone will come along and will like it. I liken rejection to looking for that mate: Live your life (do your art); be yourself (do the art you want to do, that is your best), don’t try to be like anyone else (find your own voice), and when you least expect it, after you’ve put yourself out there in the dating realm (after you’ve submitted your work to various places) that Prince Charming will come along (that gallery/company/contract will come).
    Thanks again for this inspiring article!

    • I love your attitude, Christine, and your comparison to finding the right mate. You are right, trying to make your work fit doesn’t always feel right. Regardless of your gallery representation or your sales, your work has value and if you are really enjoying what you are doing, you are on far better footing that going through the fear-rejection cycle.

    • On your point, representation is about relationships…you want to have a good relationship with who represents you! Cold calls and submissions to galleries, agents, etc. relate to what kind of efforts at finding Mr. Right? Would you like to be approached on that level, and what kind of relationship would be likely to result?

      May I recommend Ed Winkleman’s blog concerning how artists approach his gallery for shows/representation, and how he wishes it was? He makes the point clearly…better than I could…

      Additionally Christine, you may be able to find a market in Christian/religious collections, galleries, blogs, or as illustrations for the work you are making now….

      Concerning my own experience: I know I am well educated in the arts. I know that I am a very good technician in a number of media. I am highly productive. No rejection changes anything about that, but it tells me about the jurors, reviewers, gallery programs that I was applying to…

      I put out dozens of inquiries (at a tiime) to related website/blogs, coporations/manufacturers who might be interested in my images for their offices, galleries/calls for entries, etc….it only takes ONE to say “Yes!”, and that changes everything!

      Then the press release goes to EVERY one I’ve applied to…not with an “I told you so” attitude, but because the door of opportunity is still open for THEM! It isn’t too late for THEM to grab this approved, validated and excellent work for THEIR benefit!

      See how the point of view reverses? Whether any of the rejectors responds or not, you are establishing you track record and momentum! Best wishes in all of your future endeavors, Christine! As an artist you are doing what the other 99% of humanity wishes they were doing! Yay!

  5. An interesting article – I have not tried getting into a gallery but have sold a number of paintings over the years by exhibitions locally and by word-of-mouth from one buyer to another person. Also repeat sales when a buyer decorates or needs a special gift. But the last few years sales have been down. When I compare my site with that of other sites, sometimes I feel as though “I am playing with the big boys”. But I keep on trying – my work isn’t going at the “big boy” pricses. There’s always some person who doesn’t like what I do but there is always one that does. I started out painting as a hobby and something to do when I retired. So I consider myself fairly successful.

    • Doris I agree – most people will not be our customers. But I like to see “repeat customer” and “word-of-mouth” in your comment. They can be the best source of income for artists, as well as other business people. Cultivate your collectors, and do ask for referrals. You can create a business on your own terms.

  6. Thanks so much for this article. I’ve been feeling “rejected” in all walks of life and it has taken its toll on me. I started to expect being rejected and even been calling myself, “Reject.” This morning I expected to have a serious pity party with my favorite people: me, myself and I until I starting cruising the internet for articles on the upside of rejection. Boy was I taken about by all of stories that I heard on rejection. There were people from all levels of society who’ve suffered serious setbacks from rejection. I kept reading articles including this one and I decided to end my pity party immediately. Although it can be extremely hurtful, rejection is a big part of life and everyone will experience it at some point in their life — some more than others. I give up too easy after being rejected. I tend to seek a hiding space because of the humiliation of being rejection. The sad thing is that the person(s) who rejected me (employer, friends, etc) has no clue as to how much pain the rejection has cost me. I just have to roll with the punches in life and not give up because of rejection. By the way, I am not an artist but I understand rejection all too well. Good luck on your future endeavors and thanks again for this article.

    Take care.


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