Amateur and Professional Artists

Armand Cabrera

( All Illustrations by Armand Cabrera)
I think it’s time we bring back a word that was popular before the baby boomers started to ‘find themselves’. The word is “amateur”. Do you notice that practically no one is an amateur artist anymore? Everyone has “professional artist” status—their desire and intent are enough to warrant the “professional” claim. I think artists should be “amateurs” until they actually make their living from selling their paintings. That way, they’ve actually earned the right to call themselves “professional artists.”

To those seeking a professional career in art —

Paint and draw daily from life!


Don’t post your paintings on the web or try to sell them on eBay for $100. Just paint— and work at being the best you can be. No one needs to see the artistic equivalent of what would be a 12 year olds’ diary; it is banal and self absorbed—interesting only to other 12 year olds.

I wouldn’t recommend having a website until you’re in a fine art gallery. Don’t show the world what a bad artist you are right now. Spend all your time working at becoming a better artist. (Do grab your domain name right away, though!).

When I wanted to become an illustrator, I worked my fulltime job, came home and painted at night and sent samples to art directors. I stuck the rejection letters on my living room walls. It was a reminder that everyday I didn’t paint or improve my skills, was just another day those people were right and I wasn’t good enough. It took about five years to get my first book cover. I stayed in illustration for another five years, doing magazine and book illustration. I chose not to get married or have a family. My focus—becoming a professional artist.

When I decided to leave illustration and become a production artist in games, I worked harder to improve my speed and skill. I knew that creating a painting every two weeks wasn’t fast enough to succeed in the games industry. When I was hired to paint backgrounds, I was doing two, 10” x 14” paintings a day for my clients. They decided when the backgrounds were good enough for the industry. Having that valuable external input was critical to my artistic growth—and an important reason I feel most gallery artists fail to draw or paint at the level of an illustrator or production artist.

After 15 years in the computer games business, I changed my focus and decided to work for myself as a gallery artist. During my transition to full time fine art, I worked 12-hour days in computer games, then came home and painted until 1 am or 2 am…and also painted on the weekends. Within two years, my paintings were accepted into a fine art gallery. Within a short time, I replaced my 6-figure games income with gallery sales and I quit my “day job”.

As an amateur artist, I sought after and benefited from professional advice. I never thought the art directors were wrong about my skills when they said my work wasn’t up to par. As a production artist, my drawing skills were weak in the beginning. I improved them with drawing from life whenever I could. I studied the fundamentals of painting. I appreciated the successful artists who guided me by offering honest criticism, even though it was sometimes hard to hear.

I’ve noticed that constructive criticism is a thing of the past. Most people are offended if you tell them the truth. It’s very sad that we’ve lowered the bar so very far and that everyone is a “professional artist”. We’re subjected to the worst of art because it’s not “correct” to criticize anyone’s “creativity”. Many art shows and organizations have no jury process—just a fee charged for participation. As a result, anyone, with or without skill, can exhibit their work in the show.

It’s time to demand skill and facility as basic tenets towards becoming a professional artist. Let’s bring back the fundamentals of art and be honest about amateur and professional level art. Perhaps, if we’re all honest, amateurs will work harder and will someday become professional artists in the true sense of the word.

25 thoughts on “Amateur and Professional Artists

  1. I concur. I chose marriage and family. I equate my passion with painting, with my enjoyment of skiing. I am a recreational skier, and I am a recreational painter. I love to ski, and I love to create. A professional skier makes a living skiing. As does the professional artist. My motto is 'YOU LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY'. I appreciate the talant and the time that "professional artists" devote to their trade. Without professional artists, my learning would stagnate. Thank you Armand for this great blog. You give me that 'SOMETHING NEW I LEARNED TODAY'.
    Carolyn Karch -Nevada

  2. Carolyn,

    Thanks for the comment. Passion is what drives all of us to be better at something, no matter how far we take it. It has nothing to do with level of ability.

  3. Hi Armand,

    I think your blog is great. And I agree, especially how constructive criticism seems to be a thing of the past. I was going to an atelier where most students would cover up their figure drawings when it came time for a break and there were no group critiques in class. This was foreign to me since I had gone to art school before where we had critiques and were more open about what we did. What people might not realize is that you can learn so much and improve your work by being more open to constructive criticism.

  4. Sheila,

    It is the same mentality practiced in schools, where everyone gets a ribbon and no grades are given or scores are kept to protect the students feelings. It does them no good. Here in northern Virginia it is the same where people advertise art classes as no intruction, non-judgemental environments. What a waste of time. Everyone sits around telling each other how great they are. It is the modern version of the Emperor's New Clothes.

  5. I agree the word "amateur" has gone out of favor, it has evolved to be an insult when it really simply means hobbyist. It's fine to be a hobbyist.

    I also liked hearing your story of how you became a professional, it certainly takes big doses of humility and hard work.

    But I also think you are being overly harsh to say people should not blog their learning process and should only have a website once they are represented by a gallery. I have blogged my learning process for a couple years now and until recently I did not show in a gallery. But my blog and the community I have found through it and other artists' blogs has been vitally important to my art life. What could be wrong with that?

  6. Sadie,

    My point is this, when you are learning something you should focus on learning. Most blogs and facebook and all the other social networking ideas detract from time for improvement as an artist.

    If artists could get real criticism instead of false praise all the time from these endeavors maybe it would be worthwhile. If you want to get better at something you need to learn from someone who has achieved that success not someone in the same boat as you are.

    If you derive some pleasure from a community of like minded artists, then good for you. There is nothing wrong with it. I personally think it is counter-productive to artistic success. Without the filter of professional achievement most blogs provide bad or useless information.

  7. This is a very motivating post. thank you for your thoughts. I must say though, I agree with Sadie regarding her blog comment. My blog has become a visual journal for me, a way to see where I have been, what I can do differently, and where I want to go. Through the network of other artist's blogs, such as yours and Stapleton Kearns, Frank Ordaz, and other professionals, I have been able to learn valuable information that was not in books I have read or classes I have taken. I do take comments on my blog with a grain of salt, but I have on occasion recieved comments that have helped me improve. Differing perspectives can be helpful wether they come from an artist or not.

  8. Jeremy,

    The blogs you mentioned including this one don't fall in the usual category of what I consider navel gazing. I do this blog as a teacher and someone interested in art history. I am not giving you diary everyday. Same with Stapleton ,Jim Gurney and others; but we are already making a living at our art.

    If you want to make a living doing something, I'm recommending cutting out the distractions and get on with the business at hand.

    Carl Barks the great Disney artist said we're going to do about 10,000 bad drawings in our lifetime, make them the first 10,000. His point like mine, is get it done. Life is too short to spend it doing something you don't want to do. Don't let yourself be sidetracked. Most people have no clue what they want and they will be happy for you to share their company as life passes them by.

    If you want to be an artist in whatever form that takes for you, do it now and enjoy it for as long as you can. God knows so many things we have no control over can interfere with our plans, sickness, death, war; the list is long and life is short.

    'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them'

  9. Thanks for this post Armand! I still work a full time job and sell my work through a few small galleries, but even when I improve to the point of being able to go full time, I would never reject constructive criticism from a more seasoned artist. I have an intense desire to learn! That is why my painting time in the week is from about 10pm – 1am after my wife and daughter are asleep. I don't understand why people "baby" amateur artists. That does not help your growth. An honest critique from a professional does help, as well as good old fashioned hard work and practice! Good stuff you wrote!

  10. What could be a greater compliment than to be recognized for doing something only because you love it? Amateur is not an insult, it is a rank in the army of art.

  11. Stapleton,

    Good point. I think that many people now want to be artists to make money or enjoy fame; they don't do it because they love it. They would rather paint ten paintings in ten days they can sell on eBay than one good painting that has their heart and soul in it. The artistic equivalent of puppy mills.
    True amateurs paint because they are compelled to

  12. hi!
    this post is very motivating indeed.
    the whole post is extremely interesting. It could appear today as severe and haughty, but it's probably the most sincere, truthful and honest thing i read during the past few times!

    i wanna thank you for that.

    you said that constructive criticism is a thing of the past. that paragraph particulary echoed to me. i feel the same about the "art world" in France. When you try to push someone further by telling him what you've noticed about is work, you're quickly considered beeing rude or haughty. I think it's a shame. People are mostly concerned by "creativity" don't care for the basics anymore…

    anyway, thank you for sharing your toughts, there are a real part of my art education.


  13. Armand,

    One big problem I see is that people can not tell that they don’t know what they are doing without others telling them.

    I am always amazed at the American Idol auditions. Many people stand up in front of millions of people and think they can sing. Some even get angry when the judges tell them they can’t. They insist they can. Maybe they should be forced to listen to a recording of themselves before they go on stage. The same type of thing happens with our own paintings. We have worked on them so hard that we just can’t accept that they aren’t very good.

    The quote “practice makes perfect” is wrong. It should be “perfect practice makes perfect”. Until someone tells you where your weaknesses are, you can not see them or devise a way to improve on those weaknesses. Mutual admiration societies will not make you a better painter. Seek out teachers that are better than you at whatever it is you want to learn to do. Painting and drawing are learned by doing. Hopefully doing what someone with more experience tells you to do until you master that. Then it’s time to get more direction and on and on

  14. Yes, It's a pet peeve of mine as well, the over use of the word artist and under use of the word amateur.

    from the Huffington Post:
    Jonathan Melber
    Co-author of ART/WORK: Everything You Need to Know (And Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career
    Seven Things Every Artist Should Know
    1. Every artist has a day job.
    Most artists cannot live off their art–even relatively successful artists in New York or L.A. So don't feel like you're doing something wrong if you can't make ends meet without a day job. The key is to define yourself as an artist. What you do for rent is just that. It's not who you are.

    I think it devalues the word now that everyone is using it without regard for achievement. What's more, artists are the only profession I can think of that encourages this practice. Certainly doctors, lawyers, licensed plumbers and electricians discourage and or even prohibit amateurs from claiming to be members of their field. The overuse and misuse of the word have made it a euphemism for unemployed or frivolous and usually elicits an eye roll.

  15. Now I wish you were my teacher…but this blog will be a good substitute…
    Great sage advice…experience of doing….often and with desire to learn and to approach the next day with the commitment to try another one, and another one….and to explore our materials, and to watch and learn to see how our mind, heart, hands, and body responds and creates…..And to stand back each and every time…and say with enthusiasm…"Wow…I created that…what have I learned….and how can I grow…Now let's try this again" …and I am okay with letting go…as if someone expresses interest…to buy…say yes…and be excited by the fact that someone loves your work….now go and create another excellent experience and painting or art work"
    Thanks for the great lessons and great words and guidance….All of it really gets me going….As I have understood…we will learn what we need to learn when we are ready to understand only when we are doing and asking questions and doing again…repeat process for a lifetime.

  16. I would call myself an "amateur painter", because I think the term "artist" belongs to people more creative than I am. I was a professional at other things in my working life but always enjoyed great art. I dabbled in it for many years but after retirement I took the time to try to learn the craft. Since then I have improved but realize that I may be limited to painting "nice paintings" that other people enjoy. I will continue to work at it but probably without the real fervor that professional artists exhibit. This blog has inspired me to experiment and learn more. Keep it up.

  17. As an art student, I have no illusions that I have a ways to go to stake a claim to the title of a professional artist, however, like a few of your other commenters I am an artist who regularly blogs my art even while my skill set is very much a work in progress.

    You're tale of going from full-time non-artistic
    employment to a illustrator then production assistant and finally a fine artist really resonates with me. It was very inspiring to read about your work ethic and really what it takes to improve your artistic skills through deliberate hard work. I will tell you one thing though, I would have found it fascinating and instructive to see that journey unfold real time on the web.

    I have found that my blog keeps me more focused rather than less. It may be somewhat self-absorbed, but I tend to think anytime you take something you have created and submit it for public consumption you must have the ego to claim this thing which I have created has value.

    I am working everyday to create better art and whether I keep that work hidden in my apartment or on my blog, I hope the trajectory is a positive one that moves me closer to the professional standard which you speak of.

    Thanks for your perspective and insight. It definitely got me thinking.

  18. Larry,

    Sorry to disagree with one of your points but I don't have a day job. I make my living as an artist selling my artwork. No trust fund, retirement account, social security, pension or inheritance.


    I would agree with you and I call myself a professional painter when people ask me. Whether my work is art is not for me to decide.


    I agree in theory that it is possible to do both well while still learning, but in practice I have not seen it happen. Most people can only learn to do one thing really well if they work hard at it. Yes, there are exceptions but they are so rare. It is the same reason why rock stars make lousy actors and vice versa.

    All good biographies and autobiographies are written after the fact. My point was to expose a danger I see with social media and multi tasking in general and the effect it has on accomplishment. .People that attempt many different things feel like they are getting more done but every scientific study shows this not to be the case. The people who live and breathe their passion to the exclusion of everything else take their vocation farther.

  19. Rudhi,

    Van Gogh was an amateur painter. He never made a living with his art and never sold a painting. Amateur does not mean bad, it means you don't make your living from it. There are many fine amateur painters.

  20. And, I might add, there are many crappy professional painters (I'm talking to you, Leroy Nieman). Making a living from painting doesn't necessarily make your work good, in my opinion. And what constitutes "a living". I
    think the terms amateur and professional are meaningless as far as what you seem to be trying to distinguish.

  21. Bill,

    I agree with you about the quality issue. My point was to draw a line between people learning their craft being sidetracked by social media. I think art is difficult. I believe it is better to learn something and then share it. This reality TV existence slows down actual accomplishment by making process more important than result.

  22. Armand,

    The topic of professional and amateur can be a heated subject. I see a lot of agreement in the comments. The topic can and surely has been beaten to death but the two adjectives "professional" and "amateur" define whether or not the artist is getting paid and in some respects their skill level. It has nothing to do with making a living.

    I find it funny how many consider the full time versus part time argument as the definitive measurement for professional versus amateur. I do like your definition of making a living from your art is what makes you a professional – that is your definition of you the artist. However, as Bill pointed out, what is making a living? I have used the benchmark of the national average salary as "making a living" and I think that works for me. Although, for many, less is just fine. It is like measuring success or defining happiness. My definition of success is not equal to someone elses…happiness is a state of mind, not a goal.

    Artists (in my opinion) fail to understand their art is subjective and is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. To criticize your post would be foul…but I disagree with you on the social media, and website points. Maybe one's skill is "good enough" (again subjective) and the Internet is a marketing tool. If you are saying there is a recipe for success and the recipe is to wait until you can find your customer base, then I beleive you are putting too much weight on exposure. Exposure is worthless, skills, work ethics, connections, and good business practices take us to the level of making a living. I earn my national average benchmark but I also have a day job because I can and I want to. I don't see myself as an amateur nor do I think I am not spending enough time on my skills building.

    I want to be careful with my words, I have waited a long time to post to this thread. First I agree to some extent. I also disagree with absolutism and I get the feeling of absolutism in the post. I may be wrong. Success, and making a living are words and phrases that mean nothing to me because they are not measurable. Goals, acheivements, and milestones matter to me. Health insurence at $16,000 per year for a family, a mortgage, car payment(s), other expenses, business overhead, gallery fees, and material costs leave most of us with about 10% of the sale price for our work. Why try to make a living at it when a JOB pays the bills and the art is a bonus?

    These are tough times, and artists have all the odds against them. Amateur is a fancy word for hobbiest. A professional gets paid, but making a living doesn't make one a professional. I personally think the adjective proceeding "artist" does not define the artist; the artwork that one creates makes them an artist. Amateur or professional, it does not matter, why do we have to have a title? Are we trying to make our resume look good? I am an artist…someone else can choose to call me a professional, or an amateur…that is what we have critics for!

    – Michael

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