You're only a real artist if...

I recently sent an Artnote in which I talked about being in the end phase of a creative cycle, and what it felt like. One of the things I said was:

“I’ve been through enough of these cycles now to no longer fear or fight them. I’m not going to say I love every second of the space between end and beginning, but then I don’t love every second of the rest of the creative process either.”

It turned out to be a popular Artnote. Amongst the many ‘oh thank goodness’ replies, I received this from a reader:

“So many articles, posts, and books I have read by artists make it sound as though one should be enraptured by the entire process of creativity (painting), and that if you are not painting every second that you can, you are not passionate about your work.


I was beginning to feel like perhaps I really didn’t have it in me to paint, didn’t want it badly enough, because it feels like such a chore to set up for a painting, or I don’t want to – and sometimes don’t – push myself through the “ugly phase” of a painting, or I’m NOT painting and am wondering why.


I was wondering if you had written any posts addressing the issue of not liking aspects of the creative act?”

Well friends, that got me thinking, not just about how apparently no one is talking about some of the less comfortable aspects of the creative process {and the creative life generally}, but about how many myths there are out there that are limiting us as artists at every turn {as long as we let them}.

And so, I wrote this epic blog post.

Because if there’s one thing I apparently like to do, it’s address things no one else seems to be talking about/admitting to.😉

I’ve picked just a few examples of myths I’ve come across over the years – either from my own beliefs or from conversations with others – and am making a case for different, more empowering beliefs based in my own real life experience.

I know that shifting into new, more self-supporting beliefs doesn’t always feel convincing at first, so I hope using myself as a living example – and those of the many many artists I’ve spoken with over the years – will go some way to encouraging you to create your own new stories about what’s possible for you as an artist.

Our stories are unique to us, and, as this post shows, they are universal. But it never hurts to have some real life examples. 😊

1. You’re only a ‘real’ artist if… you’re in the studio all day every day, 365 days a year {and – why not – also most of the night}

{Also related to: You’re only a real artist if you only ever do art and don’t have a ‘day job’.}

That’s right.

Because who needs more than one thing in their life? Who needs sleep? Relationships that thrive? Other interests? Time out with friends and family? Income {if the art doesn’t provide it}?

Yes, a dedication to our work is necessary and fulfilling, but we need other things too.

Not least the variety that generates inspiration. And sometimes, even if we don’t want it to be the case, we need other things MORE and for LONGER.

  • Sometimes we need to spend time in deep rest because we haven’t for ages and burned right out.
  • Sometimes we need time to be a parent.
  • Sometimes there are people in our lives who need more of our attention than our work does for a while.
  • Sometimes there is other work to do.
  • Sometimes we need to focus on our health, mental and/or physical.
  • Sometimes we just stop and no reason is necessary to justify it.

In my experience, being an artist is cyclical, just like the natural world of which we are intrinsically a part.

When we honour those cycles, instead of fighting them in the name of some mythical cultural belief, we are being natural, not capitalist machines.

2. You’re only a ‘real’ artist if… every time you paint you’re in raptures, aka ‘the zone’

{Also related to: You’re only a real artist if you always know what you’re doing, are always inspired, and everything works out perfectly every time.}

Well if that’s true, I’m not sure I can can carry on with my life’s work. 😆

I have an artist friend who seems to go into the zone almost every time he goes to the studio. In my experience this is relatively rare. And even if it isn’t, so what?

Want to know how often I get in the zone?

Well I can’t actually tell you, partly because I don’t monitor it, and partly because when I’m in it I’m not aware of it – that’s how it works.

But it’s not as often as I’m in the studio, I’ll tell you that. And you know what else?

I don’t care at all. Sometimes I come out after a several hour stint and I’ve made nothing I felt satisfied by, and it was all frustrating and/or boring.

That does happen. It’s ok.

It’s not ideal, and if it’s a ‘more often than not’ experience it’s worth checking in on what you’re making to see if it’s actually in alignment with who you are. But some parts of process are bloody tedious, or annoying, or just plain hard, or any number of other not-fun things.

I’d also add that when I’ve got intense stuff going on in my personal life, the zone {or indeed painting at all} is even less likely for me; maybe for you too. That’s just how it goes.

You’re still an artist.

3. You’re only a ‘real’ artist if… you sell your work

{Also related to: You’re only a real artist if you work full time at it/are famous/have work in galleries/are one of the chosen few who get to make an income from it.}

So Van Gogh wasn’t a real artist during his lifetime then? It’s said that he sold ONE painting. ONE.

Selling your work is an aspect of being an artist that you can choose or not choose.

I didn’t choose it for a long time, and actually didn’t see myself wanting to; I needed time to learn and develop as an artist, in skills, experience, and confidence.

If you don’t sell your work, or have no desire to, and you make things with your hands? You are 100% artist, friend.

And if you’re struggling with this one, go and read this post.

4. You’re only a ‘real’ artist if… you love everything about being an artist

{Also related to: You’re only a real artist if you’re always inspired/making something brilliant and original.}

Really? Really?!

It’s easy to love being in the zone, playing with materials, expressing yourself freely in colour, receiving positive feedback from friends and family, watching money roll in from sales. Of course we all love that.

But what about the invisible work –

  • the years of learning and developing and gaining confidence {which can be all too easily shaken sometimes}
  • the gathering of ideas and inspiration
  • all the paintings that don’t work out, or take 531 dreadful iterations to come good
  • the disappointments, rejections, and frustrations
  • the preparing of materials and the tidying up after painting
  • the building and maintaining of connections and relationships
  • the admin
  • the marketing
  • the book keeping and tax returns
  • the technological requirements of building and maintaining a website
  • sending and responding to emails
  • photographing, editing and uploading the work
  • posting it online
  • ordering supplies
  • packing and shipping {my personal absolute worst}
  • finding time to paint amongst all this, plus family and/or day jobs, for many
  • the mindset work necessary to keep you going

True, some of us love some of these things {I love building a website and writing emails and blog posts}, some of us can delegate {I have a book keeper and accountant}, and some of us don’t actually need all of these aspects of course.

Being an artist is, in some ways, a job or life choice like any other. It has bits you prefer, and bits you really don’t.

But the chances of finding an artist who loves all of this? Hmm. Good luck with that.

5. You’re only a ‘real’ artist if… you push on through even when you’re really not feeling it

{also related to: You’re only a real artist if you suffer for your art}

Well, you can certainly try.

There’s a quote about this made by a famous artist, and it really gets my back up.

I absolutely agree that commitment, dedication, and perseverance are all excellent and useful attributes for someone wanting to be an artist {or indeed anything}.

I do not agree with calling people who aren’t in the studio every morning at stupid o’clock amateurs.

{And besides, ‘amateur’ comes from the French and Latin words for love, so I don’t know why it’s used as a derogatory term, but whatever – in that quote it’s a put down.}

It’s probably true that artists who are prolific, financially successful, or both, tend to spend more time in the studio than those who aren’t. That’s partly just logic.

But over and over, in my own experience and from what I’ve observed of and heard from others, forcing it doesn’t work for most of us.

I think really it comes down to mindset, as SO much of being an artist does.

You can encourage the muse for sure – just pottering around in the studio works quite well for me in that regard {although not always}.

I like Freud’s take on this:

When inspiration does not come to me, I go halfway to meet it.

But honestly? If you’re not in the mood, you don’t have to force yourself to try to be in order to fit in some arbitrary box titled ‘artist’.

Expanding the conversation

I hopped on Instagram to find out how others might finish the ‘Real artists…..’ sentence.

There was an AVALANCHE of responses – well over a hundred! If I addressed them all here we’d be here all week, but I’ve included a few so you can see that whatever it may be that’s been holding you back, you’re very much not alone!

  • Real artists have to starve and suffer or you’re a sell out.
  • Real artists have talent and don’t need to learn.
  • Oh wait, but Real artists have a degree and/or any number of culturally sanctioned qualifications to prove their validity as an artist.
  • Real artists don’t care about selling their art. They just do it because they love it.
  • Real artists have some sort of effortless well of inspiration that just happens.
  • Real artists never paint… {insert frowned upon subject here}.
  • Real artists’ creativity is shaped by genetic influences – creativity and being artistic is almost certainly inherited.
  • ‘Real’ artists have a style that is unlike anyone else’s and produce entirely new/original brilliant work every time.
  • Oh wait, but Real artists are consistent!
  • Real artists have degrees and are schooled in theory, yet are somehow 100% original.
  • Real artists are never good at science or maths, with their entire brain dedicated to art.
  • Real artists know what they are doing.
  • Real artists can draw & sketch perfectly and don’t make mistakes.
  • Real artists get the most likes on Instagram and Facebook.
  • Real artists have to have a ‘point’ in mind when they make. If it’s for pleasure only then it’s a waste of time.
  • Real artists have their work displayed in expensive galleries and at fine art shows. {But not craft shows or fairs.}
  • Real artists are edgy and should always push the boundaries.
  • Real artists will work for free.
  • Real artists have to suffer to make good art.
  • Real artists always know exactly what and how they want to paint a certain subject.
  • Real artists paint with oils.
  • Real artists don’t make commercial work/illustrations/insert discipline here.
  • Real artists don’t think logically.
  • Real artists aren’t organized and into business.
  • Real artists are few and far between and at the top of their field.
  • Real artists have an artist statement.
  • Real artist do not work in other fields. They do art.
  • Real artists are known.
  • Real artists understand the science of every paint, brush, marker etc.
  • Real artists stand out.
  • Real artists are mysterious and aloof.
  • Real artists are as good as Picasso or van Gogh. ie. you have to meet the highest standards to call yourself an artist.
  • Real artists don’t start in their late 40s to try to make a career of it.
  • Real artists are not old women.
  • Real artists have to have significant and hefty meanings to their work (such as being overtly political, or featuring a significant social cause etc).
  • Real artists are born, not made.

I’ve no doubt that some, maybe all, of these will resonate for you. What this list shows me is that there are an awful lot of spoken and unspoken ‘rules’ out there about what criteria we must meet in order to have the audacity to call ourselves artists.

It’s sad, in a way. The odds don’t seem to be stacked in our favour, and clearly we all carry a selection of these beliefs inside us every day, whether we’re aware of it or not.

And yet look at the millions of artists on Instagram alone, many of whom are making a full time living from their work, or are simply very happy making it.

So what do we do with all these myths?

We’re intelligent beings – we know that we don’t have to take on something as true just because ‘everybody says’, or because people look at us askance {at best} when we suggest otherwise, or because it’s so deeply ingrained in the culture no one seems to think to question it.

{Not to mention, ‘real’ artists are subversive and iconoclastic outsiders who don’t conform or care what anyone else thinks!}

But it’s not necessarily easy to put those things back down, especially if we’ve been carrying them for years or have painful personal history with them.

Like I said, a huge amount of being an artist is mindset. {Probably about 75%, is my deeply scientific estimate.}

If you’re willing to work on undoing and replacing the beliefs, and simply continue to make the work you feel called to make, you can honestly have more than you ever thought possible.

In fact, you may reach a point where you really couldn’t give two hoots what it’s called when you make things with your hands.

You’ll be far too busy just doing it.


The Happy Artist Studio - click here to find out more and join us!If the mindset aspect of being an artist is causing you to struggle and suffer around your art, help is at hand!

Inside the Happy Artist Studio you’ll find a wealth of process and mindset based courses, monthly topics, and a supportive community, all focused on you making the work you want to make, and thriving as your artist self, in whatever way that means for you.

You are a real artist – let’s make it true for you at every level!

“What’s so brilliant about the Happy Artist is getting to watch Tara making work, absorbing all her wisdom along the way. Some of the classes explore mindset, Touchstone really helped me find clarity during a time when I was constantly battling myself and getting in my own way. I love that Tara’s approach is always rooted in self compassion and finding the joy in your practice.”

Helen B