Sep 262012

What is an Artist?

Professional vs Amateur

[ V E N I C E / V E R O N A  W o r k s h o p ]

Venice is known for its market

called “Il Mercato” locally.  After

a morning exploring the fish

mongers and farmers we stopped

for a coffee and stumbled upon 

the important question.  What 

is the difference between an 

artist and an amateur?


An artist in Venice. Adam Marelli

Workshop Discussion

Just a few steps from Venice’s market, Eric, myself and the group of photographers stopped into a local caffe to reflect on the morning.  Each participant had their own assignment for the morning.  The results were a mixed, but afterwards we regrouped and discussed our thoughts, findings, and hopes for the future shots.  We would love to roll out of the house everyday and take brilliant images, but most of us know that photography and perfection rarely meet in the same room.  The frustrations caused by a few hundred people rushing about brought us to an interesting question.

One of the photographers with us, Fabio, lives along Lake Garda, a quick drive from Venice.  As our cafe discussion expanded, he asked me how I made a distinction between an artist, a photographer or an enthusiast?  Sometimes these seemingly basic questions are harder to answer because we take the definitions for granted.  I really appreciate that he put me on the spot.  It forced me to collect my thoughts and see if I could put words to the idea of how I divide the artists from the Sunday painters.

A viewer is dwarfed by the painting by a friend of mine, Julie Mehratu, at the Punta Della Dogana. (Please note the gray border around the photograph indicates it was slightly cropped) © Adam Marelli

Language is Key

As with any opinion piece, I must start by saying that the follow ideas are not set in stone.  They are my current feelings about the term artist and will certainly evolve over the years.  But to the best of my ability, this is how I see the distinction between an artist and an enthusiast.

What is an artist? © Adam Marelli


art•ist  |ˈӓrtist |

An artist is someone who works within the visual language, expressing a knowledge and dexterity with its forms and symbols that is not in any way reliant on the text based languages.  There are no limitations to its form of expression, but an artist must be conversant in the visual language and not simply use its devices in arbitrary means and methods.

I tried to explain to Fabio that the dividing factor for me between an artist and the rest of the world is that the artist speaks the visual language.  They don’t just use its components, but they understand a visual DNA.  They are committed to developing a visual fluency beyond the limits of a verbal language.

To use myself as an example, for the last two years I have studied Italian.  I take classes once a week and at this point, I speak like a mildly educated five year old.  It is clear to me that the Italian language exists and that there are a few structures that I have at my disposal, but I do not speak Italian.  If I just started throwing out words, a native speaker, like Fabio, would say…”This guy is speaking non-sense.”  Its clear to someone who is fluent in Italian that I am learning, but I do not speak the language.

To an artist, it is just as clear whether someone speaks the visual language.  They might hold a paint brush or a camera, but that does not mean they use the visual language.  And just as there are deviations and dialects in the verbal language, so too are there in the visual language.  But underneath the slang, regional differences, and endlessly evolved words lies a grammar which is recognizable.

Most societies are not keen on teaching the visual language.  Art is considered a craft or hobby or worse yet a cute activity for those too inept to deal with the world.  We are taught grammar and math instead.  The visual language awaits those who study art specifically at later points in life.

Tools of the trade for the Venetian fishermen. © Adam Marelli

Professionals need not apply

One thing I wanted to reassure Fabio was that being an artist was not a matter of graduating from a certain program or working as a “professional.”  Most artists happen to have an education or apprenticeship and usually receive some type of professional work, but it is not a defining aspect of being an artist.  Speaking the visual language is something that escapes professional artists, editors, photographers and critics on a daily basis.  Working in the arts or being an artist are two completely different things.

Its like the argument against Brooklyn Hipsters.  You will often catch a certain breed of hipster saying they are “from Brooklyn.”  In reality, they happen to live in Brooklyn, they are not FROM Brooklyn.  There is a big difference. Proximity to an idea does not guarantee mastery, nor does any college degree.  There are plenty of visual illiterates running around with art degrees or worse yet MFA degrees.  We need to study, but more importantly we need to achieve a fluency in the visual language.  The amateur or enthusiast should not be intimidated by the college degrees of so called professionals.

The visual language is truly accessible to anyone, but it needs to be passed from one person to the next.  There is no single text or even a canon of books that will make you entirely fluent in the visual language.  Again I will use myself as an example.  I liked to draw as a child.  We could say I had an inclination towards art.  But I was not an artist.  Only working for years in studios, classes, workshops (the kind of workshops where you build things), and through personal mentoring did I become fluent in the visual language.  And even still, my career (for lack of a better term) is far from flawless.   Professional development and marketability is another skill set.

These guys are definitely not amateurs. That table saw more fish guts than the belly of Moby Dick. © Adam Marelli

What’s an Amateur

An amateur is someone who is not interested in learning the visual language.  In photography terms they are obsessed with gear, specifications, new releases and often post production.  Is it a problem?  Certainly not.  If it is just a hobby and it is fun, have at it.  But it seems to me, that the amateur approach is almost willfully shallow.  There are so many outlets for enhancing our understanding of a visual language and the amateur stops short.  This may be due to a number of factors, one of which is not their fault.  The current selection of photography magazines at most bookshops are gear/technique porn magazines.  Artist need to make a better effort to open their studios to the curious amateur, because I believe MANY people are interested in the mechanisms of art.  In fact, its probably easier than learning Italian, but it has to be learned.  My suspicion is that Fabio’s questions and seeking put him more on the side of the artist than the amateur.

Art and entertainment are often mistaken for one another. Street performer near Zattere. © Adam Marelli

The Exceptions

Anyone who has studied a touch of art history knows that some of the most successful artists:

  • Received little to no money during their careers

  • Garnered few, if any actual commissions

  • May not have been understood for decades to come

  • Spent the bulk of their life working on self assigned projects

  • And did all of their learning outside of the spot light

Unlike photography, art has a greater tolerance for obscurity and has never weighed “getting work” or being a “working professional” as a measure of anything.  In most cases, the art world actually looks down on people who work in commercial art fields.  Being an artist is not about having a resume, its not about the school you went to and it does not matter what gallery you show at or who publishes your pictures.  Chances are if you are really good at the visual language, you will have commercial opportunities…but it is not a defining factor.

Art is essentially a mark making tradition. –Myron Barnstone

The most important aspect of being an artist is understanding the language which is at your disposal.  This is the visual language.  Its basic grammar is composed of (5) marks.

  • point .

  • horizontal line –

  • vertical line |

  • diagonal line /

  • curve or arc ( or S

These are the real tools of the artist.  Its expression is simply a matter of taste.

Kenyon Cox gives us a little advice. Adam Marelli

Welcome Fabio, you are not alone

I could see in Fabio’s words that he was searching, for some reconciliation about this dilemma.  These are the types of questions that keep developing artists up at night.  The excitement is often overwhelming.  In the moments of questioning/frustration, we can find solace in the secrets left to us by other artists.  I believe they truly wanted to share their understanding with posterity.

Otherwise they would not have left so many masterpieces, notebooks, and notes behind for us to examine.  The visual language is the oldest continuous language on the planet.  And while I do not want everyone to abandon their camera for a pencil, I would like to keep things in perspective.  The tools for art making are important.  Without a means for mark making, there can be no artistic tradition.  But the principles of design govern our tools.  American artist Kenyon Cox said, “Without design, there be representation, but there can be no art.” We would only be left with mental exercises.

If you would like to leave the realm of the Sunday painter and engage the artistic realm, the good news is the admission is free.  It is a commitment to learning and understanding that is more accessible than you might think.  Leave a comment of encouragement to Fabio, because as we set out along this path, we know it may be difficult.  In the moments of discontent, its helpful to hear from a community of like minded artists to say, “yes keep going…it is worth it.”


–Adam Marelli


  27 Responses to “What is an Artist?”

  1. Fabio,
    I thinks that starting to ask to yourself this important question is a very good spot. This means that you are changing your attitude on photography and that your commitment is high.

    • Thanks Vinicio,

      Your words are spot on. I feel like Fabio is on the right track. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable to enter new territory, but eventually it will work for him.


  2. Adam, your post is, as usual, full of great points to open new “brain stimulating moments”.



    • Hey Vinicio,

      Happy to hear the articles are keeping the “brain gears” spinning.

      I am still day dreaming about the restaurant you took Stacy and I to. Next time I will fast for the entire day so I can eat all 6 plates!


  3. Wonderful post.

    Reviewing the negatives from the past month I ask myself whether I have improved. Still getting my feet we about the process, getting past the equipment so that I and it does what it should in the moment.

    Increasingly the approached has changed from casual to deliberate.

    I imagine I’ll be shooting more often but perhaps burn through less rolls as I go on, taking care to really see what I am shooting.

    Thanks again

    • Hey Luke,

      Glad you liked the post and again it was fantastic catching up in Venice. For anyone reading this, Luke and I went to university together, but have not seen each other in more than 10 years.

      We are going to put together a Bangkok workshop in the coming months, which will be awesome.

      OK back to the comment. It seems to me like most of the equipment work has been settled for you. The M4 and the 28mm are doing you well. With less moving parts, the images will certainly come together more in the coming months.

      And you have a great plan to shoot more often, but take less frames. By constantly looking and evaluating scenes it will allow the selection to become more fluid.


      • Yes, it was great catching up and the workshop in Bangkok is going to be fantastic.

        Looking over my Italy and Hong Kong work, there are a lot of snaps shots and a few well-considered pics. I think I’ve fallen into a habit of zone-focusing to get the shot but not giving myself time to frame and create a real narrative. The capture was important to me at the time of shooting but when editing the contact sheet, they may not say all too much.

        Hopefully will make progress between now and our next meeting.

        Continue the good work, see you soon.

  4. Another great post, Adam. Are there any books, websites, etc. that you can recommend to start us on our path to learning the visual language?

  5. I am an amateur, but please don’t tell me that I’m not interested in learning a visual language. I own nice gear (Nikon D7000, Nikon F100, Yashica MAT 124G) but these are tools that I find congenial and that allow me to work at learning a visual language. I also study art ( again, as an amateur), and I look to painters as well as photographers to help me achieve my goals. I am not an artist by your definition, and I accept that, but I am constantly learning, and have been since I first picked up a camera in 1953. I wish the various photo publications on the market would spend more time on composition, etc., but if I want that, there are any number of magazines that cater to painters and other graphic artists, and it is to these that I look to for inspiration and instruction.

    Thank you for the chance to contribute my $.02 worth.

    With best regards,

    Stephen S. Mack

    • Hi Stephen,

      No one is calling you anything and not sure where I said you were not interested in the visual language. Its sounds like you are and have been so since somewhere around 1953. As you mentioned the tools don’t matter. Its sounds like you are a student of art, like I am a student of italian. To an untrained ear, it sounds like I speak Italian. To a real italian speaker it sounds like I am a four year old.

      The definitive title is less important. Fabio is studying art just as I am studying Italian. You are free to identify with the idea or name that suits you. The challenging thing about art is that there are no boards to certify that you either are or are not an artist. Anyone can use the term. Its only when they but up against someone else that it becomes obvious whether it is a true statement.

      We certainly agree that photo publications are lacking and even art magazines are more interested in reviews that offering useful tools for the aspiring artist.

      Do you have a link to some of your work? Would be great to see how you are progressing.


  6. The thing with art is that it’s a moving target. I painted graffiti for over a decade and most of the time I’d hate the piece before I even finished it simply because I knew the next one would be better. But there is no end, it just keeps going. Always inching towards a goal but never quite achieving it. There is something beautiful about that, in a pull-your-hair-out-with-frustration sort of way.

    I’m more interested (or should I say active) in photography than painting nowadays but I still feel this constant uneasiness with where I stand. In some ways I actually find photography much more difficult simply because of how little control I seem to have over the events that unfold in front of me. The accessibility of the modern camera is almost a sort of ruse. It takes a LOT of work and dedication to get anywhere truly meaningful with photography (or painting, or drawing, dance, etc.). It’s really a lifetime of learning. This is a wonderful post Adam, you are consistently making me think long and hard about what I am doing. It is very appreciated.


    • Hey Mark,

      You hit it on the head, art is a moving target. There is a funny parallel between art and atomic theory, without getting too scientific. But to the best of my understanding, in the days of Einstein, atoms could be measured for their speed or their position. But the more closely the speed was measured, the less accurately the position and vice versa.

      Art is a lot like that. The further it is defined in one direction, the looser it gets in another.

      Your observations that the ease of photography and the availability of camera creates the illusion that photography should be more accessible is true. The mechanism for generating an image has improved, but it is no easier to make a good photography now than it was 50 years ago. In fact, thanks to poor city planning and advertising run amuck, its probably getting harder.

      In spite of the obstacles, we continue making images. Its no mistake that Picasso pulled all his hair out. That’s why artists grow beards, because there is no hair left on their heads.


  7. Artist vs. amateur ….an ongoing debate for the ages. For me – Art is the manifestation of each persons creative vision. Whatever tools necessary but with deliberate effort. Design essential and the ability to use a visual dialogue crucial. Classics are such for a reason. To be continued…..Adam you are an interesting young man. Keep up the good writing. pb

    • “Classics are such for a reason.” An excellent point that is often overshadowed by novelty. I heard someone describe New York as a place where “mediocrity is mistaken for mastery.” I had the sense that the comment pointed at the short term memory of NYC. This could be applied across the board.

      Thank you the perspective. We could all use it!


  8. I would like to thank you, Adam, for pointing out an important question about art and the artist.
    As for the difference between a hobbyist, a professional and an artist, I see it as a question of talent and devotion. A hobbyist, as you said, is having a good time, nothing wrong with it. He is keeping the business running for tutors, reviewers and the BH Photo Video, Adorama and the likes. Been there, done that and it was good fun.

    A professional, by definition, earns his bread and butter by doing pictures whether for advertizing, decoration or memorizing family events. He can be an artist also, why not. But he does not have the time and the money of the hobbyist. He is like a baker: People come to get their baguettes and croissants and no surprises, thank you.

    An artist, on the contrary is a different animal totally. I have known some. They see the world differently than I do. They are born different. They can be intelligent or less so, they can be brilliant or dull but they just have it. There is no amount of training or experience that can replace the stuff they have behind their eyes and between their ears.

    People like me can mimick artists by following their advices -or better still, of someone like you. You have a deep insight in visual arts and you have a highly cerebral approach to how you make your pictures. It is rare and very enlightening, and I admit having benefitted from some of the points you have made.

    Artists are born that way. It is like musicians, you can teach nearly any kid to play piano but there are only the few who are born to do it, who put the necessary 4 hours a day to really learn it, who have it in them. I do not mean to say that only those few should be playing piano or that only artists should be allowed to present their pictures.

    Only that the fact of the matter is pretty harsh and most certainly not politically correct: We are born different.

    • Hey Marrti,

      Well put, I imagine your comment rings true for many people. While everyone might be not be a “born artist,” though I hardly believe in that concept…a little dedication, a lot of hard work will go a very long way. Guidance and feedback are useful too. Hopefully I can provide you with a few tips here and there.


  9. What a great posts and lively discussion.

    I’m a new fine art graduate from the Philippines and I am looking forwards to having a career as a fine art photographer.

    This post has great enlightened some of my confusion and doubt problems.

    I have to disagree with martii saying that artists are born, i “believe” artists are developed or sustained. just as Pablo Picasso said we are all artists the problem is staying artists.

    The analogy between visual language and the italian language helped a lot in identifying with I had done and seen others than are works of art.

    Though there are still artworks accepted by “institutions” that I hardly accept as art, such as certain installations and perfomance. Specifically the ones that for me are poorly crafted, not well thought of, and gory. Maybe it’s a dialect of the visual arts or something.

    Any thoughts on that?


    • Hey Gerome,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. To answer your question, I believe that institutions have backed a lot of rubbish art. Performance and installations happen to be really difficult categories to produce successful work. While it is possible, it is rare. Many times, the slapped together efforts, burdened with lengthy historical references, art jargon, or narratives are nothing more than junk. But that is why we play the art game. We make our work, they make theirs, we see which ones last.

      As for artists being born, that is not something I comment on often. The shortest version is that there appears to be an intangible quality of a master artist that cannot be accounted for on just hard work and training. Whether its a gift, vision, or talent (another word I am not fond of) there is something which separate the very good artists from the great ones. But for a working artist, its best to pay no attention to any of that and just focus on work. Sitting back in a rocking chair in their 90′s, see if they still believe that they were born with something…

      Glad to hear the site is of service to you and good luck with the start of your career! It takes a lot of courage to become a full time artist.


  10. Thanks for your insightful posts. I can’t speak for Fabio, but it has encouraged me to continue my journey in art.

  11. Hi Adam,
    On your piece ‘What is an Artist’. As a photography teacher at an English college As part of the course I run classes on seeing for students who are studying photography. As part of this course my students are expected to draw with a pencil. Many of them kick against this and are resistant to grappling in any way with a pencil. Comments such as ‘but I came here to make photographs, not learn how to draw’ or ‘but I’m rubbish at drawing’ are often heard when the classes first start. I ask my learners to draw just shadows trying to capture the fine nuances in light and shade. As the course progresses the complaints are heard less and less. The students are now learning the skill of intense observation, not just looking, as most people do, but really seeing. As you know, good photographers need to be highly visually sensitive to the world and that that makes photography possible, light. This is a vital skill. Wether photography is art or photographers artist I’m not sure. But I tend towards the dictum that no photographer is an artist, but some photographs can be or can become art.

    • Hi Martyn,

      First let me please apologize for never responding to this comment. It must have slipped through the cracks.

      Thank you for your story about the students…its right on point. Learning to see is a key element in our development, regardless of the intended profession.

      Recently I heard someone recounting that as a part of a young English gentleman’s education, they were taught to draw. Not so they could make pretty pictures, but because drawing makes you the keenest of observers, even one that Sherlock Holmes would envy. And I have found it to be true. People often mistake draftsmen as having photographic memories…which is sometimes true. But in more cases than not, draftsmen spend all day looking. They are professional seers, but not with the faithfulness of a camera. They allow their experience to move elements around, but without the audience noticing.

      This is why most young art students draw better if their subject is upside down. Because when something is upside down, we no longer see it as the “thing” we know. It becomes an abstraction. Its that information thats already imbedded in our brain that causes most people their troubles in drawing and seeing. Artists have developed techniques for seeing things anew, which is applicable to every field of study in the world. Though most of industry, government, and education thinks that we just make “cute pictures.” Haha.


  12. Adam,

    I just found your blog/workshop page this morning! I am thrilled that I did! Fabio’s questions to amounts to the idea he is willing and interested in the visual language that would make him an artist, or considered an artist. Is it proper to call ourselves “artist”?

    I call myself photographer, self taught. Picking up the camera as only the first step, taking photos was the next, finding out that others “liked” them was a added plus, kept me getting there. At some point I knew I didn’t know very much about Photography, what was good or bad? I just had a sense of what I liked, It gives me a great pleasure to photograph the world around me. The icing on the cake is the acceptance of my work.

    All through this blog I kept asking, “so what is this “visual language” and how do we get it? Finally the words where there expressed. “The visual language is truly accessible to anyone, but it needs to be passed from one person to the next. There is no single text or even a canon of books that will make you entirely fluent in the visual language” In a sense it is immersion into the arts. I have been involved in local photography groups for sometime now, yet there was something always missing. The mentor, the teachers, the language.

    I am thrilled I have found these pages!! Thank you Adam for passing on your wisdom. I am most grateful.

    Jeff Stroud

    • Hi Jeff,

      Its nice to feel your enthusiasm come through the comment. Im pleased that you have found the site…and if this is your first time here, then you will have plenty of reading to do. Also, you might want to watch my BH Video “Bridging the Gap” and “How to talk to strangers.” They will each elaborate on some of the ideas relating to the visual language.

      You are absolutely correct that all the books in the world will not amount to anything other than a pile of homework. The visual language needs to be passed from one artist to the next. When its passed only through text, there is a lot of information that gets lost and it takes hundreds of years to put it back together. Have a look at how long the Renaissance artists stumbled through the Greeks and Romans sense of proportion. Its just a whole lot fast if the tradition is kept moving.

      Anyway, welcome to the site. Enjoy looking around and I will talk to you soon.


  13. Adam,

    Thank you for your response! I was and am enthused to find such wondrous expression of art through your language. It is like a breath of fresh air to me right now.
    I do have catching up to do, I think I will enjoy each moment.



  14. I don’t know what to say about this post!! I feel like I have understood what I read or totally unaware about it. I was shooting relentlessly for about two years before I found out that street photography was what I wanted to do from the very beginning, Thanks to you and Eric for creating such wonderful blogs that has inspired me a lot.
    I have one more question to you, what should I call myself now that I have read this post?

    • Dipu,
      Happy that the article helped you and your photography out. In terms of what you should call yourself, Id say, call yourself what you would like to be. If that is a photographer, then say I am a photographer. If it is an artist, then I would say, I am an artist. Its up to you. Just be sure to back up whatever you say with great work. : )

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