What is an artist, and how do you become one?
“I am interested in the artist who is awake, or who wants desperately to wake up,” Anna Deavere Smith writes in her book Letters to a Young Artist. To be an artist, in many ways, is to be a contrarian, and that can often feel like trying to wake up. From a young age we’re told no one can make it as a rockstar (despite all the rockstars we emulate with our air guitars), or that no one buys art anymore (despite all the paintings and photos hanging in our homes and offices), or that it’s impossible to make it in Hollywood (despite all the entertainment we watch every day). As we grow up, people constantly trash our liberal arts degrees, if we got one at all.
“An artist needs fight,” Smith says. That fight is why we show up every day despite the odds. And we’re in a fight, I’d argue, against complacency.
Whether you consider yourself an artist might depend on where you’re at in your career. Sometimes “artist” seems more like a lifestyle. Other times it feels like a label that can’t possibly apply when you’re working on passion projects in those spare minutes between jobs or diapers or whatever else fills your life.
But let me tell you this: You are an artist. Artists work with words, images, video, pixels, paint, metal, fabric, sound, code, and so much more.
Elizabeth Gilbert put it best in Big Magic: “You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.” The doubters are just that: doubters. One day, they might come around and support you. But it doesn’t matter. Their permission isn’t needed.
Well done for making it here.
On paper, the job of an artist sounds easy: you find an idea and create it. This involves the discovery of exciting ideas and the process of refining and combining them into something new. But where do you manage to find ideas? What’s your method of creation?
The big secret is that you get to decide which tools to use. And the message is up to you, too. Find what speaks to you, whether that’s injustice in the world or the beauty in life’s small moments, and take those complicated ideas and communicate them in an interesting and succinct way.
“Art should take what is complex and render it simply,” Smith continues.
The goal of an artist is to find the essence of an idea and only include what’s necessary. An artist is an editor, a person who must have a sharp sense of focus on what matters, and the guts to ignore what doesn’t.
So, if you want to write a great essay, here’s how: Find a topic you’re passionate and knowledgeable about, then write 5,000 words on it. Reference films and books and music and whatever else inspires you. Then you just keep the great words.
Of course, it’s not that simple. But in some ways, it is. The work I do today is no different than the work I did ten years ago. What sharpens over time is the sense of what to keep and what to throw away.
Keeping only what’s great is a lesson the people who worked with Steve Jobs learned over and over again. Ken Segall, one of the creative directors behind Apple’s Think Different campaign and the “i” in iMac and iPhone, recalls some of those lessons in his book Insanely Simple. There’s one particular story that stood out to me - it was about a time when Apple was soon to release a new product. They needed a name.
The team had acquired the video editing software Color and they wanted to include it as an upgrade to Final Cut Studio. Jealous of Adobe’s naming style, they (seriously) considered names like Final Cut Studio 2 Extended Edition. Segall, fan of a simpler option, liked the name Final Cut Studio 2, With Color. There was a lot of back and forth with everyone fighting for their favorite version.
Until Steve Jobs walked in the room.
At the presentation, a full assortment of package designs, each with its own name, was neatly laid out on the table in front of Steve. The Platinum Edition had a nice shiny platinum stripe across the top. Each of the others had some feature that would help to differentiate it from the standard edition. Jan recapped the mission to set the context for Steve, telling him that this was being done to accommodate the addition of Color to the mix. Steve looked at the boxes, then looked up at the team.
“Put the software in the box,” he said.
The group was unsure what he meant. Explanation, please.
“Put Color in the Final Cut Studio box. We sell one product. Period.” There was a beat of silence as the group absorbed that. “What next?” he said.
Again and again, Segall comes back to this point: “Steve had rejected their work—not because it was bad but because in some way it failed to distill the idea to its essence. It took a turn when it should have traveled a straight line.”
He knew that fighting complexity is a key battle artists must win. It’s easy to keep an extra flourish because you like it; it’s hard to cut something you love because it's ultimately not needed. It's important to repeat, as Segall writes, “If you work harder and look more closely, there’s always something you can whittle away. It’s when you get to the essence of your idea that you’ll have something to be proud of.”
So, what’s the roadmap to being an artist? Today we know that “Work hard and everything will be fine” isn’t entirely true, so you can’t succeed just by working hard. There are a lot of hurdles that some people have to overcome that others don’t. And if you have a safety net, it’s easier to take risks. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a different way to think about the overwhelming feeling of getting started: Big ideas are scary because we don’t know where to begin. It’s a lesson I took away from from James Altucher’s book Choose Yourself!
What that says to me is that you need to find the simplest place to start to make your art. Other steps will come later. For now start with a pen and paper, paint and canvas, computer and code - whatever is at your disposal. Once you’ve begun, steps two, three, and beyond won’t seem as daunting.
Think about it like this: If you say you could never write a book, you’ll never write a book. That one’s easy. On the other hand, if you set aside thirty minutes to write 500 words today, you can do it. That one’s possible.
To write a book 500 words at a time will take a long time - months, even years. But string together enough days of writing 500 words and suddenly you’ll have a novel’s length of passages and ideas. You can type one-handed into your phone while a baby sleeps in the other arm. You can write while you’re on the bus or airplane or sitting in the waiting room. You can write on your lunch break at your part-time retail job to prepare for your nighttime freelance gig. You can do this with a phone or a computer or a notepad and pen. I know because I’ve written in all those ways.
I graduated college during the great recession. In my hands was an expensive piece of paper and no job prospects to pay for it. So I worked in retail for years. Slowly, I found time to make my art on the side. I stayed up until 3 a.m. to work on freelance projects because those were the only free hours I had. I was exhausted, but I was making a go of it. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, or even where my skills were most needed. I was trying to figure that out.
Only half a decade later could I begin to find the themes I was exploring, to understand the skills I was building. The big, messy work was there to hold me over until I found the smaller great piece within, the story that needed the junk around it edited out. The next half a decade and beyond will be more editing, more learning, more exploring.
If you work that way - and you will have to work that way if you don’t get lucky or have a trust fund waiting for you - you can’t quit halfway through.
Artists keep going even when they’re told there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. At the end of the rainbow is just a lot of dried paint to scrub off. To artists, making meaningful work is better than not making meaningful work, always. If you can afford to take that risk, you have to try.
And if you have to take a break for awhile, to take care of yourself, your work, or your family, know that your art will be waiting for you. It doesn’t judge. It’s alright to take a break for a few months, years, or decades. But do whatever you can to keep that spark alive until you are ready to return.
Before we get too warm and fuzzy, be warned that even if you make the brave decision to set out on your own, the forces of the world will tell you that you aren’t really an artist. You’re a businessperson, a schedule coordinator, a camera operator, they’ll say. Of course, those are reasonable skills to master, especially when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. But reducing your work to individual tasks moves you so far from your art that you can forget it’s art. Don’t let anyone make “artist” a dirty word, like it’s not real work, or the “art” is just the busy work in between other tasks.
You are an artist. Every stroke of a paintbrush or scratch of a pen is real work.
An artist questions everything, even the words you’re reading right now, because you recognize what works for me might not work for you. And that’s what sets an artist apart - that feeling in your gut that your mind won’t let you ignore. Even when you can’t articulate it, you know something’s there.
Understand that no amount of confidence or accomplishment will make the doubters go away. They’ll grow in volume and in numbers. Go look at the reviews for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me or Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. There’s never universal praise, no matter the connection a piece of art makes with its audience. Search long enough and you’ll find someone who hates your work or who wishes it had that one little extra piece (and then another, and another). It doesn’t matter. The only reason to seek out that unnecessary feedback is for your own ego. If you want to find the people calling you a genius, to read stories of how your work changed their life, to bask in the praise and demands for “more, more, more!” - go ahead. What you’ll find, even for great work, is negativity from someone, somewhere. And your brain will get stuck on that. Feeding your ego doesn’t matter because it always ends in frustration.
If you’re doing the right work, you already know it. The time you spend searching for criticism or praise is a waste. That’s time you could spend reading, or watching, or talking to people who matter.
This is why you always read advice that says to not take rejection personally. Rejected work often says more about the viewer than the maker. Don’t forget that. If you make art for the external validation, it will never be enough. In the words of designer Tyler Deeb, “Don’t chase the glory, work hard, and be satisfied.”
The work of an artist can be hard to quantify, which can be why so many don’t understand what we do.
Designer and writer Frank Chimero discusses knowledge work - or, work that relies heavily on thinking and processing information and ideas - in Other Halves, “Knowledge work has its name for a reason: the challenges naturally swing towards the cerebral, and doubly so if you work in design for digital products. You spend hours and hours considering ways to think about what is ultimately an immaterial thing. And who’s to know if it’s done or right?”
This is where every artist exists: “who’s to know if it’s done or right?” There’s never one right answer when it comes to art. Technique and skill are important - the settings on your camera, your use of light - but great pictures break fundamental photography rules all the time.
“Writing is a lot like that, too. So, on average, most of my waking hours are spent wrestling with ghosts,” Chimero concludes.
Artists consume the world around us, the garbage and the beautiful, and digest it into something meaningful. Song lyrics help lovers communicate their bond. A film helps a teenager escape from the confusing world around them. An essay helps its reader process tragedy and triumph. These are the ghosts we’re chasing. And they don’t exist unless we spend the time searching for them.
The process, when it feels right, is more about discovery than creation. These words are already there - the thoughts, the quotes, the arguments - the work I’m doing now is no harder or easier than the work I did yesterday. It’s just different. It’s connecting the pieces and comparing and contrasting them to what I’ve seen before.
I’ve made short films with friends since high school. From those days as a teenager all the way through my post-college freelance career, I worked with professional sports teams, championship-winning coaches, Olympians, national brands, and major universities to name a few. That’s not to brag or to polish up my résumé. That’s to confess this: I’ve never had a film accepted into a film festival. I’ve never even been to a film festival.
I’ve submitted to dozens - and probably spent too much money on admission fees - but I’ve been rejected every time. At first, it stung. The advice to not take it personally only goes so far after you’ve spent months, years of your life, and plenty of your money and energy making a piece of work that you want to share with people. And to be told you’re not accepted, in a way, feels like you’re told it’s not worth sharing.
But as I’ve said, an artist doesn’t quit. So what did I do when those first waves of rejections hit? Did I quit making films? Of course not. I put them online for free. Every one of them. Over half a million people have watched my films on the internet. I don’t need to get accepted into a film festival and show my film to a theater of a few dozen people to call myself a filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker.
A mystery panel of judges with their own biases and preferences says nothing about me and the quality of my work.
What skills do you need to be an artist? Well, first, here’s where you might struggle.
You might not be good with money, not because you don’t care, but because you’d rather spend what money you have on supplies for the next project. You might not be good talking to strangers, because you’re more comfortable spending that time with your thoughts and your work. You might not be the best salesperson, because it can feel a little bit slimy to sell part of your heart.
But you’ll be willing to listen and adapt. You’ll recognize that those skills are things you have to do to varying degrees to be successful. You’ll realize that art without commerce is a nice dream but impossible to attain. You’ll either need to sell your skills in another field to pay the bills, or you’ll need to sell your art. You’ll figure out how to make it work.
You don’t need any one particular skill over another to be an artist, except the desire to live a creative life and the ability to see it through. Beyond that, it’s up to you and what path you have the means to pursue.
To be an artist is simple: You show up, focus on what matters, and fight. Relentlessly.