What Does It Mean to be an Artist?

Last April, soon after starting this blog, I wrote a post in which I asked myself two very good questions:

  • How far could I go with my art studies?
  • How far did I want to go as an artist?

I didn’t have the answers then; I don’t have the answers today. What I do have are a lot of thoughts — and many, many questions — regarding what it truly means to be an artist.

Asher Brown Durand

The April post was written after reading an article about a class that spent 20 sessions drawing a single nose. Today’s post was prompted by reading one of the nine “landscape letters” penned by Asher Durand.

Durand has long been my favorite landscape artist. His paintings move me in ways no other artist has ever done. No matter how many times I see his work, I am awed by the beauty he created.

I call myself a “self-taught” artist, but of course, I have had many teachers along the way. One of the advantages of being “self-taught” is that I have the freedom to choose the source of my instruction. With art studies, I can call upon the greatest masters of all time and, through reading their words, I can learn directly from them.

With my love for Durand’s painting, of course I would choose him to be one of my many art instructors. I want to learn all I can from him.

durand-1On the other hand, one of the disadvantages in this method is that when questions arise, I can’t simply raise my hand in class and ask for an answer or an explanation. I’m left to ponder what I read, to puzzle over it, and ultimately, to interpret it as I see fit.

Reading the “landscape letters” has been interesting yet a bit disheartening at the same time. Asher, you see, makes a distinction between being “an artist” and being a “mere imitator”. He makes his opinions quite clear on one point. Anyone with sufficient desire can learn to draw and paint. These are simply mechanical skills which can be developed. Anyone can learn the proper techniques to follow in art, but that alone does not make one an artist.


durand-3Becoming a landscape artist, according to Durand, requires an intimate knowledge of nature. The artist must understand nature’s colors, her light, her shadows, her forms, her textures. He stresses the importance of learning to draw first, and much like the instructor who insisted his students spend 20 sessions on a single human nose, Durand insists the aspiring artist should work with pencil or charcoal to sketch the various elements of nature, foregoing color and focusing on light and dark.

He then advises the student to choose a simple foreground object, such as “a fragment of rock, or trunk of a tree” — one marked by strong light and shade — and then to “paint and re-paint until you are sure the work represents the model — not that it merely resembles it.”

durand-2When I first read these words, I thought I knew what Durand meant. My mind went back to earlier thoughts and feelings I had about drawing from nature. He was, I believed, asking the artist to capture every subtle nuance of the model, to create a perfect illustration much like botanical artists are required to do.

No! I don’t have the skills for that. I don’t have the patience. I lacked these basic qualities, and therefore could never hope to become a true artist. I was crushed, but I’m not a quitter. I dutifully grabbed my sketchbook and drawing pencils and set about completing an assignment. I would do my best to create a sketch of a tree trunk, paying attention to light and shade.

It is winter here, and for me, it’s far too cold to go sit outside and study tree bark, so I settled for taking a photograph and using it as a reference. I sketched the basic outline, studied the light and dark areas, and slowly but surely, I began creating my drawing.

That’s when the questions began. Oh, so many questions!

tree-trunk-graphite-01-2017Although I’m embarrassed to display my drawing alongside the work of Asher Brown Durand, for what it’s worth, here is my graphite sketch of the bark on a tree.

Is my sketch finished? I’m not sure. I’ve worked on it for several days, and I have a sense that I might work on it forever and never be finished with it. I could add more graphite here, or blend a bit there. I could do so many things!

But…do I want to? How long should I work on this simple sketch? Have I accomplished my purpose? Have I reached my goal? Have I successfully completed the assignment?

Those questions came to mind, and in all honesty, I have to admit that I don’t know the answers. I turned, of course, to Durand’s words. My work would be finished only when I was “sure the work represents the model — not that it merely resembles it.”

That’s when I realized that I didn’t have a clue what Durand meant by that statement. My sketch does resemble the reference model. That was what I thought I was supposed to do, but in doing so, have I created a resemblance and forgottenĀ the representation? Have I done this all wrong?

Is Durand asking that artists learn to represent a subject in a way that may or may not include a resemblance? In other words, if something I draw or paintĀ  does, in my own mind, represent the subject, is that all that’s asked of me as an artist? By representation, is Durand writing of the emotions, the moods, the myriad other things that go into art other than the mere fundamentals of drawing and painting?

Or am I reading him all wrong?

Since I can’t turn to Durand himself for clarification, I’m turning to this incredible online community. I need to know your thoughts and feelings about what it means to create a work that represents the model, not one that merely resembles it.

For me, this is an important question because I feel this is at the heart of what it means to be a true artist. Can I move beyond the basics, can I use the fundamentals I’ve learned as a foundation, and go on to create true landscape art?

I’m left with the same questions with which I began:

  • How far can I go with my art studies?
  • How far do I want to go as an artist?

I suppose the real question is whether or not it’s possible to learn how to become a true artist. As Durand continually points out anyone can develop the ability to draw or paint. Goodness knows, I’m living proof of that fact. But can anyone develop all those other qualities that are part of what art truly is?

It’s more than a matter of time and study. Proficient artists can be made, perhaps, but maybe one must be born a true artist.

Thoughts, please?



  1. Since it’s too cold to go outside , perhaps you could bring a branch or piece of bark inside… it’s possible that the answer you seek to the meaning of Durand’s statement will be more clear when you draw from the subject and not a representation of it.

    Sometimes , drawing from a photo taken by someone else can lead to drawing a representation of a representation .

    Texture and light require three dimensions . .. the thing itself as subject and not a two-dimensional representation of it.

    Liked by 3 people

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