Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How do you define a "professional artist"?

I'm an artist - but I'm not a professional artist.  Following on from the recent and very popular post "How do you earn the title of artist?" I thought I would now ask a slightly different question - how do you define a professional artist?

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) - self portrait c.1500 - age 28 
Here's the Chambers definition of "professional" to get us started....
professional adj
1 earning a living in the performance, practice or teaching of something that is usually a pastime • a professional golfer.
2 belonging to a trained profession.
3 like, appropriate to or having the competence, expertise or conscientiousness of someone with professional training • did a very professional job.
4 derog habitually taking part in, or displaying a tendency towards, something that is despised or frowned upon • a professional misogynist.
1 someone who belongs to one of the skilled professions.
2 someone who makes their living in an activity, etc that is also carried on at an amateur level. professionalism noun. professionally adverb.
Chambers 21st century Dictionary
My definition of a professional artist is purely pragmatic - it's an artist who makes their living mainly or entirely through their art.

So for example, that might mean a professional artist was somebody who was a practising artist who sold their art in galleries, also taught art in a school or college or workshops and maybe did some illustration work as a sideline.

What's YOUR definition of a professional artist?
  • what, in your view, are the defining characteristics of a professional artist?
  • do you have to be able to sell your work to be a professional artist?
  • do you have to make enough money from your art and give up all other employment to be a professional artist?
  • what characteristics or attributes or practices distinguish a professional artist from an amateur?
Professional Artist Magazine

By the way - did you realise that earlier this year the magazine Art Calendar (http://www.artcalendar.com/) changed its name to Professional Artist.  However, it's still the same URL for the website!

Note re image:  Following on from the Rembrandt drawing of the previous post, this is also an opportunity to post the self-portrait of a professional artist with an enormous output who I hugely admire - Albrecht Durer.  He is regarded by many as being the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance.


  1. I find it interesting that visual artists seem to be much more self-conscious about this than other "artists". I work in the theatre and many of my family are musicians and writers.
    An actor is a professional actor if she gets paid for acting, once she has earned her place in Equity she is a professional actor even if she pays her bills by waiting on tables.
    Musicians are much the same, many have to work at other jobs to survive but will perform for money if they can and do not consider themselves amateur musicians.
    Many writers continue to pursue other careers even after publishing several books or writing regular columns in newspapers and periodicals. Are they then amateur writers?
    Some say that an amateur artist has little formal training and yet many successful professional artists fit this profile too. There are many professional artists whose style I find extremely "amateurish", but who am I to argue with their success?
    I think we are professional artists the moment that we start to sell our work, even if we still paint for the love of it, which is after-all the definition of "amateur".

  2. Very good points!

    One of the things which occurred to me while reading your comment is that others in the field of the arts typically work with others in engaging in their art. Whereas artists in the visual field often work on their own.

    Thus those acting in a play or a film or playing music in a group or an orchestra or writing an article or getting a book published very often have some form of legal contract for the work they do - and need to fit in with other people's timescales etc etc.

    I wonder if that relationship with others and involvement with contracts is of any relevance to whether or not somebody is considered a professional artist?

  3. Actually, quite a lot of visual artists works with others too. Some work with communities, some with schools, some collaborate on projects or do public works that require teams of people. Some just have assistants in the studio.

    As for 'professional' I think it can be applied to the job of artist just like any job. When is someone a professional accountant? Professional footballer? Professional landscape gardener? I never quite understand why there's confusion for artists, "art" doesn't always have to be a special case of how terms are used. So some income, it doesn't have to be all, from the artworks you create. It doesn't even have to be from selling original works, you might only be licensing for example. It's about creating art for part of your income.

  4. Well one of the reasons it's interesting in relation to any occupation which doesn't require professional training and accreditation is that the same word is used as for occupation where that is required before you can practise eg as a doctor, nurse, lawyer, accountant.

    That's one of the reasons why you get so many different definitions for the same word.

    The other aspect which makes it complex is that very few artists can earn enough income from sales of their art alone. ( see the links below ) That's why I highlighted the fact that many people who are called professional artists often have art-related jobs.

    I've come across a lot of artists who earn a significant income from their art who actually have the security of being able to put a roof over their heads and pay the bills due to their primary income from teaching art in a school or college.

    See also:
    * Fine Artists in decline in the USA? for some stats re income
    * "Making their Mark" - an audit of visual artists

  5. I was taught in art school, that the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional sells their work, while the amateur does it out of pure love. Or family memories in an album. Skill level or style has no correlation. And an amateur can create photos or paintings that are more beautiful than a professional. I'm a professional photographer, painter, and writer.

  6. A very stimulating question!

    I agree with Splynch that visual artists are particularly sensitive about this issue. We seem to be more prone to doubt about our worthiness than artists in other fields. If I had a euro/pound/dollar for every time I've heard an extremely talented artist say "I'm not a REAL artist" because I'm self-trained/never sold my work/earn my living through teaching etc etc!

    My feeling is that a professional artist is one who approaches their work with a professional mindset which to me includes discipline, commitment, persistence and a host of other qualities which may or may not lead to sales in the end.

    I've worked much of my life in creative industries - as a graphic designer, a jewellery-maker/retailer & wholesaler etc but I never felt like a 'professional' artist just a professional designer etc. Now I earn my living from a mixed bag of activities which sometimes includes selling my art but I really feel like a professional artist. Why? Because now art is my motivating force. It's the thread that holds my life together.

  7. Now I do like that mindset - and look at the result! :)

  8. I'm all for Artist Empowerment, Katherine :)

  9. The term professional artist is a bit of an oxymoron in my mind as they seem to be contradictory terms. It's an attempt to quantify an activity in a way that's understood by society in general--that the artist isn't a flake, but someone who follows accountable standards that are known to other professions.

    I guess using the term professional can mean that an artist makes some or all of their livelihood from their art making. It could also mean they have attended an accredited college or art school and are degreed. It could also mean someone who conducts their art making in a business-like manner that is consistent with other professions--they have an understandable pricing structure, they meet deadlines, they use high grade materials, they employ contracts. they pay their taxes, they utilize consultants etc. Someone who sells their work through galleries or agents. A person who teaches, conducts workshops or is thought of as a specialist. The term professional could even be used to define someone who is "serious" about their work, as opposed to those who create as an occasional hobby, to relieve boredom, or as therapy.

    In the end, it's a term that probably has more relevance and meaning for the general population than to art makers.

  10. I'm an Artist Teacher. I used to refer to myself as a teacher, but what I do primarily is art. In many forms, covering, craft and design. I also teach. This is my professional title. I am both things.

  11. Well I don't know about all the varying definitions but I do know I feel like a professional every time I sit down and do all the business tasks related to making, promoting and selling art.

    I don't know many amateurs who do that.

  12. Hello Katherine.

    If making money is the reason for producing art then it has no sincerity. Art shouldn't be a means to an end but an end in itself.

    A price tag doesn't confirm the quality or importance of an artwork. Nor should it be used to validate the quality of an artist.

    If professional income is a pre-requisit, Van Gogh was not an artist until after his death.

    The question is perhaps how does an artist make money while still having time to make some art?

    If you can answer that, then you are a professional.

  13. "Art shouldn't be a means to an end but an end in itself."
    Ah well. I paint to earn a living. Would I do it for no money? Maybe. Not sure really. Dabble perhaps but nothing like what I produce now with art as a job. And no one said anything about the value of the price tags - just that there was some value. It can be low or high, either works.

    "If professional income is a pre-requisit, Van Gogh was not an artist until after his death."
    NO - he wasn't a *professional* artist. Let's not confuse it - the question was about "professsional artist" not just being an artist.

  14. Thanks Tina - you've hit on a point which I think has been confusing some.

    This blog has already considered "How do you earn the title of artist?"(see the very first paragraph of this post).

    Hence in this post we are NOT discussing who counts as an "artist". This post is purely about what the title "professional artist" actually means.

    Do we all share the same meaning when using the term "professional artist"? Or do we have different interpretations which we apply when using or reading this title?

    Let's be very clear about another thing as well - commercial success.

    There's a lot of art which would never have seen the light of day were it not for patrons and other supporters (eg spouses or other family members) who financed artists who were never successful in a commercial sense ie they sold little or no art during their lifetime.

    Put bluntly, if Van Gogh had not been financially supported by his brother we would not have had most of the paintings Van Gogh did produce. Indeed it's very possible he would never have been an artist at all. It's all very well saying artists must make art - but they also have to make enough money to put a roof over their head and eat!

    So was Van Gogh a "professional artist"?

  15. New subscriber here. I noticed reading professionalism is a noun and professionally an adverb; hence, the word professional defines an act of giving in order to receive “something” in return. Recognition, admiration, respect or simply cold hard cash being the reward as defined by what I interpret; a “Professional Artist” is one who seeks something in return for their work, whatever that may be.

    Professionalism itself speaks of defined standards that have become any industry norm for gainful employment. Anyone wishing to compete for market recognition must find where they fit in, and step up to be measured for what they do.

    However, my father spoke to me when I was just a young boy, his words became my path-walk through life that speak saying “if something isn’t worth doing well, than don’t do it”. So now we have “integrity” in the mix vs. the pure interests of monetary possession and/or recognition to an anticipated degree or measure.

    I believe true artists are people of great integrity who do things well and of those who get or seek reward in addition are simply treading the water and leaving a wake of controversy for others to dabble over. In hindsight, professionalism to me suggests one who has already persevered through integrity and simply stepped up to be rewarded. If someone does something good and receives a positive gesture for their effort, than that someone has already been rewarded.

    I conclude: Integrity walks alone and professionalism is the line that defines a willing reward. Hence, the mud that clouds the waters of purity is a natural occurrence also.

  16. Welcome to the blog Matthew.

    I think "integrity" is a characteristic which I would expect of anybody who described themselves as a professional. For me it goes with the territory - but then my own background in professionalism relates to occupations where the work is a service to others and hence the integrity is critical to the quality of the job.

    I took a look at the way Wikipedia described "professional" and in the summary it states

    "Because of the personal and confidential nature of many professional services and thus the necessity to place a great deal of trust in them, most professionals are subject to strict codes of conduct enshrining rigorous ethical and moral obligations."

    So some further questions spring to mind:
    * Is an artist providing a service?
    * Do we need to trust an artist?
    * Is 'professional' an appropriate word to describe what an artist does?

  17. Professional and amateur artist has NOTHING to do with money. Why do many people associate the two with money? A professional artist is someone who continually shows improvement in their art, amazing technique and precision; skill that is as smooth as butter. Or, their goal is to achieve a skill that is as smooth as butter, and they constantly work towards that. Amateur artists don't generally grow, and they stay in one spot for most of their lives. There are many, many amateur artists parading as professional artists. These are the artists who simply follow the style of the present day. They never experiment, for they are very scared they will lose all eyes on their work. As soon as you decide to exit out of the box, you are a professional artist. It's quite simple, and not too difficult at first.

    Again, nothing to do with money.

  18. @Anonymous - I don't normally allow anonymous comments but you made a good argument and I've allowed it to be published.

    However that your argument is merely your opinion and is NOT a fact - despite the way you express it.

    One of the definitions of "professional" is engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as an amateur.

    People who engage in a paid occupation don't have to be good at what they do, they just need to be paid so they can continue their career as a professional painter.


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