Growing Thick Skin as an Artist

12 years old, a time of 8 track tapes, Watergate, Pink Floyd’s new album, “Dark Side of the Moon” and I could get a win at any art show I would put my work in. I liked it and the recognition. I remember that at the time, I use to win free hamburgers and ice cream certificates, sometimes art supplies.  

Then times changed. As I graduated, I was not competing with just my school or small town area, there was a new bigger world and bigger shows and I couldn’t even get juried in. The ups and downs kept coming. I would think I was doing good, only to get rejected. It is a tricky balance to be a painter with enough confidence to do what needs to be done, yet humble enough to be teachable. This cycle still comes and goes today but not so severely.

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Many times through the years I have had to be humbled and taught to have a thicker skin. I remember one of the first times I had an experience to build a thicker skin; it was the second day of class at Utah State with a professor by the name of Harrison Groutage. He enters the room wearing baggy Levi’s, shirt, and a cowboy hat. He looked more like a dairy farmer than an artist. He pulls off the hat, twists it up as if to ring out water then slips it into the back pocket of his Levi’s.

Sketch of Harrison Groutage by Rett Ashby

Sketch of Harrison Groutage by Rett Ashby


He had us put our paintings on a rail at the front of the room. Then he passed back and forth in front of the paintings like a general preparing for war. After a few passes, he reached up, took his finger and flipped a few onto the floor. Then a few more went down. Still pacing back and forth in his general walk, leaving his boot prints across the fronts and backs of our prized paintings. And yes, mine was on the floor.

The few remaining pieces were discussed with some praise and a lot of criticism. I learned a lot in that class. Groutage didn’t hesitate to say what he thought. Good or bad. I liked that. I was open to it. I quickly grew a thick skin.

It was some 20 years later that again had to be taught a lesson. I was thinking I was doing some good stuff and thought I would stop and get a critic from a few artists in town. One in particular asked to see some of the paintings I had. I brought a few in from the truck and he then asked for references. I started getting nervous and it was at this time I realized I came here for the purpose of getting a pat on the back instead of a critique. Partway into the lesson, I realized what he was saying was right. I needed to hear the critique. I didn’t need a pat on the back, I needed a little thick skin and a little humbling to get to where I wanted to be.

I have remembered this lesson every time I have the thought:

“This is looking pretty good”    

Since then, I am always open to thoughts about my paintings. I have realized I am the Painter. I can choose to listen to those I choose and apply what I think is needed.  

Rett Ashby