Career Overview: Visual Arts

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

The Mona Lisa. Apocalypse Now. The sculptures of famous men and women that adorn so many of our public places. The food-porn photography in Gourmet and Sunset magazines and the Food & Wine section of your local newspaper. Comic book art. The Guatemalan tapestry you have hanging on the wall of your bedroom. The expensive, imported ceramic trinkets your parents collect. These things were all created by visual artists, who make art that audiences can see: paintings, drawings, prints, engravings, glasswork, video and film, photographs, Flash animations-even that wacky gallery installation you saw that featured a ladder to the ceiling where a small piece of paper reading "Yes" was mounted. The product of the artist's efforts is the work of art: That's what sets the visual arts apart from the performing arts, in which the performance is the art.

What You'll Do
The visual artist transforms raw materials-different colors of paint, for instance, or unused film, or a giant block of marble-into works of art: things meant to be beautiful, to inspire, or to provoke. Despite the heavy focus today on marketing and making big profits, most of us still respect and admire great visual artists and the works they create, whether it's Michelangelo and his David, Orson Welles and his Citizen Kane, or Georgia O'Keefe and her sensual paintings of flowers.

It can be a long, hard road to success in the visual arts. Tell your parents, your friends, or a stranger on the subway that you want to be an artist for a living, and you'll probably get a bemused smirk in reply. The starving artist is one of the oldest clichés for good reason: Even if you have talent, technical training, time, and tenacity, it's quite possible that you'll never really earn a living from your work as a visual artist.

Who Does Well
The first requirement for becoming a successful artist is a burning inner drive to create your art. Artists often speak of having a mysterious need to create, as though they would die if they couldn't paint or take pictures. If you're reading this career profile, you may very well be familiar with that need yourself. You might call it inspiration, or passion, or a calling. Art isn't something you stumble into; it's an irresistible force, it's in your blood.

This career profile examines opportunities in the fine arts, as well as commercial photography. Many visual artists look to the graphic arts and design disciplines to launch their careers. If you think you might be interested in such an approach, look at WetFeet's design career profile. Those can be fulfilling, artistic careers, too-with a whole lot more stability and opportunity for success.


Visual artists must have an artistic eye. They must also have a feel for color, light and shadow, balance and weight, and composition. This can be taught, to a certain extent, but much of it is innate.

It's important for all artists to supplement their talent with two ingredients: skill and persistence.

Skill brings an artist freedom. When you know the fundamentals of your craft, you are limited only by your imagination. Without technical training, you're stabbing in the dark. Sure, you might create one or two truly great works of art, but they'll be unrepeatable accidents. You can create anything your mind dreams up only if you know how.

Persistence is probably the single most important factor in any artist's success. All artists must be internally motivated. Artists must spend time in the public eye-knocking on gallery doors, tirelessly submitting their films to festivals or their photographs to magazines or stock agencies. They may be rejected hundreds of times in their careers, but they can't let it stop them.

Many artists have a formal education in the fine arts. You may enroll in one of the big art schools or a state school's art department, or you might take courses through your local community college's continuing education offerings. There are also art schools that focus on teaching technical skills and grooming their graduates for careers in design.

Even more than in other courses of study, you'll only get as much out of an art education as you put into it. Visual arts insiders say that your fellow students are just as valuable as your instructors. Find the best students at your school and hang out with them, talk to them, and learn from them. And spend some energy trying to learn from your fellow students' mistakes, so you don't waste time (and the money you'd spend on supplies) making the same ones.

Working as an assistant to an already-established artist can be extremely helpful, especially in technical fields such as photography or filmmaking. Many artists employ apprentices, and you can learn a great deal by working under a master.

Once out on their own in the world, finished with any formal schooling they might have had, many artists find it valuable to be part of the community of artists that might exist where they live. It can be a harsh world for an artist, a world that often seems not to appreciate art. And it can be difficult for starving artists to look on as others in their age group grow more and more materially comfortable. If you commune with other artists, you'll be more likely to have people around you who can understand both your art and your frustrations. Because of this, many artists find that being part of an artistic community makes it easier to persevere in their art.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of jobs for artists will grow at about the same rate as overall job growth between 2004 and 2014. But because there are always more aspiring artists than there are art collectors, more wannabe film directors than wealthy producers, and more young photographers than magazines to employ them, competition for careers in the visual arts will be exceedingly keen. This is a career field in which it can take decades of practice before you can support yourself through your art. Indeed, many talented visual artists never reach a place where they can quit their day jobs. The plum jobs go to the lucky and the perseverant: Be aware that success in this field, as in all the arts, will probably depend as much on your ability to network and market yourself and your art as it will on your artistic talent.


Some non-art-for-art's-sake paths that might utilize your skills as a visual artist include:

  • Graphic design
  • Advertising
  • Education
  • Journalism & Publishing

If you love to create visual art, but either don't mind doing so for commercial purposes rather than to convey your own artistic message, or need more career stability than a fine arts career usually provides, you should think about pursuing one of these options. Of course, many artists do both-work in a commercial art-focused day job, and create their own art on their own time. If this is the path you're thinking about pursuing, be aware that many, if not most, of those who use this strategy end up letting their own artistic efforts fall by the wayside, as life responsibilities (bills, family, etc.) grow and the would-be artist grows accustomed to the comfortable life brought about by a steady paycheck.

Career Tracks

Visual arts careers can be divided into "fine arts"-what you see in museums, galleries, and Art Forum-and filmmaking, commercial photography, and other arts. Each of these fields requires stamina, hard work, talent, skill, and even faith. If you're embarking on an arts career, don't delude yourself: It will be difficult. You will have to prove yourself before you'll make any money or gain any recognition. But money and fame are not why you're in the arts anyway, right?

Painting, Sculpture, and Photography
A life in the fine arts is often a hard life. Solitary work in a cramped studio, an endless stream of rejections from galleries, and the misunderstanding of loved ones and peers are all very real aspects of a fine arts career. On the other hand, you're doing what you love, setting your own hours, and possibly changing the world-or at least the perceptions of other people in the world.

Fine artists often go to art school and earn bachelor's or master's degrees. After college, they try to make it in the art world. They set up studios or work out of their homes and devote much of their time to self-promotion-calling on galleries with slides in hand, applying for grants, entering competitions-and spend the rest of their time creating.

If they win gallery representation, artists must struggle with pricing their work-work that has often been the sole focus of their passion. Galleries typically charge a commission of up to 50 percent. Art supplies and studio rents are expensive, so fine artists often work at day jobs, unless and until they gain financial success. If and when they do reach that level, they must work at keeping their style fresh and staying in the public eye.

The word "filmmaking" encompasses a broad range of disciplines, from directing to cinematography to design and production. Filmmakers who also consider themselves visual artists are likely to want to be in control of their art, which probably means assuming a directorial role.

At the most basic level, a film director does all the work of making a film. He or she finds or writes a script, scouts for locations, casts actors, secures funding, buys film or videotape and a camera, and films or tapes the movie himself or herself. At the highest level, a director might be George Lucas or Martin Scorsese, maintaining creative control but working within a system and as part of a large team. Filmmaking is possibly the most expensive art you could get involved in, which explains why films are often funded by huge studio conglomerates. It's very hard to do all the work and raise all the money by yourself.

Some of the most talented and disciplined film school graduates might try to get their works seen by Hollywood hotshots. They might enter their works in film festivals or contests. They may work their connections to try to get jobs assisting well-known directors on the set, hoping that they might agree to watch their works or hear their pitches. On the other hand, they may choose to remain outside the studio machine, making independent films funded through grants, loans, credit cards, or day jobs. Or they may use film or video to create multimedia art installations.

One bonus for would-be filmmakers: These days, with the advent of digital video and relatively inexpensive video-editing software, it's a whole lot cheaper to make a film than it was just a decade or so ago. We've all heard about Hollywood film budgets in excess of $50 or $100 million, but with digital technology, in some cases you can now make a short film for less than a thousand bucks.

Commercial Photography
Many argue that photography is not art at all-and in its commercial incarnation, it often walks a thin line. Are wedding portraits art? What about glossy fashion-magazine spreads? Documentary shots from war-torn nations? The question is supremely debatable, but in each case, the photographers would most likely say they do consider their works to be art.

There are many different fields in which commercial photographers can find work. They could take photos of small children in a studio. They might be newspaper shooters, rushing out whenever and wherever news breaks. Photographers can be foreign correspondents in Third World countries, staff photographers at high-class fashion magazines, or still photographers on movie sets.

A photographer may start out by working as an assistant to another photographer in his or her chosen area of specialty. Photography is one of the more technical arts, and apprenticing is a great way to learn the fundamentals of the discipline-lighting, lenses, composition, and films, for instance. Commercial photographers often do not print their own photographs, and instead turn over their film to be processed by others.

When photographers are confident that they are ready to strike out on their own, they may open a studio or submit work to stock agencies, newspapers, or magazines. If their work is good enough and they are quite dedicated, they could eventually find that work comes to them.

Other Visual Arts Careers
There are, of course, other visual arts. Some artists design textiles and create beautiful fabric art. Installation artists set up elaborate worlds in galleries or other public places. There are artists who work only with paper; there are lithographers and etchers, glass blowers and mosaic designers. In this post-Marcel Duchamp, post-Andy Warhol world, anything, even a urinal or a soup can, can be art.

Visual artists who find the going tough will want a side job to keep food on the table while they wait for their big break. There are many art-related jobs that can fill the gap. Some work as caricaturists at parties and corporate functions. Others paint holiday scenes on store windows or murals on nursery walls. Still others enter into design careers. And then there's teaching, the classic standby. One art insider says, "If you want to be an artist, teach." Showing others how to focus their talents can help you focus yours.


Compensation in the arts varies wildly, from just-barely-making-it to rolling in the dough. It cannot be said too often: Discipline and perseverance are vital. To be successful, you must have faith in your abilities, and you must be fanatical about self-promotion. You can't ever give up on your contest entries or your gallery visits. You have to believe that eventually they'll pan out. However, if you go down this road, you have to realize that more than a few artists never earn a penny from their work, most create their art while paying the bills with a "real" job, and only a small percentage strike it rich.

Following are a few average compensation ranges for visual artists in salaried positions:

  • Painter/Sculptor/Illustrator: $20,000 to $75,000
  • Multimedia Artist/Animator: $25,000 to $85,000
  • Photographer: $15,000 to $70,000
  • Filmmaker/Director: $20,000 to $1 million or more

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