Becoming an Artist: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a career in art? Get real job descriptions, career prospect information and salary info to see if becoming an artist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Art

As an artist, you'll create objects that will enhance the aesthetic beauty of people's surroundings, as well as challenge them to think about the world in new ways. Read the following pros and cons about the field to learn if it's the right fit for you.

Pros of Becoming an Artist
Higher-than-average wage (the mean wage for fine artists, including painters, sculptors and illustrators was about $51,000 in 2014)*
Many artists are self-employed and can set their own schedules*
High job satisfaction for those who are passionate about creating art**
No formal education is required to become an artist*

Cons of Becoming an Artist
Few artists earn enough money to support themselves by selling their work*
Competition for art jobs, funding and commissions is very intense*
Job growth for craft and fine artists is expected to be slower-than-average (3% from 2012-2022)*
Artists may be exposed to irritants, like fumes and dust, during the course of their work*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Princeton Review.

Essential Info About Artist Careers

Job Description and Duties

Artists can specialize by choosing to work in a particular medium - for example, painters may decorate canvases with acrylic or oil paints, while sculptors can choose to work with anything from clay to metal. Illustrators, multimedia artists and animators may use computerized methods to create graphics. If you want to be a professional artist, you'll need to ensure that your work is marketable. In addition to actually creating works of art, your job duties will likely involve contacting potential buyers, such as corporations, galleries, museums and private buyers, and showing them your work. Some established artists receive commissions or grants to create works of art that meet predetermined specifications. Illustrators, animators and multimedia artists may work for private companies, where they use their skills to create graphics for commercial products, such as computer games.

Job Prospects and Salary Info

According to the BLS, the number of jobs for craft and fine artists is only expected to grow by about 3% between 2012 and 2022. Job growth for multimedia artists and animators will also be slow at about 6%. As of May 2014, the BLS reported that fine artists (including illustrators, sculptors and painters) earned a mean annual salary of about $51,000. However, there was significant variation - the highest-paid 10% of artists surveyed earned over $92,000, while the lowest-paid 10% earned under $18,000 per year. The median salary for animators and multimedia artists was around $64,000. Additionally, craft artists earned a median wage of about $31,000.

What Are the Requirements?

According to the BLS, there are no formal requirements to become an artist; however, most craft and fine artists have a high school diploma, and it's common for people in this profession to earn a bachelor's or graduate degree in fine arts. Multimedia artists and animators may also have degrees in computer graphics. Creativity and artistic ability are essential, and these can be improved through both formal classroom training and independent practice. In a fine arts program, artists are able to improve their creative expression and find their voice, as well as experiment with different media. Most programs allow you to experiment with software packages, such as Adobe Creative Suites, and knowledge of these software packages is typically required by employers. Additionally, many programs allow students to exhibit their work and build a professional portfolio.

What Employers Are Looking for in Artists

Artists who want a permanent position with a private corporation or non-profit organization typically need to have a strong knowledge of digital illustration and 3D animation techniques. It's also common for employers to seek applicants with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree and good communication skills. Additionally, you typically need to have a portfolio of your work to demonstrate your experience in your concentration and proficiency in certain software programs or with specific media. To give you an idea of what employers are looking for, here are some sample job postings from July 2012 for various types of artists:

  • A major media company sought a character artist for a position in Glendale, California. The organization was looking for experienced applicants with strong illustration skills who could also demonstrate qualities like flexibility, openness and accountability. Knowledge of Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop was required, and job candidates who held a BFA were preferred.
  • An online gaming company located in Laguna Hills, California, sought a concept artist to research and draft environments for multiplayer online games. The ideal candidate possessed excellent digital illustration skills, as well as communication skills and the ability to work in different styles. Knowledge of Adobe Photoshop was required.
  • A well-known medical journal headquartered in Boston, MA, was hiring a medical/scientific illustrator to produce graphics for print and multimedia publications. The candidate needed to demonstrate at least a year of current medical/scientific illustration experience, as well as the ability to work with interactive graphics software, including Adobe products. Applicants with BFAs were preferred.

How to Stand Out in the Field

In this intensely competitive field, you'll most likely need to take advantage of every available opportunity to stand out. According to the BLS, getting a college degree in the fine arts can improve your job prospects. However, given the stiff competition for jobs and relatively low pay in this field, you should carefully consider the pros and cons of earning this degree, especially if you'll need to take on significant debt in order to do so. However, the BLS also noted that the number of jobs for digital illustrators should grow. This means that learning to use computer graphics software or computer animation software can help you stand out among technical artists.

In addition to learning computer skills, you can improve your job prospects by developing a high-quality portfolio to display your work. Considering the fact that your portfolio is your one sure way to demonstrate your talents as an artist, having an original, unique portfolio can make you shine among the competition. You might also consider honing your artistic prowess by participating in an internship or apprenticeship with an experienced or master artist.

Other Careers to Consider

Art Teacher

If you love art, but you're not sure that being a traditional artist is the right career path for you, you might consider working as an art teacher. Art teachers train students in the traditional and computer techniques used to create art. The job prospects for teachers are better than those for artists - the number of elementary school and kindergarten teachers is expected to grow by 17% from 2010-2020, and the number of self-enrichment teachers is set to grow by 21% during this time period, according to the BLS. Art teachers in public schools typically need a bachelor's degree and state certification, but the only requirement to become a self-enrichment teacher is artistic skill and teaching ability.

Art Director

If you're looking for a higher salary, and you don't mind working in a corporate environment, you might consider pursuing a career as an art director. In this job, you'll formulate and execute the artistic vision for products ranging from print publications to movies. As of May 2011, art directors earned a median annual salary of over $81,000, the BLS reported. However, job growth in this occupation is expected to be below average, at about 9%, and formal education is required for this role. Most art directors have at least a bachelor's degree, and some have master's degrees.

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