“What Kind Of Art Do You Make?”: Defining Your Discipline

“I hear you’re an artist. What kind of art do you make?”

Depending on the type of work that you make, this could be one of the most awkward introductions you might face. The lines between art fields can get pretty blurry sometimes. More often than not, the person asking is really looking for a term that they know: painter, sculptor, drawer, graphic artist, etc. But what if you do several of them? How do you answer then?

In this article, I’ll discuss the differences between a few artist classifications. I’ve also designed a set of informative graphics that explains their differences by using funny food analogies. Check out the different classifications. Which one describes you?

download infographicexplaining_interdisc_small

There are key differences when discussing the many fields of research in art (aka ‘disciplines’).  You may have heard terms such as multidisciplinary, mixed-media, and interdisciplinary. Among others. As you can probably guess, multidisciplinary means multiple disciplines. But what about interdisciplinary or the far more mythical sounding transdisciplinary artwork?

If you’re confused, don’t worry. There are discrepancies defining these phrases even among those of whom practice them. That’s because these fields are relatively new in the larger scope of art-making. The best way I’ve found to explain these differences is to break down the words into bite-sized bits of information. Though I’ve taken considerable measures to cross-reference my definitions, they can be argued if one was to feel so inclined. As with most contemporary art perimeters. 

Keep in mind that these terms are being generalized and are used to explain a wide range of art starting from the approachable world of painting to the very complicated boundaries that make up the world of installation art. In addition, each category has its merit and placement in the art community. No one category is better than another as a whole. Another thing to remember is that the included diagrams measure each category against the full range of disciplines; from one field to many fields blended together.

explaining_interdisc_11. Single (mono)Disciplinary Artist

  • Naturally, an artist who specializes in a single discipline doesn’t go around suggesting that they’re monodisciplinary. Instead, they just state their discipline as their classification. A painter is a painter, a sculptor is a sculptor, etc. This type of artist is specialized in a given field and generally spends a great deal of time researching that area and the materials belonging to that area. The diversity of research into other fields of expertise is fairly limited, but that’s ok. There’s a lot to be said for spending a lifetime perfecting a specialized skill.

Pro Tip: Let’s say your main focus is sculpture, but you occasionally dabble in painting. Save confusion by just saying you’re a sculptor and see where the conversation leads. Dabbling doesn’t show enough of a significant prowess in other fields to merit the possible uncertainty caused by over-explaining at the very beginning of a conversation. It does, however, mean that you have a healthy amount of interest that can be expressed if/when the time comes. Let the conversation develop naturally around the one field before describing that ‘painting you did that one time’.

explaining_interdisc_22. Mixed-Media Artist

  • A mixed-media artist mixes several medium together to make a piece of art within a single slightly hybridized field. Example: photo collage that has been drawn/painted on. This is still considered a 2-D work similar to painting but made out of a mixed selection of media. The skill level can be high, but the depth of research into each medium process isn’t necessarily deep in comparison to other multi-medium fields.

explaining_interdisc_33. Multidisciplinary Artist

  • By definition, multiple disciplines. Often interchanged with multimedia artist (varies as to if this is a proper interchange), this area of expertise has begun to blend several disciplines together to form an altogether new field. A multidisciplinary artist has a wide knowledge-base that is deeply invested in a range of materials, how those materials are used together, and the processes inherent to those materials. There’s a fairly diverse set of research backing material as well. Many contemporary artists fall into this category. This category encompasses much of the work that isn’t easily contained by the normal categories of art-making.

explaining_interdisc_44. Interdisciplinary Artist

  • ‘Inter’ as a prefix means ‘together’ or ‘mutual’. In other words, varied disciplines working together mutually. This is a wider and more thorough blending of concept, philosophy, process, tools, and more. By this point, dabbling is a thing of the distant past. A person or a team of people who are interdisciplinary use a skilled philosophy or knowledge from several fields to solve problems that are outside the scope of the traditional boundaries. Other academic and practical fields are often used as sources of influence. 

explaining_interdisc_55. Trans-Disciplinary

  • I hesitate to even add “Artist” at the end of this title, as it is more-or-less defined by the transcendence of disciplines. In other words, the boundaries that make trans-disciplinary research are so blurred that one actually can’t be described as belonging to only one field. They are as much an artist as a scientist or a builder or any other specific field. This mode is one that glorifies a holistic approach over a singular approach. TED conferences are a great example of trans-disciplinary thinking. A person or group of people can be specialists in their field but mold together as a collective to poll processes and philosophies to solve complex issues. The driving force behind this model of thinking is that some concepts or problems simply can’t be solved by singular means.

Naturally, each of these disciplinary descriptions is somewhat liquid in their nitty-gritty specifics. This is to be expected when using terms and phrases that describe something that is inherently difficult to categorize. With each passing day, there are new combinations of art that require new combinations of words to describe them. And you know what?— that is a good thing!

download infographicexplaining_interdisc_small

You can find more free articles like this on my Artist Resource page. My mission is to provide free and accessible tools for artists, educators, and enthusiasts. I encourage you to share and refer people here as often as you wish. Naturally, these articles take many hours to thoroughly research and write. If you’d like to support me as an artist and advocate, please consider donating whatever you can. Thank you!

28 thoughts on ““What Kind Of Art Do You Make?”: Defining Your Discipline

  1. Hello,
    Thank a lot for this information
    I am skilled in various media : painting (oil and photo collage), photography, drawing and generative art by coding
    My works conveys my reflection about life that I try to translate it on my works (like a conceptual artist ??)

    Can I pretend to be Multidisciplinary Artist ?
    I appreciate also if you can give me the definition of Conceptual artist.
    Kind regards


    1. Hi there. From what you have described, you are skilled in various media. You might want to look through my recent replies to other commenters. It seems like this is a common question, and I think you might be able to find a good answer in the subsequent comments. And to specifically address the “pretend to be a multidisciplinary artist”: Ultimately, your title is your decision. Find a title that feels honest and you’d feel comfortable backing in art-related introductions. I wouldn’t ever suggest there’s a need to pretend.

      A conceptual artist is often thought of as a person who makes “art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic, technical, and material concerns.” In other words, a conceptual artist’s first love is the philosophy, ideas, and concepts belonging to artwork before the physical object itself. Example: It’s perfectly acceptable that a painting of a flower *could be* painted just to show you how pretty the flower/light is and how masterful the painting skills of an artist might be. Those are all the physical looks, the aesthetic values of the artwork. While a conceptual artist might be interested in a similar idea, their take on creating art might have a specific interest in showing you how different phases of light can play a significant role in creating life, mood, and emotions. The concepts first, object second. How an artist chooses to show that idea has to fit a specific concept first; light installation, digital, paint, etc. Neither is better than the other. They simply choose a different approach to coming at an idea.


  2. Hi, May you help me find right name for an artist who is skilled in various media (painting, drawing, graphic design, printing techniques) but uses them as distincitve, separate techniques?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It ultimately comes down to a personal decision, made by that artist. The artist is the only one who needs to live within the title. After all, saying they are “an artist who specializes in painting, drawing, graphic design, and printing techniques” is perfectly acceptable. As you’ll see in a second, it’s often times the easiest way to answer too.

      The starting processes for painting, drawing, & much of printmaking, are similar hand skills. Each employ a version of drawing onto a prepared 2-D work-surface. (E.g. drawing with pencil on paper, drawing with paint brush on canvas, drawing with litho crayon on lithography stones, drawing with etching stylus on intaglio plate, drawing with a stylus on a screen…). To some extent, graphic designers & contemporary digital photographers have quite an overlap too (consider how a knowledge of Photoshop & internet galleries are often utilized by both).

      It’s not uncommon for someone who is interested in one of those areas, to try out another similar category. The real deciding factor to me is whether an artist is mainly focused in one category & dabbling in several others, or if they are truly invested in all categories. A good exercise is to list what the artist does. It’s likely you will automatically list them in order of importance… or at least in groupings of importance.

      If that artist feels like each one of those categories are at a reasonable level to make a move to bring them all under one title, good for them! That’s the time to look for a new title. However, with it often comes this conversation:

      Q: “Oh, you’re an artist? What sort of art do you do?”
      A: “I’m an interdisciplinary artist, bordering on transdisciplinary.”…
      Q: *blank stare*
      A: “… which means I specialize in many areas: anything from traditional painting to interactive robotics.”

      So why add a title that might add confusion? I choose to add a specialized title because I truly am trained in many categories. It’s simply the proper term for what I do, not a gesture. Like a triathlete, saying I’m only one category (swimmer) would fail to acknowledge the truth in what I do, negating all of the focus & training in the others (runner, bicyclist). The difference is that most people know what a triathlete is, while they might not know the nuanced career categories of an artist. And I don’t mind using the moment to teach people what my title means.

      Again, it’s also not entirely necessary unless a person feels the real desire to add a specialized name to their career. Having said that, most people who ask this question seem to fit into the multi-discipline or multi-medium category, as they are working in multiple disciplines (field of research) and/or mediums (substance the artist uses to create a piece of artwork). Without knowing the specifics of your artist, it’s likely your answer is in your question, “an artist who is skilled in various media (painting, drawing, graphic design, printing techniques”.

      various medium = multiple medium

      It’s a good question. I hope this has helped.


  3. Thank you for putting out such vital information,but some how I still can’t place my hands on the discipline which I fall into,as I make digital painting and pencils drawing. And I love making art (scribble,digital painting,pencil drawing) of wonderful photographys and pictures I come across . Also I intend to portray African culture and history through my art. Should I say I’m a multi-disciplinary visual artist?


    1. Hello Patrick. It can be hard to narrow a personal definition. The simple answer is you can really call yourself whatever you want, whenever you want. An artist’s title is a personal distinction. However, adding a clarifying adjective (multidisciplinary or any others) is a way to measure yourself against other people claiming to be in that category. In my opinion, the classification depends on if you honestly find yourself focussing regularly on several areas with equal enthusiasm or if you mainly do one area and occasionally dabble in others. Without seeing your work, it sounds like you might fall into a multi-disciplinary category, but mostly you are exploring different types of 2-D drawing techniques. Maybe this could help: Would I be right in thinking your tool of choice is either a pencil or a stylus? Sometimes that internal dialogue can be so intense that we easily forget that we are holding the same type of tool in our hands and trying to think of the artwork as somehow independent from the tool. For example, a photographer, sculptor, or fabric artist, might not hold a pencil/stylus during the bulk of their art-making process. African culture and history are wonderful areas of concentration! That would be the conceptual focus that the work is about, while the discipline you are describes the way about which you make the work. Of course, you don’t have to always define what you are. These are simple ways to think about it in case you find yourself wanting to make that distinction, so you can learn more about yourself as an artist. Thank you for asking this great question!


  4. Super appreciate the break down of terms. I can identify on more than one level with trans-disciplinary. I also appreciate your positive tact. Thank you for writing this article. More and more it seems people are referring to themselves as contemporary artists and this leaves a lot in question, which is good, because I think it encourages collaboration and experimentation and people don’t need to be experts to make good art. But do you feel like people are taken less seriously if they have more than one “medium”? I am not young so maybe this is changing. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Conceptual artists have always been most interesting to me. The idea of reducing an idea to its minimum, yet projecting powerful and lasting impact. While a student at Carnegie-Mellon University during the 70’s, we had a visiting artist speak about her projects (don’t remember her name), and often her “projects” of art were verbal without ever being consummated in any physical form. And, she received big grants for these never-made artworks. But at the end of her lecture presentation, I went up to introduce myself and ask if she would sign my search-book (our version of an artists sketch book), and she replied quickly and directly to me…”No, but you may have my chewing gum” and then removed her wad of gum from her mouth and proudly pressed it onto my opened page!


  6. Thank you for your knowledgeable encouragement! I am an artist that has quite a few disciplines that I not only express my artistic self with, but I excell in them as well. I was writing a bio for an online community that has a cap on how many characters are allowed in the bio. So I sought out looking to find a proper term for my “jack of all trades” artistic talents and I found this article. The fact that there IS a terminology for my numerous artistic skills made me feel a thousand times more confident about who I am as an Artist/Entertainer/Photographer/Editor/Alternative Model/Writer (Erotic Free Prose) and Lifestyle Blogger.

    A professional artist knows that it takes years if not decades of experimentation and practice to perfect their craft.  While an amateur tends to change their style or medium as the mood strikes them, a professional artist knows that a “jack-of-all-trades is a master of none”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello there UltraViolet. Your words are encouraging and I’m extremely glad you found some direction here. You’re completely right. Many times it takes decades to hone a multi-focussed approach. And it certainly can be challenging for some to stay directionally on task when using energy in many areas. Some people are good at it, while others aren’t. If you haven’t made your way to it, I think you may find a little bit of extra help on another one of my articles, “Tips For Writing A Better Artist Bio”: https://wp.me/p3KTKs-1d8. Again, I’m extremely happy to hear you’ve found some good direction here. Thank you!


  7. Does “multidisciplinary”
    -require that different disciplines combine to form 1 work as in your moving sculpture explanation above “learned and then incorporated several fields of knowledge so they can get to that end goal”


    -describe a jack -of-all-trades artist who maintains a portfolio in varied disciplines (photographer, sculptor/potter, painter, illustrator) and presents each separately. Or is this person ‘just an artist’?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Christina,
      You’ve asked a really intriguing question, one that seems to get at the heart of many artist’s concerns.

      “When can a person call themselves multidisciplinary rather than a jack-of-all-trades; is it necessary to fit a mold first?”

      In many ways, this has the same line of inquiry as, “When can a person call themselves an artist rather than just someone who creates art as a hobby; is it necessary to fit a mold first?”


The simple answer is you can really call yourself whatever you want, whenever you want. An artist’s title is a personal distinction. However, adding a clarifying adjective (multidisciplinary or any others) is a request that you will be measured against other people claiming to be in that category. As in any career, the need to clarify more specific niches within an occupation tends to happen when a person has gained a speciality. For example: a cardiac surgeon is a surgeon with an additional speciality regarding the cardiovascular system. Same too goes for the artist. A multidisciplinary artist should have a set of specialities throughout several disciplines. They are additive.


In addition, you made a particularly great point by asking about the distinction between discussing an artist as a whole and/or discussing a single piece of artwork. An artist could be multidisciplinary as a whole, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that each and every piece that artist makes MUST follow that defining title. Based on your description of a separated portfolio, and without knowing much about your individual work, I’d say that you could comfortably call yourself multidisciplinary. But this really depends on if you feel you have a speciality in those many fields or if you just dabble. That is a conclusion that you can glean from a few portfolio reviews, personal investigation, and/or professional comparisons.

      These guidelines are a conglomeration of research into how those lines are defined in art as well with in many other areas of profession. In the case of multidisciplinary artists, they draw on the knowledge gained from different disciplines while still staying more or less within their boundaries. Much like the portfolio example you used. It’s adding disciplines into your artistic tool-belt. The distinction between multi-*, inter-*, and trans-* are made by the amount of involvement of the multiple specialities. Using the big lens to view the artist as a whole, the multidisciplinary artist stock piles disciplines (additive), interdisciplinary artists blend disciplines (mutually integrative/interactive), and transdisciplinary artists transcend all disciplinary titles (holistic). They are not interchangeable titles as they require more and more involvement between specialities respectively.


  8. I am very confused, my artistic practice is not driven by discipline, it is driven by exploration. Developing practice that helps to negate prescriptive thinking to allow the participant to create art from a less judgemental space and then I use this art as a form of commentary of social conscience. discipline is chosen according to need but I don’t know where I fit in the spectrum of the arts. as my practice explores the impact of western ideologies through any given discipline? how do I describe where I belong as whatever I research it all seems so long winded and my practice sits on the boundaries of so many movements.


    1. Hi Wendy,
      Your question: “How do I describe where I belong—as whatever I research— [without sounding so long-winded]?”…

      It’s a good question, but with phrases like ‘negate prescriptive thinking’ & ‘less judgmental space’ I feel like how you’re phrasing your comments already showcase a bit of defensiveness & judgement yourself. Let’s start off by saying that we are all on a unique journey and we all individually write the roadmaps. Naturally, this means there’s no all-encompassing phrase that can (or should) define us 100% as an artist. By no means should you feel like you’re being subjected to some sort of mandatory label. This blog, and the time I take to write comments, are intended to help. Not confine. This is a blog that merely suggests ways to explain to yourself and to others what sort of work you make so that it isn’t so long winded when the time comes. Surely, as this post can attest, spelling out the nitty-gritty usually means overly explaining things in a way that works out the kinks before a normal interaction with the general public. I’d also argue that discipline isn’t so simply chosen by need. Reasons would suggest that a person should hopefully want to explore in areas they are interested in. Those explorations *could* lend themselves to the start of a discipline if the artist so chooses. But it’s not mandatory.

      Exploration is an important key to the growth of an artist. If you’re a person who doesn’t feel the need to fully embody the whole of a specific discipline, that’s completely within your rights as an artist. And there’s a category listed that suits that sort of description (if you so choose to want that description as part of who you are). I completely understand the ‘explore’ aspect of growth, as it’s my primary force as well. A multidisciplinary artist explores the possibilities within several areas without feeling the want to dig in elbow deep to the academia or the full integration of the specifics of that field. I spell this out a bit more in the comment listed below from July 13th, 2016. You should check it out if you want.

      Maybe you feel that the post script *disciplinary is a bit too formal for your tastes. That’s ok. Remember, this blog post was intended for many people who are searching guidance for a vast array of reasons. Might I suggest coining your own term or your own title? Exploratory artist, Poly-experience artist, Exploration Artist, etc. The goal is still the same: to show a small window into who you are as an artist in the beginning moments of a conversation. If that window leads into more conversation, find ways to feel comfortable with this being a positive thing. I encourage you to also look at my post, “7 Tips For Approaching Artwork”, http://wp.me/p3KTKs-ie. Like many things, these tips can be applied to other things not just approaching artwork. For example, approaching your own prescriptive thinking towards other artists.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I still don’t get get the difference between multi- and interdisciplinary. I just can’t snap it, even the synonyms to each term are the same. :-\ Halp


    1. Alrighty… I’m here to help.=) I think it’s important enough of a discussion that I think I’ll create a whole series of these explanations. So look for those in the future.

      You’re certainly not alone on this. It is understandably hard to nail down a definitive boundary, especially within the arts. Also, these terms are by their nature in contrast to the normal modes of thinking. Also, these occupational titles are relatively new in the art world, in contrast to their common usage in other fields. I’ll try my best to help out.

      Every time you see the suffix ‘disciplinary’, mentally switch it for ‘ways of thinking’.

      Multidisciplinary = multiple ways of thinking

      Interdisciplinary = mutual ways of thinking

      Transdisciplinary = transcends ways of thinking

      To expand on that:

      Multidisciplinary — Using many disciplines to investigate how to tackle an end goal.
      Artist Example: A sculptor wants to build an interactive project = they learn how to weld, basic electronics, and hone their building skills to tackle this project. An individual end goal is the starting point from which they apply multiple ways of thinking. They build an interactive sculpture. They have learned and then incorporated several fields of knowledge so they can get to that end goal.

      Interdisciplinary — A hybrid title that happens when two or more disciplines and their philosophies intersect. We are more familiar with regular life examples like: biologist + chemist = biochemist. This is a set of skills that is built upon a coherent understanding of both the philosophies and practices in whole fields of expertise. Those ideas are then employed throughout the problem solving process. This is a methodological identity that encourages deeper cohesion between fields.

      Artist Example: A sculptor + engineer = interactive art and tech artist
      Over many years a sculptor has studied welding, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. They have backgrounds both in practice and philosophy that governs their choices. Conscious of proper engineering regulations, processes, and academic artistic philosophies, they build an interactive sculpture that integrates those knowledge bases throughout.

      Hopefully this helps! Thanks for the question.


      1. nice.. this particular explanation – “ways of thinking” cleared everything on the disciplinary concept. thank you


  10. Reblogged this on ARTWORK CUBED and commented:
    Good summary of difficult to define categories. I think I fall somewhere between Mixed-Media leaning toward Multidisciplinary and dreaming of being Interdisciplinary by definition!

    Liked by 1 person

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