The Pain and Power of Tough Criticism

by Carolyn Edlund

We all love to get wonderful compliments on our art. But sometimes we get feedback that is hard to take. It might be the best thing you could hear.


Here's my opinion of your art. Have you received tough criticism? What was the result. Read about it at


A young jewelry designer once recalled a turning point in her business. She had had a conversation and critique with a mentor, who was a jewelry designer himself. They sat down and took a look at her line together. The feedback she received was that her designs were “too common” and derivative. She was told her collection was not distinctive enough, and that she wouldn’t be able to justify her prices because her work would be closely compared to imports, which were similar.

The designer took that criticism hard, and she actually stopped working in the studio for about two months. But then, she started fresh. Determined to succeed, she went back to the drawing board and created a line of jewelry that was appealing, had an interesting concept and really connected with customers. Years later, her well-received accessory line is still thriving, and she sells her work wholesale to stores across the U.S.


Art festival crowd


Not long ago, I had a conversation with a talented painter who shared the responses she received when exhibiting at her first art fair. She specialized in creating portraits in a painterly, colorful style, but each one of them tended toward distortion. They looked strange, even angry. The result was that most people avoided walking into her booth. Their comments indicated that the vast majority of fairgoers found her work off-putting and disturbing.

She took this harsh criticism in stride, and even laughed when she recalled that her husband asked her not to hang some of her portraits in their home. Then, she said that although she thought this period of experimentation was important, she felt ready to move into a new direction that she felt would resonate better with clientele and result in sales.


Art Business Workshop event


At one of my art business workshop events, I had to give some tough criticism to a young photographer. She had flown all the way across the country to attend the two-day workshop, which was filled with topics on growing an art business. Towards the end of the event, we sat down for a one-on-one private consultation. Asked for my feedback on her portfolio, I told her that I saw a collection of photos that were technically good, but that she was going in too many directions. She needed to decide who she was as an artist, and develop a concept behind her work.

It wasn’t easy to give that criticism, but I felt obligated to be completely honest. And I was gratified to see that when she handed in her evaluation form for the workshop, she rated our discussion as the most valuable part of the weekend, saying “The personal consultation helped me know that I need to find what my artistic voice is and focus on that.”

Receiving – or giving – tough criticism doesn’t always go so well. It can be hurtful or even devastating to hear. But it can be the catalyst for change or growth.

Have you ever received criticism that was hard to take, yet made a major change in the way you approach your studio work? Have you ever had to give tough criticism to another artist? Did it make a difference?


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  1. After reading this article I feel a little envious, honestly. As a jewelry designer I receive alot of compliments on my work, but not alot of critiques, so I chug along working to increase my exposure with disappointing results. I most identify with the first story because I think that’s where I am with my work, but can’t be sure since no one’s said it, even in seller’s forums. I would really appreciate a good critique to help me solidify my line and direct my vision. Something’s off, I just don’t know what it is.

    • Lisa, My best advice to you is to take every opportunity to get out in front of others – either shoppers or your peers – and look for feedback. That is not only how to tell “where you are with your work” but to learn what objections if any customers have to what you make. Or, learn what they love. I have an article on this that speaks to the topic here

      An art community is an excellent way to offer and receive critiques, with people you trust and have the same interests that you do. It can also be a wonderful place to meet a mentor if you are looking for one.

  2. Carolyn, your input was invaluable to me a year ago and I am still on the path you recommended. Your advice to “focus” and go deeper in my work has spurred my creativity in unexpected ways. I find myself repeating your advice to others! Thank you.

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