Thursday, October 12, 2017

What is a "Real" Artist?

By Lauren Panepinto
I have a friend that likes to play a game called "What's a sandwich?" He's a bartender, so he is in the business of lobbing a thought out across the bar, aiming it at the customers, and five minutes later there will be a big debate amongst the entire bar...

"What's a sandwich?" starts when he asks someone to define a sandwich.

Invariably, someone opens with a close variation on "something between two slices of bread".

Then he asks, is a wrap a sandwich?

What about a taco?

Would a slice of bread between two other slices of bread be a sandwich?

What about bread and butter, is that a sandwich?

What about an open-face sandwich?

What about a lettuce wrap? 

What about that scary KFC abomination that's just chicken tenders with a burger in between? 

Everyone gets thirstier, drinks more, fuels the conversation more......but I digress.

I feel like this is very similar to what happens when someone asks What is an artist?

Someone who paints or draws.

What about sculpture?

Ok, 3D too. 

What about fashion? Or cooking? Or writing?

Ok, ok, an artist is someone who makes a thing.

What about a musician, a dancer? They're not making a physical thing. 

Of course! Them too!

What about a pregnant woman? Are they an artist? They're making something.

This is a bottomless inquiry, trust me.

Then there's my fave bomb to toss into a conversation in a room full of artists:

What is the difference between an artist, a maker, a craftsmen, a creator?

That will keep a crowd going for a while.

But the most contentious discussion of all, especially at an art convention, or a gallery opening, or some official art-world thing is this one:


What's makes a "real" artist? 

That's what people ask when they want to distinguish between professionals and amateurs, or hobbyists.

Is an artist only a real artist if they make money off their work? 

How much money does it have to be? 

Does it have to be enough to live off of? 

Does your art need to pay all your bills? 

What if you are working part time and making art part time? 

What if you have a non-art job and work on your art in your free time?

Do you become a "real" artist at a certain skill level?

Do you become a "real" artist if you've made X amount of art?

How long do you have to be making art before you are a real artist?

How much do you have to starve? How much ramen do you need to eat?

Do you have to be crazy to be a real artist? Do you have to suffer?

How old do you have to be before you are a real artist? 

Do you have to have been making art your whole life to be a real artist?

Do people have to like your work to make you a real artist? How many fans do you need?

I think you'll find very quickly that it's really hard to define an artist, just like it's really hard to define a sandwich. You just...know it when you see one. And there's absolutely no such thing as a "real" artist. All artists are real. It doesn't matter if you've been making art for 5 years or 5 minutes. Your skill level doesn't matter. The amount of money you have or have not made off of your work doesn't matter. Having a day job, a full time job, a part time job doesn't matter. A college degree or any number of completed art classes doesn't matter. Build a life around yourself that lets you create the way you need and want to create. If that's as a professional career artist, great. If that's as a hobbyist, fabulous. Some people's art needs to be put under more pressure. Some people's art needs to be unburdened by financial weight.

This may all seem like a no-brainer to you (and if so, count yourself lucky) because all the time in portfolio reviews and certainly every day on DearAD, I see artists yearning for legitimacy. Will quitting their job and going freelance full time make them a real artist? Will getting that first commission make them a real artist? If that one wasn't big enough, will they feel like a real artist when they get a commission from their dream client? Will they be a real artist when they get into Spectrum? Will they be a real artist if they go back to school at 40? Are they a real artist if they never went to school?

All this energy worrying, all this wasted time. Let me tell you something now — I talk to the most well-known pro artists in the world, and I talk to the noobiest newbies — and nothing external, no job, no award, no gallery show, suddenly makes you feel like a real artist.

Who decides you're a real artist?

You do.

So stop trying to prove it to anyone. Stop chasing legitimacy. It doesn't come from a piece of paper and it doesn't come from anyone else. You just have to convince yourself.

Here, let me help.

Do you create, decorate, imagine, beautify, craft, produce, design, form, paint, draw, sculpt, sew, cook, carve, sculpt, or shape?



Now stop wasting time and energy convincing anyone else, and use that energy to go make art.


  1. Nicely said, ... but what's your point?

    1. If this isn't something that worries you, then feel lucky. I get concerns about this from artists all the time, chasing some kind of validation. Or permission. I think it's important for some people to realize this stuff out loud. If you have already, then awesome. But thanks for the note, I made it a bit clearer in the article itself.

  2. I've thought about this before and I think the conflict is between a sense that we can't define "art" or "artist" on the one hand, and on the other hand a value judgement that we would like to make that says art is "important". If we can't say what art is, or what it does or theorize coherently about it, how can we argue that it's really valuable to society? I think people intuitively sense this paradox and are seeking to resolve it by defining art and artist in some (agreeable) way.

    1. I completely agree! Art is absolutely critical to society, yet when it comes on the political/budgetary chopping blocks, it's often the first thing cut.

  3. Cool article! What is interesting how big the urge in us humans is to explain everything (art, meaning of life, taste of chicken, etc.). Curious little creatures we are :-)

  4. hi thank you for this, I often struggle with calling myself an artist. on the few rare occasions that I've been asked, I find it really hard to say "yes I'm an artist" and instead go with the cop out of "well no not really an artist in training mostly".

    1. All artists are still in training, forever. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

  5. What a great post! Thanks for taking the time to put this to together.
    For decades I created in a conventional (craftsman) world. Building cabinets, decks, patios, driveways, a lot of stuff in construction. All the while I was trying to move to illustration, working in the evenings and weekends when family duties were done.
    Then I landed a job as an illustrator for a small publishing company. Wonderful experience, but still in the "conventional" category.I've learned a ton of things over the years about the mechanics of creativity. But the biggest lesson learned has been that making the leap from being a Craftsman, (convention) to an Artist (invention)is, as you put so well, all in your head. It is a challenge, but one worth fighting for.
    I think its so cool that the Muddy Colors peeps included an AD in the line up. The stuff you add Lauren, from the world of creative business, helps a lot.

    1. Personally, I consider craftsmen very much artists in the more "fine" sense. There's certainly no dividing line in skill. Usually I hear the difference defined in terms of message, or meaning to the work. But many craftsmen imbue just as much meaning and message into their work as fine artists do. We can split hairs forever!

    2. Glad you enjoy the posts from the magical land of Art Direction Land! Trying to split my posts between Art Business in a nuts and bolts way, and then big picture Art Career stuff, like this one.

  6. This post came in a very timely matter. Thank you so much for the refresher and reminder to stop worrying, stop taking oneself too seriously, and just go DO. :)

  7. Ask Brad Holland. The only person who isn't an artist is an illustrator. Nice thoughts Lauren, now I'm hungry for a sandwich.

  8. just found that you're writing these Lauren. excellent all of them. congrats!! love you, miss you. xox g

  9. Thank you for this post. I needed to read something last or this today.


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