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Creative Life News Blog


Rejection hurts. It's the awful "No" that hits us when we put ourselves out. Most artists face a lot of it, especially if they submit their work publicly.

double portrait, contemporary painting by Janet Strayer
Beside Myself, this and all paintings by Janet Strayer

Fear of rejection is reason enough for many not to put themselves forth, not to show their work. To make matters worse, acute sensitivity to rejection, the shame it causes, may even make us unable to handle or learn from criticism of any sort.

The dilemma becomes whether to hazard rejection (always a possibility) or to be seen. Why should your artistic work be seen or accepted? Only you know the answers to that. The answers run the gamut from "because it's as good as the work I've seen done by others" to "because it's so amazing it's beyond me". And there are many other possibilities. Love, admiration, respect, acknowledgement enter into it all. Putting oneself or one's work out into the world is an existential and very human transaction. And it's risky. The crucial job for most of us, especially artists, is to create the work,....not to avoid rejection.

contemporary portrait by Janet Strayer

As a reference point, I've just had paintings rejected for an exhibition I didn't expect it (maybe I should have). But I'd had a good run of prior acceptance. I felt awful. Disappointed? Yes. Diminished? Yes, a bit. Shamed? No. The more experience I've had as a painter showing my work publicly, the more I can affirm the courage it takes to do so, and the more I can rely on that courage as stamina for continuing my quest as an artist. Disappointment is inevitable. And practice helps deal with it. Still, because my artwork is personally motivated, I'm vulnerable to feeling diminished when the work is rejected. I think I know what to do about this feeling, though, if you'll wait a bit. These reactions are different from shame, a psychologically more involuted feeling that something is fundamentally wrong or inadequate about oneself, a sense of needing to hide or disappear. Remember, it's a piece of work that was rejected, not you. Respect that boundary. It's likely they don't even know you.

Here's my tip about rejection. Don't let it define yourself internally. But don't necessarily sneer it away either. There might be a useful message in it. Make it specific rather than general. What can be useful about this particular rejection? Who was the arbiter? What were they looking for? There are so many different opinions and tastes in the art world. And there is so much art competing for limited space and attention. Not everyone will like your work, nor should they. If a gallery rejects your work: did it fit with their other works yet still be different enough to be a good addition? Do you think there's anything you'd like to do differently in the work now? Do you know anything more about the "audience" you want for this work? If, perhaps like me, you're driven to pursue different paths in your journey, you might have different audiences for different sets of work.

Rejection puts you in good creative company. Think of all the famous authors, musicians, visual artists and performers whose work has been rejected. It is almost inevitable. Just one among many examples is the now famous Salon des Refusés, an 1893 exhibition of works rejected by the jury of the French academy of art. It included works by now famous Courbet, Cézanne, Manet, Pissarro, Whistler and others who changed the course of art in the next century.

Rejection can be magnified. Don't let it blot out acceptance and successes. Remember the works you've done that inspire you, that have been a success in one or more ways: they accomplish what you want, get public acknowledgement, awards, purchases, exhibitions, etc. True, rejection may make you stumble. But keep on your path. Only you know when you're on it, even if you're not sure where it leads. Keep showing up, keep working, keep learning. That's the artistic process: exploration, discovery, achievement, more exploration, discovery... and so on. That's vital.

Social Media Self, portrait by Janet Strayer

You can be your own worst or best critic. Get to know the difference between constructive and destructive criticism. The first one helps improve your work and is needed for growth. So is risk-taking, which goes outside the bounds of criticism and conformity, even to your own standards.

Sometimes, I look at a work that has involved me taking a big risk. Bad-critic-me tells me I should throw it out. Good-critic-me smiles at what looks like a mess and asks what felt good about doing it, any parts of the process or result I'd like to keep going? Old saying comes to mind: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I'd like to conclude with a few memorable quotes about rejection from persons now famous for their creative work:

I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, 'To hell with you. (Saul Bellow, New York Times, 1985)

You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance. (Ray Bradbury)

Don't be worried about rejection. I say that now. It's terrible, I asked one of my dealers years ago 'If I don't sell are you going to dump me?' And he said, 'Sure.' But sales don't make a show. (Joan Mitchell)

I love my rejection slips. They show me I try. (Sylvia Plath)

Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)

I end by wishing us all of us more courage and resilience to be creative.


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