Wish I could do it like they do it on American Idol and be totally honest.

I am a big fan of American Idol as I am sure are many of you. One of the things I love about the show is the way the Judges critique the contestants. They are totally honest and call a spade a spade. If someone is no good or has no talent for singing, they tell them outright. I’d have to say that as much as I miss Simon, I loved how direct he was, I am happily surprised by Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, the two new Judges. They are experts in their field and well qualified to judge the contestants.

In our industry of Illustration, why doesn’t anyone tell the truth about want-to-be illustrators. It would save a lot of people a lot of heart ache down the road. Why don’t the teachers tell the student’s who have no talent for illustration, that they are wasting their time in a program that they are not cut out for. Is it because they need the enrollment? Would the teachers get fired? Shouldn’t the teachers send them down the hall to the guidance counselor to help them find something they are truly good at?

Over the years I have been contacted by thousands of want-to-be illustrators and I have always shied away from telling them the truth about their work.
I guess I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but am I doing them a favor by not telling them?
So many of the want-to-be illustrators are young and looking for direction. Maybe if I was brutally honest about their lack of talent, they would look at other options.

Today, the illustration industry is flooded with people who “claim” to be illustrators. It seems like its one of those fields that everyone thinks they are good at. Its like they think because friends and parents compliment them about their artwork that they should illustrate professionally. I mean I put my daughters art work up all over the house and tell her how amazing she is but that’s a mother talking, not an agent.

On last nights American Idol show, Jennifer Lopez broke down and felt she could not go on because it was too painful telling one of the contestants that he was not going to move on, that he was really not good enough to be the next American Idol. I can only imagine how I would feel if I were really honest about all the portfolios that I had to look at.

Should we lead people to believe that they have talent and potential when they really don’t. What is my job as a professional in this field? Some would say ” expert” in the illustration industry. I mean if I don’t tell them who will. How much time, money and energy will they have to spend before they find out its a dead end?

You have no idea at how much crap I get. Really, its that bad, I am not making this up.  Its amazing that these people really think they have a chance at landing a commission.

I wish I could show you.

Being the true Sagittarius that I am, I have a tendency to be brutally honest in most situations. Well when it comes replying to emails or critiquing work, I take extra precaution and try to be nice. My mother told me a little white lie never hurt anyone.

So If you send me your work and you ask me what I think, I will most likely not tell you exactly what I think, even though maybe I really should.


27 thoughts on “Wish I could do it like they do it on American Idol and be totally honest.

  1. Hi Anna. I just wanted to point out, people and art professors/teachers have vastly different tastes. What you might call rubbish, a lot of other people might love it. Art is subjective and you really can’t say something is bad or good definitively, as it is only your opinion.

    I can understand telling someone their style isn’t suited for the industry. If they don’t draw what most people are looking for, then I would say keep drawing, but find something else for a career.

    My fiancee was told by an art teacher that she would never get accepted into art school and was a bad artist. If she had taken that one person’s opinion as fact, she never would have gotten accepted to art schools.

    She ultimately majored in design, but started as an illustration major and those professors encouraged her to stay because they thought she was great.

    my .02


    • Hi Chris, I totally agree with you on that everyone has different tastes. I may not like someones work but I can appreciate if they have the slightest bit of talent for what is required in the industry. Fine art is very different then illustration. What I call ” rubbish is really rubbish”, trust me on that and if I were to post the images I am talking about you would have a better understanding of what I am talking about. As for your girlfriend, I think that it is great that she continued to pursue her dreams even after her teacher told her she would not succeed. I think everyone should as long as they have the talent to do so. Best and thank you for your comment.
      Anna g.


  2. Very interesting topic choice, Anna. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject! In art school, I was often disappointed with critiques that were “too nice.” You can’t learn and grow without constructive criticism, even if it isn’t so pleasant to hear. I’d prefer honest feedback over a feigned compliment any day.


  3. hmmmmmmmmm….I had a myriad of mixed emotions when I read this post, probably because I am reading it through the eyes of the ‘wanna-be-illustrator.’ I too watch American Idol but saw a slightly different story and in those very early cuts I would agree with you. But, last night they were whittling down to 24 for 100 or so. Many of those 100 or so finalist were good enough to make the TOP 100!!!! Several of them were told ‘you have talent, you just aren’t ready YET.’ Jennifer Lopez even stated how many times she had been rejected and that only spurred her on to make “HER DREAM” a reality. The irony of American Idol is the numberous Jennifer Hudson and Clay Aiken stories, where their stars, despite not winning Idol, have outshown the actual winners.

    Which brings me to the next thought I had. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and ergo with art the old cliche holds true. Someone’s portfolio might be ‘crap’ to you and countless other AD/Agents but it only takes one. And judging by the Hallmark card aisle there are plenty of those out there.

    Most people, when creating art, feel compelled by an overriding story to tell (or a song to sing). Even if I were told by an agent or AD that my work was ‘crap’ I still don’t think I would stop creating, and pushing, and learning because it is so ingrained in me to do so. I am called to it daily. And maybe by answering that call, and putting in my Malcolm Gladwell ‘10,000 hours’ I will one day realize my Jennifer Lopez sized dreams.


  4. Hi Jennifer,
    I really appreciate your feedback and your passion for your art. Please note that not all wood-be-illustrators are bad, on the contrary. I have in the past and still do take on many unknown’s who happen to be brilliant at their craft. Its the others that I am addressing. Yes, art is subjective however there is such a thing as good work and crappy work. Trust me when I say this. Our industry today is overflowing with talent and I would like to keep it that way. I just don’t think that everyone who “thinks” they can draw should pursue it professionally. Again I do very much appreciate your conviction and would very much like to see what you do. I assure you that I will respond accordingly.
    Anna g.


    • Anna,
      I appreciate the discourse and it is one of the reasons why I follow this blog and those of other AD/agents and ‘successful’ illustrators. I want to learn the industy. I am glad you are so willing to be candid about the profession and thoughts from your side of the fence. I truly had very mixed emotions as I read this because I can see so clearly your POV. In hindsight too it sounds like you were exploring the overall topic of ‘your role’ in the industry – I have never sat on your side of the fence to know what it feels like to open countless portfolios and see lack of talent. I could only imagine it must be overwhelming and feel like a waste of precious time promoting the brilliant. I also know when I started art school I couldn’t draw and had no eye for composition. But I pushed, I grew, I learned and in the end I graduated with honors. So, I took to heart the ‘no talent’ stream of thought, but obviously from a biased POV and one not in witness of what you are daily viewing. I would be honored to show you my work…but with that said, I know my work is not ready. Oh – I can ‘draw’ but I am sure you are seeking more of a story than sketchbook thumbnails. I am a ‘would-be’ that graduated in 1993, let life lead me in another direction, but could no longer ignore the call and her passion to tell picture stories and draw. I have poured over your artists. I have poured over the sites of other illustrators I admire. I see the standards being set. I know that I am close, but I also know that my portfolio is not ready. When it is I will ask again if I may take you up on your offer. Ha! Did I just cut off my own nose to spite my face? I hope not, I respect what you do and noseless or not I want this so badly I am only willing to put my very best foot forward.
      All the best,


  5. i can relate to this as i look around etsy, for example, and am sometimes totally appalled at what people try to sell as illustration, and asking for a ludicrous amount of money for it too. but there a lack of sales should tell them something, whereas you have to take the bit in your teeth, but even if you are nice about things, i’m sure someone further down the line may be more forthright


  6. When I had to hear it, you told me what I had to hear.
    Stuburness will lead me to work harder.
    Maybe some day I’ll be good enough. But I still need to work on that.
    You could have been harder, though.
    But you choose to be subtle and trust my intelligence.
    That was nice of your mom, really.


  7. I think it’s almost worse if people know they have a bit of talent and think that that’s enough. And then are amazed they don’t make it in the illustration world.
    It’s all about hard hard work, dedication and persistence.


  8. Also, I think it’s dangerous to tell people who are studying art that they will never be illustrators. There’s a fair few people that don’t find their own voice/style until after university. Everyone must be allowed to pursue their dreams.
    I understand your frustration though, and I would feel the same in your position.


  9. ps:
    If you’re trying to get anywhere as an illustrator, I’d also recommend turning off American Idol (and the tv in general) and spend the time drawing. … 😛


  10. Hi Anna,
    I just wanted to say that i read this post and i thought “great, this is what i wanted all the way through my degree” i had tutorials and crits and chats with tutors and of course they try the best they can to steer you to achieve your best. Even though i did really well at uni and i have a job as a product designer, i still feel like i need someone to just “Simon Cowell” me. Some one to say that no amount of hard work can give you the X factor. ( i dont know if you have X factor, but its the same as american idol i think over here)
    Any way, i know it would be kinda crushing to hear that, and of course it would not stop me from drawing every day, because for me drawing is kinda like a teenage crush- i am infatuated buy it despite the fact it can sometimes make me a bit glum and lovesick.
    My point is, i guess, that i did send some examples of work to you in January and i didn’t hear back yet, so i wonder if you could do your best Simon Cowell impression on my work?
    I would really love to hear an opinion that tells it like it is. i think.
    best Wishes
    Calico Melton


    • Hi Calico,
      Just to be clear, my blog addresses those out there that have NO talent. There are many many want-to-be illustrators who are amazing. So I just thought I should clear that up. Also, yes, the more you work at your craft the better you become. Again, there are just those out there who fall into illustration because they think its a easy way to make a living and trust me, it really is not. Illustration is a very difficult industry to be in. Its highly competitive and very difficult to actually make a living doing only illustration. This is why I felt compelled to address the issue. I also truly believe that if you want something bad enough and are willing to go to great lengths to achieve your dreams then you will. As for your work, I am truly sorry but I don’t remember receiving it. If you like, you can email it to me again. Thanks for posting.


      • I totally agree, Anna. It’s not easy, not easy at all. If I look at illustrators who are successful, they all work extremely hard, 80+ hours a week is not uncommon. It’s not an industry you should get into unless your obsessed with drawing, obsessed with pushing yourself every single day and unless you won’t EVER give up.


  11. Hi Anna
    thank you for your reply.
    I really do think what you say is true, people need to know if they ought to really persue something. but i guess it is just a matter of believing in your own work at the end of the day as no one can really tell you if you are good or bad.
    Honestly there is no need to apologise for not remembering my work, i am sure you are sent tons of work (good and bad) and you must be very busy. I will send over another email though.

    Thanks for the reply.



  12. Good article.

    As a child, I was sent to my room for acting up. My siblings remained in the family room on my fathers lap as he drew them pictures. I sneaked out of my room and hid behind my fathers chair and heard my sister ask him if he was a better artist than I was. He said he was, and that I could not draw as good as him.

    This pissed me off (I was probably 6 or 7) and I decided I would prove him wrong.

    Now I am 31 and I still draw every day. The truth didn’t destroy me as an artist. I think that is what people fear, that criticism will destroy potential.

    I’m not a great artist or anything, but I’m a happy artist and I enjoy the hobby and that aspect of my character. My Dad’s unknown criticism didn’t break me.


    • Is it criticism to say a 31 year old can draw better than a 7 year old?
      Sounds like common sense to me. Does not sound like he meant you would never be as good as he was.


      • While it may not constitute a direct criticism, it felt like an abrupt change in tone. I was upset about it enough to motivate me. Later in life an uncle and a French teacher basically poised a opposing argument to me artistic aspirations. I reacte the same way to each of them: “I’ll show you”.


  13. I agree completely, and I think a large part of the problem it is that schools need the enrollments. I work in the field and I see a lot of schools get paid here (in Belgium and Holland) per graduating student. That means there’s an incentive for schools to allow even bad students to move through four years of school. Everyone knows there will only be a few who will actually make it (meaning they can sort of pay the bills), but telling students this outright is discouraged by management. Also, I know there’s a very strong current in the art schools that says art and illustration “is about personal development”, and art teachers (usually ‘failed’ artists themselves) aren’t the one to judge whether people are progressing and living up to their maximum potential. The fact that even this maximum potential usually isn’t good enough is the elephant in the room. It’s unfair to the students, bad for the industry, and in the case of welfare states like Belgium and Holland, it’s bad for the state as well. So I think agents should be blunt with applicants who simply aren’t good enough. Although, as is the case in American Idol – usually it doesn’t really matter. People can be humiliated on national television and still think they’re the next Mariah Carey..


  14. Great topic.

    I’m a Sagittarius that comes with a disclaimer, “Don’t ask me if you don’t want the truth. I’d much rather catch you before you fall, than watch you fall.” I expect the same from friends, family and colleagues. Honesty shows how much you care, it’s just that simple.

    Having said that, there’s a different between providing loving, kind and gentle honesty that helps the individual, versus hurtful and humiliating words that leaves the individual’s self esteem shattered. The latter only serves to feed the ego of the initiator.


  15. Anna, you are very generous with your insights and have created a valuable forum for artists/illustrators. Thank you! Congrats on your 15th year and good luck working on your Simon Cowell. I imagine It might be more fulfilling to take up his impassioned, straight-forward style of critiquing than it would be to passively glance through a mediocre portfolio and give a polite reply. The art of critiquing is an art in and of itself, that’s for sure.


  16. Hi Anna
    I graduated art school just over a year ago, and I have to say I’ve always wanted my instructors to give me more constructive feedback. I figured that when I got a job as a graphic designer that my boss would give me more guidance and feedback about what is good and what isn’t, but that isn’t the case. Being on the receiving end of these situations I would love for someone to tell me if my work is horrible. People only grow from criticism, but I can only imagine how difficult it may be to tell someone they have no talent.


  17. As a University lecturer, I can appreciate the point you are making – although the American bone idol / x factor parallel is a touch depressing; what with it being a show where originality and creativity are frowned upon and weeded out, leaving a saturation of doppelgangers with nary and ounce of spirit or memorable talent among them – as that really what we want? Anyway, I have deviated massively.

    The point I want to make, all these months after you penned this post in the first place, is this – what makes you think that lecturers don’t tell these people that they haven’t got what it takes? The fact that they are sending work to agencies such as yours is no type of indicator as to the education and blind encouragement or honest feed back they might have received. I am one hundred percent behind you on the level of work some people produce being very sub-par – I regularly look at “illustration friday” for examples of the worst offenders, my office can become rather full of swearing around this viewing.

    BUT don’t think for a second that your ‘honest’ feedback would be the one definitive moment that would set those artists onto new paths. People can be blind to truth, believe me, I’ve dropped some truth bombs only to watch, goggle eyed, as it makes not a difference. If, after much advice and encouragement in other directions a student is still determined to carry on down a certain avenue then the system must respect that – they are paying for the education after all, we can’t simply throw them off of courses on a judgment call. So the truth is this – lecturers and teachers, of any type, know in many cases that a student hasn’t got what it takes but regardless, they are duty bound to offer that student the best education that they can provide.

    We could of course put it to a weekly public vote leading to a bland and upsettingly unoriginal Christmas illustrated crowd pleaser followed by an instantly forgettable folio of work later on the following year – to take your American Bone idol parallel further.


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