How to Fake It As an Artist

Empty picture frame hung on a brick wall

Photo by Leonski

Have you ever walked into an art gallery and thought “I could do better than that!”?

Or are you a contemporary art enthusiast, tired of hearing people criticise things they don’t understand?

Whichever side of the fence you’re on, you’re bound to have an opinion on the story of Paul O’Hare, a painter and decorator from Liverpool, UK, who was given just four weeks to transform himself into a fine artist and attempt to fool the critics at a London art gallery.

Paul’s story was featured in one of my all-time favourite documentary series, Faking It. In each programme, a member of the public was given a month’s intensive training at an improbably difficult profession – and then put through a competitive test alongside experienced pros, to see if they could ‘fake it’ by convincing the judges they were the real deal.

Participants were deliberately assigned roles that were radically different to their usual selves: a butch navy officer became a drag queen; a punk singer conducted a symphony orchestra; a factory worker became a fashion designer; a burger van proprietor became a cordon bleu chef.

And a painter and decorator was invited to transfer his painting talents from kitchens and bathrooms to the walls of a swanky London gallery.

Here’s what happened. (Warning: spoiler at the end, so watch the video first if you don’t want to know how things turned out! Sorry dudes-across-the-water, I think this one is only viewable in the UK.)

Have a Go

The documentary team were at pains to present Paul as just an ordinary bloke, a down-to-earth working-class Liverpudlian painter and decorator.

But what made Paul stand out from the crowd was the fact he was prepared to have a go, and attempt something almost impossibly difficult. He looked at the absurdly short timeframe, the ridiculously steep learning curve and the near-certainty of failure and said ‘OK, I’m up for it. Where do I start?’.

Takeaway: Forget how difficult it is and what could go wrong. Ask yourself: “Do I want to do this? Can I live with myself if I never even try?”.

Get Good Mentors

One of the things that makes Faking It so compelling is the relationship between the apprentices and the mentors given the job of taking them from novice to ‘master’ in one month. The short timeframe and lack of common background makes it stressful for everyone concerned, but as well as the inevitable fights, there are moments of genuine respect and affection, and many of the unlikely couples developed a strong bond and promise to stay in touch after the filming.

Paul had advice and support from experienced artists as well as a gallery director. They not only helped him with his artwork, but filled him in on the unspoken rules of the London art scene and coached him on how to present himself as an artist.

Hard work + mentoring = success. Who has already done what you want to do? Find them – and find a way to persuade them to teach you what they know.

Put the Hours In

On his first day Paul pottered around in the studio and was quite pleased with his initial efforts. But his artist-mentor lost no time in telling him he hadn’t done enough. “I want to see more work” she said.

Once he realised art wasn’t the cushy number he had assumed, he rolled his sleeves up and churned out several works a day, experimenting with different media to find what worked for him. Paul didn’t have the fabled 10,000 hours to master his craft, but he made the most of his four short weeks.

Takeaway: Rome wasn’t built in a day. How many bricks have you laid today?

Take Criticism on the Chin

A few days before the big exhibition, Paul was visited in his studio by one of the fiercest art critics from the UK broadsheets. He didn’t mince his words. To judge from the look on Paul’s face, the guy might as well have shredded his paintings with a machete.

Another scene showed Paul watching and listening via video camera, as a group of London cognoscenti dissected his work over drinks in a fancy restaurant.

Paul felt the criticisms all the more keenly because the works in question dealt with a traumatic episode from his teenage years, when he was paralysed for many months. He said afterwards that working on those images was the first time he had consciously processed what had happened to him all those years ago.

He looked devastated in his video diary entries after these critiques. But the next day he got up, went to the studio and got on with the job.

Takeaway: “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Have an Attitude

At one point one of Paul’s mentors suggested that he present himself as a ‘printmaker’ instead of an ‘artist’, to lower people’s expectations and the chance of criticism. Paul bristled at the idea: “That may work for you, but it won’t work for me”. He was totally committed to the challenge and prepared to take on anyone who didn’t take him seriously.

Takeaway: No-one is going to do you any favours. As Hugh says, “Power is never given. Power is taken”.

Look the Part

Paul’s mentors took him to the hairdresser, then shopping. They encouraged him to try on flamboyant clothes he would never normally wear. Topped off with a pair of glasses, he looked like he fitted right in at a bohemian gallery that evening.

Superficial? Yes. Essential? Yes.

Takeaway: People will judge you by appearances. You can conform to their expectations, or confound them – your choice.

Talk the Talk

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but one of the odd things about being a contemporary artist is that you are expected to explain your work, in written commentaries and spoken presentations. Paul received a lot of coaching on how to talk about art in general and his own work in particular. At one point, he was told “Don’t say the work is about you, say it’s about ‘the Self'”. To his credit, Paul showed considerable chutzpah, dropping words like ‘serendipity’ into the chitchat over canapés, while evidently not taking all this ‘artspeak’ too seriously.

Takeaway: Maybe it shouldn’t matter whether you know the right terms or can drop the right names into your conversation – but in some circles it does. Knowing the ‘insider language’ is essential for entry. It’s your choice whether you think it’s worth making the effort to fit in.

Bluff It

The final test was an exhibition at a London gallery, where Paul’s work was displayed alongside three artists who had been exhibiting and selling work for several years. The work was judged by three respected critics, who also interviewed each of the artists, to see how convincingly they could discuss their work.

Paul was clearly feeling the pressure as he was grilled by the judges, and his performance wasn’t perfect. But in the event, one of the genuine artists did an even worse job of explaining his own work – it just goes to show you can’t always tell from appearances. And neither could the judges – out of three of them, only one spotted Paul as the fake.

Takeaway: There comes a point where you have to step out confidently and present yourself to the world as the person you want to be – even though you’re feeling terrified inside. And there are no guarantees that the world will buy your bluff.

At the end of the programme, Paul seemed genuinely inspired by his rollercoaster ride through the art world. He said it had changed his outlook on life and he was keen to continue painting.

Maybe he wasn’t really faking it.

Can You Fake It?

Do you find Paul’s story inspiring or does it shatter some of your illusions about art?

Do you think anyone could succeed at a creative profession if they tried hard enough?

Have you ever felt like you were ‘faking it’ at work – but found that nobody noticed and it turned out fine?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet, creative coach and co-founder of Lateral Action. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

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Responses to this Post


  1. This:

    Takeaway: “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

    Yes. I accept adversity exists and I know it has one gift to give me: a learning experience that makes me a better person. Stronger. Smarter. More confident. I’ll take a hit any day, just for those reasons.

    Only not TOO hard… Still hurts when it happens 😉

  2. Very inspiring post on from both perspectives. It reminds me to be always vigilant regarding my work and the work of others. Don’t accept things at face value, in other words

    Conversely, it suggests that the fine line between expert and amateur can be all in the mind. Even when you ARE an expert, it’s up to you to BE the expert and tell others that they are to treat you as the expert you are.

    Let’s say I want to be an expert at a particular thing, and spend 10 years and 10,000 hours at it, but continue to think poorly of myself, underestimate and downplay my abilities, continually calling myself an amateur despite the fact that the skill and experience long ago crossed over into the realm of expert. Will people perceive me as an expert or a wanna be? I suspect the latter. I also suspect that this happens all too often.

    Thanks for a great start to the week!

  3. After a less than rigorous academic career in high school I gained admission to a top flight college on an athletic scholarship. After a terrible start I was assigned tutors to bring me up to speed in a subject I had literally never heard of before, calculus. By the end of the semester I was able to “fake it” well enough to get a passing grade before I switched to a liberal arts major. More importantly I got a glimpse, however brief, of a branch of knowledge and the people who explore it that was fascinating. It may also have triggered an impulse that still has me wondering forty years later about what I want to be when I grow up. I’ll always wonder whether if I logged the requisite 10,000 hours in any discipline I might get really good at it. No regrets, never bored, and, coincidentally, painting has always been one of those things I still want to try.

  4. Deeply seeded in anyone who presents themselves as an expert or a professional is the thought that he or she is just faking it.

    How many of my favourite writers are faking it? How many bloggers that I read on a daily basis are faking it? How many of my teachers and mentors over the years have been faking it?

    There is a very fine line between faking it and doing it. So fine, in fact, that it doesn’t matter. If everyone else thinks you’re the real deal, who are you to argue?

    Just my 2 cents (pence?) on the fake vs real debate.

  5. Chris Vaughan says:

    Thanks for highlighting ‘Faking It’ and for your excellent analysis. I didn’t see this particular episode but there were takeaway lessons from all the episodes I did watch. A recurring one, was how the mentors missed out on skills the candidate possessed that could have been mapped across to the new profession. A good example was the geek who wanted to be a soccer coach who just happened to be a champion chess player i.e. a strategic thinker. He was fingered as a fake but his team just happened to win the competition he was coaching them for! He just wasn’t good at bellowing mindless advice from the touchline, as his mentors wanted him to.

  6. I know I still feel like I’m faking it sometimes.

    Art, Life, are about perception, our own and others. Is as does, and we are judged by action. That’s the truth left, is the action.

    I just told Brian, thanking him for grouping me with Hugh and John, that being visibly successful and actually successful are 2 different things. I think Hugh is partly right that it’s up to society to term us artists, as that is partly an external judgement. I’m getting so I feel successful as an artist, but it comes and goes.

    Great post, well organized as usual Mark.


  7. Love this – it’s v inspiring. I suspect there are a lot of people out there who are great at what they do but simply don’t have the confience to look and act the part. And they would no doubt benefit from reading this.

  8. If you “fake it”, as meaning presenting on purpose something false about yourself, someone is going to catch you with your pants down at some point. I don’t think that not wanting to look like an amateur is being a fake. In the end the amateur/pro divisions don’t really matter. Not to sound cheesy, but you don’t need to fake it, you just need to do it.

  9. Mark,

    Ack! I am so disappointed that I can’t watch the video! Great writeup, great takeaways.

    As one who migrated from the fine art world to… erm… making a living, I can say for sure that whatever our path we’ve got one thing in common and that’s the fear that we are faking it at times. To which, even without the show’s help, I’ve always said then go right ahead. I’m a firm believer in fake it ’til you make it.

    As far as Paul’s specific story, it doesn’t shatter my illusions, maybe because I define art in a slightly unorthodox way.

    To me, art’s what’s inside your brain, that decides to come out. Like a fingerprint of your brain. Music-painting-writing-acting-whatever the medium.

    If you can move others in the way you hoped to, sure, you might become more successful as an artist, but A LOT of success in artistic professions is up to chance (and a lot is up to the hard promotional work we have to do in any business). So if Paul put fingerprints of his brain out there and “fooled” people as to whether he was a “real” artist, that’s because he was, for that month, doing exactly what real art requires, while the luck and promotion came via the show.

    Now, if you told me he spent the month with someone else telling him where to put the brush (or whatever), defined the works randomly, and didn’t actually make works derived from his brain, I’d be a bit miffed at the deception. Sounds to me, though, that Paul was, however briefly, “an artist.” Good on him.



  10. To me, “faking it” means “acting as if” – and it’s the only way most of us will ever succeed. It’s too bad that the word “fake” generally has a negative connotation.

    Paul’s story shows us that we are all free to move in any direction we want – and achieve whatever goals we set for ourselves.

    “Act as if” you can – and you probably will. Unfortunately for many, the opposite is also true.

  11. As I read this, I realized that I’M the one who’s faking it…

    …whenever I TALK about what I’m writing, or planning to write, instead of simply shutting up and doing the work. This happens more often than I’d like to admit.

    I see that doing the work, however imperfectly, is more “real” and more valuable than endlessly discussing and ruminating on how it COULD be made perfect and what you INTEND to do.

    Allowing oneself the latitude to fail is essential, or paralysis sets in and you become a talker rather than a doer, nervously hoping that people (including you) will accept brilliant discussion as a placeholder or substitute for action. If that’s not faking it, I don’t know what is.

    I think it comes down to taking yourself less seriously (“lighten up”) and MORE seriously (“but get to work”) at the same time. Put in your 10,000 hours with a smile. Treat your work like laying bricks and simply get on with it. I do manage it some days. I’d love to have more of those.

    I wish we could see this show in the US, but you did a great job of describing it.

    Now, back to my screenplay (actually WRITING it) !

  12. In desperation to see this show, just went on YouTube. There are clips of other episodes there. I saw an edited version of one in which a punk rocker becomes a symphony conductor. It’s very inspiring.

    I think it proves what tremendous focus, desire, concentration and support can accomplish in such a very short time. The rest is just mechanics and practice.

  13. In reality, we are always “faking it” since we are always playing a character that is the product of our conditioning and limited beliefs, and not a true representation of all that we can authentically become. It is rare to find a person that is manifesting its highest self fully. Most people have yet to express their highest potential.

    Children learn by playing (faking) characters and experimenting. It is sad, that in time we stop playing only to become stiff and unable to explore other perspectives. I don’t know whether the name of this show helps, since personal growth requires no faking, but just the discovery of our infinite creative potential that is kept under wraps by labels (you are this, you are not that) and limiting beliefs.

    My message today is to start unleashing that potential that is kept as a hostage of our boring routines, reclaiming your ability to discover the many gifts that you still hold. Start today!

    Start the One Million People Paradigm Shift Challenge!

    Play and make it real!

  14. @ James – Maybe we’ll go easy on you for a bit. 😉

    @ Zack – Yes, there’s a little theatre involved in all expertise.

    @ Jay – Funnily enough, one of my highest grades in my Bachelor’s degree was for a subject I had little interest in. 3 weeks before the exams, I got someone to coach me on “the bare essentials the examiners want to see”. Sometimes less is more, I guess.

    @ Adam – Actually I’m faking it on this blog. I’m making it up as I go along, you know. 😉

    @ Chris – I watched the chess player/football coach episode last night, definitely see what you mean. He was definitely more Wenger than Clough. The poor guy won the competition (I think his team won the final 4-0) but he was still sussed as the fake!

    @ Daniel – Great post, thanks for sharing. Makes me think of some of the really successful perfomers I’ve coached, who’ve told me it doesn’t matter how great the reviews are or how rapturous the applause, compared to what they tell themselves about their performance.

    Hugh’s point about society deciding who’s an artist makes me think of Robert Graves’ comment that the word ‘poet’ is always a courtesy title.

    @ Cath – I suspect you’re right. I’m doing my best to reach them all…

    @ JayCruz – “you don’t need to fake it, you just need to do it”. Exactemundo!

    @ Kelly – Agreed, I think Paul was genuinely committed to discovering/expressing something in the time he had. He would have been much less convincing if he’d approached it more cynically.

    @ Angiel – “To me, “faking it” means “acting as if”. Apparently when David Bowie started playing Ziggy Stardust on stage he used to ask himself “What would a real rock superstar do now?” Then find himself doing it…

    @ Lisa

    I think it comes down to taking yourself less seriously (”lighten up”) and MORE seriously (”but get to work”) at the same time. Put in your 10,000 hours with a smile.

    That’s it! That’s what I’ve been trying to say on here for the last 12 months. 🙂

    The punk rocker / symphony conductor episode is one of my favourites, really inspiring (and funny).

    @ Javier – Alan Watts said we’re all playing games all the time – but some of us are playing the game of pretending not to be playing a game. Which is a very far out game indeed…

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