What Defines an Artist? Self-Taught vs. Trained

What defines an artist? Is it the production of a creative work? Is it the result of training in the craft? These questions were on my mind over a holiday break as I toured the American Visionary Art Museum at Baltimore, Maryland’s Inner Harbor.

All of the works displayed in the museum are from self-taught artists, including Wayne Kusy, who built a replica of the Lusitania from 193,000 toothpicks and five pounds of glue (a video of him and his work is here). Here’s the museum’s take on its mission:

All of us at AVAM enjoy and respect the learning that comes from academic study or through apprenticeship to a trained artist. We dedicate AVAM exclusively, however, as a place devoted to the other path of mastery – the intuitive path of learning to listen to the small, soft voice within.

I am a self-taught creative writer, who never took a single creative writing course in my life. I simply read and wrote, both in stolen moments from my professional career and family. This summer I’m beginning an MFA in Writing, so at the age of 43 I’m just beginning to follow the formal training path.

On my road-trip across the United States interviewing creatives of all stripes, I met lots of artists who were self-taught, and many who had extensive formal training.

Cape May, New Jersey, painter Victor Grasso went to work painting murals for Atlantic City casinos at the age of 18 and never looked back. His original paintings are now in high demand, but he has never taken a painting class. He has, however, on his own studied the great works and artists. He goes to galleries and stares closely at paintings, getting yelled at by security guards, but as he puts it, “I have to see how these people put the paint down.”

Orchestral composer James Aikman of Ann Arbor, Michigan, learned under master musicians from a young age. “I had an amazing upbringing in terms of being exposed to classical music,” he told me. He later researched his mentors back through their mentors, and realized his artistic lineage dates back to Liszt, then Beethoven, then Bach. “I hope to add my own stamp to the repertoire,” he said. He’s well on his way, as his original compositions have been performed globally by leading orchestras.

What do these two artists have in common, other than artistic and commercial success? It turns out they both were raised in artistic households.

Aikman’s mother was a master pianist who would play sonatas for her son before he went off to bed. Grasso’s mother was a painter, his grandfather a carver and sculptor, and his great-grandfather a painter. For each of them, the idea of creating artistic works was second nature to them.

Are you a self-taught creative or the product of formal training? What are your thoughts on these two paths to creativity?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

41 Responses to “What Defines an Artist? Self-Taught vs. Trained”

  1. Great article. Good luck on returning to school. I struggled with the MFA decision but I’m older than you. I decided it wasn’t worth the 50K they wanted and that I just had to keep painting instead.

  2. This post really resonated with me. Although I have a formal education, I feel that I am mostly self-taught too.

    Also, congrats on going back to school! I did it myself last year and while it’s scary it’s been an amazing experience.

    Finally, just wanted to say that I Love AVAM and ok, maybe their gift shop more😉

    • Thank you, Melanie! I’ve seen some of your blog posts on going back to school, I anticipate it being amazing as well.

      Their gift shop is as eclectic as the museum itself. Original art works mixed in with joke-shop merchandise. Odd and amazing!

  3. Another thought-provoking post, Patrick. I guess I’d have to say I am a self-taught writer (no formal education), though I had wonderful mentors in my various writing jobs early in my career. I also grew up in a very creative household — my parents and my brother are all extremely talented visual artists (painting, sketching, sculpture, embroidery, woodwork and the list goes on). You now have me thinking about whether the early appreciation I gained for beautiful things encouraged me to seek out and nurture my own path of creativity.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Jessica. You’ve done pretty well for yourself on your own path!

      I grew up with a mother who was a writer, and a father who was an amateur photographer. I’m thinking that angle needs more exploration on this blog, the possible correlation (or causation?) of an artistic household and/or artistic relatives on one’s decision to pursue an art-filled life.

  4. I’m very interested that all these artists grew up in homes where artistic production was the norm.

    For me, personally, formal instruction always put a damper on my enthusiasm and I credit the instruction I’ve had in the creation of my inner critic.

    That’s not to say that formal instruction doesn’t have value. The decision I’ve made with my own child is to let him improvise, explore and learn informally until he begins to ask questions that require formal instruction to answer. I don’t know when or if that will ever happen, but at some point, I suppose the lack of formal instruction may hold him back.

    When you think about it, if you trace formal instruction back to its roots, all knowledge originally came from investigations by people figuring stuff out on their own. When great discoveries are made, they are widely shared and become part of an accepted body of knowledge that can be learned through formal instruction.

    By learning this body of knowledge in a class, you can then continue the exploration of the subject where others left off, rather than repeating what is already known.

    But that doesn’t mean that body of knowledge is the only truth. Studying accepted ideas can block you from seeing the subject in other ways. It plants assumptions in your head that may or may not be useful.

    I’m curious, Patrick, what made you want formal instruction now? What did you feel it offered that you were missing?

    • What a thoughtful comment, Sue.

      First, as to your observations. Both James and Victor recognized that there are certain rules and forms to their art that are necessary for success, and learned those in their own ways, but then found their own style.

      With Victor, he is concerned that formal instruction now might suppress his creative instincts. For James, he has begun to write orchestral pieces centered around the trumpet, an instrument he feels is neglected in the classical canon; that clearly wasn’t taught to him.

      For me, an MFA is something I always thought would be great but not attainable, because I started a career and a family. I now realize I can do a low-residency program and finish paying my tuition just before I start paying undergrad tuition for my daughter. I’ve also stepped down from an 80-hour-a-week job to freelance work, freeing time.

      I don’t think I need an MFA to be a creative writer, and I’m writing now and submitting. But I know I’ll learn new things and be connected to a larger network of fellow creatives, and that’s exciting.

    • Just thought I’d respond to your comment about letting your child explore on his own until he asks for instruction, this is exactly what my mum did with me and I truly respect her decision. By her not setting me boundaries etc that come with instruction I was able to explore and follow my passion without any hinderance at all. When I presented my parents with a small painting course I wanted to do they ended up letting me do it, but I was ready for it and wanting it and my art improved in leaps and bounds becuase I was ready for it.

  5. Yes, there it is–one of the major benefit of formal instruction. Classmates! Discussion, exchange of ideas, etc. That is very exciting!

  6. I think either path is valid, and the individual artist needs to choose for him/herself. I for one was NOT raised in an artistic household … no on in my family wrote, played instruments or sang, painted, etc. My parents enjoyed dancing but didn’t do that around me often. My dad did a little with me but not much – I don’t remember seeing mom dance at all.

    I did get exposed to some craftsmen and the rare artist, but the exposure was fleeting. For me, I felt that I had a lot to learn. It was an excellent choice to go to school and wouldn’t trade it in for anything.

    I think the key is learning from other artists. If you don’t go to school, you have to have an intense natural curiosity and inquisitiveness to pursue learning on your own. I have those traits but was raised that practicality comes first, so I needed the push of going to college to get around other artists in a learning format. Now I know how invaluable that is, and stay connected to a lot of artists for support, encouragement, critiques, etc. Absolutely invaluable!

    • Hi Amy,

      I would think that the decision you made to go to art school as an adult was very useful to you given your lack of exposure to artists as a youth, your desire to grow as an artist, and frankly a way to commit yourself to this passion of yours. It makes perfect sense to me.

  7. BTW, my formal instruction was very much around supporting the individuality of the students. I hear that people think formal training is stifling, but I think it depends on the school. Choose carefully, taking everything into account (my school treated students as equals because they knew they would soon be their collegues), and it can be very empowering. Choose for other reasons such as proximity or popularity … maybe not the best experience for some.

  8. Patrick, great blog post. I am a self-taught writer and it was only in the last year at age 39 I rediscovered my love for writing. I don’t plan to take formal education. I’m reading books, blogs and webinars. I’m writing my memoir and hope to publish in the near future.

    • Andrea, congrats on writing a memoir! Reading books and blogs and taking webinars means you’re seeking the wisdom of others, so that’s education even if it isn’t a degree program. Good luck.

  9. Yet another great post, Patrick.

    I grew up in a working class family where I seemed to be the only ‘artsy’ one – my father didn’t finish high school; my mother did obtain her diploma and took some additional vocational training courses. I was the only member of my family who was a voracious reader,and who kept up a regular creative writing practice. Further, I was the first family member in five generations to attend and graduate from college; I worked two part-time jobs to put myself through school.

    Although I did start my creative career right out of university, I ended up veering away from it and working in more ‘practical’, ‘people-helping’ employment for several years. It’s only in the last two years that I’ve turned the vocational ship back around to the creative arts direction.

    I know that going through both my undergraduate degree in Communications and my recent graduate certificate in web design and online publishing have shaped/helped me define myself as an artist. Not only did I obtain tangible evidence and confidence that I could do the work from completing the course requirements, but I learned executable skills to use in furthering my creative career that I might not have ‘found’ if I had just tried the self-taught route only.

    I envy those creatives who have/had artistic parents model the creative practice and who encourage their children to develop an artistic career by example.

    For those of us who have grown up in families and lived in environments feeling ‘different’ from the rest,it can be challenging to persevere and continue to identify oneself as adequately skilled and truly called to an artistic career when one has been rigorously conditioned against such ‘frivolousness’ of making a viable financial living as a creative entrepreneur.

    I think it’s wonderful that you’re getting your MFA now and really going down your own artist road, Patrick. I know you will contribute a lot of value and inspiration to your fellow creatives in the program, and to everyone who comes into contact with you.

    • Carole Jane, thank you so much for sharing and for your kind words.

      Kudos to you for realizing a path for yourself at an early age and forging a path not modeled for you by your family. It is a great accomplishment to be the first in your family in generations to graduate college. I know some others who have done that; accomplishing it is a challenge, I’m told, but also being accepted and understood by family members who have not accomplished that can apparently also be a challenge.

      This post had my wife and I talking about the nature/nurture debate last night. I had a nurturing childhood regarding the arts, she did not. We’re both writers, but she is not as focused on creative writing as I am (although I think she’s quite creative).

      Having raised children and watched kids play, I think we’re all born phenomenally creative. Some kids have that fostered at home and grow up as creative adults. Some have it fostered and let it fall away anyway. And some, like you and Amy (above) don’t have the fostering and yet hold on to the creativity. I’d love to know what variables are at play there.

  10. As a visual arts teacher, I obviously support formal education on some level. The problem formal anything can lead to is creating this black and white picture of correct and incorrect. I am constantly battling my students to tell them mistakes are okay and that through taking risk they will find their creative voice. If people can take formal education for what it is, a tool to help you personally grow and develop, it can be a great thing. If it is taken so seriously that there is only one right path to success… I worry about the integrity of the program and those students who participate in it!

    • Great comment, Carrie. I know a lot of artists who have encountered an instructor or program like you describe, one that is controlling of vision. I had that in an international relations professor as an undergrad, who had a certain view and forced me to rewrite a paper conforming to his view to pass his class. (I did, but it still bothers me.)

      I think most teachers want their students to grow, and want to help them by giving them tools to grow on their own. It’s incumbent on the student, I guess, to recognize when the teacher instead wants to create clones and resist that.

  11. Great post, Patrick. I’m a big believer in education in the arts. My college classes helped my writing tremendously, especially in learning how to edit and strip away excess.

    Carrie brings up a good point as well that I second. Education can’t become something that shifts us into right/wrong. It’s a mistake to disregard the intuitive choices because they’re “incorrect” by someone else’s standard.

    I know a young filmmaker in Florida, Fred Rabbath, who simply picked up a camera his parents gave him and started making films in his teens. His short films on YouTube are astounding today. He’s completely self-taught (which to me means willing to experiment with new things and make mistakes – something not everyone is willing to do.)

    • Dianna, thanks for this comment. You’ve got me wondering what the definition of self-taught actually is.

      For example, because I haven’t taken a creative writing class I view myself as self-taught, but when you mentioned editing, I remembered that I spent most of my career as a journalist, having my words hacked by news editors on deadline. I’m told now by those reading my creative writing that I have a discipline to my words, but I learned that through journalism. That wasn’t self-taught, that was taught to me by editors.

      I’m so glad your classes helped you, and apparently weren’t the troublesome ones Carrie describes.

  12. Congrats on your decision to pursue the MFA and you are never to young to start! (43 is the perfect age to begin!) Yay for you.

    I have struggled with this same question over the years and decided that instead of going the traditional route I am getting my formal training via classes I want to take and feel compelled to take. I struggled with MFA having to take classes I didn’t want to take and while I recognize the value of being exposed to different mediums, I just decided to pursue what I love. For me, my MFA is My Focused Art where ever I see fit!

    Good luck with this brave and joyful step! I hope you document it along the way!

    • Thank you for the encouragement, Marianne! As to your path, it seems like you’ve chosen just the right approach, maximizing your return on investment, both money and time.

      I started this blog to chronicle my return to an art-committed life, and the MFA is certainly a big part of that, so I anticipate blogging about my experiences at times, yes!

  13. Very nice post. Good luck with school.

  14. I’m definitely self-taught – haven’t taken a writing class in years – but it think growing up with an artist-father has made writing easier. Not only did I see someone I know live a creative life, but I also had the example of a non-traditional career, working from home, following their passion (even when it had to be channeled into commercial photography rather than fine arts).

    All that made it much easier for me to structure my life outside of the 9-to-5, commuting, external motivations/promotions kind of world. Funny thing is, in grad school I would have told you that that was the life I wanted. Now I can’t ever imagine going back.

    • How great that you’ve found the right place for yourself, Danielle, and yes, it would seem your father helped you be open to possibility. And I connect with his balancing his art with paid craft, I’m very much working on doing that right now!

  15. Great questions to explore! I considered myself only a journalist — not a writer or an artist — until I spent five weeks at an artist’s colony a couple of years ago. Having the time to be more creative totally changed how I thought about myself. Now I know I can be both!

    Really like the look of your blog.

    • We do have similar backgrounds, most of my writing career was as a journalist.

      What a great gift you gave yourself with that artist’s colony! I’ve never done anything like that, but my low-residency MFA program will have similar elements, I hope.

      Glad you like the blog, feel free to come back!

  16. What a great post! I’m a musician and writer, and really enjoy things that consider the creative process across multiple artistic disciplines. Especially within music, I’m a product of much formal training (I also serve as a music teacher, and a teacher of music teachers!). As much of a proponent as I am for formal education, I seem to spend much time proclaiming to my students the virtues of informal learning.

    By the way, I struggle with the term “self-taught.” I like it because it brings to mind the fact that these “students” drive their own learning…the intrinsic motivation, discovery approach, personal relevance, etc. So important in making learning effective. But I also don’t like it because, ultimately, nobody can become a great artist alone. All learners–formal or informal–rely on other people, whether it comes in the form of observing family members at home, peers sharing things in social settings, watching YouTube videos, etc. So when I use the term “self-taught” in my speaking, I almost always sidetrack myself with this kind of reflection!

    So glad I came upon your blog (and Twitter). Will be visiting more in the future.

    • What a wonderful comment to read, Bob! I’m so glad you found this blog and my Twitter feed.

      Your approach to the term “self-taught” is spot-on. The students pursuing their own learning are still learning from someone who has already learned some lessons. They may pick up those lessons indirectly but they still learn. I’m sure your best students are open to learning from all sources, you and elsewhere.

  17. hello, im a dentist professionally, but an artist at heart…thanks to the creative genes that flow in my family…i almost never miss the creative beauty in even the gloomiest of things and try to put them on canvas..i feel art…provides the most beautiful exit from the thicks n thins of life to know n express oneself…but myself being a self taught artist …somehow find it difficult to find commercial acclaim without a formal training certificate…there should be some channel for self taught artists without a formal degree in d respective art that would be encouraging enough to motivate one to pursue a career in the respective art field, irrespective of the age and economic bindings that hold most such artists down…
    to avoid that, a formal art training seems to pave the direct way but many people realise their true calling much later in life, already having procured degree in other field n caught in d 9 to 5pm job net to make a living…
    views n comments that i read above just provoked these thoughts in me n i felt like sharing them as i m too trying to balance between being a dentist and an aritist

  18. Stanley Kubrick was a great promoter of autodidactic learning which was his method for learning film making. I think autodidact has a closer meaning than self-taught to what someone who teaches themselves how to do something (be it traditionally “creative” or otherwise) does to learn it and what the benefits of that approach are in contrast to the benefits of being taught by someone else.

    • This was a great article. I am what I guess is labled self taught artist.

      I grew up as a shy kid in a military family, the middle of three children.

      My mother said I have been a artist since my first creation was on her

      pots and pans still in diapers and I have been at it ever since. I did

      take a couple classes late in life 50 to be exact six on hour classes

      because I wanted to find out more about art that I thought, I detested.

      That is when I learned of abstract art and how freeing it is. I came

      up in a family of singers, guitar pickers, and banjo players. So I guess

      I was the odd one out. I am left handed to which in my generation

      coming up, was a handicap. My entire family was right handed. Getting

      back to the point, I have work in a gallery in Greenville SC and have

      saw some beautiful art , and I almost can guess the self taughts from

      the trained, I think both are great and for my self is if someone is

      willing to teach me I am willing to learn. I have been told that if I take

      more classes I may lose my style? Not sure how that works. I feel

      a strong urge to learn, grow and develop as a artist, I started displaying

      my art for my late sister in law who passed away before my first show.

      love this article

      • Thanks for sharing your story here! You need to follow whatever path feels right for you. The urge to learn is key; how you learn is up to you, and should be unique to you.

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