Part-Time Artists Are Artists, Too

Last week we talked about whether “real” artists take workshops (they can, and do). Now let’s consider whether you have to make your living full-time as an artist in order to be considered one.

Many of us hold down other jobs while we pursue our art. While it is the dream of many to work full-time as professional artists, it isn't necessary to deserve the title of 'artist.' The Fruit Vendor, original oil painting by Steve Henderson.
Many of us hold down other jobs while we pursue our art. While it is the dream of many to work full-time as professional artists, it isn’t necessary to deserve the title of ‘artist.’ The Fruit Vendor, original oil painting by Steve Henderson.

We’re all familiar with the phrase “starving artist,” which emphasizes that not all the great names that we recognize today were raking in the funds during their lifetime. Some were–and being born of the right families at the right time with the right connections was as helpful then as it is today–and some weren’t, not being properly “discovered” until they were dead.

And today there are good and bad artists out there making it full-time, and just as many or more good and bad artists working a job during the day and painting or drawing at night. (One has a difficult time thinking of Monet remarking to Manet, “I’m staying with the office part-time because I really need the health insurance benefits,” and yet, that is an integral concern for 21st century artists.)

A large gallery we worked with mentioned that most of their artists, many of them prolific and popular, were all sorts of things on the side–plumbers, writers, teachers, construction workers. “I don’t think we have a single artist on our roster who doesn’t work at something else on the side,” the gallery director mused.

So does this mean that she isn’t running a real gallery because it isn’t filled with work by real artists? Hardly. How much money you make each year, the size of your studio, whether or not you wear a smock or beret–these do not determine whether or not you are an artist.

Creating, striving, challenging yourself, painting, drawing, sculpting, learning, progressing forward–these are what determine whether or not you are an artist.



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11 thoughts on “Part-Time Artists Are Artists, Too

  1. There are two concepts here that seem to be crossing wires. A professional artist is someone who makes a living at art – fills out the proper forms with the IRS – and earns a certain percentage of income from what they do. This is actually legally determined. Skill, education, etc. are generally not considered by the IRS. An amateur artist is someone who does not make money from their art. Although I am trained in areas of the graphic arts, have a BFA, and I am employed full-time as a designer, I have chosen to not sell my work yet. As a painter, I am an amateur.

    If you consider personal work ethic, drive, passion, enthusiasm, striving for quality, having vision, making a statement, etc. then yes, the term “artist” is subjective and you could do it part time.

  2. Good points, KatPaints.

    Interestingly, a number of professional artists — who make money off their work, fill out forms with the IRS — but do not necessarily make their living at it, do so part time. My Norwegian Artist, Steve Henderson, did this for years while he was still working as a commercial illustrator.

    I imagine that a lot of people start out that way, pulling away more and more from their day jobs as their work increases in sales.

    As you observe, “Artist” is one of those words that is subjective and objective at the same time, in differing situations. Not surprising that there is a lot of confusion on the meaning of the word!

  3. Yes Carolyn and there are people doing art full time – live in beautiful houses – have lots of recognition and their work is …. well I guess someone likes what was slapped together.

  4. Kat: I do understand what you are saying. It’s a bitter, irritating truth, but one that has been a part of our human existence for a long time.

    There is a particular actor whose manner of delivery is so wooden and unengaging, I wonder, “How does this man get work?” And yet, not only does he work, but he finds his way to movies that would have been quite excellent if he hadn’t been in them.

    There are authors whose books are tiresome and trite, and yet they are published because their name alone guarantees sales — why people continue to buy them is a mystery. You Tube is a great example of people getting millions of hits for material that is often so insipidly elementary, one weeps for the intellectual health of the nation.

    This is one side of the coin. The other side are the writers, actors, visual artists, musicians who strive to create beauty and joy and who succeed — and they may or may not succeed financially. Continue in your quest. Create your beauty — because it is in you and it is worth sharing. I don’t know where your path is leading; I’m pretty sure it will be a difficult journey because the ones worth taking, are.

    There is much education that needs to be done in this society about what good art is, and isn’t, and it won’t be an easy job. But if each of us, individually, do the good art that is within us and continue to stand for excellence, beauty, honor, and integrity, we will keep the candle burning.

  5. …and even though we look at these individuals and wonder how and why, to someone else they represent an inspiration that we may never understand. I guess the key is to not compare or look back and find joy in our own current journey right now. We cannot undo the past or second guess ourselves as we move forward. If we move forward on a part time basis or at a snail rate, then that is perfectly fine. We need to define our own success and set our own goals. At this point in time, I hope to build my skill level up to a point that I am proud of what I will achieve. I cannot control galleries, sales, other people’s interests, trends, etc., but I do think I can control the effort I put into my work.

  6. The question posed was not whether someone with a day job was a professional or an amateur artist, but whether they are an artist AT ALL. The word “amateur” comes from the French and means “lover”. I make art at a professional level, and sell some of my work–and would be willing to sell almost all of it–I do not make my living as an artist. There are three reasons for this: 1) I like to eat, 2) I like to keep a roof over my head, and 3) I want to make art that speaks for me without giving a care to whether or not it sells. That makes me an amateur, because I would–and DO–make art for the love of it. In my opinion the question is a red herring because an artist is something you ARE, not something you do. Artists are artists whether or not they sell, or even make any art. Money hasn’t got a thing to do with it.

  7. Good artist… so much talent, so little ambition. Bad artist… no talent but work, work, work. You see it all the time. I know people that you never heard of that could paint with the best of them, and I mean the VERY best ever born. But lazy, one painting in 5 years… could be prolific and rich… they are not driven. None the less, if you viewed their work you would say OMG what an artist. Are they really though… come on one painting a year? I know people that are absolutely horrid… no understanding of basic principles, perspective, anatomy… etc. but they are working non-stop. Do they realize how bad and non-talented they are? Gosh, I don’t know. Are they to be considered artists at all, because they are so so bad? Yeah you… quit hogging the market and gallery with your bad art. I am going to paint a picture… well pretty soon anyway. LOL
    If you love it… go for it… if you get rich and famous… deal with it… if not, you just keep loving it and doing it and call yourself… hmmm… a maker of things.

  8. @ David Ford: Is it about a lack of ambition, in the first instance and a lack of talent in the second, or a focus on what brings joy? I don’t think a person is necessarily an artist because they were born with a greater than average talent or not an artist because they were born with a lesser talent. I also think the word artist is self referential and not an appellation to be “given” by others. Is the art good, or is it bad? No matter. I do agree that much of what galleries are filled with is inferior, but galleries do not exist to showcase great art, they exist to SELL the art that the public wants to buy. Sadly, the vast majority of art buyers make their purchases based on what matches the sofa, or on what someone else has told them will be worth more someday when the artist is dead. The former are at least choosing what they like to look at; the latter are buying what they hope will someday be a valuable signature. The true artist just keeps making art, and hopes to make a decent living, either by art or something else they like to do.

  9. I love this quote, “Creating, striving, challenging yourself, painting, drawing, sculpting, learning, progressing forward–these are what determine whether or not you are an artist. ”

    It applies to me and I call myself an artist. I wanted to be an artist as a child and was told, “Yeah, but what are you going to do for a living?!” by my father. So I spent years making a living and raising a family. I created tons of stuff during that time, but never called myself an artist. Finally at 36 I decided to ‘become’ an aritst. I went and got a Arts Degree. I worked in art galleries, got shown in art galleries,won awards, even sold paintings and pottery along the way, and worked for a potter who had been in business for 20 years. I did everything I could to stay in the arts. And once I became an Art Gallery Coordinator and started hanging shows, I had a number of the selected jurors apologize to me for not being ‘real’ artists because they had no schooling in art! My heart hurt for them and I told them they were wrong. You made art, you made enough for me to hang a room or half a room full of them. You put your works out there to be juried, It’s being being shown and it makes people react and feel. That makes you an artist in my books.

    My opinion of what an artist is changed completely. I spent $60,000 in student loans to find out, I had always been an artist. So what if I had been sewing cloths for my kids, making necklaces from beads, painting rocks to entertain my children, stripped and refinished furniture. I had never stopped creating my whole life. Being an artist can be both concepts; something you may inheritantly feel about yourself , AND someone who creatively produces and may or may not profit from their actions.

    Even the act of hanging a show of another person’s art turns out to be an art form in it’s self, one I was surprised to find out that I am very talented at!

  10. Some interesting points have been made. I agree and disagree with some of the views which is why I stick with the legal definition of a professional and amateur artist. As I said in my first post, the term “artist” is subjective. Some view “artist” as who you ARE, but who really determines this? To me “artist” seems like a “fluff” term. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone randomly call themselves a “scientist.” I would rather see the art and not be familiar with the name or persona of the individual….and that is just my opinion. I have actually never called myself an artist while I easily call others artists. Maybe that’s because they call themselves artists. I call myself/have called myself a designer, graphic artist, product designer or whatever the title I was given at my place of employment. When the time comes that I create a profound body of work that is personally satisfying to me and says something to the viewer, maybe then I will call myself an artist or more likely – an oil painter, or something else.

  11. How do you know you’re an artist?. . .

    You need to create as much as you need to breathe.”

    —Michael Gormley, Editorial Director
    American Artist

    This is the subjective definition I choose. It requires neither talent, nor vision, nor work, nor quality, nor quantity, nor popularity, nor does it even imply skill. It just is who you are, or aren’t. I say I am an artist because when I am not creating, I feel dead inside. Yes, I aspire to be skilled, yearn for talent, and secretly hope for popularity; but those really have nothing to do with the unquenchable passion for creating that defines me as an artist.