What did I do wrong?

Tips for facing rejection, criticism, and ghosting as a freelance artist.

“TBH”, Julie Kitzes, 2017, Marker in Sketchbook

Something an artist needs is a tough and flexible ego. They need to learn to handle critiques, criticisms, rejection, and a fair share of ghosting. As a burgeoning artist these can be difficult things to brush off without creating emotional scars and damaging your self-esteem. The important things to keep in mind are that you are tough. You are strong. Practice leads to improvement. And that one rejection (or even one thousand rejections) doesn’t mean that every experience will end that way.

If you’ve ever taken a serious art class you have likely experienced a critique. There are tactful and untactful ways of critiquing art. The main thing is that criticisms should be constructive. They should elaborate on why something’s not working or offer solutions rather than just “I don’t like it”. Something that makes it easier to both give and receive critiques is to try to frame them as the “compliment sandwich”. It’s often easier to digest (like a sandwich…get it?) when the meaty criticism is layered between two soft doughy compliments. Too much metaphor?

Sometimes people aren’t great at expressing their thoughts and feelings. Sometimes they are too uncomfortable to say anything critical and will just beat around the bush trying to find compliments. Often clients who are less experienced at dealing with art are afraid to say what they think and prolong the inevitable slew of late stage revisions or wind up with something they’re unhappy with. Sometimes they’ll seem callous and bluntly remark about your work without trying to tip toe around your feelings. I think this is especially common from very experienced artists and art directors who forget what it’s like to be a sensitive newcomer. It’s important to try to detach yourself from your work and not take any criticisms too personally.

As an artist you will face tons of rejection. Again, don’t take it too personally — it’s not an affront to your work or you as a person. There are many reasons to be rejected, and sometimes it’s not even a commentary on your work at all but rather a budget issue or lack of available projects at the moment. If it is your work it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but perhaps not right for the project/company. Always make sure you researched this out and are submitting an appropriate portfolio. It could also be that they’ve also received an application from somebody more suited to the role.

Of course there is the option that your work is bad and no one is telling you which is why it’s important to keep practicing and expanding your skills. Art is a lifelong learning experience. Even if you feel you master something, there is always room for growth, change, or improvement. There’s nothing wrong with asking politely for feedback on what could be fixed — just don’t expect an in-depth portfolio review. Another thing to note is that if you’re rejected by a source there’s no harm in trying again. Give yourself some time to create new and better work and then try again. If nothing else, an art director will likely appreciate watching you grow as a better artist.

Two things that can be helpful to do to remind yourself that you’re not garbage and that you’re improving are 1. Create a praise file. And 2. Some form of submission tracking. The idea of the praise file is that when you’re feeling low about too many rejections you have a place to look through the things that assure you you’re on the right path. Your file may include awards, scholarships, accolades, positive reviews, media mentions, and more. If you don’t have any of these things yet perhaps it includes screenshots of times when your work was meaningfully commented upon or shared on social media. Not the generic “Great, I love it” type comments but the insightful ones that really mean something to you. You can ask clients to leave reviews for you and add these to your praise file. Did an art director or company follow you on Instagram? Screenshot it. Has someone you admired retweeted your work? Screenshot that shit! You can also come back to this if you need to dig up testimonies or think of individuals to write you a letter of recommendation.

Something as simple as a paper company following you.
Or someone sharing your work. This was shared by the Colorado chapter leader of the hydrocephalus association which is quite meaningful.

The second suggestion is to track your efforts. Every time you submit your portfolio, apply to a job, talk to a new client, or reply to a call for entry, just make a note of it in a list or spreadsheet. I would suggest recording the date, the company/client name, what you submitted, what it was for (e.g. a particular exhibition/job), and what the outcome was. After a while you may notice that this seems really depressing if you’ve submitted to 50 things and only 1 has gotten back to you, but the point is to focus on that ratio. The thing is, one out of many is pretty usual. The thing you’ll hopefully start to notice is that a couple months later that ratio is looking more favorable and more people are being receptive. Of course, this only works if you focus on improving yourself that whole time as well.

This list serves multiple purposes. Firstly it hopefully shows a level of improvement. Second, it keeps track of what you’ve been doing so if you want to re-submit to a company/gallery/client you have an idea of when you did it and can ask yourself “is my portfolio different enough now? Have I improved at all since last time?” and use that to judge whether it’s time or not. Thirdly, down the line if you’re feeling low you can use this in conjunction with your praise file to remind yourself you’re not terrible. Maybe you feel like no one is being responsive but when you look at the list you realize you’ve submitted to way fewer opportunities than usual.

The last thing I’m going to mention that is similar to rejection but can be much much worse is ghosting. It’s unfortunately common for a potential client to express interest and be in talks with you about something only to suddenly drop off the face of the planet and stop replying to your calls or emails. You’re probably asking yourself what you did wrong. Did my prices drive them away? Was I an asshole and didn’t know it? Did they decide they don’t like my work or don’t trust me? What happened? Don’t trouble yourself with these questions because you’ll likely never know. The only fact is that you got ghosted.

I almost count on this as a fact of freelance work and put myself in the mindset that nothing is permanent until a contract has been signed. Unless you’re okay with doing a lot of work and not getting paid or credited, it’s important to have contracts for all of your jobs no matter how insignificant they may seem. I generally request a contract to be signed and 50% of my fee to be paid as a retainer up front before I invest too much time into a project. Until this has happened nothing’s a guarantee.

It’s easy to become discouraged in the world of freelancing, but hopefully these tips will help you to remain positive and not give up. Even though it’s art it’s still a job, and it wouldn’t be a job if it wasn’t hard work.