How Do You Know If You're a Real Artist? (Curious Monday)

Does this scenario sound familiar?

©Heath Joy Miller, Sea Garden II. Encaustic, ink, shellac, and gold leaf on wood, 36 x 36 inches. Used with permission.

©Heath Joy Miller, Sea Garden II. Encaustic, ink, shellac, and gold leaf on wood, 36 x 36 inches. Used with permission.

You’re at a <party/meeting/wherever> and Smarty Pants asks you what you do.

I’m an artist, you say with confidence (of course).

Not missing a beat, Smarty Pants says, “Oh! My aunt is an artist. She does these …”

You drown out the noise and restrain yourself – resisting the urge to stomp your feet and throw a tantrum while shouting, You don’t understand! I’m a REAL artist!

Okay, so what does that mean?

What is a real artist anyway? How do you know if you are one?

Please leave a comment below and share your experiences.

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61 comments to How Do You Know If You’re a Real Artist? (Curious Monday)

  • I am an artist, but I don’t use the term “real artist”. There may be levels of artistry, but if someone started talking like that, I’d probably go “Oh, cool, can I see some of her work?”

  • Jay

    What does it mean to be a REAL artist?

    To create and share art with the intent of telling a story, conveying a message, or opening a channel of communication.

  • Karen Graham

    To me a real artist is one who can actually make a living at it which I am not presently doing so I guess I am not a real artist.

  • By the way I’m taxed the IRS confirms I’m an artist and not simply creating art as a hobby. That reminds me, sales taxes are due in a couple of days. I wonder if Smarty Pant’s aunt pays taxes?

  • I am reading a book by artist and teacher Juliette Aristedes, Lessons in Classical Painting. The book has many demos that are lovely, but it is the commentary that really appeals to me. Like Robert Henri, Aristedes writes about how artists see the world, what they do with that seeing and what that means in terms of living an artist’ s life. So, for me being an artist is about a way of being in the world aesthetically and translating that way of being into something tangible to share with others (the sharing is important to me). The something tangible can be writing, images, performances, buildings, gardens, and even actions that are art-filled as seen in the professions that are both art and science like nursing, medicine, psychology, and teaching when practitioners are at their best.

    • Adele

      Yes, Honey! I agree wholeheartedly. I don’t think that sales or recognition make one an artist, but simply act as social confirmation. The act of creating is what makes one an artist. And who is to say what is “real” and what is not? That, to me, is allowing others to define us. Why are so many creators so willing to immediately disclaim their artistry? I think it is confidence in what we do that allows us to believe in ourselves as real artists.

    • Honey: I have a problem with this wide definition. I know it’s popular these days, but if we, for example, say that architects are artists and psychologists are artists when they’re at their best …

      What do we call artists when they are at their best?

      I think the moniker is being appropriated by too many people these days and we have nothing left to replace it to distinguish people who have a dedicated art practice.

      • Hmmm…well perhap, but being both an artist and a nurse, I know that the aesthetic way of seeing is important to both fields. In fact, in my work as a nurse I used visual art to make visible in a painting the important act of witnessing that is part of being a good practitioner. Still, I take your point.

      • I think a 2D artist not at their best is a painter. A learning movement artist is a dancer? I get the point. I think artist describes the best of any profession, those that employ a heightened awareness of all senses to creatively perform their job.
        I like to say “I paint” or I am a painter. It invariably leads the listener to ask “what do you paint?” ( on the off chance they need work on the walls of the house). We get a good chuckle ( and skip the relative story) when I start discussing my subject matter.

    • Honey Lea, This is a beautiful description of what we all should be striving for regardless of output. My Ti Chi instructor asked me once if I thought I was an Artist. She explained the label/title is not a given. One who works in the arts, practicing a particular genre or medium, should be using a description of what is the work they do for the answer, like “I work in Pastel as a plein air painter capturing light and a moment in history.” First it goes a long way to diffusing the, “I have an Aunt….”, thing and more importantly it opens up the door for questioning further. What is plein air, why history, why call it painting? Then when the response is, “You are an artist. ” you have earned the name. Consequently that is how I usually respond to that question. I try not to assume anything and take the opportunity to tickle the questioners’ perception and curiousity about art work. My instructor believed the work would say what you are. She was a modest and knowledgeable human being. Miss her.
      This question could go further when said “artists” look down on jewelers, weavers, potters, etc. saying they are only craftspeople. As a painter I practice my craft almost every day. Some days everything I have learned in practice falls into the zone and I am actually making art. It does not happen every day. More often then not I am a painter practicing my craft.
      Artliveslong, D

  • I used to think it was about whether or not you made a living from your art (either full- or part-time), but actually I’ve come to believe that it’s a combination of things:

    1. attitude/state of mind (you have an ‘artistic’ or creative mindset, and therefore experience the world in certain ways that others may not);
    2. professionalism and commitment towards your art practice.

    I think this means you can be a ‘real’ artist without actually making a living from your art, if that’s what you choose. I gave up art for 15 years whilst studying to become a mathematician, but I still looked at maths in an ‘artistic’ (visual) way, it was just how I thought.

    But another part of me resists defining what a ‘real’ artist is – perhaps it’s best left to the individual to decide what kind of artist they are? I don’t know how that helps us to explain our careers to the party guest though – there’s always that underlying judgement that anyone can make art and therefore it’s a worthless pursuit. For what it’s worth I find making and showing my art to people much harder than maths – there’s no hiding behind ‘correct solutions’ in the art world. Interesting question Alyson, what a can of worms!

  • I struggle with calling myself an artist because it is still more of a hobby than a profession. I was a graphic artist for many years and didn’t have any problem sharing my current title (graphic artist, graphic designer, art director, etc…) because, hey, I had the business cards and the paychecks to back it up.

    Then I lost my hearing and went through some struggles. In the process of redefining who I am now, I decided to create the things that I want to make, not the things others are telling me to make. I would still feel like a bit of a poser calling myself an artist at this point since I am not yet deriving any income from it.

  • I’m not keen on “real” artist. I know of one popular art blogger wouldn’t consider me a real artist because I’m not getting my full time income from my art.

    I think crafter is a better term for the dabblers but then I went from being a crafter to being an artist.

  • I’m an artist, because I am an Artist. What is do is from me, from my heart and hand. And I make stuff.. As it happens, I’m full-time, but money has nothing at all to do with it.. You don’t Make Art, it Makes You..
    HH

  • I am an artist because I create unique, one of a kind pieces of art. You may find other paintings that are abstract in form, maybe some using the same colors, or painted in a like style, but you will not find any that are exactly like mine, because they are mine. This is what I have chosen to do. This is what I do everyday. This is my job. The people that both see my work and purchase my work have no difficulty at all with identifying me as an artist.

  • Hi Alyson,
    Interesting question! I would characterize an artist as a person who creates one of a kind, original work, and who produces consistently. They have achieved recognition through press, galleries, exhibitions or sales. Or they have not, but believe in their own work so strongly that they continue making art ferverantly.

  • And let me just add…I think it is possible to be a technically good draftsman or painter, but fail to be in the world with an aesthetic way of being or seeing. I’m not sure I would call that person an artist though.

    This is a topic I have thought and written a lot about because I’ve worked very hard for an integrated life; one in which there is no artificial division between who I am as a nurse and who I am as an artist. I even managed to get tenure at a major university by not giving up an interdisciplinary practice…and that was a difficult thing to do, believe me.

    That said, I have shifted to just an art practice now that I am retired from the university and yet, every painting I make is informed by my experience as a nurse. And I like to think that my nursing was just as informed by my painting.

  • I used to follow these guidelines…(from the CARFAC website)

    “The International Artists Association defines a “professional artist” as one who:

    earns a living through art making;
    or possesses a diploma in an area considered to be within the domain of the fine arts;
    or teaches art in a school of art or applied art;
    or whose work is often seen by the public or is frequently or regularly exhibited;
    or is recognized as an artist by consensus of opinion among professional artists.”

    When the market crashed here after 9/11, I made sure to exhibit often, to fulfill the 4th parameter, when I knew the earning a living one wasn’t going to be happening as well for a while…

    The sister org called CARCC gives artists royalty money for various things-so it was important to fulfill at least one of the parameters to get the handout…

  • Thank you so much for asking this question Alyson. As I am sure is quite apparent, I have very strong feelings about it. It is good to have an opportunity to revisit the question at this point in my life. PS. When I said “just” an art practice, I meant “only” in that I really don’t have a practice oanymore. “Just” sounds discounting, certainly not my intent.

  • If the definition of being a real artist is that you are making a living at it, then I’d argue that Van Gogh may not have been considered an artist by that definition. What I DO believe is that if you are COMPELLED to do art, then you may certainly consider yourself to be a real artist. Obviously some people may be better than others and thus those of us who have sold to people other than friends and family may feel the necessity to explain the difference between a “real” artist and Auntie. But I think if Auntie is compelled to make art (no matter what the level), then she is in fact an artist. If on the other hand she does it when there is time, or when a family member gives her a commission, then I would encourage her to continue and move on. I think NEEDING to interpret something into a form of art is what makes a “real” artist. Feeling out of sorts when you can’t get into your studio because of the holidays or a family obligation, makes for the argument you are a real artist. The NEED to make are to me is the operative word.

  • when people ask me what I do I usually respond that I am dedicated to art, make exhibition and explain what I try to accomplish. Frequently I get the answer that there is an aunt or sister also painting, etc. I just try to ignore it.
    It is very important to be prepared and find the appropriate answer without offending.
    People have strange ideas how artists should behave and dress.

  • I also cringe at how many other forms of employment are adopting the term “artist”. The one that really gets me is a certain fast food chain that has trademarked the term in relation to making sandwiches. I sincerely doubt their employees have the passion for sandwiches or the long-term commitment to a mastery of skills that I would associate with the term “artist”.

    The problem with defining a “real” artist as someone who makes a living from their art is that it then means that artists like Van Gogh, or more recently Carmen Herrera, who was a devoted painter all of her adult life, but didn’t sell her first painting until she was in her 80s, weren’t “real” artists.

  • Oops, while I was typing I didn’t see that Judy had already mentioned Van Gogh in her comment before I hit “Post”. But I second what she said.

  • Many years ago I stepped back into the studio after having raised my son. I began painting again, it was then that I was faced with being a self-described ‘artist’. I did not feel I was worthy-yet. So I sat down and figured out what I might need to accomplish and feel comfortable being described as an artist. It was a personal journey, very interesting.
    Do I need an exclusive studio space or is it just such a part of who I am that my workspace is part of my living space?
    How many entries into exhibitions would make me an artist? Do they need to be juried?
    What about a solo show, is that necessary?
    How many paintings must I sell before I can call myself an artist?
    Do I need to take painting trips?
    I began by printing out business cards with a photo of a piece of art. Nope.
    That did not comfort me… so I built my first website, attaching it to my email address. Back then it was very expensive and difficult to purchase an exclusive website name.
    It was a personal and enlightening journey. It continued for more than a decade.
    Today I am an artist or artist/teacher. Before I retired from teaching full-time, I was a teacher/artist. Funny. Do artists need to be categorized… after all we are artists …we live outside the box.

  • I am taking a studio break and just read this. If you are asking what a real artist is, then propose they make real art, isn’t the first question “what is art?”
    Whew…too much for me…back to work!

  • Even making a living at art doesn’t define “artist” always in my opinion, as the Internet has provided a means for formulaic hand-crafts to provide sustainable income.

    I think an artist understands that they create within a context – an artist grapples with the realities of their time, unafraid to take on big, metaphysical problems. Artists are never satisfied as they work perfecting a craft, and they work very hard.

    This context in which artists create includes art history, understanding that they are part of a genealogy of makers who have exerted influence over their practice and their culture. This means that often (certainly not always), education can play a part in becoming an artist. And an artist also contributes to that context – responding to tradition and also to the present in a way that is unique and creative.

  • I agree with Judy and also want to remind everyone of the other artistic disciplines such as installation art where it’s not a straight product for fee exchange. Being compelled to be an artist over a lifetime (I would even say “having no choice”) would be my qualifier.

  • This is something I struggle with all the time. I started out doing sculpture and wall hangings and realized that it was easier to lug jewelry from show than “Klingon Death Weapon” types of sculpture. At that point, I stopped feeling like an artist. Parents point to my stuff and explain to their toddler that my work is exactly like the stuff they did in pre-school. Never mind that I actually make my beads out of molten glass. Yeah… Just the same…

  • Im not very attached to the idea of needing to define artist ness. I think it is helpful to tap into your creative energy in any way and on any level. And Im usually interested in creative process, no matter if Im interested in the Product

  • A “Real Artist” continues to create multitude of masterpieces and not just a “One Hit Wonder Masterpiece” throughout his/her life span. The art that a Real Artist creates is done usually with an intent to share their thoughts, feelings and complex emotions about subjects that are important to him/her (otherwise why even take the time and effort to create it?). The work created is not created with an intend to sell but rather the idea. Coming across the work of a Real Artist leaves the viewer either with a question or an answer – and sometimes a deeper understanding perhaps or an insight that I call the “Eureka Moment”.

  • Glenda

    I get that statement a lot when I’m going to a new place, and over the years I’ve learned to invite it as a way to begin a conversation with that person. When that comes up I answer with questions like “oh really how wonderful, where can I see her work?” or “is he well known, tell me more about his work”. It makes the person I’m conversing with feel validated and contribution value to the conversation. They then invariably ask me about my work and I can answer them without having to “sell” myself or my work. Because they’ve gone into details, it gives me permission to do the same and they feel like they are knowledgeable enough to participate in that conversation. (where many people feel stuck). I’ve learned that how you do anything is how you do everything and if I make it all about them, the end result is always good for me. In fact I’ve had people then take me to other people at the same venue and introduce me like they’ve always known about me and can’t wait to tell the other person all about me and I don’t have to say a word. It’s the most amazing thing to watch. Hope that helps just a little.

  • What interesting perspectives, all!

    It has deeply bothered me that many women I know who create beautiful art don’t consider themselves artists. I always ask them why not, and usually they reply that they don’t make an income from their art, so they are not an artist. I believe that anyone who has a need for creative expression (and that can be 2-d, 3-d art, a garden, a meal, etc., etc.) is an artist. I think that the more of us who use the “artist” title will make it more accessible to others. I agree with several of the replies above, including Judy’s NEED comments, Patrice’s “we live outside the box”, and Glenda’s encouraging conversation. We live in such a mechanized and impersonal world, I find great joy whenever anyone creates something that speaks to their own self-expression, and I think that is what art is: one’s own unique self-expression.

    I’m proud to be an artist (and I do make an income from my art), and it took me a long time to acknowledge that confidently. And I’m thrilled when I see/facilitate/hear about others who are exploring their own creativity and self-expression.

    Thanks for asking this question, Alyson! It’s been on my mind for a while now. Peace!

  • Bug

    I try to make art every day. Every day. I try to sell, at a co-op and other “fund raiser” shows. I don’t have any objective but to continue. Significant income would be nice, but as long as I cover expenses I’m good.

    When asked if I am an artist, I usually say, “Well, I’m a painter at least. I do landscapes.” I think that only time will tell if they have artistic content. So, I suppose my definition of artist is someone who makes art. It’s my definition of art that is difficult to define in contemporary terms.

  • Very interesting comments. I consider myself an artist as I produce work daily, I exhibit frequently in galleries, I make money from my work and I feel compelled to create. I trained as a jeweller and I produce work that combines many techniques in different media. I sometimes feel that sites and training aimed at artists cater more for 2d artists and people working in 3d are therefore left feeling marginalised. It’s a shame as I feel that being an artist is something that you ARE – not necessarily wrapped up in the medium you work in. It’s about the passion.

  • I believe that you are “called” to be an artist. Art is a vocation.
    For many years, I heard that “artist” is a title to be earned. A title that is granted to you. Finally I realized that people told me over and over that I was an artist, but I still didn’t believe it.
    I have to grant myself the “title” of artist.

    I get so angry and believe that I’m not an artist because I am not able to make a full time living at it. And since I can’t make a living doing art, my day job steals art time and energy.
    However, I am committed to doing all I can do to make, SHARE, and market my work. Part of being an artist is sharing and showing your work.

    I am called to be an artist because I am committed to making art that inspires, moves, and touches others.
    I am fascinated that artists can develop paradigms (prototypes, a model, pattern, and archetype) that can influence the future and I want to try…
    As far as “my aunt is an artist…,” she may be. When people talk about other artists or show me their work, I try to fight against it, but I get envious and jealous. I guess I think if you’re an artist then I’m not one.
    And really what does it matter, “making art is its own cure.” Of course now we can get into are “you talented enough to be an artist?”
    Which causes additional insecurity…

  • To paraphrase Descartes, “I paint, therefore I am an artist.” If you aren’t making art you ain’t an artist. It is my passion; it is my raison d’etre. Why I make art; what is art and what I want to say/do with my art are different questions with their own answers.

  • My thoughts on “being an artist” run along the lines that a number of folks have already expressed here, the most significant to me among them being about being “compelled” to make art. I think of myself as “an artist” because I am. I might tell someone that I am either “an artist” or “an abstract artist” or simply “a painter,” my descriptor of choice being based on various factors: who I am speaking with, what we are speaking about, why I am speaking, etc.

    As it happens, I am also “a writer,” “an author,” “a dancer,” “a mother,” “an empath,” etc. and so on. I have also been known to deny that I am some things that other people see me as ( a poet, a public speaker, etc.) either because I do not feel skilled enough in that area or simply because I do not identify with that.

    In all of the above cases, I do what I do (where it is a ‘doing’ thing, as opposed to a ‘being’ thing, like being an empath) because even though it might not appear to an outsider to BE a ‘being’ thing it seems to be WHO I AM… almost as if I have no choice in the matter… it often feels often as if I would burst if I could not do what I do so much a part of me are these drives.

  • I had an odd thought when reading some of this- remember the Velveteen Rabbit who wanted so much to be “real”? – But he had real feelings as he was. I think Glenda’s approach is excellent – find out about the “aunt” . After all, some of us are somebody’s aunt too. “Real” isn’t a financial statement. Look at the Group of Seven- Lawren Harris was independently wealthy and able to help finance some of the trips for the others- did that make him more “real” than those working part-time as graphic artists? “Real” is if you take yourself seriously, work on being the constant student, learn about other art and artists – and feel compelled to keep doing art. But, everyone doesn’t have to take it seriously – people who just occasionally play at it are at least showing an interest. One of my former teachers always calls himself a “painter”. I think if someone asked me if I was “real”, I would say that I worked at my art but only the future would make the judgment.

  • I call myself a painter, because that is my craft, and I’ve earned the title. “Artist” is fraught with connotations, and when I use it I often add a qualifier: hobby artist, for one who sees it as a pastime; professional artist, for one who gets paid; practising artist, for those of us who have carved out regular studio hours; non-practising artist, for those of us who think and see and feel like artists but whose work, for whatever reason, doesn’t come to fruition. We’re all “real”, in the sense that we are all people who exist.

    But what separates the hobbyist from the serious artist (my preferred term)? A spirit of inquiry, perhaps, a willingness to push boundaries or dig beneath the surface, a desire and dedication to getting beyond where we are now. That has nothing to do with how one earns one’s living or how many hours one spends in the studio, and everything to do with approach.

  • I am a real artist.
    As it happens I am also a self supporting professional artist, that has made her own living selling her art for nigh on thirty years. But it’s not the deciding factor that makes someone successful as an artist. I have lots of friends who don’t sell their art, and who are “real” artists. When I meet people at parties I say that I’m a “professional artist”, which is enough of a hook for people to want to know more. There’s a certain gravitas that comes from that adjective. Sometimes I talk about it being like being a professional sportsperson, but usually people go “oh that’s interesting, tell me more about what you do…”

  • Gad

    An artist is a person who makes something he/she calls art. That’s me, I’m one of those. If no one else calls it art, that’s their business.

  • Interesting question. I am blessed to live at Brickbottom Artist’s Building and so I have many friends and neighbors who are very clearly real artists. In fact the vibrant community runs the gamut from people who make a very good living at their art, through dabblers and those who simply appreciate art. I have for years been uncertain about calling myself an artist. One of the great joys of being part of this community is the support I get from all of these wonderful people. They have seen my work at shows in our gallery and at open studios and assure me that my work is good. So now based on many conversations I can say emphatically that I am an artist… and I am even beginning to believe it myself. 🙂

  • One who lives and breathes what they do because they cannot conceive of doing anything else. One who constantly works at improving their knowledge and skills. One whose desire is to make the world a more beautiful place. One who does what they do, regardless of whether or not they gain recognition or are even make a living at their art. So, I circle back around and repeat a “real” artist, emphasis not needed, is one who live sand breathes what they do because not doing so is no life at all.

  • Ok this is a good topic and one where I feel I can say something. I’m an artist myself, I have been painting for 15 years, starting as a student and now I work full time in my studio at home, I sell artworks, I have many exhibitions. I have been told I’m a prolific artist which is probably true. I’m addicted to my studio and painting and working in my arts business. I guess this is just ONE of the definitions of an artist. I also believe even if you are not working all the time as an artist, you are no less of an artist. An artist is someone who creates works of any kind (even performers that create acts for people to watch, entertaining them). I guess some of us who paint do entertain others with our paintings, giving them stories to ponder on in visual sense. Jeweler makers, writers and the like are artists too, they create. Creation with your hands/body/mind – that’s artists. Hope some will agree?

  • What a fruitful discussion! Thanks again, Alyson, for this space to share our thoughts. It means a lot!

  • Ah, this is THE question I live with all the time. We even talked about this directly at Art Biz Breakthrough. For me, ‘real’ is defined by the integrity of the work and by the ‘always be evolving’ mindset. I also feel that Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘shit sandwich’ analogy is on point. If you aren’t willing to eat the shit sandwich of being an artist, then it may not be the thing that defines you. Technically, I can find space for myself in the ‘real’ artist category but I don’t feel it.

  • People who can create anything out of nothing is an artist.And people who makes art with passion,devotion, love, creativity, loyalty is called a real artist.He or she must give his/her 100% to make every second of the title artist count.I know a guy who’s living and earning for his family by sketching in the street.He is a street artist and if you want to watch how he is doing it you can watch this video and appreciate his work.

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