What Painters Do

I've been in Maine painting alone for the past two weeks, which has provided an unusual amount of time to think and brood. One of the things I am thinking about, as I stand at my easel in public places, are the comments from friendly passersby, such as "That looks like fun!", "Beautiful day to be out painting..." or "Should I tell you the big mistake you just made?"


I've heard the following multiple times: "My aunt (substitute 'daughter', 'wife' or 'mother') is an artist. too. She paints and does sculpture, photographs and makes pottery!" After I smile and say, "that's nice!", the brooding sets in for a few minutes.

Susan Abbott, "Self Portrait by Bathroom Window"

Susan Abbott, "Self Portrait by Bathroom Window"

This oft-times repeated, friendly comment from casual observers about the relative who is an artist does bother me a bit, I must admit. If there are that many artists out there, so many that almost everyone I meet seems to have a relative that does what I do, then what, exactly, is this huge group that I'm a part of?

Gwen John, "Self Portrait" 

Maybe most folks don't quite understand what a professional artist is, both because popular culture is full of misrepresentations, and because, without experiencing them ourselves, none of us really understands the details of another person's daily life.

Artists do work that requires years of training, complex technical skills, business acumen, and daily effort. It often remits a middle class--or better--income. An artist's work is real work--and yet it can seem very nebulous when measured against other professions.

Even the title "artist" is such an imprecise, romanticized, and over-used word that it's meaningless. I find the term "painter" more usefuI. I recently heard the novelist Richard Russo talk about the difference between "writing" and being a "writer". The verb, he said, was an activity that we can all engage in for pleasure and communication; the noun he reserved for the published--in other words, for professionals.

I would expand that definition of professional to "trying very hard to be published", or in the case of a painter, to have their work shown. I always think of Van Gogh when I'm defining what constitutes a professional artist. Given his passion and seriousness, no one could deny him that title, even though he sold just one painting in his lifetime.  


Emily Carr, "Self Portrait"

A place to work

Painters need a dedicated work space, whether its a relative's garage, a rented room in a friend's house, the living room in their own home, an office space downtown, or a custom-built studio. I've worked in all of these over the years, and each has been a place to produce and contemplate my paintings, as well as a private, and necessary, mental haven.

Consistent work
Painters have a job: they paint. Sometimes, because of the pressing need to make money or family responsibilities, it's a part-time job, but they always keep their hand in. Fine art painters, like house painters, show up for work whether they feel inspired or not. 


Catherine Murphy, "Self Portrait" 





Painters want their paintings to be seen

Most painters want to share their work with the world, and they want to make their living from it. The ideal way to do this, to paraphrase the Buddha-like minimalist artist Agnes Martin, is "I make it, the dealer sells it, and the collector gets to take care of it." But even without the support of a gallery, painters (like the Impressionists, the Dadaists, or contemporary internet art bloggers) will bring as much invention to getting their work out into the world as they do to its creation.





Paula Modersohn-Becker, "Self Portrait" 

I was painting outdoors in Rajasthan a few years ago, and an Indian artist, hurrying by me with his sketchbook in hand, said "Oh, you and I are of the same caste!"

I liked that idea, and I return to it when I'm feeling discouraged by either how amorphous or how elitist this profession of visual art can be. Making a painting is not a superhuman activity granted to only the chosen creative few, as our cultural institutions would have us believe.

But it is real work, done day in and day out, over years, through personal ups and downs, and not a fun or relaxing pastime. I feel more kinship, as I'm standing at my easel in a Maine town, with the journeyman house painter working on his job down the block, than the vacationer standing at my shoulder admiring the beautiful scenery.


Alice Neal, "Self Portrait"

Berthe Morisot, "Self Portrait"

What are some of the other attributes of the professional painter?

Painters have as lengthy a formal education as attorneys, academics, and even some medical professionals. Childhood and high school art classes, four rigorous years of art school, two to three years of graduate school (which are very selective for admission) and specialized workshops are the common educational track. Completely self-trained artists who become professionals are very rare.

Carolyn Pyfrom, "Easel and Green hat"

Carolyn Pyfrom, "Easel and Green hat"

A preoccupation with painting

Painters are, in a word, obsessive about painting. If not painting, they are usually thinking about painting.  Maybe this is because, in such a difficult profession, the obsessive ones have an evolutionary advantage. For better or worse, painters are workaholics--and they need to be to have enough time to both make and market their work. "Vacation", "work day" and "weekend" are elastic terms for the self-employed artist.

This trait does not provide relationship advantages, as children may feel resentful of their painter parent's distraction (or abandonment, in extreme cases). Ditto for spouses. To accommodate their obsession,  some painters live alone, or with another artist (which can present its own set of complications, especially for the female half.) And then there's the relationship possibility of the wonderful non-painter who is respecting of art, and wants his partner to be happy. . . .

Agnes Martin

The painting profession can have its negative side. Even highly skilled visual artists can, on any given day, feel like they don't know what the hell they're doing. They'll have the faith to just muddle through until they're on solid ground again.

in any one hour of painting, emotional ups and downs can run the gamut of "this is the best thing that not only I, but anyone, has ever done" to "this completely sucks, and so do I. "The painter learns, over time, to ignore this mental chatter.

Big negatives for visual artists are  competition, comparison, rejection, and sexism. Sometimes It takes all the obsession a painter can muster just to soldier on.

Nella Marchesini, "Self Portrait"

Yet I know that this vacationer who tells me his aunt "is an artist, too" means only to make a connection, and give a compliment to me and to her. As for his aunt, her life has surely been enriched by a love of art. From birth on, we are all creative beings. It's a natural and good thing that most folks make art in the spirit of play, rather than with the professional artist's seriousness of work.

If everyone (men too, please!) painted and drew, knit, built furniture, played music, wrote stories, stitched, cooked and gardened for the sheer pleasure of creation, the world would be a happier place.

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