Category: Creating

These 4 Questions Will Make You a Better Artist

How to use criticism and not let it cripple your creativity

If you’re creating things, at some point you’ll face criticism and how you deal with that can improve and inform the course of your work. Or, it can stop you in your tracks. Here’s how to receive and use criticism and not let it cripple your creativity.

Questions to ask

When faced with criticism of your creative projects, your first reaction is to ask a series of questions. The answers will guide you toward how to evaluate the criticism you’ve received and take the parts that are useful to you.

Did I Ask You?

Did you ask for the feedback? If you’re posting on the internet – anything, anywhere – you’re asking. There’s always someone willing to give their opinion on something that’s available. That includes personal posts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, your blog, etc. Even if you think it’s private, you’ve still asked for feedback. It can come from surprising places, so be prepared.

Sometimes you show a new project to a friend, your spouse, significant other, mother, father, brother, or sister and the response isn’t as positive as you expected. That happens because you weren’t asking for a critique; you were sharing the excitement of creating.

That unexpected criticism can be shocking. The lesson for creators is that sharing something with someone who isn’t accustomed to giving knowledgeable feedback may be less than helpful. Knowing this can help you judge when and how to show your work.

What Do You Know?

Is this person qualified to give a useful criticism? While it’s nice to hear that someone loves your work and thinks it’s pretty – sometimes that may only be because it’s blue and that’s their favorite color. Worse is when they hate it because you’ve created a large abstract canvas and they really don’t understand abstraction.

Useful feedback generally comes from someone with knowledge in related areas. That doesn’t mean you can only get help from an art major, but judge the feedback against the expertise.

If your friend the graphic designer notes that your abstract canvas composition is static – that comment has merit even though she’s not a painter because design principles still apply. If your brother-in-law the attorney says he thinks it looks like something his kid could do and is too red – that comment isn’t so helpful.

What’s Your Agenda?

Does this person have an emotional interest? Friends and family often aren’t objective. While they may, or may not, have your best interests at heart, they can be working from their own agenda. Sometimes they aren’t even aware of their internal conflict over your work.

Less connected people are more helpful because of the lack of attachment. That’s not always the case but it’s best to be careful when soliciting advice and criticism from close friends and family.

Does This Make Sense?

Is any part of the criticism accurate? There can be a kernel of truth in even the most vague or mean spirited comment, but it’s up to you to find it. This part of using criticism is tricky because it requires you to be objective about your own work. One way it is to put the project, and the criticism, aside for a while and let it rest.

When you return, you’ll have a better distance from both and be able to discern the parts of the work that need attention and if the criticism has merit.

What do I do Now?

What do you feel is worth pursuing? Not every criticism, valid or otherwise, is worth altering your work for.

Some things correct themselves over time with practice and development such as message and voice. Others may be a part of your personal stylistic imagery such as rough sketchy drawing or particular images you use.

However, issues that hinder the development of your work need attention. These include working to improve your drawing skills or developing a more cohesive approach to color theory and management.

The balance is in choosing areas that strengthen your work rather than alter it to fit a particular perspective. My experience has been that deepening skills and knowledge is the way to improve rather than focusing on superficial issues like a particular color or style.

Have you had an encounter with unexpected or unfounded criticism? I’d like to hear how you handled it!

Quotes to Add Fuel to Your Creative Fire:


Mixing the Media – 3 Simple Steps!

Three Simple Steps to Mixed Media Projects

Mixed media is fun, but it can be confusing – how to start, what to do next, am I done yet? Try simplifying to this 3 step process to get started. Having a process framework takes the guesswork out but leaves room for the creativity. This is how I approach my own projects – give it try and see what you think!

Mixed media describes art and journal projects that bring together different elements and materials in a variety of different ways. Pretty much any art or craft technique and medium you can think of can also be called mixed media when used together.  When you start combining techniques and media, the possibilities multiply and can become overwhelming.

That’s where a simple framework comes in – giving yourself some order and reducing choices can have the unexpected effect of freeing your creativity and helping you get started.

Limit Your Choices for Success

Before you start, go ahead and choose the media you’ll use and the colors. I often only use 2 or 3 types of media – such as paint and collage – and only 3 to 5 different colors. This restriction allows me to be more free in the application because I’ve made those decisons ahead of time. The piece in the picture was made with acrylic paint, stencils and texture paste with only 5 colors of paint.

Steps into Mixing Media

Choose a surface

First you need a substrate to work paint, draw or glue onto. There are many different things that you can use – from recycle bin cardboard and paper to canvas and fabric to wood and other rigid boards. But, before you grab the first thing at hand, think about how durable you want the finished item to be. If you’re making a journal cover, paper is likely too thin but cardboard would be about right.

Add Layers

Start by priming your surface with an appropriate sealer. Most papers and paper products can be successfully primed with gesso or even basic acrylic paint. Add more layers of paint colors and shapes and/or glue down interesting papers to fill in the space. Then paint over the papers to partially obscure them. Once you have an interesting surface, consider if there are any blank spots or places that are too busy.

Add a Focal Point and Finish the Details

Choose an image, or item, to be the main point of the work. It can be an image cut from a magazine or book, your own art, or a found item attached to the page. Make sure it’s large enough to work as a focal item: around a quarter page size or larger makes the point to the viewer.

All that’s left is to finish the details with smaller images and embellishments around the page. Knowing when to stop is the hard part – my advice is to stop when you have two more items and you’re searching for where to put them. Usually, the work is done at that point. Leave the whole thing to sit overnight and see how it looks the next day.

Wrap it Up

Once you’re happy with the piece, all that’s left is to seal it, if necessary, and use it as you originally intended: as art to display or as part of another project.

Let me know if the idea of simplifying and thoughtfully restricting design choices is helpful – I’d love  to hear from you!

More Art Journal Inspiration in the Shop:

Artistic Style – Do I Have One and What is It?

Style 1 Loose, delicate, light, and mostly empty


Recently, someone asked me a question about artistic style: do I have a style, how to develop it and what do I call my style? Perhaps you’d like to listen in on the answer.

 Do I Have an Artistic Style?

Style 2 Complex, colorful, filled, and textured

All artists have a distinct style. The analogy often used is it’s like handwriting for art.


And, much like handwriting, it takes some time after learning the basics for your style to emerge. During the time you’re learning the crafts of drawing and painting and understanding how to handle the materials and mediums, it may seem like you have no style at all or you jump around from one thing to another.

 How do I Develop my Art Style?

The only way to develop your individual style is by making your art – repeatedly. Your individual style will start to develop as you gain confidence and experience with each part of the process of making art. It’ll start to show in how you make your marks on the paper in preliminary drawings, the paper you choose to work on, the medium you prefer and how you apply it to the surface and every other element of the finished art. It’s the sum of all these individual choices that add up to an artist’s style.

What do I Call my Style?

I think a large part of the problem for artists trying to define their style comes from trying to pin it down with a label.  The more common descriptions, like cubism, expressionism, pop art or surrealism, are broad terms and a type of art shorthand for classifying works. While they’re helpful for broadly classifying a work and make a point of common departure to talk about a work, I think they can be restrictive and intimidating as well as corralling work into premade boxes. I like to think of artistic style in more descriptive terms (* see below)  then categorize it if necessary.

 What’s Your Style?

Individual artistic style marks a work as belonging to a particular artist and is more of a way of working and handling the materials than a label. Do you have a style? How would you describe it without using a standard classification? Drop me a note and let me know what your style is, I’d love to hear from you!

*Descriptive Terms

Like loose vs. tight, realistic vs. unrealistic, colorful vs. monochrome, soft vs. hard, rounded vs. angular, and so on. Here are some pairs to get you started:

Filled / Empty

Simple / Complex

Beauty / Ugly

Whole / Broken

Stability / Movement

Organized / Chaotic

Mechanical / Hand-Drawn

Large / Small

Grayscale / Color

Light / Dark

Fine / Coarse

Smooth / Rough

Sharp / Dull

Light / Heavy

Stable / Unstable

Fast Tips for Crisp Stencil Edges

I just got a great question via email and having sent the answer off, thought you might like to hear it too.
The question was about how to get crisp edges when using stencils and did I have any tips?
My Answer:
I’ll make an assumption that you’re having a problem with the edges when you use paint with a stencil – that’s the most common medium that causes problems. My experience has been there are two things that may be at fault: the application tool being too wet and the stencil moving around.
First, the application tool. Paint is inherently wet and stenciling is an inherently dry art form – thus the smudgy edges. I’ve found that using a sponge applicator (either a cosmetic wedge or special purpose sponge brush) is a better way to apply paint. Brushes are difficult to get dry enough and often “push” the paint under the stencil edges.
The trick with using a sponge is to dip it into the paint and then dab most of it right back off until the sponge is barely damp with paint. Then gently tap it onto the area straight up and down. Of course, it may take more than one coat to get the color build-up you want, but the edges will be crisp and, personally, I like the look of the differences in coverage – it gives the work a more lively quality.
Second, the stencil itself. If the stencil moves while you’re painting, the edges will smear. If you’re working on a project that allows, go ahead and tape the edges of the stencil down with low-tack blue tape. That will keep everything in place for the duration of the project.
But, if you’re like me and move that stencil around to get different angles, that won’t work. In that case, I hold the working area down firmly with one hand (up close to where I’m working) and apply paint with the other. One other tip with this is to gently twist your wrist as you lift the sponge so it doesn’t pull the stencil up with it. It takes a few times of practicing but it really does keep that stencil down so the edges stay secure. Finally, be sure to wait long enough before picking the stencil back up – it shouldn’t be long at all if the application was dry enough.
Now, this is just my experience and your results may vary – do you have something that’s worked for you?
Try out your stencil technique with this Paper Lantern Stencil in the shop!

What’s New: My Big Kid Doodle Book – A Doodle Coloring Book – Coming Soon


Isn’t this a something? It’s a colored doodle!

It’s a sample from one of the book projects that’s been on my worktable lately. One of the things I do for folks is work with authors as a sort of muse/editor/wrangler to help them get their books written and published.

This particular book is a coloring book for grownups so there wasn’t so much writing and editing as wrangling, but it’s the same creative process: idea, refine and organize, create and write, edit, refine some more, set it free in the world. That’s simplified but it’s the gist of it.

Sample Doodle_0001Small
This coloring book features the artwork of the lovely and talented Carolyn Medlin Hawkins who has been drawing these doodles for years – only in black and white; she never colors them in. Now that grownups have gotten wise to the happiness that coloring can bring, it was time for her work to have a larger audience. So, she bravely stepped forward to publish her first coloring book.

I’m admittedly biased (I love all my authors and think they’re brilliant) but her designs are wonderfully organic. What I like most about her book is that each one is hand-drawn art and shows the mark of a human hand. Having colored a few myself (I did the coloring for the samples here and in the book),  they’re much more interesting and enjoyable; it’s really a way of knowing the artist a little better.

SmallDoodle Front
The book, it’s called My Big Kid Doodle Book, should be making its debut on Amazon this month – look for an update and other news on that very soon!