The Career Path of an Artist

Posted Oct 2, 2014


I've been asked to be a presenter at a local career fair again.  Our church puts on a pretty big career fair targeting youth ages 12-18 at a local high school, and it's often well attended.  I was surprised be asked a couple years ago when I did this the first time, and overwhelmed by the positive response.  There must have been around 600-700 kids there, and I was the only artist among the presenters (which worked out great for me!).   Tons of young people were interested in both looking at my art, and learning how to make a career in the arts... and many parents in attendance had some pretty tough questions about that as well.  

Last time I wasn't entirely prepared for all the questions - but this year I've been able to give it more thought and I've put together some information for young people that I hope is helpful.  I'm not entirely a full-time artist, but that's part of my presentation:

College / Study 

Nearly every successful artist I know earned a degree in college.  Stay away from expensive art schools – they’re generally a waste of time and money.  In fact most "fine art" programs aren’t good at teaching traditional academic drawing and painting skills, they often push more modern or abstract art.   Try visiting a college fine-arts department and tell them you want to paint portraits, or landscapes for a living, and just watch their reaction.   They might laugh or scoff, because traditional skills are not usually what "art schools" are about. I think it's important to focus on building your traditional academic drawing and painting skills first (which takes years) and then you'll have great tools to move forward. 

Many of the really skilled artists today either studied illustration, or spent time studying at an academic art atelier.  Examples of good Atelier schools include the Grand Central Atelier in NY, the Florence Academy of Art in Italy & NY, or the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle.  Sadie Valeri in San Francisco also runs a great atelier.  You can also look for colleges that offer solid foundation programs as part of an art or illustration program.  Art Center in CA, and other schools like BYU have good programs.  I really liked the college atmosphere, and loved being able to study a wide variety of courses.  For me illustrations was great because I learned from a lot of successful working illustrators and got many perspectives and techniques. 

Some artists have been successful majoring in fine arts (like painting) at a liberal arts school – but this is more risky.   My advice would be to find artists who's work you admire and either learn from them, or find out where they went to school (and find out what they have to say about it).  Don't just sign up for an expensive art school based on the brochures or the school's reputation. 

College can be a wonderful environment to pick up important knowledge & skills along the way (I learned computer graphics, among other things).  But it probably won’t give you all you need as an artist.  I would recommend finding an artist who’s work you admire, and see if you can learn from them.  Find out how they do what they do, both in their art and the business-side of their art.  Learn their techniques, their materials, and get their perspective.  The best artists probably won't be teaching at your school.  But many artists today travel and teach workshops, some produce instructional videos, have blogs, etc.  Don’t rely on college to give you all the artistic skills you’ll need, take responsibility for your own education and training.

Another good source for instruction and help, believe it or not, is Facebook and other social media sites where many incredible professional artists have created groups to talk to each other.  They post questions and learn and discuss a wide variety of art subjects.  If you find the right groups to join, you can really learn a lot. 

And of course: practice, practice, practice.     

Graduate school is not really necessary (for career success) unless you want to teach at the college level someday.  For that, you will need an MFA. College art-teaching jobs are very competitive, and you usually need to show that you’re a successful working artist with a degree before a college will hire you to teach.  It’s much easier to get a part-time teaching position than a full-time position.

There are a lot of artists who go all the way through art school & even graduate school and end up not making a successful living in art, and struggle financially because they have no other marketable skills.  In addition, they have huge student loans to deal with.   It’s sad, but it’s reality.

Set goals

When you first start as a fine artist, no one knows who you are and no one gives you a paycheck.  The artists who make it are relentless in pushing themselves, and have self-discipline.  They set goals in many different areas.  Set a goal for how many paintings you will paint each week or month, how many shows you will enter every year, how many galleries you will talk to, etc.  Regardless of what anyone else tells you, push away negativity and keep going after your goals.  

I love this hour-long interview with Bryan Mark Taylor where he describes his path and journey to becoming successful.  There's also a great new podcast called "Suggested Donation" where you can listen to interviews with several successful artists and learn about how they did it (check out the one with Cesar Santos).  Get connected through Facebook with other artists, join art groups, and keep at it! 

Combine Sources of Income

It’s impossible to predict art sales, so many artists also do other things to create a stable income.  Artists also teach part-time (at a college, or in their own studio), or they give workshops.  Some of them give lessons to kids.  Some of them, like Sadie Valeri or Howard Lyon, even open their own small art school.  Some artists take other part-time jobs.   Some start other businesses – being a business owner can give you control and flexibility over your time.   You may need to spend a few years in a full-time job of some sort, before you can figure out how to go into business for yourself, or how to make it as an artist.  

I learned to build websites, and eventually started my own business as a web developer.   Along the way (and with blessings from the Lord) we've built and paid off my art studio and home office so I have a place to both work and paint.  It’s taken a long time, and there is always a lot to learn, but I discovered along the way that programming is also interesting and I enjoy that as well.   It’s provided a good living, and I have more time to paint than many other artists who have to work full-time.  I also teach sometimes at The Art Institute of Portland.  I paint at least 2 hours every day, and do web development / teaching the rest of the day.

To be a Successful Fine Artist

Often the most successful painters (financially) learn to work quickly, with a loose impressionist style.  They produce a large body of work every year – the more paintings you produce, the more you can sell.  Doug Fryer for example, creates 60-80 paintings a year and is in several prominent galleries.  I do know a few artists who work slow and very detailed, and they have to price their paintings higher because they don’t produce as much, and there's a lot more time & effort in each piece. But if you get really good, this can be okay too - David Kassan sells paintings for over $60-100K each.

Fine artists usually need to establish relationships with galleries (often more than one).  You have to get to know your market, and where your art would sell.  Art that people in New York might like is not usually the kind of art that people in Arizona would like.  So finding the right galleries and getting into those galleries is a challenge.  Working with a gallery is a relationship.  They are going to promote you, hang your work in their space, bring in customers, etc., and when the work sells they will take a commission (usually from 40-50%).  

As an artist, your work is going to sell better and for higher prices depending on how well you are known.  You have to promote yourself, enter competitions, win awards, and impress people with the quality of the work (this is the part I'm still working on).  As you start making a name for yourself, art magazines might feature your work and write articles about you.  Over time, business builds and it's easier to get into galleries and demand for the work goes up.  When you have a good relationship with a gallery, they can usually help you figure out the best way to price your work.

Another path to earn money as an artist is to take on commissions, like portrait painters often do.  Usually in this case, a gallery isn't a part of the deal - you are painting something specific for a customer.  Portrait painters make their living by scheduling out portrait clients and some of them do very well.  Usually you are painting portraits for wealthy people, or people in prominent positions in business, education or other areas.  Today's portrait painters most often work from photographic reference.

To learn more about these strategies, you can read art magazines & art business websites, and join up with local (or even national) art societies. 

Other Art Related Fields

Being a full-time fine artist is not the only way to make a living doing art.  Other fields where artists are working include:

Computer Animator – animation studios, video game companies, CGI & 3D graphics companies  - this is a very competitive industry, but if you take the time to get really good at drawing & also learn to work with computers, you can find a job here.  They often work long hours, and create digital drawing & painting (with an computer pen tool and drawing tablet) for games, TV or even movies.  

Environment Artist or Character Artist - There are also artists who create digital environments for the games and artists who design game characters.   Artists work in entertainment like movies, doing background paintings, character art, etc.   In addition to art skills, these artists need to know something about costumes, cultures, places, and history.  College is pretty helpful for that sort of thing.

Illustrator – Books, magazines, children’s books, commercial art in all sorts of areas (even technical and medical fields).  Usually these artists freelance, and try to build up a clientele.  It’s a challenge, but if you are really good you can find work.  You are contacting and working with art directors.  You develop your own style, but you need to be good at taking direction, and pleasing the clients.  Because you get paid by the job, how much you make is entirely up to you and how hard you want to work.

Art Director  - This is the person who finds people to create the designs or illustrations for a company or other organization.  They are ultimately in charge of making sure the artwork is great, and communicates the right message.  They give feedback to the artist, telling them what needs to be changed or adjusted.  They are usually working in an art / marketing department, especially if the company produces publications of some kind.   Business background is helpful here, and it’s usually a higher paying job than the lower-level designers & artists. 

Graphic Design – This is a very competitive field.  You can get full-time jobs here, every company needs design work, and companies often hire a designer to work in their marketing department.   Junior designers don’t typically make a lot of money, but with time and experience you can work your way up to Senior Designer or become an Art Director.    You can also work at a design agency, where you will gain a ton of skills, and have a variety of projects.   This is also a computer-based job, and you should study at a 4-year college with a good graphic design program.

Web Design – This is similar to graphic design and there’s a lot of crossover.  There’s a lot of technical skills to learn here, from basic HTML to CSS, and even Javascript / jQuery.   Designing websites is a lot of fun, and there is a lot of demand for good front-end web designers.   Every company needs a good website.