top of page

Honest Self Appraisal vs Critique

Anyone who has had a class with me has experienced an honest self appraisal at the end of class. This is different from a group critique because it really requires you to take stock of your own work, not to listen to the opinions of others. Why is this important?

This is my painting and the view during Plein Air Adventure class this week

Artists are our own worst critics!

We tend to think our paintings are awful until proved otherwise. We don't always look objectively at our work, instead we look critically. This is good while your painting, because it shows you what to deal with next (like troubleshooting) but once you are finished, it can be self-destructive.

Often we focus on petty little problems that no one else will notice. This is a sign that you suffer from perfectionism.

Look at your work objectively!

Learn how to see your whole painting at the same time. It's best to do this from ten feet back (or more) so that you are not looking at the small details. Step back from the easel, and really get a feel for the work.

This is a painting I posted on social media-thinking it was finished. It wasn't, now I'm embarrassed!

This is what the shadows actually looked like!

Focus first on what is working in the painting-

It's very easy to pick out what's wrong, that's not the question. Instead, tell me what's right. Where is the painting successful? Remember that every painting is a learning experience and not a museum piece. Even the worst case still has a something that works-a small passage that is well-painted, a color that resonates, the shape or form that is well-done. Look for what's right.

This pulls you back from overcritical thinking long enough to be objective. Once you have taken stock of what you did correctly, then you can think of what you would do differently. Where would you change that painting?

What would you do differently if you painted it over again?

I phrase the question like that so that you think about the process and are not attached to fixing that particular painting. Sometimes, a painting isn't fixable, but you know where you went wrong-the sky is the wrong value, the greens are too uniform, there is no real dark, etc. These problems are more about your process than that particular painting and need to be addressed by changing how you paint, not going back into that painting.

Sometimes, it's just a small fix; the shadow is going the wrong direction compared to the others, there's one line too light on that boat, etc. A simple fix is worth the trouble. I encourage you to listen for the simple fix and follow through.

If you don't see the problem, ask someone who's opinion you value.

The problem with criticism-

Group critiques are often the stuff of art school nightmares. Everyone has stories of harsh criticisms and the toll they take on artists-frustration, years of creative blocks, giving up. My college days were no different. In my formative art school group critiques, I was the only realist painter, everyone in the eighties was painting abstracts. My college was strong on theory and concept and weak on technique.

When people criticize your work it can feel like a personal attack, like they slapped your baby. Try to hear the specifics, and separate what rings true from what might be their opinion and have no bearing on your artistic vision. Take your ego out of it, and instead look for the wisdom in it. Only an artist who can honestly self-appraise can do this.

Letting go of hurtful criticism-

You have to be able to hold that piece of criticism up and see if applies to your artistic vision or if it is that person's own vision being incorrectly applied to you. You need to have an artistic vision and be aware of that vision for this to work!

Recently, someone I admire said to me that my pastels look too much like oil paintings because I blend, and you don't always see my strokes.

This was not harsh, it was helpful. She was right, but it is part of my artistic vision. It's an integral part of who I am as an artist, and one of my strengths. Just not to her, I thanked her, and realized this truth immediately, and let go of the words. They just don't apply.

Anything that doesn't apply is water off a duck's back. If it stings, lean into the sting. Why does it sting? Was it said to hurt you or help you? If someone say's "my four-year-old could paint that!" it is hurtful and does not apply to you. It is their problem. They feel threatened by self-expression.

If someone says "it's hard to understand what this painting is saying." Then hold this up and look at it-could you render the forms better? Is there a problem with value? Does this sting because it's true?

Asking for criticism-

I ask people I trust for criticism (and not on social media!) because then I know where they are coming from and I'm sure it will be helpful. When they say something critical, I hold it up and examine it. I don't dismiss it.

When people ask me for criticism, I rarely give it to them in a group setting unless its a small thing, or a learning experience for the group. Most beginner painters are not ready for criticism. They need to learn to paint and to fix their painting processes by realizing where they are going wrong. In other words, they need to build up their inner process of discernment through honest self-appraisal until they actually have an artistic vision and are ready to improve their work. Beginning artists will most often realize their mistakes the second they step back from the piece because beginner's mistakes are more obvious and glaring.

It's the advanced artists that I focus on. The more advanced you are, the more difficult it is to see the problem because you can't really see the problem with the same eyes that made the problem.

If you are advanced, then you're able to hear criticism and apply (or dismiss it) without flinching. Usually its a simple fix; that horizon isn't straight, too much warm color in the distance, or needs more cast shadows.

If you are not fortunate enough to have a group of trustworthy artists around you, hang the piece in your house and live with it for at least a week. Seeing it with fresh eyes and different settings will help you see what's wrong with it.

For God's sake! Don't post it!-

Many new artists mistake Instagram or Facebook as a place to put up works and ask for critique. This is counter-productive. Most of your "friends" are too polite and uneducated on art to be helpful. Putting an unfinished work up on social media is unprofessional and will only "brand" you as a beginner. Don't let images of your work get published that you wouldn't want representing you in the world.

You never know who is watching your work. I recently had a gallery owner start following me after I won an award in a group show in her gallery. She occasionally "liked" and commented on my work. I was conscious of this, and watched her as well. She was checking me out, seeing my brand (quality of work I put into the world) and seeing if my work might be a fit.

Collectors will also come through social media, so only put your best works out in the public domain. Do not put half-finished works and ask people for advice! Also, do not post everything you do. Be selective and post the best works. I have another friend who posts everything she paints, thinking someone will like this. Truth is, she is very strong at landscapes but weak at portraits. Her portraits drag the quality of her landscapes down in the public eye. Try to be conscious of that and don't put new or experimental work online unless it truly is your artistic vision and you are prepared for the consequences.

I truly hope that this is all helpful to your artistic growth. As a spiritual practice, I have learned to accept criticism with dignity and grace, and never fight back. That is ego. Instead, I thank the viewer, and secretly hold up the words and apply what is true, and let go what is not. I know that my self worth is not tied to the success or failure of my most recent work. I also know that one acceptance, or rejection is not going to make, or break, my career. Please give yourself the same gift of acceptance and let go of the armored ego.

I strive to remain teachable and open to growth at all levels, and approach art with a large, open heart...not a heart in a suit of armor with an impenetrable force field and sharp cutting knife of sarcasm greeting any criticism.

Your artistic growth is in direct proportion to your willingness to honestly appraise your work!

This is the retouched shadows on the finished piece. Honest self appraisal? I like the foilage and the values. I think I captured the feel of the day. What I would do differently? Stick to a specific light, not chase it, especially in the shadows!

Recent Posts

See All


Dearest Shawn, I had to look twice at your first photo because the painting on the easel blended so well with the background! I luv the dreamy feel of it, leading to an unknown journey yet an inviting one! I luv the group critiques we do with you because you make us feel so at ease...I’m able to express myself in a secure setting! Plus, you ALWAYS make us find and express what we like about our work, first and foremost...which, like you said, is not easy for us because we always look at the negative first! However, because of this training, I find myself applying it to other areas of my life and that is a blessing...sort of like a…

Shawn Dell Joyce artist
Shawn Dell Joyce artist

Thank you so much for taking the time to write and being so heartfelt and heroic! Looking forward to seeing you soon!

bottom of page