Who is an Artist?
Easy, you may say. Someone who makes art.
Well. Okay, so an artist is someone who makes art.
But is everyone who makes art an artist?
Is someone who does sketches on their dinner napkin given the same title as someone who has worked for years on their craft?
And while we’re at it, what are we counting as art anyway?
It is just painting and sculpture, or should we take it in its broader context of The Arts, with dance and music and performance?
Or even broader – think about someone who may be referred to as an artist in a non-artistic field, maybe because of their incredible skills or creative problem-solving.
What exactly is an artist?
Every person has the ability and potential to be creative.
Creativity could be simply defined as using imagination to make something. That might serve as a pretty good way to describe art, too.
Creativity isn’t about a new age, hipster, or beatnik look or lifestyle; you don’t have to don a new personality or even learn a fine art to be creative.
You have an idea, and you turn it into a painting, or a recipe, or a building, or a knitting pattern. So creativity is the process. And artistry is the skillset.
Art is something that is created, an artist must be someone who creates.
This is a good starting point.
It is also the one thing that all artists share.
Artists being people, and people being the amazingly flawed being that we are, no two artists will be alike.
But there is a spark that all artists share.
The fact that they create, and glorify their own creator by doing so, runs through them like a seam of gold through a mine.
So we know what an artist does. Let’s look at how on earth they do it.
And How Do You Feel About That?
“Art does not reproduce what is visible; it makes things visible.” Paul Klee, artist
One of the reasons the nature of art and those who create it is so hard to pin down is that it is, usually, emotionally driven. Not just: “I am angry therefore I will throw red paint at this canvas”. It’s a nuanced awareness of emotion.
The better awareness an artist has of their emotional state, the better they will be able to chase down what it is they want to create, and why.
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Carl Jung
Once an artist has a spark, that idea needs to be built on. To do this, you need, well, more ideas.
More thoughts, feelings, facts, plans. You need to chase down every lead.
Artists are, as a rule, curious. The need to probe and look deeper, beyond the surface. All people are curious to a degree, of course. But for artists, cultivating curiosity means an ability to ask even more questions than before – to keep the mind going, so to speak.
You may see a tree in a garden and simply appreciate its beauty.
Or you may start to wonder whether the tree knows that it is beautiful, or if the birds landing on it thinks so, or if it was the bird’s sense of smell that told it to land there, and if you could see smells, what would they look like? And so on.
The more questions we ask, the more we have, and it is this way that we cultivate curiosity; something vital for any artist.
Keep Cynicism at Arm’s Length
H.L. Menken defined a cynic as “a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”
Here, we come to a crossroads. Or, maybe, a barrier; something that, more often than not, separates artists from those who want to be artists. Having an idea is fairly easy. Making into something is the challenge.
To do this, you need to be wary of cynicism: the instinct to mistrust and doubt, to always look for the dark side and reasons why something won’t work.
Art involves faith.
The artist must believe that they are able to make the thing they have in their head. Even if it will be difficult, they have to believe that it is possible. Otherwise, they’d never try.
Willing to Work
So, we have an idea. We’ve built on the idea, and we’ve decided to go for it.
Now comes the tricky part. Turning that idea into something that actually exists. Believing in yourself is the start, and it’s an important start, but then you have to get to work.
“If you’re an artist, you’ve got to prove it.” –Laurence Olivier
For that, you need to be willing to put in time and effort.
It’s one thing to have the most fantastic dance number ever to have been conceived of by man in your head. I
t’s another to have the physical ability to perform it or to have the teaching ability to instruct someone else.
An artist works on their craft.
They determine the skillset they need, and they practice. And when they fail, failure is inevitable at some point (see the earlier note r.e. humanity’s amazing flaws) they practice over and over again until they can bring the idea in their head into the real world.
The Balance Beam
When it comes to the actual creation, art – and the artist – needs to find a balance. This goes for both the process of the work and the ideas themselves.
You can balance a disciplined training regime with time to play around with new ideas.
You can balance conservative tendencies with rebellious principles; your emotions and those of the people around you; real life and fantasy.
This is certainly not perfection – but those spots were left empty because Van Gogh decided to leave them, not because he lacked the skill to fill them.
He was balancing skill with artistic intent.
An artist must be brave.
Because it can get pretty scary, showing the world an idea that germinated in your emotions and came to be through your ideas and skills. You can get hurt.
Not only that but as an artist grows, they have to admit their current failings. How can you improve if you think of yourself as perfect? Being open to criticism means learning new things and constantly expanding what you can do.
“It reflects no great honor on a painter to be able to execute only one thing well… confining himself to some particular object of study. This is so because there is scarcely a person so devoid of genius as to fail of success if he applies himself earnestly to one branch of study and practices it continually.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Being An Artist
Being an artist is not limited to one medium, or activity, or skill.
An artist stays engaged and curious.
They look at themselves and the world and keep an awareness of both.
They follow new ideas. They build their skills, then use them to turn their ideas into something real.
They fight for their work.
An artist makes art.