What Do You Call Yourself?

In a recent public conversation at the Denver Art Museum, artist Nick Cave said he calls himself a “messenger” when pressed.

He was dubious of titles – even the title “artist.”

He said: “Everyone else gives you titles. I recommend you don’t give yourself one.”

Deep Thought Thursday

Are titles necessary?

Are titles limiting?

Do you have a title for yourself? Like, when someone asks you what you do, do you say “I’m a(n) . . . ”

Do you have more than 1 title?

Tell us!

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70 comments to What Do You Call Yourself?

  • For a while my business cards said “International Dilettante.” That seemed to cover most of my occupations, plus it made people smile and ask for more information.

  • Audrey

    What you do isn’t necessarily who you are. My job that I get paid for is gallery director/art department assistant. I work as an artist. I am a woman, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, etc. I am all this and so much more. I am more than one title.

  • I personally don’t like the term artist – maybe it seems too broad. Recently I have struggled with this issue because I paint mostly animals. On my card it says pet portraitist because it takes up little space, but personally I hate the word “pet” and I think the title has a cutesy connotation, not something I’m striving for. I belong to the Canine Art Guild and would love to call myself a canine artist…except I paint other animals as well. Painter? What if I want to do some drawings? I kind of like Julie’s idea so this gives me food for thought. Looking forward to seeing other titles.

  • Woodworker and Carver

  • I think titles are necessary – it’s natural for people to attempt to categorize and organize the information they take in, including what it is that you do, being an artist. But, I think you can be creative with this title as well, like Julie having “international dilettante” on her business cards (great title btw). I used to just say artist, but once my work moved to consistently contain narrative content I started referring to myself as a “narrative artist”. Like Julie, using the word narrative has sparked people to ask more questions, which is what I want in a good conversation.

    Are titles limiting? I suppose you could see it that way. I’d rather look at it as titles being a tool to put you in focus. Before someone meets you for the first time you could be anything – having a title allows them to focus on you and ask relevant questions.

    I would also posit this: Nick Cave has acheived a level of notoriety that is big enough that his title is “Nick Cave”. For those who follow the art world, more than likely that is all he will need. For the rest of us, we need our given name + a descriptive moniker.

  • I never liked the term artist. It had negative connotations for me early on because my mother called herself and artist and used that as an excuse for a very bad “artistic temper.” Later in life I started using it, when I went full time with my work, but still kind of cringed inside using it. It’s limiting, and more than that, I’ve discovered people’s eyes glaze over when you say it. There are so many dabblers labeling themselves artist. Once I got an iPhone and downloaded some of my paintings and people asked me what I do, I say I paint or, cringe, use the word artist and showed them what I do. The response was, “You really ARE an artist.” I think there are too many stereotypes associated with this word. Like Beth, I do portraits of humans and animals (portraitist?, portraiture?), but I also do landscapes and seascapes. And I write. I paint and write to inspire and uplift, but how do you say that? Thank you for this question. I have to print new business cards and I’m pondering what I will put on them.

    • Ellen: Using an image of your artwork would eliminate the need for a title.

      I have no title at all on my business cards.

      There is also the suggestion of putting what you do rather than a title on a card.

      “I paint portraits and landscapes.”

      • My business card has an image taking up most of the space, along with my name in large type and my website address in smaller type. That’s it. The image helps to define what I do, and my website has any and all information that someone will need, so I don’t clutter the card with a bunch of other “stuff”.

  • “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
    -Shakespeare

  • I sell my original oil paintings, giclees and greeting card line in fine art fairs/festivals and galleries. This career is my full-time occupation and when people ask me what I do, I typically answer “artist”. However, sometimes when I am surrounded by business-types, I notice that I am more likely to say that I am a “creative entrepreneur”. I must be sensitive to the fact that the business people won’t give me credit for the time and skill required to market and manage my art business.

  • Good question, I’ve always just called myself an artist but lately have recently switched to “Painter” as it best describes what “kind” of artist I am. Mostly I use Artist.

  • Jim

    Wood turner, craftsman. Some people call me an artist. I don’t like it. The term is too broad. It seems today that everyone is an artist.

    I do make some artistic pieces but I derive most of my income from functional work. I am not playing with people’s minds. I am catering to their needs. I am a wood turner. I like the term as it tells people what I am and what I do.

  • I have 2 careers and I love them both.

    I am a “designer” and an “artist”.
    I am an “artist” and a “designer”.

    These names/titles are interchangeable.

    I would like to call myself “a creative” but that would take a lot of explaining.

  • I make chain. Artist doesn’t feel right for me, because I have so much more to learn, and I need to develop my own point of view more clearly. I think of myself as a craftswoman. Or artisan. Not as an artist.

  • I usually say “artist” altho as the next question is “what do you paint?” I think I may add a descriptive adjective to that word. I think the title is important from the standpoint that it opens the conversation to some promotion opportunities and it validates (at least in my own mind) what I do. I do not see the word “artist” as limiting at all…in fact it can be applied to all aspects of my life…but that’s just my philosophy and I am happy if the conversation goes that way.

  • Words are important. They can frame your thoughts and direct your attention.

    Decisions made about the direction of your career can be very different if you consider yourself an artist vs. an entrepreneur.

    Emerging artists can find great power and confidence in referring to themselves as artists… and decisions made about how they spend their time are influenced by how they define themselves.

    I think the power in words – especially the words we use to define ourselves and our roles in life, cannot be underestimated.

  • Painter! People usually then ask if I am an Art Painter or a Wall Painter. I like that.

    I also like the way it sounds. I used to say “I make pictures.” But I think I sounded like a silent movie director.

    Giving yourself a title seems weird and limiting but people/we are always trying to categorize everything we see around us. We can’t help it. It is kind to give people something to hold on to. I also try to not sweat it too much – I can’t get all weird and existential about WHAT I call myself – it is just a word to get myself through the interaction of people being interested in what I spend my time on.

  • Potter, artist, clayworker, Goddess…depends on my mood and what business card I give someone.

  • Beth, I think “animal portraitist” could convey what you want without the connotations of “pet.”

    Very simple to label myself a composer (occasionally “classical composer” in general contexts / where necessary).

    So that’s the easy label for my primary focus, which is notated music. It’s tougher to name my secondary focus, which is experimental work with audio. By far the most commonly used term for someone who does work like that is “sound artist.” That feels a little off to me, a little grandiose (as opposed to a visual artist self-labeling as “artist,” which feels 100% natural to me). But there’s no more accurate or more concise label. So in general I label myself a “composer and sound artist.”

  • This post touched a nerve for me. Having spent many years in corporate world, I was very uncomfortable talking about my needlepoint artwork or calling myself an artist. Finally being able to say to people that I’m a needlepoint artist has been scary and liberating in equal measure. Maybe titles shouldn’t matter, but it seems that often it matters more to the beholder/inquirer – it’s a shorthand method of categorising us.

    I reserve the right to change what I say, but for now, needlepoint artist will do.

  • I used to introduce myself as a metal artist, but I realized that got me a lot of confused looks and now that I have turned to jewellery, calling myself a jewellery artist just gets me a nod and the confirmation ‘Jewellery Designer’ ! I usually have to explain that I do not just design but also create my jewellery, and here in India the general term for all jewellery that is not made of precious metal is deemed’ imitation’. Well it is tough explaining with words but once people see my work, I do not have to open my mouth for that definition :)

  • I say “I draw things” more often than “I’m an artist”, mostly because of the eyes glazing over and people disbelieving at first thing that Ellen has described above. I get tired of the “no really, that’s how I pay my rent” too quickly. Also, where I live (Berlin) is flowing over with people wanting to be artists, being somewhat creative, doing something “in the media” etc., and I’m trying to avoid clichés as much as I can. Starting with the line about drawing opens up a more natural conversation along the lines of “what do you draw?” and “how?”.

  • I began making art seriously only after I decided to retire (early) from my day job. Until then, I had thought that becoming an artist was, for me, an unattainable goal. Now that I am one, I usually can’t title myself so. It’s too uncomfortable to put myself on that pedestal that I constructed—probably in my childhood—for “real” artists. So I call myself a photographer (which I am), even though my greatest recognition, in terms of prizes and publication, has been for fiber art. I may not be able to call myself an artist, but that won’t stop me from making art!

  • I don’t have a title on my biz cards since the visual of my art is enough to let people know what I do. However, I do think they are helpful when you first meet someone. It leads to followup questions and lets them know how you would like to be introduced to others. I’ve tried a variety of titles–artist, painter, portrait painter, watercolor artist. Usually there is a pause as people try to process this information, so I often followup with a very short description. Since I’ve recently decided to give up commissioned portraits to pursue exhibition and gallery sales, I just say painter.

    • Peggi: Interest that you’ve given up on commissioned portraits. Is that because of a lull in the market?

      • Hi Alyson,
        Actually, quite the opposite. I was busier with commissions these past three years than ever before. The money is nice, but the unexpected consequence was that the more I painted for others, the less time I spent experimenting and growing as an artist. I felt my work becoming stagnant and predictable; not satisfying at all. I tried balancing it out by only accepting commissions 6 months out of the year and painting for myself the other 6. I finally decided to make the jump this year and pull out of commissions all together. I’m so glad I did!

    • Peggi, your work is breath taking!

  • Personally, I am proud to call myself an artist. I have always admired others who are able to support themselves by creating works of art. I work in fiber and make quilts. When I tell people I am an artist, they often ask me what my medium is. This opens the door for me to explain my process instead of saying “I am a quilter” (which technically is true). Many people have a preconceived idea quilting and I want them to see my work as would see an abstract painting or drawing.

    • “Artist” somehow never feels right to me. It’s not how I see myself… or at least the way I imagine an “artist” to be is not who I feel myself to be. I say it, but it feels pretentious somehow or like it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
      For some years, I said “textile artist,” but the picture that evoked in people’s minds was nothing like the work I actually produce.
      Most recently, I find myself saying “maker and teacher of sacred textile art.” It’s a little wordy but it sits well with me. When I hear those words come out of my mouth, I recognize myself in them in a way I didn’t with the other titles.

  • I call myself many things….I think my title is “creative thinker”. That suits me the best. I think title are good..it helps people know who you are.

  • Sometimes I answer “artist,” but depending on the situation I might expand that to “quilt artist” or “dollmaker.” I have a picture of one of my small works on my business card so when people see that they understand better what I’m talking about.

  • I love being able to tell people that I am an artist when they ask me what I do. That in itself usually generates more questions allowing me to expand on that, after which I say, “I am mostly a painter, but use whatever materials it takes to get the job done.” (This is the perfect time to reach into my wallet and hand over a business card that features one of my paintings and my website address, by the way!) I am also an educator and graphic designer, but for me, “artist” is the one term I have always aspired to and feel proud to now be able to use truthfully, and is at the heart of EVERYTHING I do.

  • Artist. Easy. Then clarifying that I’m a painter since I rarely give a one word answer. “I’m an artist, I travel the coastline and then paint abstract landscapes of place along the sea.”.

    Can’t see how “messenger” would get you very far in a conversation. Plus I’d assume that means he rides a bike and delivers packages. ;)

    I’m not going to change what I call myself just because other people use the word more generally, or some may not give it respect. I am what I am and stating it categorically gives me a chance to open a dialogue. Without somehow fudging with a flouncy word that probably means even less to whomever I’m telling. I figure why try to obfuscate (great word that makes its own point) it and just confuse people.

  • Cevonna

    My feelings are similar to Valerie’s and Amy’s – I have always considered myself an artist, always called myself an artist, even though I have another career (Clinical social worker), as well. I have always felt it was honest, and never felt it to be limiting. I am an artist, plain and simple, and love it.

  • The title ‘artist’ is so generic that when I use it, people ask me for explanation because they are confused whether artist means a performance, visual artist, a sculptor etc. etc.
    So now I am a bit more comfortable using ‘Sole-practitioner (Art & Design)’ which pretty much covers most of what I do like fine art, digital art, illustration, animation and creative arts under various genre. Also, it sparks interesting discussions because people mostly come back to me with curiosity on what lies beneath the ‘Sole-practitioner’. The title looks good among business types too (referring to Kim Rhoney’s comment).

  • When I say, “I’m a sculptor.” people often have no idea what that means so the conversation stops dead.
    So I say, “I’m the king of bas relief.” That gets people laughing AND asking questions. Then the photo on the business card makes more sense to them. You MADE that?”. Humor is the kindest and easy way into conversation (for both sides),

  • I hide behind ‘art teacher’ as that is predominantly what I do and people seem to be very accepting of this. Usually the next question is ‘what school do you teach at?’ and my response is ‘I run my own business’ and that gets them in even more :)

  • They say it takes a mere 7 seconds to make a first impression, so I wouldn’t discount the power of title.

    I’m a few weeks away from getting my CA and work for a large public accounting firm, but I’m thrilled & proud that I can also call myself an artist. Instead of explaining what art exacly I am into, I pull out my cellphone and show them some photos of my works. Title is just the beginning – let you art speak for itself!

  • Before I was anything else I was and am a Dancer. With a capital “D.” That and the fact that I create art make me an Artist. With a capital “A.” A term that is not capitalized is a description. A term that is capitalized is a title. I am also Professor Vener (because I am an adjunct assistant professor with UMUC and an adjunct with Quinnipiac Uni) and my mother’s Primary Family Caregiver. As far as descriptions go, I am all of the above and a great deal more.

    Do we need titles? No, but people like them. Especially doctors. Descriptions (whether titular or not) help people relate to one another. They give us a way of forming pathways in communications. People are not all the same and equality does not equate to uniformity so titles and descriptives do not need to be used that way. Even if they sometimes are.

  • I proudly call myself an Artist, and further, add that means am a ‘spiritual visualizer’ who themescapes… is often enough to get interesting conversation going…;-)

  • My business card says Victoria Pendragon, Creative Spirit.

    I am both – and equally – writer and artist – (a writer is an artist, I think, but most people, when they think artist, don’t think words…) One discipline feeds the other and all my work is ‘about’ the same things, and there’s even overlap, so I wanted a phrase that summed me up. It might seem a vague appellation but since it’s usually me handing out the card or my work is nearby or I’ve just been speaking, it’s usually pretty clear.

  • I call myself a “collage painter” or “artist” …my kids call me “mom!”…mostly with the exclamation mark.

  • I used to call myself a quilt artist or an artist who makes quilts. Then I realized painters don’t call themselves oil artists or watercolor artists. So now I just call myself an artist. If people who don’t know me ask, do I paint – which is the usual question – I reply no, I work with fiber and make art quilts that hang on the wall.

  • April

    I have multiple titles. Artist, jeweler, craftsperson, teacher, etc. I will respond different ways depending on the setting I am in. Often to strangers in a non arts setting I will say artist first, and then say jeweler as the type of artist I am.

    I once had an interesting conversation with another local “artist”. She told me how she did not want the title of artist because she thought it had become a meaningless word, that anyone can call themselves an artist, even if they aren’t professional artists. She preferred the word “craftswoman” or was it “craftsman”? I don’t remember.
    Anyhow I thought it was interesting and this question reminded me of it. Although I saw her point, I didn’t see how being a craftsperson was any different than an artist from that viewpoint.

  • FrancesVettergreenVisualArtist

    I call myself a painter In my own head…but since I use other media as well professionally my label is Visual Artist. People know what it means, it’s simple, and it never comes across as pretentious or flaky. Somehow, adding the qualifier seems to limit the perception that “artist” is a hobby instead of a parallel career. My next set of business cards are going to have my name with “paintings and drawings” in small print.

    Funny how when I meet other professional artists, we always seem to introduce ourselves by our medium.

  • When people say ask me “What do you do” I say “I’m an artist”. On my business card it says Abstract Textile Artist.

    My medium is difficult to describe. I make art quilts but the “quilt” word automatically takes people to the idea of a quilt on a bed. I’m much happier to use the term “Artist” now. I think it has come with my increasing confidence. I like using “Textile Paintings” to describe my work but people don’t know what that means. It is easier to say “Artist” and then to show them my nifty Moo business cards with my art on them. Then they get it.

  • Pat

    The IRS says we’re all “Independent Art Professionals” – or at least that’s what my tax form says. I think it suits me.

  • I call myself “artist” and have never felt like it is too vague. However, it would be hard for me to label what kind of artist because I work in many mediums to get to my final piece. I guess I would be a collage artist, embroiderer, printmaker, painter, drawer all tied in to one. So would mixed media artist be better? I still find I have to explain myself no matter what label I put on it, so I’m comfortable with “artist”, and do not feel that it lessens the value of what I do. (However, I must note that I live in an area where there area a LOT of artists, so this stigmata of being thought of as a hobbyist if you call yourself an artist, doesn’t really happen to me.) I can see how that might be an issue in other areas.

  • In my area exists the largest AARP in the country. I live within a mile of the Atlantic Ocean in a seasonal resort area that has become the retirement community for the D.C. area and other nearby metropolises.

    I can’t tell you how many people have come in the gallery over recent years and announced they’ve just retired or are about to retire and they’ve always wanted to be “an artist.” When queried, you often discover they don’t know what kind of art they want to do, what kind of ideas they’d like to express, what their favorite subject or medium would be, and unfortunately they don’t want to spend the time going through the steps needed to learn a medium. They’re pretty much in love with the “idea” of being an “artist.”

    What most seem to be doing is launching into watercolors with no knowledge of drawing, mixing colors, etc., just doing and trying to sell their work for a few dollars or the price of their frames and pretty loudly calling themselves “local artists” like a badge of courage. Not all are like this. I don’t want to insult the ones who seriously want to pursue a dream, but the majority here it would seem not so much.

    One got frustrated with me recently after approaching me for help. I’d looked at her work, as she’d asked me to do, and gave her some ideas about what she could study to improve her work (gently, patting her on the back all the while for the good things about her work). I told her about perspective, shading, hues, complementary colors, recommended some books and classes, and took her outside and told her how I constantly observe colors, angles, light … “That’s a lot of work!” she exclaimed. “I just want to paint like you. I want to do that and that!”, pointing to one of my larger, inspirational oils, an inspiration that came to me in prayer, and a nearby, luminescent seascape, both of which took me quite a bit of time to do after many years of practice and study.

    So, in our area, there are a lot of people calling themselves artists who seem to have little desire beyond having a little fun at whatever medium, usually watercolors, and wearing the title artist proudly and very loudly. There isn’t anything wrong with that! It just dilutes the meaning of the word artist.

  • What if you do a lot of things? I paint portraits. I paint animals. I do plein air and still life. I write. I have 6 blogs, two are travelogues of Paris and Prague, one is about healthy living and 3 are art related: one for portraiture, one for paintings, one for information about art and artists. I am a Holistic Nutritionist. Any suggestions about a title for all that?

  • Oh, I should mention, my business cards say, “Food Art Life”, which is one of my domain names for my yet to be created websites (only blogs for the past years) and my title is “Creative Director” which I picked because it seemed to fit…..

  • A title someone gave me a long time ago, but which I never used, is Renaissance Woman. I’d say Free Spirit fits the bill, too, but don’t know how either would translate to the “publics” you serve.

  • Hey, I like that – “Renaissance Woman”
    Probably would get you a few quizzical looks though :)

  • Although I wanted to be an artist since about 4 years old, I had a hard time saying I was an artist, even though I became an art teacher, then a mom, then eventually working full time with work in 4 galleries that first year. But it was at that point that I realized I had become and was doing what I had always dreamed of. Over time I have come to realize that most people really don’t get what you do as an artist until they see a picture of your work, then they get it. I usual just say to someone who asks what I do, that I’m a professional artist, which sets me apart from the usual stereotype of “Sunday painter” and adds some credibility that I’m serious and do this for a living. Then the questions can lead to what and why I do what I do.

  • What’s wrong with calling yourself an artist? Trying to get too clever makes you sound so pretentious. Especially “messenger.” Does he ride a bicycle and wear a Newsie cap?

  • I’ve printed “Painter – Sculpter – Supergenius” on my art business cards. It’s worked so far.