Choosing Art as a Career

Is being an artist a realistic and achievable career?

Art handlers hanging a Mark Rothko painting that has been restored.
Rob Stothard/Getty Images

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, it is not easy being a successful fine artist (someone who makes a living by creating original, one-off pieces of art) -- but many people do succeed in supporting themselves through a combination of hard work, perseverance, and using their artistic talents and knowledge in a variety of ways to supplement their income from the creation of original works of art. The internet has broadened the reach of art and made it possible for artists to increase their visibility to viewers and collectors all over the world, making them less dependent on museums and galleries for exposure and marketing, and 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 or illustrator -- usually a team. There are graphic artists putting the magazines together, and illustrators drawing the cartoons and graphics. There are also website designers, computer-graphic artists (computers don’t draw the graphics themselves, they’re just a tool, a modern version of a paintbrush!), and animators for film and television. There are stage set designers and builders. There are computer game designers. There are art galleries and museums. There is also teaching art and art therapy; mural painting and face painting; tattoo artist.

And think more broadly about other career options: photography, landscape design, interior design, shop-window design, framing; textile and clothing design; furniture and lighting design; architecture, landscape 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 a stockbroker might, but you have to decide what is more important to you: money or having a job/career you thoroughly enjoy. Do you want a fancy car, or simply one that will get you from point A to point B without breaking down? Do you want a fancy designer top or would you rather use the money for a large tub of genuine cadmium red? Assess your priorities and make your choices accordingly. Are you willing to do without rather than go into debt for a non-essential (taking a critical look at what you consider essential)? When you’re 90 years old and looking back on your life, would you rather 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 wished you had 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. Others find work that fuels their creativity and gives them fodder for their own artwork. For example, many artists become art teachers, finding fulfillment not only in helping others discover their creative abilities but also continually learning from their students and honing their own artistic approach as they teach. Nothing is rote in art, so teaching is a constant process of discovery for both the student and the teacher. It can be demanding and exhausting at times, so it does take discipline and effort to ensure that you schedule enough time for your own artwork.  

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 will 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 that you have 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. The most important thing is to keep practicing your art and keep growing as an artist. Use the internet for free video demonstrations and tips. 

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, color, 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 is tough and few artists make a living by only selling their work (at least initially). But most artists are good at multi-tasking and thinking out-of-the-box in order to come up with ways to support themselves until their painting alone can sustain them. But supplementing your painting with another complementary creative pursuit is not all bad either.