Created as the cover to a vampire novel in 2016, rejected by the client

It’s difficult for artists to separate their identity from their work. Should that be a surprise? We dedicate massive portions of our lives to study, root our point of view in deeply personal experiences, and endlessly strive to present a unique voice. We do all of this so that our work will stand out, and so it follows that an artist’s work is singular to them. Only they could or would create it. And so, impostor syndrome aside, we tend to take on the feeling that acclaim for our work means we’re awesome and brilliant and all around amazing.

There is a danger in egotism though. In order to continue improving, we need to be self-critical of our skills and we need to recognize the value in outside feedback. You don’t learn if you think you already know everything, and nobody gets better by ignoring their faults. If your labor is directly tied to your self image, however, it turns a critique into a personal attack. Disappointments take on outsized significance. When you are your work and your work is you, rejection, or even lack of appreciation, can hurt deeply.

My personality has tended at times to the self-important side of things, particularly in the early years of my career.

There’s no way to say how I might have developed differently with a different attitude, but my most meaningful growth was during times that I was less enamored with my own greatness. Beyond growth though, tying self-worth to career or creative success also takes a real toll on your general well being. This has me thinking about some of the common areas where ego trips people up, and maybe more healthy attitudes to navigating them.

This might look like being chosen for awards, selected in annuals and exhibits, or being an invited guest at an event. Whatever form it takes, it feels good to be recognized as a valued voice in your field. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to place undue importance on these things and even come to feel that they are owed. They’re not. And dwelling on perceived snubs is toxic.

My favorite painting from 2018. I believe it to be one of my best paintings to date. Rejected from Spectrum

The reality is, we will never know why a piece didn’t get into an annual or so-and-so’s work seems to get so much more attention than yours. Or at least, we won’t benefit from brooding about it. A more constructive question to ask yourself is: “Is my work exciting to ME?” Outside validation is wonderful, but also shallow and often fleeting. You are the ultimate judge of your own work. You set the goals for what you want to accomplish with it. Getting wrapped up in what recognition other people are getting is irrelevant to making strong work and it distracts you from pursuing your own vision.

Work to impress yourself. If you can deeply believe in what you’re doing, you’ll have a lot more fun doing it.

Client Feedback
If you’re ever frustrated by client feedback, just repeat after me: “we’re on the same team. We all want this project to succeed.”

Sure it feels great to turn in a final and get an immediate approval, but notes are a part of the job and they are NOT PERSONAL. As disappointed as I sometimes can be to get revisions, they truly are nearly always to the betterment of the piece. Maybe I’m just mad at myself for not having seen and addressed the issues before I sent it out? Either way, making the finished piece even better makes you look good in the end.

Sometimes, unfortunately, the notes run counter to your aesthetic to best fit the brand. In this case, it’s up to you to decide if you’re right for future projects with that client. But it’s not personal.

And every now and then, through inexperience, ego, or poor communication, you get a client who routinely gives unhelpful feedback. See above.

But usually it’s YOUR ego throwing a tantrum and the notes are actually pretty solid. And often, at least in my experience, not even that difficult to execute.

Non-Responsive Emails
Sometimes clients, collectors, peers, and others might go dark when you’ve sent over some work and are expecting a response. I think the instinct is to make pessimistic assumptions. All the imagined reasons why they’re not getting back center around being disappointed or unhappy. Most often it’s more likely they just… haven’t answered yet. Maybe the client is waiting until after a sales meeting. Maybe the collector is talking finances with their partner. Maybe your peers are just slammed on deadlines. The truth is, no answer is just that: no answer. It’s neutral, and patience is the appropriate response, along with polite follow-up after a reasonable amount of time.

Cover for Dark Horse Comics, my best piece from 2019 and favorite cover in this series. Not accepted to any 2019 annuals

Social Media
This will eat you alive if you let it. And there is no end. I understand why people get so fixated here though. Numbers are absolute. They are hard, quantifiable, publicly available score cards for your success. Except of course they’re completely arbitrary and often don’t correlate at all with quality of work.

There’s always someone ahead of you and always someone behind. Being visible is important, and one can leverage a large following into smart business opportunities, but that doesn’t make it any less subjective and irrational. I have personal art heroes vastly more experienced and successful than I am with much lower numbers. What’s more impressive, a big number or mind blowing work? Which would you rather spend your valuable time and energy on?

And this is what it all comes down to: Are you getting the jobs you want? In a sense, every commission out there that you didn’t get is someone passing you over for someone else. So right off, that’s a lot of rejection. But how many of those commissions are a good fit for you? In the wide range of commercial and private work being bought, spanning every discipline of visual art, the number drops to a tiny fraction. Of those, how many have a budget and schedule that matches with yours? The tiny fraction drops further. And it’s what remains that you can do something with.

Are you on these peoples’ radar? If you have a history, have you reached out recently? And after all that, the key point always comes down to: are you killing it with your work? Good news, these are all things that you can work on: promotion, networking, and raising the bar on your portfolio. Because that is what brings in opportunities. Do work that excites you, and share that excitement with the world. Everything else follows.

Created as the cover for a Lovecraftian story collection in 2012. Rejected by the client

Remember, it’s never personal.
What are the chances that it’s about YOU? Not getting into a show: highly unlikely it’s about you. Nitpicky revisions: definitely not about you. Not getting hired for the projects you want: not about you at all. Negativity online: Most people doing this are just broadcasting their own insecurities and frustrations, which is not. about. you.

It’s not about you as a person. It’s about a tremendous sea of great work out there, and everyone is trying to break through the noise. It’s about your work, your labor, which IS NOT you. The work we make is always in a state of change. It is always full of potential energy as we move forward and continue creating. Don’t get dragged down looking backwards at what didn’t come your way. Look forward and keep focused on making your next piece the best it can be.

If you devote yourself to thinking about failure or success, both will become distractions. Mastery does not come from seeking a reward, it comes when the reward is in the work itself.