What is art? How to be an artist, even if you’re not.
It has taken me most of the thirty years that I’ve been around to admit that I am an artist, even though I’ve always shown the symptoms. I recall a moment not so very long ago when I felt the mixed excitement and relief to admit, without hesitation, that I am, in fact, an artist. I messaged my good friend Christopher right away to tell him. I just said “I’m ready,” and he knew what I meant. He wasn’t surprised.
He’s been telling me that I’m an artist for years. In fact, he’s been the biggest creative support that I’ve ever had, and I’m not sure how behind I’d be with my creative work, and therefore my overall capacity for self-expression, self-acceptance, and self-love, without the patient and unwavering support of that one man. I am grateful.
How to be an artist, even if you’re not?
We first have to answer the question: What is art? And we each have to answer this for ourselves. We need our own definition because this will inform the next question: Why do I want to make art? Knowing what art is for us and why we want to make it will be the fuel for would-be artists to break through inhibitions so that we can start making art and accepting ourselves as artists, even if we’re not.
“Even if we’re not,” that’s a rather contentious closing to an otherwise uplifting sentence. Let me explain. Art can be defined in many ways, as can the title of ‘artist.’ If you go to school and take an art class, you may find an instructor who takes a great deal of time to convince you that you are not an artist unless your art is displayed and you’re recognized by the “artistic community.”
So you may draw and paint and sculpt and write and design and dream out loud as much as you want, but there will be people who will say “you are not an artist.” Their own personal perspective on what art and being an artist means is rigidly fixed upon the standards of the most well known (not the greatest) artists from history, and the pieces that they produced. They’re not wrong, it’s their opinion. I don’t have to like it and I certainly don’t have to let it influence my ability to make art.
But this traditional perspective is quite prevalent in the way we talk about art, especially to youth, and sets very damaging limitations upon us. I don’t believe making art and being an artist has to be a job or career. It can be, but it doesn’t need to be, and it almost certainly should never start out as one.
What is art? My definition of art.
Some days, art is a motion, I can feel it in my hands. I can see it in the rippling water of a creek, the gliding of a canoe across a lake, the blur of lights on a busy street. Sometimes art is a sound edging into my awareness, or the harmony of many sounds; or the disharmony of them. Art can be a satisfying arrangement of things, lists, programs, or flavours. Art, for me, can be when something feels right, perfectly balanced, but also the feeling of imbalance, when something feels out of place and makes me look look twice.
Art is this strange thing that sits right out in front of my chest, or sometimes between my eyes, or on the pads of my feet, or the pit of my stomach. I can feel it there, I can sense it’s emotion, it affects my emotions. I can move my body and make funny noises to explain its shape, but I need tools to bring it to the world. I write it out, sketch it on a napkin, do a dance, I type out a lesson plan, I make music.
Art can be anger materialized, wonder answered, happiness projected. It can be sang, painted, danced, sculpted, organized, acted, mimed.. Whatever! Art is the interface between the world, how it makes me feel, and how I reflect the world back upon itself. Art is the process of observing and feeling my reality and then using physical tools to materialize my thoughts in a way that I can understand in my conscious mind.
Creative mediums are simply the tools, the valves I operate to pour my interpretations of reality out, for myself or to share them. With art, I can understand and rid myself of the anxiety sitting in my stomach just as much as I can help somebody smile and feel in their chest the joy in mine. The world around me provides information to contemplate, physical mediums (like painting, writing, carving, etc), are my engines for contemplation.
If you read this how I wrote it, this is art. And if you didn’t read it how I wrote it, it is still art for me.
Why do you want to be an artist?
This became easy for me once I defined art for myself. I want to be an artist because I want to take care of myself and feel fulfilled. I want to help other people and care for our planet, which comes as a consequence of caring for myself and creating art.
We all have a unique combination of life experiences which have shaped our perspectives and opinions (which is also art). By using the voice, the whole voice, I’ve developed through my own unique life, I can produce something valuable that some people (not all, never all), will be able to relate to. It may help them, it may help other things, but at the end of the day, if it helps me then that’s all I really needed to get out of it. Anything extra is a bonus.
If you want to be an artist to make money, that’s fine too. Own that. Find your niche and dive into it. But if you want to be an artist so you can feel the world, learn, grow, and share, then it’s worth considering that the traditional definition of “artist” may not be relevant for you to pay any attention too.
To notice, feel, reflect, and express, I want to be an artist because it is good for me.
Imagine how much more beautiful art would be in the world if this is the way we talked about it first and foremost. The irony is that if this is how the world primarily viewed art, there would likely be more artists who’d be paid to do it! More people would be creating art, their most genuine work, in a world that valued art for the immeasurable intrinsic value it has in our lives for both the maker and the viewer.
Can anyone be an artist?
Yes, I think so, by my definition at least. Anybody can develop the skills of observation for their world, allow themselves to feel and reflect on the emotions that it produces in them, and find some medium to explain it outwards. And hey, if you do art because you love to do art, you may even sell your art some day and be recognized by the “artistic community,” if that’s what you’re into.
I think that creating is part of what it means to be a human. When we create, we learn; when we learn we find new ways to create. This cycle has propelled us through evolution to where we are today. So if you’re not creative now, just start to create and practice intentional curiosity: expect to learn new things, look for new things to learn. The create/learn cycle is incredibly powerful and fulfilling.
But we’ve been slammed into a different cycle: supply and consume. This cycle is incredibly powerful too but it is unfulfilling. We’ve always used art to interpret our world. When we don’t share stories or paintings or music, we fill the gap with objects. These don’t fulfill us so we fill our time making money to buy more objects that we hope might, but this just further takes away our capacity and time to create. So much today is produced to satiate, not created to nourish. This affects how we value the work which nourishes us, therefore it also affects the perceived value of doing the work ourselves.
So can anyone be an artist? Yes, I do think so. To generate creativity for oneself, it’s important to be very intentional about participating in the create/learn cycle and avoid being snagged in the cycle of supply and consume. The create and learn cycle will nourish your creativity which nourishes you, which nourishes your work, which nourishes you, which eventually can even nourish those around you, too.
How to become an artist?
Here are 5 things that have helped me embrace art in my life and come to comfortably call myself an artist.
Embrace the create and learn cycle
As mentioned above, when we create we learn and when we learn it inspires us to create. If you want to become more creative and express yourself with art, get excited about the process of learning and progressing by being intentionally curious.
Also, a super important part of the create and learn cycle is failure. Embrace failure as part of that learning process. It is crucial and inevitable, just keep going.
Create lots of art
Did you know that artistic prodigies or many of those we consider “creative geniuses” don’t actually have a greater capacity or some hidden superpower for creativity than the rest of us? The secret is that they have produced a lot of work. So much work, in fact, that some of it was recognized in this busy world full of busy people. And the truly great artists of history created all of that work because of the processes that went on within them, not the product of recognition. They needed to create art, it was just what they did (and if you are reading this article, I’m sure you need to as well.)
Try different mediums (especially super accessible ones)
I love to set my paintbrush down and play my guitar before heading outside to carve some wood. Throughout any given year I may dive into my leathercraft, creative writing, or graphic design, I may make music or practice dancing. If I get writer’s block, I’ll pick up my carving set and switch gears then come back to writing later.
The point here is that having many mediums is a good way to always have something that you can feel inspired with even at times when you feel stuck. It’s natural for our seasons to evoke different energies and make different hobbies more or less available to us, so why not have a few things we love to bounce between?
Trying many mediums will also allow you to find where you are most comfortable with creating your art. Find the mediums that are effortless for you, that allow you to quickly ‘get in the groove,’ or enter your ‘flow state.’ For me, carving lets me reach this type of timeless focus very easily, while graphic design on the other hand, this isn’t always my best format to work in. When you don’t limit yourself to a single medium, you’ll find what is effortless and what is challenging, and come to recognize the value of both.
A helpful tip here, try as many super accessible mediums as possible, or at least the most accessible version. For instance: painting can be made incredibly accessible both in terms of cost of supplies and of ease of set up if you buy or create a small, portable watercolour set for yourself instead of the full investment of an oil paint set up and studio rental space.
Whittling can be a good entry point to wood carving or even fine wood working, doodling can be an entry point into sketching and drawing, and poetry can be an entry to fiction writing. When trying different mediums, choose the most paired down version of it so it doesn’t require loads of supplies, and make it portable so you can take it wherever you go.
Just do it without judgement.
You’re doing this for you first, so why not? When I make art that I don’t care to share, I just don’t share it. When I make art that I feel self-conscious about, I’ve learned to see this as an extension of the create/learn cycle and ask myself: what about this makes me uncomfortable?
Dress and live in full colour (or in all black if that’s what you’d like).
I grew up the type of guy who put effort into making it look like I wasn’t trying to dress ‘fancy.’ At some point not dressing ‘fancy’ meant that I just dressed like a slob. I made all sorts of justifications for it. But when I learned that it was okay for me to express myself through my clothing and my appearance, and not care how I was judged by it, I felt a huge release of tension. I could be me, I could get to know who that is and be excited about him, and find others who are too. I learned this:
When I suppress any part of myself, I am suppressing all of myself.
By dressing to look like I didn’t care how I looked, I was caring deeply about how I looked and not happy with it. I was actively acknowledging that I’d like to dress one way, but hiding it by dressing another. How then could I create genuine art if I wasn’t being honest with myself, or to others?
Clothing is of course a metaphor here for a greater concept. Be yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable being yourself with the people who are surrounding you, try to find new people to surround yourself with. There are diverse communities and cultures of people all over the world, they are all associated by their ‘likeness.’
If you happen to be in a group that you are not ‘like,’ leave that group, and leave it before you are molded into something that you aren’t.
If you are still reading this, you have an urge to create art.
There is something inside of you that needs to come out, and you should express it. Pick a medium, pick five mediums if you want, and create your interpretations, share your love, vent your frustrations. Do the art that you want to do and let yourself be carried by the artistic process. Veer down side streets, revisit old passions or fears, combine mediums. Have fun with it, find joy in it, and repeat.
I want to know: What’s holding you back from creating art? Share it in the comments section.