So you want to be an artist… is this a realistic career choice, or are you going to live in a cockroach-infested flat for the rest of your life, fulfilling the “starving artist” stereotype? In short, the odds of being a successful fine artist (someone who makes a living by creating original, one-off pieces of art) are against you -- but some people do succeed. Though most of us are exposed to art only as paintings in galleries, art teachers, and hobby painters, there are many other options out there. Being a fine artist isn’t the only career option for artists.
What Career Options are There for Artists?
A career in art is not limited to being a painter of canvases which get framed and sold in a gallery. Behind every piece of art in a newspaper, magazine, book, poster, and leaflet there’s a graphic or commercial artist -- usually a team. There are graphic artists putting the magazines together, illustrators drawing the cartoons and graphics. Website designers, computer-graphic artists (computers don’t draw the graphics themselves, they’re just a tool, a modern version of a paint brush!), and animators. Film, TV, and stage set building. Computer games. Art galleries and museums. Teaching art and art therapy. Mural painting and face painting. Tattoo artist.
And think more broadly: photography, landscape design, interior design, shop-window design, framing. Textile and clothing design. Furniture and lighting design. Architecture and engineering. These all require creative skills and, even if in your heart you long to be a fine artist, working in any of these fields will complement what you do at your easel in your 'own' time.
Will I Really Make Enough Money to Live On From an Art Career?
The creative industry is competitive, but that’s symptomatic of the dedication people in it feel to their work. See it as a challenge to strive and succeed, rather than writing yourself off before you’ve even begun. It takes hard work and determination, the ability to sell yourself, and to produce the goods.
Art will not make you the same money as being, say, a stockbroker. But you have to decide what's more important to you: money or having a job/career you thoroughly enjoy. Do you want a fancy car, or simply one that’ll get from A to B without breaking down? A designer top or using the money for a large tub of genuine cadmium red? Assess your priorities and make your choices accordingly. Do without rather than go into debt for a non-essential (and take a critical look at what you consider essential). When you’re 80 and look back on your life, what do you rather want be able to say: that you lived an interesting, creative life or that you lived in a huge house, had a new car regularly, and wish you’d found more time for your art?
Some people choose a job simply because it pays the bills and leaves them with plenty of time to pursue a fine-art career part time. Or one in an unrelated field so it won't use up their creative energy. Only you can know if this is right for you. Personally I find being in a job I find dull, even for only a few hours a day, stifles my creativity. But balancing demanding, albeit creative jobs means I must work at ensuring I schedule enough painting time in the week.
What Qualifications Should You Get for an Art Career?
Take a look at all the options available at various fine art or a graphic art degrees/diplomas and choose the one that’ll give you the most options -- you may think you know what you’re going to enjoy, but may end up being surprised by what you enjoy most. Take enough business courses to ensure you’ve the skills to sell yourself and your work, and can manage your own business (do the books, pay your taxes, understand a contract etc.). You need good language skills to present yourself and your work -- e.g. could you write a good press release for your first show, compose a letter to a gallery without any grammatical or spelling errors? And make sure you can touch type -- it saves a lot of time! If you can’t afford full-time college, do part-time courses rather than give up on the idea of an art career.
But I Want to Make a Career as a Fine Artist…!
It takes a lot of determination, hard work, hard selling, and persistence to make a career as a fine artist. You need to create paintings people want to buy. Are you willing to change your style and subject matter so that people will buy more? Will you take commissions, painting to order in terms of size, colour, and subject? Being a competent painter isn’t a magic wand. You also need to be able to market yourself and your work. It is possible to make a career as a fine artist, but it’s tough and few artists make a living by only selling their work (at least initially). But then who says you can do only one thing at a time?