Are you an artist?
The two questions below pop up regularly when talking with fellow-creatives. The discussions around these questions are very interesting and give much food for thought.
1. If you’re not a professional (making money with art) but you make art just because it makes you happy, then are you an artist?
2. If you don’t have an art degree, but you are self-taught, are you allowed to call yourself an artist?
I wrote down my thoughts about these issues, to share with you.
I consider myself an artist. And yes, I do call myself an artist. It took a bit of getting used to at first, but at some point I got tired of stuttering and stumbling about it. Sometimes when drawing on location, someone would come up to me and say: “hey it’s really great that you’re drawing here! Are you an artist?”. In reply, I’d mumble something like – “well, yeah, I draw… I guess I am a sketcher of sorts…”. Or something along these lines.
Of course that’s kind of a silly and confusing reply. A reply you probably also have given often.
Recently, I’ve gotten into painting. I love exploring the medium; it’s so different from drawing and I have no idea what I am doing, but that is a big part of the fun I am having. Since the beginning of this month, I rent an art space and am surrounded by artists, making amazing things – so on my first studio day there, I felt like I should Make Art. I had no idea how. Luckily, I realized why I rented that space in the first place: to dedicate time and space to explore and throw paint around. So that’s exactly what I did: I took a canvas and blotted some favorite colors onmy palette… and I let go. I was having so much fun just intuitively using paint and making marks, and guess what? I was making art!
Yes, you are drawing and painting, and you are enjoying yourself doing so. You’re doing it for the sake of the process, or maybe you’re working on a project. The most important thing is: doing it makes you happy.
You. Are. Making. Art.
So why shouldn’t you call yourself an artist? Is your art not good enough? That’s kind of the point of being an artist, isn’t it? To get better and better; and once you get the hang of a technique, you try something new. You start all over again as a beginner.
Maybe you’re an accomplished artist, or a beginner. Or anywhere in between. And it’s quite likely that when you compare your art with work that more accomplished artists make, your inner critic will tell you that you suck, and “how can you even consider calling yourself an artist?”.
But you should never compare someone’s middle to your beginning. That more accomplished artist you look up to, has exactly the same thoughts and struggles!
Anyway, I wasn’t planning on giving you advice here – I just wanted to tell you about two artists who are very close to me and who I love dearly.
My dad, Frans, is an artist. I have never heard him say that about himself though. (He does often say he’s a scribbler).
But it’s obvious. He has been a professional photographer during all of his working life. He might say it’s a craft or a profession, rather than art. I remember that sometimes when he took a picture that didn’t make much sense to him, or that looked kind of funky or even if it was a misprint, he would hold it up and jokingly exclaim: “ART!”.
Maybe my dad is just very down-to-earth about what he does – he just makes stuff. That makes him extremely happy, and it’s enough for him; it doesn’t need a label.
During his photography career, he was always learning. Learning new techniques, finding new solutions to creative problems, finding the best composition for each picture he took. That’s definitely art.
And then when he retired, he kept doing photography as a hobby, still learning. Learning how to work best with that new camera, learning new tips and tricks in photoshop. He enjoys it a lot.
After his retirement, he also started drawing. He now carries a sketchbook with him more often than a camera (“the camera is on my phone now”, he says).
The other day he told me he discovers so many things when he draws. He sees details in architecture, understands shapes and colors, and learns with each drawing, while he is having so much fun! He fills sketchbook after sketchbook. Sometimes he needs a prompt or an idea, sometimes he just draws whatever is in front of him, or he goes outside and draws in the street.
It doesn’t really matter what he draws, as long as he keeps going.
Yeah, my dad is an artist.
My mother-in-law, Esther, is an artist. She does not consider herself as one though. Every time I tell her I love her art and that she is a really accomplished artist, she giggles and waves it away. She makes the most beautiful layered collage paintings, she paints on large canvases with oil or acrylic paint, and combines pastels, and really any art material she can get her hands on. She also has a very accomplished taste and style when it comes to choosing color palettes for her art. She takes photos when she’s on vacation and uses the little thumbnails on her digital camera for inspiration to paint. Or she’ll paint from imagination and she comes up with the most beautiful stories when you ask about her paintings.
The art shown here was based on a ballet performance she’d seen, for example (the photo doesn’t do it justice, sorry!).
Many years ago she joined a group of painters who meet weekly to paint together and follow workshops, and they have even been going on holiday to paint together every year.
Um… not an artist??
She’s always learning, experimenting and exploring. And she gets SO much joy out of it. It’s really inspiring and wonderful.
Yeah, Esther is an artist. Just a very modest one.
Neither I, Frans, or Esther have a formal art degree or even art education. (Technically, I went to art school, but that was for photography and I never finished it!). We are exploring, discovering, curious, and teaching ourselves by learning from others and from experience.
So does that mean we are officially not artists? I actually know a lot of people who do have an art degree but now have a desk job somewhere that doesn’t even have anything to do with art… so what does that mean?
I also wonder: does it matter to put a label on it? Is the label the thing that qualifies you, or allows you to consider yourself an artist?
No, it’s our inner critic that holds us back.
We need to give ourselves permission. To make time for art. To make art. To do what makes you happy.
And I guess we need to be reminded regularly about it, because we tend to forget!
Hi I'm Koosje. I'm an illustrator and art teacher in Amsterdam, where I was born and raised. I went to school to study graphic design, then worked for ten years as an award-winning professional photographer. But eventually my love of drawing and painting took over and I became an illustrator. My illustrations have been published in many Dutch magazines and in 2011, I began blogging and started developing and teaching online art classes. In 2014 I founded Sketchbook Skool, which is a flourishing community of artists from around the world of all skill levels. View all posts by Koosje Koene