Do You Define Yourself Or Limit Yourself as an Artist?

Do You Define Yourself Or Limit Yourself as an Artist?

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Something interesting happened this week – some good news which opened up a good question:

The question is – What do you call yourself – as an artist?  

Let me explain:  

I had a couple of paintings accepted for the Spanish Pastel Society (ASPAS) International Biennial in Oviedo next February.  It is a great show  – I have attended the last two and I’m there proud to represent the UK.  There are usually in excess of eighteen countries represented – mainly from Europe, Russian China, the USA, Canada –  real big event.   If you are in Spain – and a pastelist – you should be there. So back to my two paintings.

The first one I submitted:

Capesthorne Hall, Sunset, 25 x 19inches, landscape

‘Sunset Over Capesthorne Hall’

Pastel On Sennelier La Carte (pastel card)   25 x 19″

One of my old favourite painting venues back in the UK – Capsethorne Hall is a bit of a Downton Abbey – with a great pond and lake which make great painting. I love painting landscapes and I know that many of you do too.

Landscapes  are personal and yet universal. They are evocative, and diverse.    Amazing how many people in Spain love my work of the English landscape.    Although many of my British clients like to by mediterranean scenes!

So far so good.

The second painting:

'Light - in Two syllables' Portrait in soft pastel 36 x 25"

‘Light in Two Syllables’   Portrait of Graham in White


36 x 26″ on Suedeboard

I have drawn or painted portraits all of my life – well at least since having ditched the colouring books that occupied my childhood.

So the really interesting thing that cropped up this week was this;  I had a private message from a painting friend asking: ‘Hey Heather – how did you get away  with that?’

‘Get away with what?’  I asked.

‘Getting two pieces of work into an International show – in two different genres?’  In other words – one a landscape and one a portrait?

Truly it hadn’t occurred to me – but it should have done.   For me it was an old monster that had reared its ugly head  – from my past.     The monster of ‘putting artists into convenient boxes’.    Catagorizing and labelling you and saying – ‘She is a landscape artist’, and ‘He is a portrait artist’.

In fact – it is quite rare to find artists exhibiting in the big International Exhibitions – showing more than one side of their work.    Of course many artists don’t develop more than one side of their work – and that’s fine.

But so many beginner artists dont settle into one genre only


When you are learning you might well jump from drawing an elephant to drawing a landscape, or painting a flower.   then you might try your first portrait.   You might – like I did – find a passion for portraiture at an early age (13) and pursue it wholeheartedly.    But somewhere along the line my artistic = curious nature – led me to landscape, skies, water scenes townscapes – still life……….

I can’t think of many of my favourite artists throughout the ages – who haven’t  painted in more than one genre.

It is true that part of this problem of labelling artists stems in part from the gallery system.   If you take your work to a gallery – (that is if you can find one in the internet age)    in the hope that they will help you up the career ladder, it has been the case in that a gallery would assess your work on the fact that you had settled into one genre and stuck to it.  Galleries I have had involvement with didn’t want my portrait work ( because it was then up to them to get me clients – and many weren’t up to the job) but they were interested in my landscape work, because they could sell it.

Farther up the gallery ladder – the big London galleries would not look at someone who had not developed their ‘specialty’.

Yes galleries and curators have had a large part to play in this ‘pushing artists into a bracket’.

But what I don’t like to see is artists doing it to themselves.

Freedom to ‘Be’ whatever kind of artist you want to be

I think on e of the greatest disservices you can do to yourself is to put yourself into a bracket.   Think of it this way – would a musician do it?  Or a songwriter – only write one kind of song?    Can you imagine a dress designer – one of the big or smaller names – saying I only design pants.    I dont do blouses and shirts.   I make skirts but not tops.   They would be out of business pretty quickly.    Does a hairdresser only do one style?

I am an artist.    I use paint.   My paint of choice is pastel – but I still use oils occasionally, and watercolour.  I love using nothing more than a pencil or a stick of charcoal.    I wouldn’t mind betting some of you diversify in this way too.  But how many of you catagorize yourself in terms of subject?

Restricting yourself too early can restrict the artist you want to be

I come across is all the time on Pastel Artists UK.    Sometimes because the commissioned artist route is a tempting prospect and that usually means portraits of some kind.   And sometimes it is because I have so many beginners and love it when I see them having a go at different things – just loving the pastel – and discovering as they go.

But restricting yourself is like putting yourself into a room and shutting all doors and windows except one – and hoping that one will never shut on you.    It is also giving you a form of tunnel vision.

To go back to music as an analogy.   Musicians work within the confines of musical notation – only so m any notes to play with – but I cant imagine many wanting to restrict themselves to ‘just five’.    They might – but look at what they might achieve with eight?   ( Yes I know dont remind me – look at Status Quo!!)

Specializing in one genre is fine – when you have sampled and learnt all you can from other genres too.    Rembrandt needed to know how to paint landscape ( his landscape pen and ink called ‘The Mill’ makes me cry it is so beautiful).   John Singer Sargeant the same.  His watercolours are the stuff I dream of owning.

But you know I am pretty proud of having two genres on show within the same exhibition.  I can recommend it.   Why?

Because those tricks of light that everyone comments on in the portrait – I learned from landscape.  And the tonal depth of the landscape – I learnt from portraiture – where tone is important.


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