You’re Not a Real Artist!

“A medical student is not a doctor. An art student is not an artist.” – written on a bathroom wall at the Massachusetts College of Art

When I was a kid, I self-published a magazine. They were hand-drawn on the back of used printer paper that my dad would throw away. Each one was made from two sheets, folded to make four pages, and stapled in the middle. I called it “Sicko,” and created a logo which appeared on all four issues. 

I made four or five copies of each one, painstakingly hand-drawn to ensure they all looked the same. I brought them to school and sold them to other kids. The first issue sold one or two copies at a cost of $10 cents each. The second issue gained popularity, and I sold all five copies – I think I bought bubble gum with the profits. 

Kids seemed to revel in the cartoons, the characters I’d created, and the humor which I thought was pretty funny. MAD Magazine was my inspiration and I tried to emulate it as best I could, right down to the bar code on the cover. 

It made me happy, but when I brought the third issue to school, a teacher took all the copies from me and said I wasn’t allowed to sell them or give them away. I was confused. It wasn’t that the content was offensive or that I was running some kind of scheme. 

My teacher told me I was tricking other kids and, “They aren’t real magazines and you’re not a real artist!”

She put the copies in her desk where they stayed for months. Every week, I asked for them back but she told me no. By year end, I forgot to ask for my copies of Sicko, and they disappeared just like the hottest days of the summer that followed. I never forgot about them, and ended up making a final issue, which I kept for myself. I wanted it to be really good, but looking at my MAD Magazines, I saw how my drawings looked awful in comparison to MAD’s artists, like Don Martin, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, Dave Berg, and Sergio Aragones. 

It was then I realized, my teacher was right. I was not a “real” artist. I was just a kid drawing funny pictures. 

Fast forward, I ended up hearing comments like that, over and over. “You’re not a ‘real’ cook,” though I made excellent meals. “You’re not a ‘real’ musician,” though I’d been in bands, played clubs, and recorded music. But, none of that bothered me as those were always hobbies, to me. The thing that stung was what my teacher said. For years!

Worst of all, I didn’t know what being a real artist entailed! Webster defines an artist as: 

  • One who professes and practices an imaginitive art 
  • A person skilled and traditionally trained in the fine arts 
  • A skilled performer, athlete, writer, or craftsman 
  • One who is adept at something (con artist, strikeout artist,etc.) 

Wikipedia defines an artist as: 

  • A person engaged in an activity related to creating art, practicing the arts, or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only. 

In the career marketplace, an artist is: 

  • Someone who is compensated for generating creative, conceptual ideas and translate them into format, service, or product that can be sold or marketed. 

These are all fair definitions, but they fail to recognize a few important elements required to be a “real” artist: 

  • Communication: The primary function of an artist is to communicate, whether to an individual, group, or society. The point of drawing, painting, music, or words are to communicate an idea to someone who can respond to that idea, to hopefully influence a reaction or dialogue from it. 
  • Emotional expression (feeling):
    The idea that is typically communicated by an artist is one of expression, conveying emotion, mood, or ambience. Without that expression, the artist is merely a decorator. 

  • Desire & Passion:
    A real artist, capable of communicating through expression, is not idle or stagnant. They possess a fiery desire to set their ideas ablaze to produce a glow and warmth to be felt by anyone who views, hears, or reads what they create. Real art is rarely boring and real artists are rarely satisfied with their work. 
  • Commitment (personal & professional): The most important element of being a real artist comes down to commitment, and the willingness to exhaustively pursue the creation of expressive work, sacrificing other aspects of life to learn, produce, or practice their craft, over everything else. 

Robot Innocence

Working in the creative field for most of my life, spending years as a college level instructor, teaching students how to access these elements, I feel comfortable in recognizing that, despite my childhood teacher’s opinion, I AM a “real” artist. 

I communicate in various forms, through music, design/illustration, words, or even food. There’s always an expressive content to what I do, approaching each project, whether for a final piece, a large job, or dinner for six, with passion and dedication, never willing to quit even when things don’t align or work right. And while my commitment to my craft seems effortless, endless and always on, I see myself as a slacker and procrastinator when compared to other artists (ironically, most real artists feel the same way). 

So, as I used to teach, doodling, fiddling with an instrument, writing in a personal journal, or even playing with recipes are all wonderful experiences and expressions which I encourage anyone to pursue as a hobby or pastime. They’re fun, relaxing, and great for the spirit! 

However, to be considered by peers or professionals, and maybe even to oneself, as a “real” or “serious” artist, then there MUST be an ability to communicate through expressive emotion, with passion and desire, and a willingness to fully commit time, energy, spirituality, and yes, even money to being one. 

Making that commitment will not only raise confidence and ability, but increase the passion to keep on creating, to get better, and elevate the experience toward being a “real” artist. 

Thank you for stopping by and reading. I hope this was entertaining and maybe of some benefit. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or comments. I’m sincerely grateful for your time!