On Being an Artist by Valerie (Valry) Drake

My thoughts have been wandering on the subject of being an artist. The idea of calling myself an “artist” is difficult. The majority of my income is derived from my day job. So what qualifies me to claim this title? Or am I being overly ostentatious?

Am I an artist solely because I produce art? Possibly it has more to do with the fact that I consistently produce art. I practice. There is seldom a week that I do not produce some art. If I go more than a couple of days without drawing or painting then I start to dream of paintbrushes and the texture of paint, the feel of the paintbrush sweeping across canvas, the smell of oil paint, and intense colors dancing in dizzying panoramic displays of splashing and blending and swirling. These dreams drive me to stay awake late the next night, often way past midnight even knowing that I must work the next day, possessed by the compulsion, the visceral need, to apply paint to canvas.

One of my basic beliefs about art is that anyone can learn to be an artist, at least to some extent. Each person has a given amount of artistic talent, some more, some less. I will never be a Monet or Picasso. I do not have that much raw talent. However, I am very focused on developing the talent which I do have. I am serious about learning art and I put a lot of time and effort into the learning process. Beside my bed is a book on facial anatomy for the artist (and a pencil and sketchpad), in my car is a book on composition (and a portable watercolor set) and by the sofa (along with my box of colored pencils and my drawing board) is a book on color theory. I regularly study art history, different styles of work, biographies of artists, and I go to art museums and galleries to examine major works in person. In other words, I work at it.

As I progress and learn more about art I become aware of my obligation to help others. That which I have learned I turned around and started teaching. If I have a skill then it is incumbent on me to share that skill. From having a friend’s child come to the house and showing her the correct way to handle a paintbrush to teaching classes at venues such as the local Jerry’s. I do not believe I have the right to be selfish or exclusionist. I have felt the sting of approaching artists and having them express their scorn of me and my efforts. Some years ago I told a man whom I respected about my dreams of becoming an artist and he offhandedly told me that it was useless for me to pursue the idea. There was even a teacher who rolled his eyes when I tried to express an idea that excited me. From experiences such as these I have learned to be more sensitive to other artists who are at different places in their creative life. I will do what I can to support and encourage every artist or “want to be” artist.

Finally, I take the world of art seriously. I respect the work of other artists, even artists who have a different viewpoint than I do. Graffiti art, tattoo art, temporary installations, guerrilla art, and countless others, all have their place in the creative world. New artists and established artists, people who just bought their first canvas and tube of paint to the local pottery artist whose work is on display in the Smithsonian and has created a White House Christmas ornament, the digital artist and the cartoonist and the quilter – each and every one, if they consider themselves an “artist” is my colleague and I owe them respect.

So I name myself an artist and I strive to live up to my standards. I am proud of creating art. I am proud of the way my art has improved and of the skills I am learning. I am proud that I have an ideal of what I mean by the word “artist”. And I am proud to share that title with you.


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