Don’t Worry About Rejection

I had originally written a smaller version of this on my old blog, but thought it would be a timely entry for today. I had a hard rejection this week. It was something I had expected I would be rejected for, but had still placed a lot of hope in. I had built up a story in my head of the benefits of being accepted, and as soon as I do that, the rejection stings all the more. 

“Don’t worry about the rejections. Everybody that’s good has gone through it. Don’t let it matter if your works are not “accepted” at once. The better or more personal you are the less likely they are of acceptance. Just remember that the object of painting pictures is not simply to get them in exhibitions. It is all very fine to have your pictures hung, but you are painting for yourself, not the jury. I had many years of rejections.
– Robert Henri

That line starts a couple of paragraphs in Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit about painting for yourself. If you are an artist and haven’t read this book, I urge you to do so. If I could only have one book on my bookshelf, this would be it, and I would read it over and over again like the Bible. Because it really is the artists’s bible for the knowledge and insight it contains. While it won’t tell you how to mix this colour with that to get the perfect green, or how to hold the paint brush, it will tell you how to paint through authenticity and braveness. 

He goes on to talk about not trying to paint good landscapes, but of trying to show people what makes the landscape interesting to you. To show people your heart and your inner thoughts. Your paintings should be like hunting – a search for that special thing with meaning to you alone. There will be hits, where you capture that special thing, and misses. But each attempt records your progress in trying to define and understand that thing. The paintings act as stepping stones for others to use in trying to see and understand the specialness that first captured your imagination. 

It is easy to get sidetracked and forget Henri’s advice, especially after receiving hard rejections. The temptation is always there to adjust your work to follow the masses. Looking at who is being successful, what the gallery you want to be in is showing, or what your peers are painting can mess up your art and make you lose sight of your inner voice. That thing that made you want to be a painter in the first place. That thing that will, with time, set your work apart from the masses.

This week started with a hard rejection, but that rejection came just two days after an exciting acceptance. So why, as artists, do we tend to wallow in the rejection more than we celebrate the successes?  In a previous blog post, I’ve questioned whether the reason goes back to our basic learned fears from childhood. Being picked last for the school team, playing second fiddle to another child at home or elsewhere, or of not getting an A on that math test you studied weeks for. It is the fear, despite our best efforts, we are not good enough. 

When Brian Was A Boy – 16×20” – Oil on canvas

When we have success it’s easy to brush it off as luck, a fluke, or something similar. We can have our little celebration and feel great for a day or two, until the next rejection comes in. The highs are never quite equal to, or as long lived,  as the lows. But those rejections really don’t mean anything, or shouldn’t mean anything. They can’t, without your permission, diminish the work you are doing and how far you’ve come in your career. To have no rejection means you have also not taken steps to grow and advance as an artist. 

“Take the history of art in France. Practically every artist who today stands a glory to French art was rejected and repudiated by the committees and juries.”
– Robert Henri

You must have confidence in yourself and the work you are doing. Use rejection as an opportunity to try and take an unbiased look at what you are doing. Can it be made better? What might be lacking? Am I being authentic to myself; my voice? Receiving 20 rejection letters means you have tried 20 times, which is far more than the person who only tried once and quit. And if you are going to try to have a career as an artist, you are going to have to face rejection, because the fact is the shear number of people trying to be an artist, is far greater than the number of opportunities to present or sell art.

Last year media outlets showed images of students taking the entrance exam for a Chinese art school. There were 7,000 hopeful students taking the exam that day, which consisted of painting and drawing exercises. The article also reported that 900,000 people take the national college entrance exam for art in China every year. 900,000! That is 900,000 people in one country alone that would like to make a living as an artist. 

Thousands of Chinese students vying to get into art school.

You have already proven you have the fortitude and stubbornness to hang in there and keep going just by believing in yourself and having the courage to make those submissions. Keep going, keep putting your art out there, and keep improving until your work is so good it can’t be ignored. 

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