What everyone thinks of me is none of my business: How to deal with constructive criticism

Gina Milicia Glenn Robbins
Above: I photographed Australian entertainer Glenn Robbins as Superman for the Foxtel series, “Open Slather”.

When I was a kid, I used to love to draw pictures, show them to my mother and father and ask if they liked them. They always did, and from the age of 4 till the age 7, I thought my drawings were the best in the world because everyone in my world said so. That was until I met Natalie Del Rizzio (not her real name) and everything changed.

I was 7 years old, and we were in the playground. I showed Natalie the drawing I’d just made in class. “Look, Natalie, do you like my picture?” Natalie took my art, gave it the once over, then sneered “It’s stupid, and the colours are dumb.”

At first I misheard Natalie’s response, because for the last five years each time I asked the question, “Do you like my drawing?” the response was always, “Yes, I love your picture and you are amazing.”
So I was a little shocked, you know, like the over confident contestants on reality shows who find out they did not get through to the next round. I managed to compose myself and handle the situation with class and grace. I told her she smelt funny and her pigtails looked dumb and then burst into tears.

Natalie Del Rizzio was my first critic. Why did I care so much about what somebody I never really liked, thought about my work? I’d already received rave reviews about my artwork from my mother, my father and my grade one teacher Mrs Witchcell, but all that praise and self-worth went out the window when Natalie Del Rizzio declared my work was dumb.

An artist that shares their work on social media is just a larger scale version of a someone running up to everyone they know and a few complete strangers and asking “Do you like this?”
Their friends and family are always going to say “Yes, I love it” but there will always be one or two Natalie Del Rizzio’s in every playground with a different opinion.

As an adult looking back on my first experience with negative feedback, I know for a fact that Natalie was probably right about my use of colour. I had used an oversaturated colour palette, but my composition of a cat, a house and a tree was technically sound and not stupid.

Natalie’s comments were spot on; her delivery lacked diplomacy.

Unfortunately, Natalie’s words had done some damage. The next few weeks were a dark time in my life as an artist. I didn’t want to draw another house or a tree or a cat and started using Lego recreationally to numb the pain. Day by day I felt better and Natalie’s harsh words lost their sting. I began to draw again; my confidence began to come back.

Decades later, I actively seek constructive criticism of my work because I know that this is crucial for my art to grow and evolve.

It’s still tough to hear your art called stupid or dumb – no matter how sophisticated the language. I knew that if I wanted to grow as an artist, I needed to learn how to take constructive criticism and more importantly, who to listen to and who to ignore.

Here is a list of my favourite coping skills that I’ve picked up from other artists over the years and modified to work for me.

1 . It’s not personal

When I ask for constructive criticism and get told my art is stupid and my colours are dumb, it’s my images the critics are referring to, not me. This makes a massive difference to how I feel and react to constructive criticism.

2 . It’s often about them

Some people derive pleasure and a sense of superiority by bringing others down. The critique has nothing to do with your art or you. These people behave in a negative manner with all of their interactions. They would find fault in the Taj Mahal (too big), The Mona Lisa (too small), or Nutella (sacrilege!).

3 . Get opinions from the right people

Seek constructive criticism from the people whose work and opinion you respect. Whenever I need advice about my timing chain, clutch or brake fluid, I ask my mechanic Tony. But if I need advice about composition or exposure of an image, I’ll ask one of my mentors or peers.

4 . Focus on the positive

Finally, focus mostly on the positive comments and try not to dwell on the negative stuff. Learn what you can and move on.

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