Am I a professional?


Dear Artist,

“There is no such thing as an amateur artist as different from a professional artist,” wrote Paul Cezanne, “There is only good art and bad art.” And so a better question might be, “How can I make my work more professional?” Besides the game changers of working every day, using quality materials and being vigilantly unafraid to trash stuff that doesn’t measure up, professionalism emerges through refinement and intimacy developed over the course of a thousand conversations with your process. You might even say that when it comes, you’ll recognize it immediately.


“In the Patio IV (Black Door)”
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

Professional work emits a kind of ineffable ease, technical deftness, an understanding of materials and attention to detail, a certain élan in shapes and brushwork. A professional makes toil all but invisible. Truthful communication comes from a commitment to what’s uniquely yours, but it can’t be achieved through polish alone. I recently went to a local theatre to hear one of my all-time favourite bands. Lauded old pros, they strolled onto the stage and delivered beyond proficient musicianship and decades of refrains and poetry, which the audience sang back at them like a revival. When it came time to play their oldest, most beloved hit — a crooner torch song about a thoughtless lover — something funny happened. The band zoomed through the thing I loved with a kind of betraying boredom. All the truth, the beats and pauses, the blue notes and the heartbreak had been sapped and replaced with a detached and robotic facsimile. It was as if their professionalism had, for that song at least, robbed them of their artistry.


“Rust Red Hills” 1930
oil on canvas by Georgia O’Keeffe

Instead of “Am I professional?” A better question might be, “Am I interested?” or “Am I in love?” What about, “Am I connecting?” or “Am I being artistic?” Try, for starters, “Am I committed?” In 1923, Georgia O’Keeffe wrote, “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”


“Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico” 1930
oil on canvas mounted on board
24 1/4 x 36 1/4 inches
by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)



PS: “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)

“All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” (Aristotle)

Esoterica: Are you a professional? The simple answer is yes, if you’re being paid for your ideas. Unlike dentistry and tax law, though, a life in the arts may at times include a murky limbo between passionate striving and professional touchpoints. Labels help others and are valuable as inspiration to endeavour towards achievement, independence, confidence, identity and conformity. “A professional writer,” wrote Richard Bach, “is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

genn_sara-robertRobert Genn and Sara Genn: Like Father, Like Daughter — 20 Years Later opens April 22nd, 2017 at Canada House Gallery in Banff, Alberta and is on view until April 30th.

“I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as making a ‘life.’ ” (Maya Angelou)



  1. Such a wonderful essay, Sara. It took years, but I learn something new every day, and the unknown always appears ahead of what I know.

  2. I like the suggestion that remaining in the game means we can find those details in our work which are familiar, and perhaps like a signature, but sometimes in reflection have no business being where they are. In design or painting there needs to be a detachment when we look at our work. True for me, but perhaps not for everyone.
    I hope you can forgive the band, Sara. Thanks

  3. The question you almost arrived at is perhaps, “How can I become more amateur?” That sound silly, I know, but becoming more “professional”, that is, more knowledgeable, more skilled, better able to bring experience to the work, goes without saying. Staying in love is more difficult and in my experience requires reinvention. Professionals have to eat and quite often it is easier to say yes to producing yet another piece in the style that has become successful, rather than moving forward to something new. Few of us perhaps have that kind of ruthlessness, but I have found that a change of medium can help to generate new excitement.

  4. Thank you Sara,

    I love this writing, it is perfectly articulated – another very useful set of ideas to keep in the tool box.
    Wonderful picture of you and your Dad.

    Wishing all an enchanting day and weekend.

    • Jeff Heintzman on

      It is worth remembering that the word amateur is derived from the latin Amare-to love. I am proud and happy to be an amateur painter

  5. Good article. Food for thought. I disagree with Georgia Okeefe when she says it is only important where she lived. I believe that how you live has a great impact upon your heart and therefore on your art. If your art is just academic or professional as you referred to your band playing your favorite song then it doesn’t really matter. But those of us who paint and create with passion and purpose must be living the type of life that fills the heart.

  6. In my former career as a pro gardener, I told my clients that we worked with the skill and speed of professionals, but with the love and excitement of amateurs. I think that could apply to making art as well.

  7. Another good read,Sara
    I perked up with your reference to dentistry and tax law.As a pre-dent student in the 1950’s it was hammered into me that a professional was a person who provided a service for a fee whereas anybody who sold something for a price was not a professional.I remembered that for 2 points on an exam somewhere.
    Your letters are always refreshing,Sara.
    Be well.

  8. thank you so for your writings. as a person learning to paint daily and feeling natural with the medium and process, i resonate much with the essay above. but I feel that my personal expression through painting is about showing my process which is laborious and thus emits the passion and energy and effort that went into the painting. that is my personality and artistic expression creating the product. I tend to dislike art that looks effortless. I like Lucian Freud and other artists that you see their working and labor and hence what comes back to you is the time and effort involved in coming up with the painting. So I disagree with this thought ” A professional makes toil all but invisible. ” I like the toil and how my art, like the law of physics, shows the energy that went into making it.
    but thank you for your news letters. they are so amazing whenever i read them.
    Good luck at your gallery exhibit. I wish I was in Canada and could come by, Eva

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