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  • Writer's pictureStuart Sheldon

How To Give and Receive Worthwhile Feedback

Stevie Wonder

“You’re amazing. I loved it. Wouldn’t change a thing!”

Unless you’re talking to Stevie Wonder, this is not legitimate feedback. It’s applause. We all need applause every now and again. BUT, without substance, your well-meaning commentary is the barking of a seal.

To paraphrase marketing guru, Seth Godin, if you want to improve, actively seek feedback that clearly and generously identifies ways you can more effectively delight your customers and create a more remarkable experience for them. Replace “customers” with lovers, bosses, parent or readers … and you get the picture.

The very first time I showed during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2003, my exhibition was attended by some heavyweight collectors (full disclosure – they were college friends of my father’s). The successful and stylish couple, late 60s, had been buying serious art for decades and had undeniable street cred: museum boards, art history education and an obvious aesthetic sense. I had no formal art training and had been painting for only three years, exhibiting just over a year.

Artist's Palette

My show was well attended. I had a beautiful woman on my arm and was feeling the love, when my father called me over to introduce me to his collector friends. The very first thing the handsome, goateed gent said to me was, “What’s with all the primary colors?”

His voice dripped disdain, as though I’d pissed on his favorite ascot. “It’s so amateurish,” he continued, while his silver haired wife nodded in agreement. I stood flat-footed, marveling at his unmitigated audacity and thinking to myself, F*%k this asshole and his bobble head wife. “Picasso used primary colors,” I said. “Picasso was a rare genius,” he said without hesitation. “My work is stream of consciousness, and what you see is what I was feeling on that given day,” I replied, masking the hurt I felt. “Well it doesn’t work. Get back in the studio and keep at it.”

He then went on to tell me that there were three ways to make good art: go to art school, be born a genius or suffer hideous pain and/or insanity. When he implied that my comfortable middle class upbringing greatly handicapped my ability to make powerful work, I’d had enough.

“What are you talking about? You don’t think my pain is as real as Basquiat’s?” “He killed himself over his pain,” said the collector with a self-assured smile. I was speechless, as he looked over at his wife and said, “We need to hit our next event.” He reached out and shook my hand firmly and warmly.

I walked straight to the bar and ordered a bourbon for me and a vodka for my date. “This guy is a guest at my show and the first thing he does is tell me my work sucks? What’s that all about?” She shrugged.

That exchange hit home, because that collector had a bona fide eye for art. And once I moved past my bruised ego, I was glad that surly dog said everything he said. Because he was partially right.  

SF Skyline study from Brussels, Acrylic, World Book Encyclopedia, sheet music, paper and mesh on panel, 24″x48″, 2003

My work was amateurish at the time. My palette had not yet matured into more nuanced tones. My style was still predominantly derivative. In fact, it took me five years till I landed on what I considered my own language. What that chap gave me was straight-up tough love. And his commentary compelled me to take many of the works in that early show and finish them, because, they were still in their infancy. One such piece (above) was an abstracted, mixed-media SF skyline I painted in Brussels in 2003.

Latitude, Acrylic, World Book Encyclopedia, sheet music, paper and mesh on panel, 48″x24″, 2005, Stuart Sheldon

By the time I finished it in 2005, it had morphed into Latitude, the piece above, of which I am quite proud.  You can still see remnants of the earlier iteration. Some young collectors snatched it up enthusiastically.

The next time you have a chance to offer feedback to an artist (or anyone), show some courage and insight. Don’t simply say you like it, tell them how it makes you feel. Why it worked or why it didn’t. Tell them one specific aspect that you feel soars or crashes. Even Stevie Wonder will appreciate that detail. Of course, be diplomatic. No needs to hit someone in the face with a hammer, as my critic did with me.

And when you’re on the receiving end, it’s your job to filter, chew, swallow and utilize the nutrients served to put meat on the bones of your life.

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