What Does a Visual Artist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Imgage shows a woman sitting at a very messy table covered in pencils, paints, and illustration tools. Text reads: "A day in the life of an illustrator: promote their art to gain reputation and increase sales of their art. May work long hours to meet deadlines. Imagine and develop new, original ideas. May require expensive equipment"

Image by Ashley Nicole DeLeon Â© The Balance 2019


Simply put, an artist creates art such as paintings, sculptures, video, and film, sound works, drawings, printed works, installations, and other forms.

The artworks may consist of framed pictures, elaborate room installations, or performance pieces to be exhibited, experienced, and/or sold. The artworks may be ephemeral like smoke or vapor.

The artworks may be exhibited outdoors as public art or indoors in art galleries, museums, biennial exhibitions, art fairs, and at alternative locations.

Artist residencies offer certain types of equipment for artists to use, such as the Frans Masereel in Belgium which offers studios specially equipped for printmakers.

A few artists will become enormously successful such as Picasso and Andy Warhol, but it is more common on average that artists need to teach or do other types of work to help supplement their income, especially when first starting out their careers.

Visual Artist Duties & Responsibilities

A visual artist may work for themselves and have a varied schedule each day. Or, they may be employed by a graphic arts firm, a gaming company, or a studio that produces cartoons, among other jobs, and have a more predictable schedule and workload. Duties may include:

  • Using a computer program to design, create and edit artwork
  • Creating sketches and models of their work
  • Creating art out of anything or from nothing. Conceptual and performance artists may just use their bodies to create work.
  • Using costly materials and equipment to do work, although some artists may use recycled or found items that were free.
  • Making use of various materials such as welded steel, carved wood, digital imagery, oil on canvas, drawings on paper, installations from found objects. Some artists make art from water vapor or bee pollen. The list of equipment is only limited by the artist's imagination.

As an artist's career begins to build momentum, the artist may be receiving commissions to make new works of art or selling regularly through an art dealer or the artist's own studio.

Visual Artist Salary

A visual artist salary varies based on the level of experience, geographical location, and other factors.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017

Many artists are self-employed, and earnings for self-employed artists can vary widely. Some artists charge very low prices while they gain experience and build a following for their artwork. Artists who become more well-established reach a point where they can charge more money for their work and earn more than salaried artists.

Education, Training & Certification

An artist can begin in childhood like Picasso or later in life like Grandma Moses. To be an artist, you can be entirely self-taught, apprentice under a master artist, or attend a university or art school.

  • Education: While not required, a college degree provides certain advantages including a formal teaching method that covers a lot more in terms of art techniques, history, and other information than an individual might learn on their own. A degree also improves job prospects.
  • Portfolio: Education gives artists a chance to fill out their portfolio, which holds a collection of the artist’s work from various courses and projects. The artwork in their portfolio serves to demonstrate their style and range of ability. Portfolios are crucial because this is what art directors, clients, and others look at when deciding whether to hire an artist or to buy their work. Many artists also choose to post their portfolio online so that they can have potential buyers and clients easily view their work on the Internet.

Visual Artist Skills & Competencies

Individuals choosing this occupation will gain an edge if they possess certain soft skills or personal qualities such as the following:

  • Artistic ability: Artists create works of art and other objects that have visual appeal or provoke certain emotions.
  • Business skills: Artists must promote their art and themselves to gain a reputation and increase sales of their art. Artists analyze the market for their crafts or artwork so that they can gain more insight into the type of art potential customers might want. Developing an online presence has become an important part of sales for many artists.
  • Creativity: Artists must be able to imagine and develop new, original ideas for their work projects.
  • Customer-service and interpersonal skills: Artists, especially those who sell their own work, must work well with existing customers and potential buyers. Artists must also interact with many types of people, including coworkers or fellow artists, gallery owners, and the public.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook for craft and fine artists over the next decade relative to other occupations and industries is good, although it depends a great deal on the state of the economy and whether people feel like spending their money on a discretionary item like art. In economic downturns, art sales tend to suffer, and they do much better in good economic times.

Employment is expected to grow by about 6% over the next ten years, which is slightly slower growth than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026. This growth rate compares to the projected 7% growth for all occupations.

Work Environment

Some artists may require huge studios with a big production staff and heavy equipment such as welding equipment, cranes, glass ovens, kilns, and more, while other artists may just need a small office to work in.

Work Schedule

Most craft and fine artists work full time, although part-time and variable work schedules are also common. In addition to pursuing their work as an artist, many hold another job because it may be difficult to rely solely on income earned from selling paintings or other works of art. During busy periods, artists may work long hours to meet deadlines.

How to Get the Job


Look at job-search resources like Indeed.com, Monster.com, and Glassdoor.com for available positions. You can also visit the websites of individual companies that hire artists, such as Disney, Nickelodeon or video game companies, to apply online to existing job openings.



Rejection is a big part of being an artist, so keep at it. Apply for grants and artist residencies. Keep contacting galleries to show your work. Keep networking and making connections. Maximize your opportunities and keep making art.

 Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in becoming a visual artist also consider the following career paths, listed with their median annual salaries:

  • Art Director: $92,780
  • Graphic Designers: $50,370
  • Multimedia Artists and Animators: $72,520

 Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017