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Painter, Illustrator or Artist

First published Thursday, 4 February 2016

I am an artist. That is a very hard thing for me to say, or type. Like many who paint, draw or sculpt for a living I see the word as an award to be made by others rather than a job description that I can claim for myself, though I have been pushed to do so by my framer, website designer and those advising me on marketing. Social media and the prolific growth of self representation through websites has led to many discussions about the word and many people of amateur status claiming it, in fact amateurs seem to have less hang-ups about it than the rest of us scribblers. The Concise English Dictionary definition of artist reads: “One skilled in the learned arts; one proficient in any art requiring skill”, though many online dictionaries only define the term as one who creates paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby. Some of the arguments use the latter definition to argue that even a small child who draws therefore must be an artist, but then where does that leave us who have worked, trained (including on-going self training) and practiced our art for years? I’m not griping here, I am genuinely asking.

Certainly in Europe in the past it was more clear-cut. To become an artist (or craftsman) you signed on with a master as an apprentice. This was unpaid work, though board and lodgings were provided and you were trained as you worked doing the dogsbody tasks until you achieved proficiency and were fully competent. You then became termed a journeyman artist. Journeymen were paid or allowed to charge a daily rate and continued to work for the master artist, often painting in sections of the master’s work, though only the master could sign a finished painting. They lived apart from the master and often traveled to continue their learning or to work in other areas. To become a master a journeyman had to produce a masterpiece, which was submitted to a guild for evaluation. That sort of feudal system died out along with the idea of artists having patrons who supported them.

What came in its place was the idea of the artist as the individual, and more, an individual apart. The Feudal system artists were considered artisans: skilled in painting but not necessarily in intellect, they were just other craftsmen, but the lone artist somehow became elevated to a new status as a creative in art and in mind.

I used to work as an Illustrator and Graphic Designer. I never had any problems calling myself an illustrator. I did my job producing layouts, drawings and paintings, mainly for printed brochures and magazines, following in the tradition that had run alongside art and artists back to, and most likely before the 12th century illuminated manuscripts of the bible and Koran, through heraldry, advertising and right up to the modern website. Most likely illustration and graphics started alongside the beginnings or the formal written word. History calls graphics, illustration and other applied arts ‘commercial art’ and here we get into the wonderful world of words confusing, rather than clarifying, the issue. The use of the term was intended to describe art that communicated, to explain concepts, educate, inform, corroborate or decorate as opposed to ‘Fine Art’ which was purely for aesthetics, but has become contorted to be read as art for money’s sake and therefore inferior to art for art’s sake. In the master/patron system the ‘fine art’ produced often conveyed a message, most often about status or religion, at the commission of the patron and most definitely for money (after all there were all those apprentices and journeymen to pay!).

I would probably call myself a journeyman (though without a master), although I’m sure someone would object to the ‘man’ part of that as I am female. I think journeywoman or worse journeyperson just sound plain odd. Unfortunately most people don’t recognise the term, whatever gender. I have called myself a painter, but then people tend to think that I could decorate their houses for them. I am not an illustrator anymore apart from the occasional ‘commercial’ commission. So what am I?

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