Creative U: But is it Art?

Mentoring for Artistic Success by Lesley Riley

I know you. You are creative. You love to make stuff. But let me ask you this, do you consider yourself to be an artist? I have been teaching and talking with amazingly talented women who take pleasure in being creative. They take classes where they push and pull paint, cut and paste paper, stitch and glue and twist and solder . . . but when asked, if they are an artist, they say, “No, not me, I just like to make stuff.”

I know because I said it too. It wasn’t all that long ago that I thought being an artist was akin to being an MD, a senator or the privileged member of an exclusive country club or secret society. I thought being an artist was the result of extensive education, popular vote or some unknown secret code I was not privy to. I believed that in order to call yourself an artist you had to have taken years of academic fine art classes resulting in a degree, have a gallery show or, the even more unobtainable, be born that way.


How you define artist depends on where you look and whom you ask. I prefer Merriam Webster’s take:

Definition of ARTIST

1 obsolete : one skilled or versed in learned arts

2 one who professes and practices an imaginative art

Look at that! The definition that most of the population carries around in their head is now considered obsolete. They are spot on with definition no. 2.  Do you know what the word profess means? It means to admit, or own up. Got that? YOU are the one who decides whether you are an artist or not—no one else.

An artist is anyone who admits to or owns up to using his or her imagination to create. It’s as simple and accessible as that. You make stuff using your imagination.

But is it art?

Ah, now there’s the million-dollar question. We’re back to square one. Or are we? Isn’t it time to tear down that generally-accepted lofty idea of what art is? Let’s go back to Merriam-Webster (who, by definition (pun intended) is obviously way ahead of the general population and a true friend to artists).

Art definition no. 4:  the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced

Over time, society has created many rules about art. Rules are constructed to restrict access and control behavior. They are used to keep certain people out. Rules lead us to think that only certain kind of creative work can be called art.

Bah, humbug. Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Take for example this Play-Doh creation my 4-year old granddaughter made. All bias aside, it is certainly art. She used skill and creative imagination. She has an eye for color, proportion, movement and detail. It was created with love and intention.

For sure there is good art and there is bad art. But bad art does not cease to be art. Art is communication. It is a vehicle for expressing ourselves. It is a way to make the invisible, the intangible, visible. Some do it better than others, only because they do more of it.

Art is comprised of technique and skill, but also emotion. Technically perfect art without emotion is often blah. Less than perfect art that communicates the joy with which it was created engages the viewer. Both pieces are considered art. Is the Mona Lisa a more perfect example of art than my granddaughter’s Play-Doh creation? I think not. Do not confuse mastery of technique with value. Given the choice, I’d rather own the Play-Doh girl than the Mona Lisa. Art is what speaks to you. Value is arbitrary.

You are an artist. You create art. Don’t let anyone else define who you are or what you do. If you want to get better, make more art. Learn and understand the principles and elements of art to help guide your hands, but by all means, never let your head overrule your heart. It’s no coincidence that you find art in heart.


Lesley Riley is an internationally known artist, teacher and author with a passion for spreading the magic of art. Though her company, Artist Success, Lesley provides resources, creativity management, coaching and mentoring to artists, enabling them to achieve their vision of success. For more information and resources, visit


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