Judging Your Own Art

March 28, 2022
Brush pen and watercolor portrait.


It always surprises me which of my art pieces people seem to like the most. But I don’t believe we should be led by this—just interested in the perception.

Obviously when you work commercially a client explains what they want. You then either execute that or have convincing reasons for how they really want something else and convince them of those reasons.

If it goes well they pay you. That’s how you know they like it.

There’s more nuance to this whole process, but that’s what it boils down to.

And even in the gallery pieces I’ve created, if people like them they buy them. Money answers the question of like.

Of course, showing my personal art on my blog, Facebook, and then since 2017, on Instagram, people stop by and like my work.

To me that’s interesting in a different way from a client liking your work. The client has a purpose for the art and judges the work in part based on whether the art will meet that purpose.

People stopping by online to like something might stop by because they know me and it’s their way to say “hi.” Or they might stop by, as actual friends (i.e., people I’ve met in person) often do, to tell me that they like what I’m doing right now, or like what I’ve done in that particular piece.

And then there are people who stop by who are completely unknown to me. They like something because it caught their eye. A color or a shape leapt out at them and they clicked.

I know for instance that if I post a dog portrait I get more “likes.” I know if I am selling gallery paintings my rock paintings consistently sell.

Recently someone on Instagram actually commented that I should paint more of what people liked, i.e., dogs.

But is that really how we should make art? 

I think in terms of what we each need to do as artists.

If you’re working for clients you need to work with the brief you’ve been given. (Albeit in as groundbreaking a way they might expect you to do.)


But I believe we need to make art that means something to us as artists, that follows our interests, or our learning and experimenting. Certainly in our personal art. Even if those pieces that are most personal and valuable to us aren’t viewed as interesting by others.

For me the four portraits of bearded men in the above banner are four of my top favorites for the past three years on Instagram. If asked what I like about my art I would pull these four (and a couple others out). 

Yet none of them have gained much attention from anyone who stops by the blog or other online venues where I post.

The half face shown at the left is part of a full portrait I did during my first year recovering from my cataract surgery. We still didn’t know about my oddly shaped eyeballs. For me that sketch and another done the day before proved to me that I could still sketch and paint in a way that engaged me, and allowed me to play with colors, while not being too obsessed by tight detail—something I could no longer see anyway.

It’s a very emotional piece for me.

People viewing that of course don’t know anything about my eye situation at the time of creation or the extra meaning such a painting has for me.

But I also love the color scheme I used, and the textures of the paint…

I talk excitedly about those things to Dick and to friends and those who are painters usually get it.

Then other people do what people often do when speaking to an excited person talking about things like color, texture, negative space—they back away slowly.

The same is true about the sketch on the center left. Although in this case I look at it and remember how much fun I had pushing the left side of the face in and out, and deciding on the shapes of the beard.

The sketch on the center right glows for me. I feel I made great use of the color and texture of the paper I was working on, and my addiction to Cobalt Azure actually pays off here.

The half portrait that is on the right reminds me, in its full version, of the direction I was going with my portraits before the eye surgeries. When viewed in full that portrait reminds me how difficult I found it after the surgeries to deal with proportions and angles because of the double vision. It’s a transition message to myself that I’m going to have to slow down if I want to go in a direction that once was possible when I had correctable eyes.

Other sketches don’t get the reception I expect. Perhaps this pen sketch is too angry for some people—I like the contrast of negative and positive shapes.

People always have responded in opposite ways to what artists expect. And they always will to some extent. Part of it sometimes is because we didn’t do our jobs, or our art is simply awful.

But other times it’s because in someway we didn’t reach the viewer. We have to realize that and accept it, but also come up with a way to deal with that.

I don’t believe the way to deal with it is to find out what the viewer wants and create that.

That approach seems boring for me. The idea of doing one subject over and over in exactly the same way seems a type of punishment.

The idea of trying to figure out what an audience will like simply because you want to sell to that audience also seems boring to me.

I know I’m being insular, but in my personal art I want to paint what I want to paint how I want to paint it. It’s all part of the exploration.

Every one of my pieces has something of me in them. I can see my thoughts and interests and explorations staring back out at me. I think that’s what we need to aim for in our personal art.

Students Struggling with Making Like-able Art 

A lot of my students have started creating art in an online age. They don’t have the experience of creating alone or in a small group and learning what it is they like before they show something to the world.

I’m glad I had that opportunity. All those years being taking to art museums, reading art history, and print illustration made me think about what I like, what I think is important in a sketch or painting.  

I encourage my students to go into art museums and study works that they feel drawn to. How did the artist use the light, color, composition…? What is drawing you in? Those then become the important tools you need to learn to use and experiment with when you start making art.

And when you finish a sketch or painting you need to find something about it that you enjoyed doing, and something about it that resonates with you in the final piece—something you can build on in your next piece. 

It’s important to do that before you share it with the world because once you put something out into the world there will be so much noise (or silence if no one reacts) that you’ll forget what it was about the piece that you originally savored and enjoyed.

When you take time to do that the number of likes you receive online isn’t going to matter to you because you have established your own intrinsic value in your work. 

People will like or not like your work, but you’ll be able to keep on creating what you’re pulled to create, because you understand that there are things you are seeking within the process and result of sketching and painting.

Know what it is you want to create—if you’re making portraits and likeness is what you value most use your editing eye at the end of a painting to assess how successful you’ve been. If you weren’t as successful at capturing a likeness as your goals demand start looking around for the tools and instruction you might need to meet your goal of always executing likeness.

If use of color, or composition, or negative space, or contrast is important to you study how to improve in those areas.

You need to be the first judge of your art. 

The audience will look at your work and make judgements based on their interests and tastes. We can’t do much about that.

You get to make art based on your interests and tastes, but you get to educate yourself more, train yourself better—whatever it is that your goals call for.   

Why Portraits? 

Portraits have always been important to me. Nineteenth century photographs, 16th century English court portraits by Holbein the Younger, the mysteries of facial expression Gérôme captured in his portraits, the convincing and economical capture of likeness Sargent’s work embodies. I can’t imagine a time when portraits weren’t interesting to me. And I can’t suspect ever losing interest in them.

Portraits contain the human gaze and invite the viewer to not only read the subject but to see the artist.

In animal portraits it’s the same thing to me. I believe that all of my bird portraits are really self-portraits of a sort. And I believe that in each of my dog portraits there is a yearning to be connected to that which is “other.”

Do other people see any of that in my art? It’s not a question I ask.

Trying to see those things for myself is sufficient.

Exploring those things and being able to judge based on my goals, where next I need to go is more valuable to me than asking what others see in my art.

Frankly I already know what some people see in my art when they come up to me and with exaggerated exasperation to complain about how I always sketch beards.  

Sometimes I wonder if all those people drawing beautiful women in a nouveau-Mucha style get similar questions. Maybe they do.

And the real question the audience is trying to ask is, “Why don’t you draw what pleases me?” Most people don’t even know what would please them—they’ll know it when they see it.

Why would you give up your agency as an artist to that group?

I think we can only draw what calls upon us. I’ve had a life of relocation and disruption and loss of people (and dogs) important to me.

I have limited time here. It’s important to me to draw what I want to draw, and explore what I want to explore. 

By ignoring all the likes, you’re pretty much left alone to discover what it is you like. And I think that is a good thing.

It’s important to engage with the world. But I think it is equally important to guard that you bring yourself to that engagement.

On my blog I’ve brought my process, initially to connect with past students and then to a wider readership. It is important to me that I’ve shown things that don’t work, and dead-end paths I’ve wandered down, all while explaining how I am thinking about the creation of a piece.

My art and my teaching are process driven. I have always encouraged people to develop their process through self-evaluation of their work. When you approach your work with an honest assessment of your current skills and a clear understanding of your goals you can create a plan for going forward.

That understanding helps them create art regardless of how many likes they may receive online.

    • V
    • March 28, 2022

    I was listening to a good art podcast the other day and the host wondered aloud if anyone would do art for no one else to see and like, and the guest and host both laughed and agreed that they wouldn’t. Of course, the artists that become known are the ones who share their work, but it sort of ruffled me a bit…is it “okay” to make art just for yourself? That’s what I’ve been doing lately, maybe with some semi-conscious idea of working up to something sharable someday, but can an entire art practice just be a purely personal thing?

    1. Reply

      I think that history shows us there are lots of people who have made art privately that is wonderful and it only is “discovered” after their deaths and someone has gone through their things. True, sometimes it turns out that those artists were obsessive compulsive (aren’t all artists though?) and some are residents of mental institutions, or belong to another groups of marginalized artists (folk artists for instance who often work in anonymity. There was someone who created a vast quantity of Faerie drawings while in a mental institution, though I don’t remember the details. And I remember seeing in a documentary on Robert Crumb, that his brother Charles made art for himself—sadly though it was obsessively created and degraded over time to a sort of compulsive graphology. (I don’t recall what the word is, but basically he was making the motions of writing text, but it was just the up and down motions, sort of what designers used to do when they “greeked in type” on layouts.)

      But there are others who simply work in regular jobs and do “hobby” art at night and don’t think much about sharing it with the world—now though I think there is less of that because I think most hobby artists are now sharing their art on places like Facebook and Instagram.

      Personally I think it is essential for artists to make work for themselves, and initially just for themselves, until they develop a regular drawing/painting/sculpting/whatever practice and a thick skin. And at that point I think it is healthy to share it with the world because they aren’t going to be crushed when others don’t like it. (But that viewpoint comes after a life of teaching and putting people back together and in touch with their creativity after someone destroyed their creative confidence.)

      My recollection in the writing field is that Emily Dickinson wrote her poems and didn’t share them during her life time. (But I may be out of the loop on what really happened there as she wasn’t an author I studied.)

      I personally think that it is healthy as an artist, whatever your visible footprint in the world, to work privately on things like new projects and only share them when you’re comfortable sharing them—when they have developed into something that you actually see going somewhere.

      There’s a time delay on my blog—I don’t write about projects typically until they are finished and I’ve done my self evaluation. But this is perhaps just my quirk built on a lifetime of practice doing it this way. I just know personally I wouldn’t want to share something too early and kill some of the joy I found in it, just for the sake of sharing it and seeing what others think. (It’s a very different thing than being worried about perfectionism or other issues that plague some artists. I just know that I enjoy sharing projects only when they have taken some sort of form in my mind and on the page.)

      Before the internet I think also of all the journal artists, myself included, who didn’t share their journals and sketchbooks.

      I actually did share my journals with my in-person students—but only those journals that had been aged, typically 5 or 10 years. That’s based on a privacy issue and a project-joy-protection issue.

      Since I write about and plan and detail projects in my journals I don’t want people rummaging through those related journals before I finish the project or at least it has some form. I find that if I wait 5 to 10 years before making journals public then everything has “aged” so that it isn’t something I’m currently working on, and it isn’t something, if I didn’t work on it then that I’ll be likely to return to.

      And as for the privacy issues, things 5 to 10 years back have been processed completely by me.

      I made one main exception to the latter, 4 years or so into my Daily Dots I put up a gallery on my website that had pieces from those first four years. I had no idea how long the project was going to go, and it was more useful for me to have it up than carry a ton of books to my journaling classes for students to look at what I’d done. I don’t regret going public at year 3 or 4, but it made the end of the project around year 4.5 when Dottie passed away, very difficult. That had to be played out essentially in real time.

      Another exception I can think of is the aging and death of my in-laws. For a great many years I was with them for appointments and their daily life and their health “scares” in hospitals. Since I’m a journal artist who typically would draw from life and 100 percent of my non-professional time was being spent with them, a lot of that journey with them spilled out onto my journal pages and into contemporaneous blog posts because it absorbed my life. And I wanted to keep blogging for my past students, who already knew this situation.

      So we go forward on a piece by piece basis. Which is healthy.

      I believe that artists need to have healthy boundaries between themselves and their audience. People can draw that line differently. They might use a time lag like I do, or they might just post visuals without any explanation and make themselves unavailable except for the piece they post, i.e., not engage with their viewership.

      Where an artist falls on that continuum is up to the artist. The ultimate goal is to protect your creativity and your momentum.

      We don’t owe readership or viewership constant access to our lives or thought processes.

      For me this has always been difficult going into the digital age because I’m a rather engaged teacher and this teaching stance has pushed itself into my blog.

      Since I had good personal boundaries with my students before I started the blog I don’t think I’ve been hurt by this “exposure.” But it is something I believe everyone needs to consider and balance.

      I would rather err on the side of protecting my creative momentum than rushing to get a bunch of work out that really isn’t ready to be out or that I’m not personally ready to have out (because it deals with something I don’t want to share yet).

      If one works as an artist I also believe it is necessary to share your art in some way, otherwise what are you trying to communicate about? Unless you’re simply trying to leave “a message in a bottle” after your life.

      But where and how to draw the line is going to be different for every artist.

      Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my art practice since my vision is not and will not be correctable.

      I can see, looking forward (no puns intended) that I actually could create a purely personal art practice without any interaction with anyone in the public. I’ve already had to give up in-person teaching and that seems to me the first step in that private direction. The second step was stopping filming of new classes and reducing my teaching footprint to Patreon because it is way less of a video editing commitment that my eyes appreciate.

      But then I’ve had a whole working life working in publishing and having had a great deal of satisfaction with that so it’s not as if I feel the need to do a certain set of things. The things I had planned to do last year and this, things planned in 2016 before the eye issues reared up, and before the Pandemic interrupted travel, are not things that I can do going forward because of my eyes, so I have to rethink that future anyway. So totally private would seem fine to me.

      I just thought of a great public artist who went private—my favorite cartoonist, Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes. He put in his time doing the strip and in 1995 he stopped, saying he felt he was done.

      Does he still make art in private? I have no idea. No one does as his life is private though his wikipedia page discusses that he did paint landscapes after leaving cartooning. (You can check out the page for more details.)

      Anyway, my point is that I think people can have an art practice that is totally private. Mostly, however, my point here is that artists need to build healthy boundaries that allow them to be productive artists across their entire life, and change those boundaries as they see fit, and not as audience demands or favors.

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