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FAQ: Careers for Visual Artists

Artist Studio: Oil Painting

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What art school didn’t teach

What are some things you learned about being an artist, especially in the real world, that art school didn’t teach you?

Deepti Menon, Filmmaker & Animator

Deepti Menon
Filmmaker & Animator

Some of my first “real world” jobs were freelance gigs, where I had a lot of clients who didn’t know very much, or anything, about art. Going from art school, where mostly everyone understands the amount of time, effort, and thought put into a piece, to dealing with clients who had none of this information, was really difficult.

I had to quickly learn the importance of contracts and being BEYOND clear about budgets, cost, expectations, etc. In my animation classes, everyone was on the same page about how long and costly a 4-minute animated film would be.

However, telling a client (who has never animated) that their 4-minute music video is going to take 3+ months to make and will cost them thousands of dollars needs a LOT more explaining. I had to even turn down a few projects because I really didn’t feel like the time and effort I was putting into something was reflected in how I was getting paid.

I also learned about the importance of creating good relationships with old teachers, classmates, and mentors. When it came to writing these contracts and figuring out budgets, those were the people I needed to most for guidance. Having a strong creative network once you’re out of school makes a lot of things so much easier!

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Alex Rowe, Illustrator & Children's Book Artist

Alex Rowe
Illustrator & Children’s Book Artist

Most importantly I learned both the positives and the negatives around the fact that there are so many artist out there. Of course, there’s more competition than you know what to do with, and also more inspiration and help if you look for it.

Above all, this mindset taught me to completely unromanticise the life of the artist. I’ve had to supplement my income with part-time jobs for a while, and not to say that I have lowered my “goals” but rather gained a level of patience and career humility.

I think that in the school setting you of course only focus on the big names – illustrators in my case like James Jean, or character artist for Disney and Pixar. The reality is that it’s a life that is very obtainable if you broaden your horizons of what your personal goals are.

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Best/Worst parts of being a professional artist

What are the things you love most about being an artist as a career instead of a hobby? What is the hardest thing about being an artist as a career? as someone always straddling the line between art and academics, I’m always torn between whether I want to have art as a career or just a serious hobby in the future.

Lauryn Welch, Painter & Performance Artist

Lauryn Welch
Painter & Performance Artist

Sometime during the summer before my senior year, I felt a change in how I was seeing and thinking about the world. There was some kind of tipping point where my studies as an art student were no longer compartmentalized in a school setting, but were rather the lens through which I was seeing things almost all the time. I think that’s what I like about choosing a career in the arts, that this rich way of experiencing and creating is ubiquitous.

But I don’t feel like this way of perceiving is limited to career artists. It bleeds into all the other aspects of your life. Your passion in academics becomes fuel for your art. Your home life, job, community all become creative reservoirs for your art, regardless of whether you are making art for money or because it’s something you just really like to do.

I’m not even sure what qualifies as a “career artist” anymore. Most artists I know don’t make a living off of their work. Instead, they have several jobs (both art and non-art related) they cobble together, and they get some supplementary income out of their art once in a while.

The scheduling is hard. The compromises are hard. I have to make decisions between going to studio and catching up on sleep, or tightening my budget so I can cut back on hours at my jobs so I have more time to paint.

The dichotomy between “career” and “hobby” feels more like a spectrum based on the choices you make to spend time with your art. But all of these points on the spectrum are valid, and you don’t need to stick to one point forever.

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Alex Rowe, Illustrator & Children's Book Artist

Alex Rowe
Illustrator & Children’s Book Artist

The thing I love most, above all, is the freedom. Hour-for-hour, I still work about 40 hours a week on art, just like my friends in more traditional jobs, but my difference is that as long as I get the work done my time is my own. I’ve simultaneously never worked harder, and had more time for myself before.

Granted, I don’t have kids or a pet (yet!) but I love the freedom art can provide. Most difficulty for me, honestly, is the feeling of pride and pressure from outside sources. A lot of my family and friends I meet don’t understand how the life of a professional artist works — sometimes I have to explain that I won’t be having a solo show at the Met anytime soon!

Yeah, my honest answer would have to be that daily practice of humility in people asking me “when will you get a real job?” is the hardest part. But I think if we all get better at having a focused mindset of living the life we want, that’s the only solution!

To add on to the end of your question, I still wonder if I want art to be my profession.  I was talking with another Art Prof TA, Casey, about this recently – I have professional aspirations for my art, but I don’t need it to be my only source of income. I like wearing many different hats for work, so maybe that’s a route you can take as well! Have multiple professions.

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How do you get a career in arts? And how do I know when I’m qualified enough to produce work that can sell? Also, what are some advice/unexpected things you wish you knew to get there?

Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

If you are interested in having a career in the arts, I think it’s important to start out by figuring out exactly which field you want to go into. Every area of visual arts has a completely different set of requirements, so you need to research that first. For example, if you want to teach studio art at the college level, you need to have an MFA degree. If you want to do editorial illustration, you need a portfolio and you need to make contacts with art directors at magazines, newspapers, and publishers.

I will say that no matter which field you want to go into, it’s critical to have a professional website that is substantial and well presented, and also to make sure you network with the other professionals in the field. It is impossible to have a career in the arts and do it entirely on your own, you’ll need people who can mentor you, people who can refer you to others, and support in terms of sustaining your career. I can say that in my career the best professional opportunities I have had were because someone recommended me, not because I applied for something.]

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Lauryn Welch, Painter & Performance Artist

Lauryn Welch
Painter & Performance Artist

Knowing when you’re qualified enough to produce work that can sell is a very hazy line. I feel like it’s less about qualifications, and more about your intuition about what other people want and your ability to market it. There are artists I know with great educational and professional pedigrees that just can’t sell anything for the life of them. And then there are artists I know who are totally self taught and are just kind of winging it, but are able to make a living selling their work in their community.

Prof Lieu has a great article here on Art Prof on how best to go about selling your work. I would add that it’s good to keep track of all of your art expenses and revenue in several spreadsheets, as this can help both with keeping track of your finances, and your progress as you establish yourself. Also it may help with taxes if selling artwork becomes a big part of your life.

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Casey Roonan, Comics Artist & Cartoonist

Casey Roonan
Illustrator & Comics Artist

I wish I had been told when I was just starting out not to hold on so tightly to my very narrow career goals! It’s good to have a specific interest and to identify that early on so you can better focus your efforts, but at the same time you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you find yourself straying slightly – or even drastically! – from that path.

No artist’s career ends up looking exactly the way they imagined it at the beginning. The only way to be successful is to be adaptive and open; not only to the opportunities that come your way but also to your own artistic process and ever-changing interests! You have to learn when to be disciplined and stay “on task,” and when to take a risk and pursue whatever is inspiring you in the moment, and that’s a tricky skill to cultivate.

When I first graduated from art school I took on a lot of work that was outside of my realm (or maybe my depth!), but did so sort of begrudgingly… And ultimately did not enjoy myself, as a result, because I was worried all throughout that I was wasting my time by not staying true to my “personal vision.”

Looking back with a couple years hindsight, however, I can see that there is a direct relationship between what I am doing in my personal work now and the lessons I learned from those commissioned projects. I meandered from the path, but came back to it with an even greater depth and inspiration.

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2 responses on "FAQ: Careers for Visual Artists"

  1. Hello, ì’m doing a MFA degree in a university in France. I mainly worked with mixed technics. However, in french university, they don’t have studio class, so students don’t have much experience about what is “working as a professtionnal artist” in real life is . I find that your contents are very interesting and helpful.

    Can you make a video about How to get an financial aid/support to make art as a professional career? Also, What are steps that art students have to do to break out from academy to a professional art career?

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