What an Artist Really Looks Like

Lucy Square 3
Lucy Square 3, Colored Pencil on Archival Paper, 4 x 4″

A slightly manic look in the eyes, wild hair with bold color, trendy or bizarre attire, lots of metal, and tattoos. An artist is a hipster-, hippie-, or grunge-styled person packaged in vivid, clashing colors, or wearing all black. Artists are thought to be outgoing social animals, or alternately, brooding bohemians. That’s the common image, right?

But it’s neither what’s on the body that makes an artist, nor whether they are outgoing or not.

Years ago, I attended a seminar with Jan Kunz, a very successful portrait artist. Her portraits revealed magnificent use of  surprising colors. I thought I would be studying with a youngish artist who was as unpredictable as the colors she courageously and successfully combined on paper.

When I entered the studio, I was surprised to meet an artist who was in her golden years. Coiffured hair. Conventional make-up. A tidy cardigan over a turtleneck with slacks (not jeans!) completed the picture. Not overly talkative, she was concise and her instruction organized. She didn’t have any tattoos.

Her appearance didn’t make her an artist; her hard work and boldness in using color did. It was a privilege to attend her seminar and I learned a great deal from her.

Being an artist is not about what you wear or how verbally expressive you are. Being an artist is all about dedication to your craft, a willingness to fail, the desire to try again, and hours and hours spent practicing.

Conversely, wearing artistic clothes and dyeing your hair with six different hues will not make an artist of you. Neither will an outgoing personality.

At one point in my life, I taught art in the Children’s Center at Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts (ISOMATA), a summer program that takes place in the mountains above Los Angeles. I ate lunch in the dining hall, sometimes with the theatre instructors. This day, a guest was with us: Richard Dysart, a gifted character actor who has since passed away.

We were introduced, but I didn’t recognize him, or his name. We had a wonderful conversation, which didn’t involve Hollywood or his movies at all. At the end of lunch, I thought, “What a nice guy”, not, “Wow, he has made a lot of movies.” He didn’t talk about himself; he engaged in conversation with me. When I later inquired about him, I was surprised to discover that he was an actor with a lengthy resume. Some years later, I enjoyed watching him in Back to the Future III, and again marveled at how self-effacing he had been during lunch.

You never really know what an artist looks like.


Inspiration does exist but it must find you working.” Pablo Picasso


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