March 24, 2011

The Fine Art of Accepting Constructive Criticism by Dan Santat

(The fantastic Mr. Santat has given me permission to repost this. He says some things every beginning illustrator should know!)
I've been preparing for my keynote at the SCBWI Western Washington conference next month and I dug up this gem from my basement.
See this?....
This is a reminder of where I was eleven years ago. This was circa summer of 2000? I flew out to New York with a friend of mine and for one week I did the portfolio drop off to all the major book publishers in the city. This was a little leaflet that I left in my portfolio for art directors to make notes on for any advice. I was still in art school and I wanted to get a feel of how the professional world viewed my work before I unleashed myself to the hounds. I wanted to be prepared. I still remember that when I got this note I was a little devastated. Scholastic was a dream publisher to work for. Now, when I reflect on this letter, I think of the portfolio I had at that time and I completely agree with David Saylor. (If I still had that portfolio I would have shown you some images but I unfortunately I don't)

I wasn't ready, and in fact, that was the common response (with exception to Henry Holt) from all the art directors at the time. Getting a response from someone like David Saylor was a huge step for me and though the notes weren't detailed they still spoke volumes. I didn't cut the mustard. I had to work harder!
At one point in life everyone feels the sting of criticism and there comes that fork in the road. Do I give up the dream of being an artist or do I fight harder and learn from this? It goes for anything in life really. When I am asked to critique portfolios for SCBWI I find that it's best to not be too harsh to most people. Yes, I understand, people can be sensitive, but there is also a part of me that feels that if you're paying $300 or more for a conference that you should get some advice to improve your work so you can get to that next level to reach your dream. I've seen people cry, get mad at their reviewers, and even heard that cliche shout of denial, "I'LL SHOW YOU SOMEDAY!!! YOU'LL BE SORRY!!!!"

I often give one or two bits of advice, a list of artists they should reference, and end with a "Keep your chin up!" sort of send off. It's as much as I can give so as not to be too attached to a person and be judged for judging them. I don't need that extra drama in my life. I was in high school years ago. I HATE drama. It's not that I don't want to help more but there is always the fear of a backlash which keeps me restrained from giving my full honest review. If I'm too harsh I'm viewed as an insensitive jerk. If I'm too easy then I don't feel like I'm being fair to you in helping you improve.
But here's the God honest truth...
It's never personal.

In the end, the critiques are what will make you a better artist. I, as well as the other reviewers, are never out to crush your soul, and we say it over and over again. If you want to be better you have to hear it. When I send my stuff out to friends I don't want compliments because that gets me nowhere. Even when I get compliments from friends I ask, "Did you really mean that or are you just saying that because we're friends?"
There comes a point where some people just like to hear the compliments and their work just seems to plateau. They've settled. They feel like they're good enough and by that I don't mean that their work isn't sincerely good, but they don't know how to improve and get to that next level. It's not that the person can't get to the next level, but after years of hearing nothing but compliments it's easy to assume that it's the publishing industry not giving them that big break. That may also be true but that's where constructive criticism comes in.

Although art is subjective there are standards in the commercial art world. It's a business. Your work may be good, but as David Saylor simply put it to me, "It isn't right for their list." Over the years I feel the publishing industry has become a very square hole in a world of many different shaped pegs. If you're not the right shape of square peg then you won't get in. Be open to constructive criticism and embrace those negative notes and fight hard to improve.You'll be a much stronger person for it.

NOTE: Scholastic ended up being my very first publisher and David Sayor became my first art director

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