Baxter's Blog

AN ARTIST’S LIFE WITH AARON BELL

Posted in Human Interest by misterroadtripper on July 15, 2010

AN ARTIST’S LIFE WITH AARON BELL

Are you comfortable with criticism? If not, it would be wise to toughen up, because a regular honest critique is an important factor in improving the quality of your work.

Years ago, before gracing the tattoo community with his brand new set of tattoo flash, a friend of mine had decided to solicit the opinion of the great and well-known tattoo artist Paul Jeffries. He approached Paul at a convention and asked what he thought; did he like the artwork and did he think it would sell? I can picture Paul’s expression, a crinkled brow, stroking his goatee with his thumb and index finger. “Well,” he said, “if I whipped out my dick and peed on it, would that get the point across?”

When I asked my friend about his reaction to this criticism, he said that he’d thanked Paul and went home to redo the entire set from scratch. What else was there to do? I’ve commended Paul for this on several occasions. Not for humiliating my friend, but for being honest and motivating him to do better.

Occasionally, I am approached at shows and asked to critique someone’s portfolio. It is very obvious when people do not want to hear my constructive criticism, and are just seeking false praise to feed their egos. So now when my opinion is sought, I agree under two conditions. The First condition being that they ask only for my honest opinion. Secondly, that they bear in mind that it is only one opinion. This opens the door and makes it easier to say things like “Your photography skills suck. Your pictures are so yellow that it looks like your clients have jaundice. Is that really what you want to convey to a potential customer?”

At my shop, we used to go to breakfast and do a portfolio critiquing. We’d select one person from the group to bring their portfolio and we would all tear into it. It’s hard at first, but, with time, the criticism becomes much easier to take. When it was my turn to be scrutinized, I’d bring post-it notes to indicate which pictures were liked and which were disliked. This was a great way of keeping my portfolio slimmed down to the best pieces.

Not only should someone be able to take criticism well, but I think it’s also important to give it well. If you can’t make it palatable for someone, there is a risk of creating resentment. I have never seen a piece of art that did not have, at least some small redeemable quality. Although I’m not really a pro at tactfulness, I try to acknowledge that tendency, before saying anything negative. If you simply can not find anything good to say about something, and you’re not sure if your honest opinion is really being solicited, rather than lie, you can always divert; “Wow! What kind of pencils did you use?” I watched one my coworkers slither out of a really uncomfortable situation with that one. After witnessing that, another former coworker, Damon Conklin, and I often used to joke with one another. When one of us would finish a tattoo, the other would check it out and say “What kind of needles did you use?”

The other day, Robert (a coworker), asked my opinion on some Mexican sugar skulls he’d painted. I told him that, although I really like the color scheme, the symmetry was off on the skulls. He got a little defensive about it, and explained how sugar skulls were not truly symmetrical and yada yada yada. A couple days later, he approached me and said that he’d redrawn the skulls and that they looked much better, and thanked me for the criticism. I thought to myself, That takes a real man to do that. Since then, he has given me some valuable criticism in return.

I think we’d all agree that life is too short for falsities, that it is truly a gift to see through someone else’s eyes and there’s a reason that art critiquing is part of the curriculum in all art schools. I think we could all toughen up and learn more from one another. So, let’s ditch the egos, welcome more truth and honesty into our lives and watch our work evolve faster than ever before.

—Aaron Bell

bell.aaron@comcast.net

www.slavetotheneedle.com

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