Amateur vs. Professional Artist: 7 Questions to Ask Yourself

Do You Think Your Ready for the Professional Artist Title?

Male artist holding paint brush looking at canvas on easel in studio
Henrik Sorensen/The Image Bank/Getty Images

You've been painting for a few years, have shown work in a group show at the local art center, and maybe you have even sold a painting or two. Are you ready to step beyond the title of an amateur artist?

Distinguishing amateur from professional artists is tricky business. It is not just a matter of your ability to create nice paintings. It also has nothing to do with whether you have a 'real' job or not. There are many factors that play into taking that step and it doesn't happen instantly.

As much as many amateur artists hate to hear it, success does not happen overnight and it is not based on skill or personality alone. Professional artists have dedicated years of their lives to creating and selling their art.

Very few artists become overnight sensations and head off to New York City galleries. It takes time and there are professional artists at every level selling in various venues. As diverse as they are, there are a number of things that professional artists have in common and here are a few questions to ask yourself.

#1 - What Medium Are You Using?

Amateur gallery shows are filled with watercolor paintings. While there is nothing wrong with watercolor and there are some fabulous professionals working in the medium, it is often a sign that you are an amateur artist.

Many painters begin with watercolors because they believe it is easier. In some aspects, this is true but you will find that acrylics and water-soluble oils are just as easy to learn and these paints are better at hiding beginner's mistakes (and there are mistakes, admit it). 

You don't have to dive right into the complexities of oil paints but can use acrylics as a step in that direction. By doing this, you will learn techniques that the pros use, like impasto work and using mediums to manipulate the paint.

Even professional watercolor artists know and can use other painting mediums and it is important to explore your options while you're still new to art. You may even find you enjoy another medium more.

It is also important to use quality paints no matter which medium you choose. Once you have a foundation in technique, begin investing in professional-grade art supplies and you will notice a difference in the quality of your work.

#2 - What Are You Painting?

The next question you need to ask yourself is what are you painting? Landscapes and still lifes are perfect for beginners and there are many professionals who stick with those subjects through their entire career, but there is so much more in the world to paint.

Have you attempted abstract painting? What about Impressionism? Maybe mixed media is your true calling. The thing is that you will never know until you try and there is no reason to be stuck on the same subject matter unless you really love it and have tried others.

Every professional artist started with the same subjects. Some continued on with those and perfected them and many ventured out beyond those conventional boundaries. They challenged themselves to find inspiration outside of a beautiful mountain scene and this often leads them to create more expressive paintings with deeper meaning to both themselves and the viewers (and, ultimately, buyers).

Also, are you simply painting a copy of a photograph? While this is a common artist's reference and good for practicing your depth, perspective, and color skills, it is not ideal in the long term.

You can still use a photograph as a reference for flowers or landscapes, but only as a reference. Instead of copying the photo, use it to sketch out your own interpretation of the subject. This is an essential skill for any artist to learn as they grow.

#3 - How is Your Final Presentation?

Professional artists know that each painting is not complete until the final presentation has been perfected. They also do not wait until a painting is finished to think about how it will hang on a wall. 

If you attend enough art shows, you will quickly notice that professional artists do not stick to standard canvas or paper sizes. They may not even use traditional surfaces. This is because the substrate - it's size, shape, and texture - has been carefully selected for that particular piece of art.

Many professional artists stretch their own canvases or cut hardboards to sizes not found in art and craft stores. One painting may be better on a square canvas while another should be on a long rectangular board with the intention of adding a frame. It is all about visualizing the final piece of art and working that idea from the very beginning.

Framing is another presentation area where amateurs and pros differ. Many amateur painters will toss a painting into a frame as an afterthought with little consideration for how it works with the piece. Pros, on the other hand, choose framing (and mats, if needed) very carefully so nothing detracts from the painting.

Also, keep in mind that frames are not always necessary. You will notice that many professional paintings that have that 'WOW' factor are deep canvas mounts that hang bare on the wall.

#4 - Have You Developed a Style?

When you have figured out your medium of choice, explored subject matter, and learned how to professionally finish your paintings, the next step is to develop a personal style. What makes your paintings different than every other painting out there? Are your paintings cohesive as a body of work or are you all over the place?

A personal style comes along with technique, medium, and subject and it tends to develop naturally over time. Style does not mean that you are painting the same thing over and over or using the same color palette on every canvas. It refers to the look and feel of your paintings. 

Salvador Dali explored many artistic mediums, but they all have a distinct Dali style. The same goes for Picasso who even dabbled in pottery that had his style.

Every artist has a style and when you begin to develop it, this is when you really know that you're on the road to being a pro. The key to finding it is to follow your vision, utilize your artistic license, and paint, paint, paint!

#5 - What Is Your Motivation?

Artists talk about their motivation all of the time. What gets you out of bed every morning to paint? How do you find the energy to spend every weekend hauling your artwork to fairs and shows? Why do you do what you do?

Every artist, both professional and amateur, has their own motivations. In general, we all love to do what we do and we get a satisfaction out of creating. For the professional artist, it goes beyond that.

Some artists wish to convey a deep message in every painting. Others simply hope to make a living doing what they love. Yet, all professional artists know that they have to create and they will do whatever they need to keep doing that.

On the opposite side, many amateur artists wait for inspiration to come. If they are not in the mood, they do not bother looking at the canvas. They may even stop painting if another activity pops up in their day.

Pros are not easily distracted or torn away from their work in progress, some days it may even take a natural disaster to pry them from the studio. Dedication is their primary motivation and they know that they need to keep working, they need to get out of bed, they need to paint as much as possible.

Professional artists are constantly looking for inspiration for the next painting. They also know that the next painting will be better than the last one and that there is always room for improvement. This excites them. 

#6 - Are You Active in the Art Community?

Art can be a very solitary life, filled with hours and weeks alone in the studio. Yet every good artist knows that they have to get out in the world at some point. That is, after all, where inspiration comes from.

Gallery shows, art fairs, and local art organizations keep artists in touch with other artists. Many artists consider opening receptions essential to their work and may even view it as a substitute for a company picnic. It is a chance to interact with other artists and professionals in the art community.

Rather than being loners or competitive, many professional artists look forward to speaking with other artists. They compare notes, talk about recent work or mutual acquaintances, and show support for one another. 

Many cities and towns have vibrant, active art communities and this is one barrier that amateur artists need to break through. If you are shy or new to the scene, attend art events and stand in the shadows to watch how other artists interact. Introduce yourself to painters you admire or come up with small talk to get a conversation started.

Successful artists know that their success does not just depend on the quality of their work or how affordable it is. Personality plays a large role in the art community and with buyers as well. The more interesting you are, the better your art is received. Many artists struggle with this and are natural introverts but they learn to become more outgoing over time.

#7 - Are You Ready to View Art as a 'Job'?

There is a certain work ethic that professional artists have. It doesn't matter if their art is a full-time career or a part-time endeavor after their day job, they still understand that art is work and they treat it as such. It's a really cool job, but it's a job nonetheless.

There is much more to being a professional artist than simply creating great art that people will buy. Before anyone buys, they have to know about it.

This means that artists must market themselves and show their work in galleries, museums, and at art fairs. They need to complete applications and proposals, price their work, manage costs, and plan every element that goes into each of those pieces of the puzzle.

Besides that, someone has to clean the studio bathroom. There is also a website and computer to maintain, photographs to be taken to show the work online, and someone has to make sure the studio doesn't run out of paint or canvas (or coffee).

Many artists do all of this on their own or with the help of a few family members, friends, or the occasional assistant or representative. It is a lot of work and you will run into quite a few artists who spend more time doing the mundane tasks associated with selling their art than they do in creating it. 

Why? Because if you don't sell your work you do not have the money to make more art!

This is the reality of the professional artist and it is not the easiest path in life. Many run into obstacles and yet they often find large and small amounts of success to keep them motivated.

As much as all artists would love to simply create for eight hours a day or stop down to the coffee shop every afternoon, the reality is that it is a business and quite often it's up to the artist to run the whole thing.

Professional artists are masters at time management and organization because they have to be. The notion of the flighty artist who wanders around all day swinging a brush at the canvas on occasion is a myth.

Are You Ready to Become a Pro?

Again, it's a tough question and one that only you can answer. There is a misconception that the life of a professional artist is either rosy and wonderful or spent starving. Neither of those is completely accurate and no two artists are the same.

Whether you pursue a professional art career or not, keep creating. You will find a personal satisfaction in painting that few other hobbies can give you. Don't be discouraged and simply paint!