- What is an artist?
- Why do kids need to know about artists?
- Who are the world's greatest artists?
- Narrowing down our list to the top 20 artists
- Top 20 artists from the UK
We’ve all heard of famous painters like Van Gogh but many of the most famous painters’ names actually belong to artists from the UK. A hub for creative talent celebrated around the world, many of the top famous artists call the British Isles their home – but what is it about famous artists that makes them special and why should our kids know about them at all? Let’s get to know some more about famous artists from the UK. 🏆
What is an artist?
“Artist”, in its most basic of contexts, can simply mean “a person who is very good at something” – think “con” or “scam” – masters of the art of deception. Or, a more common association, is “someone who creates things with great skill and imagination” like a calligrapher, a gardener or a chef – to many, Nigella Lawson’s predilection for decadent desserts makes her an artist in the kitchen. 🧑🍳
Even in sport, football – the beautiful game – is regarded by thousands to be more of an artform than the simple effort to get a ball in a net. Should we, by that same logic, consider all footballers to be artists? The jury is out on that one but, suffice to say, the parameters within which we decide who should or should not be considered an artist are open to interpretation – and that’s half the fun. ⚽
More often than not though, the term “artist” refers to someone skilled in their own strand of the creative arts, be it Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Literature, Music, Performance or Film. Although a Google search for “best artists of all time” will return a list of bands, singers and musicians, for the purposes of this article on the top 20 artists, we will use the word artist to refer to fine artists – that’s painters, sculptors and visual creatives alike.
Why do kids need to know about artists?
First and foremost, art is part of every human’s heritage. We have been making art for at least 30,000 years – some of the oldest known examples being prehistoric paintings on the walls of caves in Europe and Asia. So, an education in the arts and all the extraordinary people who have contributed to them over the centuries is fundamental to understanding our existence and modes of expression as a species. 🗿
Learning about art is about more than just history though. In 2018, a landmark research project commissioned by Arts Council England called Tracking Learning and Engagement in the Arts (TALE) outlined the overwhelmingly positive benefits of arts and cultural education for young people and their continued professional development – including encouraging self-expression and creativity as well as building confidence and a sense of individual identity. 🙌
More than creating beautiful things – an important and much-needed skill in itself – artists can provoke the public and push people to act. Alongside policymakers and academics, artists generate revolutionary, visionary ideas for change and challenge our notions of what’s normal or acceptable. Artists are inspiring thought leaders and engaging role models for our children to investigate, understand, emulate, question and respect.
Many popular artists, painters and creatives are exciting, remarkable people. Spanning genders, ages, races, nationalities, languages, abilities and mediums – artists think with their hearts, they are driven by their own personal interpretations and a willingness to share them with the world. Our kids needn’t memorise a list of famous artists’ names but learning about a few – let’s say their top 20 artists – will surely ignite their imaginations and sense of wonderment. 🤩
Who are the world's greatest artists?
With approximately 55.5 thousand people employed as artists in the UK alone, deciding on just one artist – past or present – to hold the proud title of “best artist ever” or “greatest painter in the world” is an impossible task.
If you were to fill a room with art historians and ask “who is the best painter in the world?”, they would each produce a list of the best painters of all time long enough to wrap around the building – twice – and every list would be different.
There are several standards by which you can measure who the world’s greatest artists or world’s greatest painters are. Just some of the factors that would determine who makes the list of well-known famous artists includes the trends and fashions of the moment – the world’s best impressionist is miles apart from the world’s best surrealist and where once a Caravaggio painting stunned visitors in a gallery, we’ve since seen Duchamp’s fountain, Andy Warhol’s soup cans and photos of Ai Weiwei dropping an ancient urn. 🖼️
Then there’s the longevity of an artists’ work to consider, some of the most famous artists of all time benefit from having been well-known artists for hundreds of years now – Jan van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo – their position on the “world-famous painter name list” cemented.
Lastly, it is important to note that the art world has historically been dominated by white men, with female artists and non-white artists facing severe prejudice, a lack of opportunity and woeful underexposure. Despite that very real fact, some of the most famous artists widely revered as the most exceptional historical painters and creatives today are members of those underrepresented groups.
Ultimately, perhaps the best art is that which is – as Hugh Moss, author of “The Art of Understanding Art” puts it – something central to “the evolution of human consciousness”. That is something that moves us from the normal, intellectual mode of knowing to the transcendent. For some that is the deliriously dotty works of Yayoi Kusama, for others, it’s Picasso’s anti-war painting, Guernica. 🎨
Narrowing down our list to the top 20 artists
As discussed, there are several standards by which you can measure who the world’s greatest artists are. So, in order to make our list a little different from the rest, we narrowed down our parameters using a few key factors.
Firstly, our list of top 20 artists will be made up of “fine artists”, that is to say, anyone that creates original work through the mediums of painting, drawing, sculpture, film, performance or photography. Secondly, we will focus our attention on artists from the UK – let’s take a closer look at some of that homegrown talent! – and lastly, we believe all of the artists on our list of top 20 artists have something unique and inspiring for your kids to take away. 👍
Top 20 artists from the UK
Among this list of top 20 artists from the UK that every kid should know about you will find some of the most famous UK artists interspersed with a few less well-known artists’ names. Let’s take a look at some amazing artists, painters, sculptors and performers.
#1 William Hogarth, 1697 – 1764
Hogarth is widely regarded as the father of satirical, comic-strip illustration. Born to a lower-middle-class family, he failed to complete his engraving apprenticeship before going on to enjoy a hugely successful career. A pioneer ahead of his time, he embraced modernity and embodied a national attitude in his paintings, prints and editorial cartoons.
Key takeaway for kids: Regardless of your background, making art that reflects society back on itself always turns heads.
#2 J. M. W. Turner, 1775 – 1851
Not only is Turner a much-loved English Romantic artist, he is also one of the top world-known artists. He became known as “the painter of light”, because of his use of brilliant colours depicting extraordinary skies in his landscapes and seascapes. At the time his free, expressive style was heavily criticised, but his progressive approach is now widely admired and appreciated.
Key takeaway for kids: Don’t be afraid to do things differently.
#3 Henry Moor, 1898 – 1986
Best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures, Moore also produced many drawings, including a series depicting Londoners sheltering from the Blitz during the Second World War. He became a global symbol of post-war optimism and enjoyed large monetary success; however, he lived frugally and most of his money went towards endowing the Henry Moore Foundation.
Key takeaway for kids: Great art can capture a moment in time and speak to an international audience.
#4 Barbara Hepworth, 1903 – 1975
As a woman in a largely male-dominated art world, Hepworth took the world by storm with her deeply intimate, large sculptures depicting forms side-by-side. She made more than 600 works of sculpture remarkable in range and emotional force all whilst living through multiple marriages, several relocations, the second world war and giving birth to triplets.
Key takeaway for kids: Remarkable women really can do it all.
#5 Francis Bacon, 1909 – 1992
Bacon was an Irish-born British figurative painter known for his raw, unsettling imagery. Often depicting abstract human forms, his canvases featured crucifixions, religious figures and self-portraits. Sticking with a brutal and often macabre style, often at odds with his contemporaries, Bacon built up a reputation as one of the giants of contemporary art.
Key takeaway for kids: Everybody has their demons, if you share them you will find you are not alone.
#6 Lucian Freud, 1922 – 2011
A key name on any famous painters list, Freud was an intensely private and guarded man. He painted people he knew – mostly his friends and family – for 60 years. Noted for his uniquely thick use of paint and expressive brush strokes, his paintings examine the often discomforting relationship between artist and model.
Key takeaway for kids: Consistency is key. You don’t need extraordinary subjects to make extraordinary paintings.
#7 Beryl Cook, 1926 – 2008
Thanks to her unique, often comical style, Cook’s paintings are original and instantly recognisable. She depicted everyday life with insightful sensitivity and heaps of humour. She had no formal training and did not take up painting until her thirties. A shy and private person, she expressed a flamboyant and extroverted side through her paintings.
Key takeaway for kids: You don’t need formal training or oodles of confidence to be a great artist.
#8 Bridget Riley, 1931 –
Riley is best known for her work in the 1960s onwards where she evolved a style in which she explored the dynamic potentialities of optical phenomena – op-art. Bravely rejecting commercial expectations in her early career, she continued to create cutting-edge work and has maintained an extraordinarily brilliant output of pure abstract art until today.
Key takeaway for kids: There is great power in understanding colour and pattern.
#9 Paula Rego, 1935 –
Rego is a Portuguese-British visual artist particularly known for her paintings and prints based on storybooks with strong feminist themes and content. Rego has spent much of her career focusing on women's rights and abortion rights, using the theme of abortion as a focal point in much of her art.
Key takeaway for kids: Art can be a catalyst for social justice and progressive change.
#10 David Hockney, 1937 –
Hockney has turned his hand to multiple mediums including painting, drawing, printing, stage design, photography and digital illustration. Notably, in 2018, one of his well-known paintings sold for £70 million, becoming the most expensive artwork by a living artist sold at auction. Hockney believes in trusting your intuition and that making mistakes is all part of the process.
Key takeaway for kids: Learn from your mistakes and trust your gut.
#11 Maggi Hambling, 1945 –
In 1980 Hambling became the first artist in residence at the National Gallery, London. One of the best artists, painters and sculptors – many of her works are considered to be challenging and controversial. Hambling is also known for painting the dead, including portraits of her parents saying that she "found it rather therapeutic to go on painting them after death".
Key takeaway for kids: Art can be a kind of therapy and not everybody has to like your work.
#12 Anish Kapoor, 1954 –
Kapoor is a British-Indian sculptor specializing in installation and conceptual art. His huge, often immersive, pieces can span incredible distances and encourage the viewer to reflect upon their surroundings and themselves. It is his intention that the audience contemplates the work by becoming a part of it.
Key takeaway for kids: The sky’s the limit.
#13 Grayson Perry, 1960 –
Perry is an English contemporary artist, writer and broadcaster. He is known for his ceramic vases, tapestries and cross-dressing as well as his observations of the contemporary arts scene and dissection of British "prejudices, fashions and foibles". In 2008 he was ranked number 32 in The Daily Telegraph's list of the "100 most powerful people in British culture".
Key takeaway for kids: Always be unapologetically yourself.
#14 Sarah Lucas, 1962 –
Lucas’ works integrate photography, collage and found objects. She employs critical humor in her work in order to question conventions and highlight the absurdity of the everyday. Lucas has used everything from eggs to bananas, mattresses and buckets in her work that predominantly discusses the female body and voyeurism.
Key takeaway for kids: There is art to be made from the everyday objects all around you.
#15 Tracey Emin, 1963 –
Emin is known for her autobiographical, confessional and often controversial artwork. Despite being one of just two women professors to be appointed at London's Royal Academy of Arts since the Academy was founded in 1768, she makes no attempt to engage in “intellectual art speak” but sticks to unaffected everyday language.
Key takeaway for kids: If you are brave enough to share your personal truths it can be profound and highly political.
#16 Rachel Whiteread, 1963 –
Whiteread was the first woman to win the annual Turner Prize in 1993. While they appear minimal, her sculptures are full of emotion, memory, and the macabre. Often, her works trick us into thinking they're something they're not. Like “Line Up”, which looks like nothing but toilet paper rolls, but is really made of plaster, pigment, resin, wood and metal.
Key takeaway for kids: Not everything is as it seems, don’t take everything at face value.
#17 Damien Hirst, 1965 –
Hirst is reportedly the UK's richest living artist. One of the most famous artists names in the world, death is a central theme in his works. Noted for challenging and subverting the inherent capitalism in the contemporary art industry, he is an entrepreneur and art collector as well as an artist. Like him or loathe him, he single-handedly turned the art world on its head.
Key takeaway for kids: You don’t have to be starving to be an artist.
#18 Chris Ofili, 1968 –
Ofili is a British Turner Prize-winning painter who is best known for his famous art paintings incorporating elephant dung. Classified as "punk art", his work weaves cultural elements together to play on ideas of beauty while carrying messages about black culture, history and exoticism. For him, the process of making art is like crafting a key that can open a door to freedom.
Key takeaway for kids: There is freedom in expressing yourself through art.
Despite being found on every “famous artists” list, Banksy’s full identity remains a secret. They are known to be an England-based street artist, political activist and film director. Active since the 1990s, their satirical street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humour with graffiti stencils. Their works of political and social commentary have appeared on streets, walls and bridges all over the world.
Key takeaway for kids: People don’t need to know your name to love what you do.
#20 Yinka Shonibare, 1962 –
Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist whose work explores cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism within the context of globalisation. Partly paralysed after contracting a virus of the spine in his late teens, a hallmark of his art is the brightly coloured Ankara fabric he uses. Instead of perpetuating tragedy, Shonibare aspires to promote hope and positivity.
Key takeaway for kids: Art plays an important role in connecting different cultures and revealing hidden histories.