Becoming an artist doesn’t necessarily mean aspiring to be the next Leonardo da Vinci or Vincent van Gogh. There are many different facets of artistry, but they all have one thing in common: the need to create, and tell stories through emotive works of art.
Many of us might dabble with art in our spare time, but what do you need to do if you want to take this further and pursue a career as an artist?
This article is a guide to all you need to know, such as what it takes to be a successful artist, what skills you will need, what to expect from this career, and how to get started. Put down that paint brush and read on!
Although we all know what an artist is, it’s a surprisingly broad profession and quite tricky to define. Being an artist can be as pure as creating art and expressing yourself through doing this. However, you might also be involved in working on commissions, or working in teams to create larger projects.
Whereas artists often freelance, some can be permanently employed or offered residencies by organizations. Artists can work from a purely creative perspective, or a more functional one, such as crafting products, drafting medical images or creating signage for everyday use. Some artists teach others how to create. In short, there are few limitations to what you can get out of being an artist!
Whatever the angle, there are a few different types of artists, focusing on different platforms. There are generally seven main types of artistic medium:
In addition to the above, there’s an emerging medium of digital art, or digital media, which is presented in many different forms. Artists can either specialize on one medium or create artworks across many of them.
Becoming a professional artist isn’t just all about creating masterpieces. You’ll be involved in marketing yourself and, ideally, selling your works of art to leverage your reputation. This will likely mean taking a second job until your career as an artist starts to pay for itself.
Although the creative nature of the role means that no two artist roles are the same, there are some common responsibilities that artists might share. Here is a list of the main ones that define the role:
- Planning and creating artistic works
- Sketching and composing draft works and plans to create a final piece
- Working with clients or benefactors to understand their needs and wants
- Understanding various artistic mediums and materials used to create artworks
- Researching other artists and creators to get a better understanding of trends and peers
- Networking with fellow artists, galleries, and sales, events and marketing representatives
- Storing and maintaining artworks appropriately
- Attending art shows and visiting galleries with a view to displaying your work and articulating the meaning behind artworks to a wide audience
- Creating portfolios of your work
- Creating and effectively presenting proposals for commissions or financial grants
Being an artist offers a flexible work environment that allows you to create on your own terms. The flip side to this is less security or structure than many “traditional” forms of employment might offer. Nevertheless, the creative environment and invitation to share individual expression is very appealing for would-be artists.
This section explores the work environment in more detail, including the work hours and satisfaction levels.
Artists are rarely “office-based”, and if they are (for example, a commissioned artist for an advertising agency), they’re encouraged to find a working pattern that works for them, in order to allow their creativity to flourish.
Freelance artists can work on their own terms, whenever they want and wherever they want. They can create an environment that will allow them to perform at their best and in a way to maximize generation of ideas.
Often artists will work in a studio, but others might work from home. The injury rate for artists is a little higher than the national average due to the risk of manual work and potential handling of chemicals.
There are rarely set working hours for an artist. If you’re an in-house artist working for an agency, then you might be bound to office hours, but these will rarely be longer than 40 hours per week.
Freelance artists can work whenever they want — for example, cramming all their work into the morning, or only working in the evening or at weekends, and taking days off wherever needed. This enables artists to fit in their work around their personal commitments and make use of energy hours when they’re at their most creative.
As artists sell more work and become more recognized, there will likely be greater flexibility to work whenever one feels like due to lesser financial constraints and obligations like a second job. If artists have deadlines to meet, then this might result in longer hours or additional stress.
Like many jobs in the creative industries, becoming an artist might mean accepting a relatively low income and supporting this career with a second job until you gain credibility in this very competitive line of work.
Nevertheless, being an artist remains a rewarding role with plenty of evidence of high job satisfaction. European research indicates that artists, on a scale of 1–10, rate their job satisfaction at 7.7 on average, compared to 7.3 for non-artists.
A wider study draws attention to factors in the artistic profession that might suggest lower job satisfaction (such as lower salaries and less job security), but still, artists ranked higher in job satisfaction, mainly due to greater autonomy.
Being an artist can be very competitive, especially if you want to take your creativity full time, but nevertheless, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that artistic roles are going to experience higher-than-average growth over the coming years. This growth, from 2020 to 2030, is predicted to be as high as 14%, compared to occupational growth across all occupations, at 8%.
This equates to 7,000 new artists entering the workforce. The reason for such rapid expansion is partly due to the perceived job satisfaction that comes with being an artist, but also because the US’s economy is scheduled to recover after the COVID-19 pandemic. When economies are strong, people are more likely to buy art and other nonessential purchases.
According to the BLS, the average annual salary for an artist is $67,240 (or $32.33 per hour). For comparison, the average salary in the US overall is $58,260 (or $28.01 per hour).
The five US states that pay artists the most are:
- Maryland: $104,820
- Virginia: $93,010
- Georgia: $84,960
- New York: $84,660
- Massachusetts: $80,090
Check out our infographic on average earnings of artists across the US:
It goes without saying that some of the most important skills an artist needs to have include an abundance of creativity and original ideas, and an ability to think outside the box. Nevertheless, there are other important skills an artist needs to possess, including a whole suite of abilities if you plan to sell your work and make a name for yourself. Here are the main skills and attributes:
- Creative mindset and artistic personality
- Ability to turn concepts into reality, and articulating ideas into projects
- Artistic ability — the skill of using artistic mediums in a way to generate thought provoking works of art
- Manual dexterity
- Sales skills
- Negotiation skills
- Relationship building and interpersonal skills
- Storytelling skills
- Marketing and social media skills
Unlike many professions, becoming an artist might just happen organically — you might discover that you have a natural ability to create extraordinary things and decide to make a career out of it. You might also get a surprise big break that serves as a jumpstart into the career.
Creativity and artistic ability can be trained and nurtured like any other skill, so if you do want to actively grow into this role, then there are a few things you can do to maximize your chances of success.
Step 1: Determine if it’s the right job for you
A good place to start in determining if becoming an artist is a good step for you is assessing if your skillset fits with the ones listed above and, crucially, if you actually enjoy using these skills. There is little point in using skills that you’re not motivated to make use of.
Take some time to read up on the profession and learn what artists love about their work and what they might find frustrating. Ask yourself if these areas resonate with you and if you can handle the cons of the role? It might also pay to create an initial portfolio of your work and send it to artists or agents in the profession to appraise. Be prepared for negative or constructive feedback (or no feedback at all), and do not let this dissuade you from pursuing the career.
Another good way of determining if being an artist is the role for you is undertaking a career assessment, such as our very own CareerHunter, which is divided into six separate tests that assess your interests, personality, motivations, and abstract, numerical and verbal reasoning abilities. Once you complete all six tests, you’ll get matched to the most fitting careers based on your results.
Step 2: Focus on the right subjects at school
Becoming an artist often starts at school.
For starters, if you wish to undertake higher education in artistic fields, you’ll need to study the prerequisite subjects for university, such as English, math, and the sciences (such as biology, chemistry and physics).
Taking art and design classes will also help, as this will enable you to dabble in different mediums and discover if you have what it takes to professionally produce artworks. If you do, then studying these classes will also give you the chance to fine tune these skills.
Step 3: Earn a bachelor’s degree
Though not necessary, the best way to focus on becoming an artist via higher education is undertaking a degree in the arts or an art-related discipline. More specific lines of art, such as architecture, performing arts or medical art, might require alternative degrees.
Taking on higher education allows you to hone your style and learn new skills. Learning about art history will help you contextualize how artistic trends are changing over time and serve as inspiration going forwards. It will also prepare you to take what might be a passing interest in art into a fully-fledged career as an artist. You can also take on postgraduate education as an artist, such as a master’s degree or even a doctorate.
Step 4: Pursue further training
Aside from postgraduate education, there are plenty of further training opportunities for artists to take on. These allow artists to learn new mediums and specialisms, as well as network with fellow artists and build their reputation and visibility. Further training most often takes the form of informal training and classes, seminars in galleries, or simply learning about a specific genre or style in more detail. It is completely up to the artist which of these trainings they immerse themselves in, and to what level.
Becoming an artist is a unique and special role, allowing you to harness your creativity and generate emotive works of art that can elicit powerful emotions from those who see them.
It might be fun and rewarding, but as a career, it is challenging to break into, thanks to its competitive nature and the difficulties in earning a salary to support the role full time. Those wishing to become an artist must take time to understand all sides to this role, including the relationship management and marketing side that will allow you to promote yourself and hopefully sell your art. Studying the right subjects and adopting an attitude of continuous learning will also contribute to your future success. Good luck!
Got a question about becoming an artist? Let us know in the comments section below.