Complimenting Artists

It is my belief that if human beings really learned how to talk to each other, our societies would reap great benefits. "What's an example of this improved communication you speak of?" you might say. Let's start with compliments.

I like compliments just as much as the next person, but the compliments that really mean something, the ones I value as an artist and as a person, are few and far between. Take the following statements as examples. These are very common "compliments" I receive from well-meaning people:

  1. "omG you're so talented!!1!"

  2. "Did you draw this?! It's so good!"

  3. "WOW I could NEVER do what you do!"

All of these "compliments" are bad for different reasons:

  1. Our culture seems to grasp onto talented (aka: hard working) people who produce expert results; at the same time, society ignores the hard work part of this product it's too busy praising. By saying my work only exists because of my natural "talent," you are insinuating that everything I produce just magically appears before me, that I can pull a masterpiece out of thin air without working on it, because it was easy, because God gifted me this talent. By saying this you are demeaning the effort I've put into making something and the work I've put into become better at what I do. Mentioning someone's talent is only appropriate for young creators. And I mean young creators, like people below the age of 10. And even then, kids appreciate it when adults acknowledge and validate how hard they've worked on the things they create, from a self portrait to a stick figure drawing. So basically, don't say this. Ever.

  2. I shouldn't even have to explain why this is so wrong, but for the sake of continuity, I must at the very least give a brief description of this rudeness. By asking if I made something, when I just told you I did, or when you can clearly see that its in my sketchbook or on my easel, you are insinuating that you are surprised that I produced such quality work. You think that little of me (or any creator)? That's incredibly insulting. Don't be an ass. If you say this to me, expect a very sarcastic response. "Did you make this?" "No, obviously I got it from the aliens on Jupiter."

  3. "I could never do what you do" isn't incorrect. Anyone who offers that as a compliment isn't wrong in saying this, but they're using the statement in the place of a compliment when really its just a fact. You'd be right in saying that you can't do what I do ━ simply because you're not me. Of course you can't do what I can do, and I can't do what you can do either. Every creator has a unique voice and a unique way of doing things because we've each experienced different lives. You do you, dear reader, and I'll keep doing me.

In many ways, Compliment #3 is the least awful of the examples, but in other ways, its the worst of them. Not because the phrase is insulting to the receiver, but the idea is insulting to the giver: it's degrading to put oneself in such a small box.

People go around acting like art is all talent, like it is literally impossible for them to pick up a pencil and draw something. Has that pencil suddenly become the Mjölnir of drawing instruments and it has decided you are unworthy to wield it?

"Oh, but you don't understand: I can't draw ━"

NEWSFLASH: NO ONE COULD WHEN THEY FIRST STARTED! Since when did being a beginner mean that you're so bad you should give up before you start?

We all start creating when our minds are still open to exploration. Every little kid draws, so at what point do people decide they're "bad" and need to stop all future exploration of the craft? I think it varies from kid to kid, but the fact remains: once you think you're bad at something, you limit yourself and seal your future opportunities away.

Don't degrade yourself.

All this chatter and I haven't given you an example of a good compliment yet! My previously-favorite-professor-now-upgraded-to-mentor Sam Fields gave me the best compliment I've received to date: "I think you're ready for the big world."

How validated I felt! The swelling of pride I physically felt in my chest was astounding. Here it was! A compliment that wasn't empty. A compliment that acknowledges the work I've done and will continue to do in the future. A compliment that expresses how much she believes in me!

So how should we be complimenting creators? Let me rewrite those example compliments for you:

  1. Instead of saying, "You're so talented!" say instead "You must work hard to get these kinds of results!"

  2. Instead of saying, "Did you draw this?!" say instead "You've improved since the last time I saw your work."

  3. Instead of saying, "I could never do what you do." say instead "I can see your specific style in your pieces. Can you tell me more about your process?"

Take any of these into the real world and see what kind of magic you can work. I can guarantee it'll open a lot of doors and help a whole lot of people.


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