WHO IS AN ARTIST? (And When Can You Call Yourself One?)

“Artist” is a loaded word these days… Is it a label? A title? An occupation? I think it’s simply a means to an end?

A reader emailed me today with a simple question. She’s been on her creative path for awhile now. She wanted to know if what she does, is art. And when we know it’s time to call ourselves an “artist”.

Here’s how the internationally-respected art blog Making A Mark introduced the topic a few years ago. It’s an interesting read. You’ll find in the comments that opinions run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, the strict delineations to the all-embracing. I love the one explaining how Canada defines “professional artist.”

Me? I really don’t know.

Seriously. I just had a consult with someone who works with archetypal symbols to help us chart our course. I seem to be top-heavy in “magician”. Magician sees many perspectives, and tries to hold many points of view. Sometimes this leads to deeper knowledge and understanding. But sometimes we get lost in a “hall of mirrors”, unable to find our real path for all the confusion of multiple images.

Hence (I’ve waited all year to use “hence”!) I see the validity in many opinions on what is a “real artist”.

But here’s the bottom line: If we really say that people have to have credentials, sales, fame, and a life dedicated entirely to art in order to be considered real artist, and that only certain media are eligible (painting, preferably oils, for example), then we are going to eliminate thousands upon thousands of people who have created works that have stood the test of time. And I’m not just talking decades or centuries. I’m talking millennia. (Not counting half the human race that weren’t recognized at all during that time. Yes, girls, I’m talking about US.)

On the other hand, I know junk when I see it. Just sayin’.

One of my favorite stories about this–who is, and isn’t, an artist–took place over a decade ago, when I was looking for a studio space in a newly-renovated building not far from my house. My husband and I were talking with some of the building’s owners and one of them asked what I did. I replied, “I’m a fiber artist.” He said something like “That’s nice”, and the conversation continued. About ten minutes later, he mentioned a local painter and exclaimed, “Now, she’s a real artist!”

I was pretty grounded by then, and bemused, not insulted. The person he’d mentioned wasn’t actually a very good painter, and she eventually moved on to other media. But it didn’t matter to him that she wasn’t that skilled, and I was. Her media automatically defined her as a “real” artist, in his mind.

Another telling tale: Many times, at parties, gatherings, etc. someone I don’t know will ask what I do. I’ll tell them, and again, I get the equivalent of “That’s nice.” But later in the conversation, when they ask me where I sell my work, I’ll reply, “Well, my biggest retail show is the League of NH Craftsmen, so I do ‘Sunapee’ (the show’s totally unofficial and informal nickname) and sell through a lot of the League galleries.” Then there’s a respectful gasp of admiration and the inevitable, “You do Sunapee?! You must be awesome!”

Of course, these are assessments made by people who may not know a lot about art. They may not know how exquisitely tricky those “official” delineations are. For example, if you make a sculpture in clay, it’s usually classified as “craft”. But if you create a bronze cast of that sculpture, then the bronze version is considered “art.” (How’s that for weird?)

I’m the same person, before and after, credentials notwithstanding.

So how do we decide?

Well, as I’ve said before, you don’t need a license to practice art. But here’s what I really think….

If you are making something that makes your heart sing, if you enjoy it, if it connects you to your higher self, if it connects others to their higher self, even for a few brief moments, then yeah, you’re an artist.

And you can start calling yourself that right now. Go ahead! You have my permission.

Short version, for you: It’s tempting to wait til you believe it, to say it. But one of my most powerful mentors said exactly the opposite…
You have to SAY “I’m an artist” before you can believe it.
How many times do you have to say it?
You have to say “I’m an artist” as many times as you’ve been told (and told yourself) you’re not.

So if you’ve told yourself a million times you’re not an artist, you need to say it a million and one times to truly believe it yourself. And if you believe it, others will, too.

I had to do this. It works. It took a year. But by then, the phrase, “I’m an artist”, rolled off my tongue. And I knew it was true.

If people are curious, and it’s hard to explain what you do, hand them your business card (which absolutely should have a bit of your artwork on it, if at all possible) that has your website (because you need to have an online presence of some sort so people can see/hear/watch what you do).

And let them decide for themselves.

Let others decide. Let history decide. Let your credentialing institution decide. Let your family, your boss, your peers decide.

It doesn’t matter.

Only you know the true worth of what you do.

Don’t doubt what you are. Don’t second-guess what you do. Just constantly strive to make it as good as you can.

After all, only you can do it.

Say it loud, say it proud, “I’m an artist!” right out loud.

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

25 thoughts on “WHO IS AN ARTIST? (And When Can You Call Yourself One?)”

  1. Thanks Luann~ This is a very interesting topic.. and it really can be funny too )) I actually love the surprise of revealing that I primarily use markers. Of course I can oil paint a portrait.. but we Artists are full of creativity so why do what anyone else expects or categorizes us to do!?! As You point out – it is our job to expand awareness and yes be guides to a higher self.


  2. Hello Luann,
    Although I have been calling myself an artist for years, I still seem to have to justify it continually to family and certain un-enlightened friends. It is a shame but I think it still has a lot to do with me working at home which has always been perceived as easy to people who have to drag themselves in to an office or shop each day. I still love all of these people but wish they would quit trying to find me jobs in the real world. Thank you for your insightful writing on this and other subjects.


  3. Luann, what a stirring post. My heart has jumped into my throat. I want to see myself as an artist but don’t think I’m good enough yet. Consequently, I will be one of those saying “I am an artist” one million and one times. How long does that take I wonder?
    Maybe I can record myself saying “I am an artist” one million and one times. Performance art!


  4. Hmm, interesting 🙂 First of all: I call myself an amateur painter (or artist). I think there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘amateur’. For me, it says that you’re not busy with art fulltime and you’re not selling your creations. Also, I think it’s fair to call myself an amateur artist to all the people who really invested time and money to study art and master specific techniques. But what really matters in the end, are your creations. Right now, I don’t want to worry about how to call myself, I just want to paint and master new techniques. After a few years, I hope to have my own recognizable and unique signature. Maybe that’s when I’ll become an artist without the word ‘amateur’. But even then it shouldn’t matter. Let me end with a thought I’m having right now: you’re an artist when someone who’s better than you (with better techniques, a stronger signature) honestly thinks you are one…


    1. If only people who actually sold art could be called artists, what would you call Vincent Van Gogh? The only person who bought his work while he was alive was his brother Theo. And much art in the world was not made to be sold, for example, the very cave paintings that inspire my own art.
      You’re right & confident to not be worried about what you call yourself. This post was for all those folks out there who feel there’s a test to be passed or a credential to be granted or a club to belong to, that will make you feel like a real artist. When, in reality, many “real” artists still struggle with the label.
      I just want to see more people make stuff, and I hope that writing this article will help.


      1. Okay, maybe selling art isn’t that important. It’s more that when I think of the word professional vs. the word amateur, I automatically think of ‘earning your living with something’ vs. ‘mainly doing something for fun or personal growth’. But your blog isn’t about the words professional and amateur, but only about the word artist. Then I stick to my two other points of view: an artist tries to spend all of his (spare) time on art and calls him/herself artist because others with more ore the same amount of talent think he or she really is one. These two things also apply to Van Gogh. In the end, he spent all of his time on art and was admired by other great artists of his time, like Gauguin or Lautrec. I’m glad you picked my ‘fellow Dutchman’ Van Gogh as an example, because he’s also one of the great ones I admire a lot. Let’s not forget that leading the life of Van Gogh isn’t easy; it must have been very hard. When you only create some nice things and after that start calling yourself an artist, I think you’re not being true to yourself. Being (only a little bit like) Van Gogh is about leading your whole life as an artist. But I can only agree with you that creating stuff with an artistic passion is a good thing. Again, the label ‘artist’ shouldn’t be important to you when doing the latter. And I’m glad that worries about being an artist or not never stopped Van Gogh to add more beauty to our world. He just never stopped creating. That’s also what I want to do: never stop creating.


      2. I’m honored you responded so thoughtfully to my post. I set my feet firmly on my artistic path the day I said, “I HAVE to be an artist or I’ll die”… (as I was already sabotaging my life with resentment and deflected dreams). “And I don’t even care if I’m a GOOD artist. I just have to do it.” And so I whole – hearted ly say YES to your last two sentences, and may what others think never discourage you from making your art.


  5. Luann, as a California artist…I am enjoying your search here for a “home.” I show in the bay area and also in the Los Angeles area…but mostly I think about what you said about expectations….not just in art, but in life! which I also write about in my newsletter…meanwhile at a Marine Dinner last night, my “mature” WW2 husband and I sat next to another Marine and his wife..looking to be at least a Korean Vet…very poker faced and not very social…while I visited with a woman Marine across the way who was very lively….my husband’s comment about the couple , ‘The are taking aging much too seriously.!” so also myself as artist? have fun..hope to see you this way somehow sometime…One of the places I show regularly is at the Heather Farms ARt Festival in Walnut Creek in June…beth summers


  6. Luann, I was so happy I found your blog! I just started writing about visual art, and I’ve been searching for anyone who is doing the same. I was researching a post about calling myself an artist and believing it when I found your post. Very well written and encouraging. I’m glad I have to keep saying it to believe it because I don’t quite believe it yet 😉 Thanks for posting. Looking forward to reading more from you.


    1. Margaret, not only do I write about making art, I’m also from Michigan!
      And I just read your blog post about climbing the sand dune. Spot on!
      Don’t worry about a thing with your blog–you’re doin’ just fine. :^)


  7. Hi Luann
    Came across your blog while googling ” when do you call yourself an artist ” I have been painting on and off for the past 2 years and although my work is liked by family and friends I still find it hard to accept myself as an artist let alone promote my work . Since I am self taught I feel that I should attend classes to qualify as an artist. But I like what I do and feel that it’s what I really want to do ! Reading your article I realise that I am my worst enemy so to speak . I still don’t believe in myself and when someone mentions my art I just say that it’s nothing much , it’s just a creative outlet in my busy life .
    So thank you Luann for this encouraging article and I will be telling myself that I am an artist everyday for as long as it takes !


  8. Thanks for the wonderful inspiring post.

    I had so many confusions as to what i have to be called in my facebook page…..Artist? whether i am eligible for that…….Do we need a blog site or a webpage ? No one had referred my career/profession as an artist except my husband who believes in me and my work.

    Your post gave me the confidence to call myself an artist . Thanks .


  9. Great article. I’ve just started calling myself an artist recently, and now my husband, who is a paint chemist, has started to call himself “artistic director of paint formulation.” Funny pants.


  10. I struggle with this so much! For years I simply called myself an “illustrator”, because I was uncomfortable with the term artist. For me, the connotation of that title is beyond what I see as my work. I started “illustrating” fashion designs because I loved the works of the artists Alexander McQueen, or Michelle Alessandro, or Raf Simmons. They did the hard work, and I’m merely creating my own interpretation of their creations. When people ask, “What do you do?” I always reply, “I paint,” or “I draw”, but never, “I’m an artist.” Now that I’ve expanded past just fashion illustration, this habit has stuck and I still don’t feel comfortable with giving myself the title of “artist”. Perhaps I shall have to start trying hard. 🙂


    1. As human beings, we can be extremely quick to categorize, lable, and judge even such simple (and complicated) matters as who is, or is not, an artist. I am as judgmental as the next person. That’s the heritage of my lizard brain, which evolved to quickly decide if a distant what’s-it on the plain was a funny new monkey, or a deadly predator. In our modern times, we have created extremely fine hierarchies in the arts. Oil painters (“like the masters”) are “better than” acrylic painters (“easy” paint”), who are “better than” watercolorists, who are “better than” pastel people (“just chalk”), who are “better than” colored pencil artists (“not even painting!”). Average pricing for such bears this out. If you make something in clay, it’s “craft”. If you have a mold made of that same piece, and have it cast in bronze, it’s “art”. If you create a commissioned work for a book, you are “just an illustrator”. If you create a commissioned work for a client, you’re still “an artist”.

      There are people who create shitty work in oils, and people who create amazing sculptures in sand or snow, which disappear in water or sunlight.

      The mind boggles.

      In the end, when I quiet my lizard brain, I believe almost everyone has a creative gift in them. Either the ability to repair and restore something, to improve something, to create something new and beautiful in the world, to create something ugly to challenge our assumptions, to remind us that all beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

      And who truly brings to light something truly new under the sun? You say you simply create an interpretation of someone else’s creation. I’m guessing if we asked a thousand people to do the same, none would produce anything that looks like yours. And what is any work of art, except a personal interpretation of what we see, feel, read, hear, exeperience around us? The Victorian age’s most famous artist is now considered a sentimental shill. And an artist whose work that was never appreciated in his own time, fetches millions of dollars at today’s art auction.

      What’s the answer, then? Honestly? I have no idea.

      All we can do is do the work of our heart, to the best of our ability, because we CAN, and because we WANT TO, and because it BRINGS US JOY. We put it out into the world, in hopes that it brings joy, or insight, or new ideas, or inspiration to others. We toss a pebble into the pond, hoping it creates ripples we cannot see, beyond our ken and perhaps even beyond our lifetime.

      Try this: Simply say, “I am an artist” a hundred times a day. (I’m a writer, so I wrote it.) Do it until it slips easily off the tongue.
      Rinse, and repeat.

      Did the sky open up, and did the wrath of the universe rain down on you? I’m guessing not. :^)

      And even if it did, stick out your tongue at the universe, and say, “And I’m STILL an artist!”

      (Apologies, it’s really, really, REALLY hot today, and I think my brain quit working an hour ago.)

      Big hugs to you, Casey. Now go make something beautiful today, that wasn’t in the world yesterday.


  11. A few years ago, I retired from my day job. When I met new people and was asked what I do, I said “I was a … and before that I did …”. Now, I’ve been doing arty things since I was three. Mom always said I had to fit myself for something because it is hard to make a living at art. She was correct in that assessment. But I’ve kept at it…drawing, pen and ink, watercolor, collage, and now alcohol ink. So, I was talking with a new friend and she asked what I do. Out of the clear blue sky, with no forethought, I said “I am an artist”. And you know…I really am! Thanks!


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