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Six years ago, a surprising study by the Laboratory of Experimental Psychology at the University of Leuven in Belgium suggested that the brains of artists and non-artists could be fundamentally different. By comparing the brain scans of 44 artistic and inartistic participants, researchers found that the artists had more gray matter in certain parts of their brains, but they weren’t able to conclude whether those differences were innate or learned over time. 

Despite being studied for centuries, much of what defines a true artist remains a mystery. As researchers continue to grapple with the science of creativity, perhaps we can find some of the answers we’re looking for by asking artists directly. We interviewed nine painters, photographers, sculptors, paper artists, and more to find out what they believe to be shared characteristics of an artist. 

1. They Are Stubborn

“If I had to narrow it down to one thing,” says painter Nick Runge when asked about the characteristics of an artist, “I think it’d be the ability to ‘try again’ that great artists share—being stubborn. Hard work and dedication are important, of course, but it’s difficult to be dedicated after a certain point, and nothing hits harder than a task that starts to seem impossible. Doubt creeps in.”

“Whether it’s a certain desired feeling that’s not coming through or a technical problem with the image a task that seems clear enough at first can quickly become a nightmare, and the ability to keep ‘getting back up’ is monumental,” he adds. 

Runge notes that “It hurts so bad at first when things don’t work out with a painting.” But, he says, “It does get better, and eventually the little failures don’t hurt as much. That ability to try again becomes stronger. Cliché or not, get back up and try again—and again.

‘light of day’ by Nick Runge
‘light of day’ by Nick Runge

2. They Have Passion

“I personally feel that painting is just as much a necessity as eating and breathing,” says painter Lola Gil. “It keeps me feeling calm and gives me purpose. I constantly feel like there is so much I need to explore. There’s so little time and so much to share.”

“Most artists I know don’t even think about the hours they devote their work. They share that need to get those creative juices out of their minds and into the physical world,” advises Gil as she considers the qualities of an artist. “Having that deep desire is a gift, and it will keep you from sleeping until you’re happy with what you’ve created.”

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3. They Have the Desire to Grow

“I think all great artists have a deep desire to grow and an understanding that there isn’t ever really a ‘finish line’ when it comes to art,” says photographer Sean Mundy, when assessing artistic meaning. “It’s unlikely that you will ever feel so accomplished that you will not continue to feel the desire to out-do yourself. Great artists work towards making better work; they are process driven, not goal driven. Becoming better in your process will ultimately lead to the completion of goals, so focusing on the means to get where you want to be is always the better choice.”

‘Barriers VI, 2019’ © Sean Mundy
‘Barriers VI, 2019’ © Sean Mundy

4. They Are Flexible

“I think a quality that great artists share is flexibility. It’s the ability to improvise and riff on ideas, the ability to make new and interesting work, and the ability to live an unconventional lifestyle,” says sculptor Michael Alm of artistic qualities. “All these skills boil down to flexibility. You have to always be developing your voice and your style—otherwise, you stagnate. Adaptation is key.”

5. They Try New Things

“One of the most important traits for an artist to have is just a willingness but also a need to try new things. It’s the ability to feel new sensations and emotions, to throw themselves into new things, and try to do familiar things in different ways. That’s how we develop new ideas and deepen our points of view,” explains textile sculptor Vanessa Barragão

“Trying new things is now we learn what we truly want. It’s how we find ourselves. I developed my mission as an artist by experimenting with man-made waste as a material for creating work. By trying something new, I realized by goal was to raise awareness about pollution and the status of our coral reefs.”

Coral Garden (installation detail) by Vanessa Barragão
Coral Garden (installation detail) by Vanessa Barragão

“A desire for innovation in your medium is a must,” states paper sculptor Joey Bates. “I think the greatest creators have been willing to fall on their faces, so to speak, every now and then. The willingness to push boundaries once you’ve learned the rules, or even made your own, is a must. The largest names in art are of those who have broken new ground for their time.”

Bleed in Cobalt Turquoise (cut paper, glue, acrylic paint) by Joey Bates. Photo: Jean-baptiste Beranger
Bleed in Cobalt Turquoise (cut paper, glue, acrylic paint) by Joey Bates. Photo: Jean-baptiste Beranger

6. They Are Dedicated

“Creativity is a balm for the mind and spirit, but answering that call to create, takes dedication and fortitude,” says painter Alexandra Dillon, when asked about the qualities of an artist. “Real artists are the ones who show up and do the work, even when it’s hard to find the flow. Being a true artist is a full-time gig, not a hobby. It often takes many years to find your inner voice and acquire the skills to make it real.”

7. They Are Self-Critical

“I think the most important trait that I’ve recognized among artists I admire is a perpetual restlessness and a habit of self-criticism. I am almost pathologically incapable of looking at something I did more than six months ago without fixating on all the ways it could be improved,” explains laser-cut sculptor Gabriel Schama

“Even if I do allow myself to think that some idea or piece of a design turned out well, I’m deeply averse to copying my past successes—not least because it feels boring to do the same thing over and over. Especially today, with social media encouraging new artists to find a niche that works and to keep producing similar (if not identical) content to drive ‘engagement,’ it can be hard to see how valuable it is to keep experimenting and evolving.”

© Gabriel Schama
© Gabriel Schama

8. They Are Vulnerable 

“The trait that all great artists share is vulnerability,” explains jewelry and glass artist Megan Stelljes. “This may show itself in many ways, whether it’s by being true to what you are passionate about or by exposing yourself in order to make work that allows people to relate to a specific theme or object. I believe this vulnerability and honesty is what creates an artist’s “voice” and allows their work to stand out.”

9. They Persevere

“When I think about the artists that I admire the most, one of the things I notice is that they all keep on making things. Throughout it all—day jobs, hustling for extra work, life drama—they’ve kept their practice alive,” says mixed media artist Debra Broz

“I think sometimes it’s easier to quit than it is to continue, especially when you don’t know if you’re going to make money on a project (or break even), or whether anyone will want to show the work you make,” Broz explains. “That type of perseverance is really valuable because it keeps you moving forward even through rejection, unknowns, and all the other complicated things that happen when you’re trying to produce work and show it.”

 When considering art, it is just as important to think about the qualities of an artist as it is to think about the qualities of art itself! And, as you may have noticed, it is difficult to narrowly define artist. By observing common traits, however, you can adopt your own definition and thus, your own direction for artistry.  

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