How to Become an Artist
There is no quick-fix to a successful career in fine art, but if you enjoy expressing your ideas creatively and have the skill to produce artwork that others appreciate, you should consider the possibility that you have what it takes.
You must be warned: fine art as a job requires a lot of hard work, organisation and discipline. It takes a much more structured approach than the creative freedom enjoyed by fine art as a hobby. When producing work on commission for a client you will need to temper your creativity to meet briefs, deadlines and professional standards. When selling your own work, you will need to work hard at developing your own unique style and promoting yourself to get recognised by galleries, dealers, agents and the public.
The rewards, however, are in seeing your own creative work viewed and praised by others and being able to make a living that revolves around your talent.
- What do fine artists actually do?
- What are the hours like?
- What kind of salary am I likely to earn?
- What skills will I need?
- Choosing to study for a degree qualification
- Stand out from the crowd
- Fine art within the creative industries
- The creative economy
What do fine artists actually do?
Fine artists are perhaps the most creative of anyone working in artistic disciplines. There is a common stereotype of fine artists as poor, isolated from society and hell bent on creating a masterpiece alone in their studio. This is a myth and there are plenty of varied career paths you can follow using skills particular to fine art.
Strictly speaking, and stating the obvious, a fine artist creates fine art, immediately prompting the question: “what is fine art?” The answer to this is notoriously tricky to pin down and even artists who have been working in the industry for a number of years rarely answer in the same way.
Fine artists can be broadly described as creators of works of art that have aesthetic and/or intellectual value. They do this using a variety of media including painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, drawing, digital imaging and 3D installation; the goes on and fine artists are often as creative in their choice as medium as they are in the execution of the work itself.
The creative process is very important but you will require a lot more than the ability to draw, paint or sculpt to make a successful career in fine art. As a professional artist you will have an interest in the arts and enough knowledge of aesthetics to confidently articulate your preferences and the reasoning behind them. You will essentially be managing your own business so will need to be organised with experience of project management and working to briefs within budgets.
Although it is difficult to compile a comprehensive job description, the work of a fine artist includes:
- Seeking out work from clients in the form of a brief or commission
- Discussing the requirements of the brief with the client and considering what message they want to convey with the artwork
- Choosing the right medium to complete the brief and sourcing all the materials you will need to complete it
- Calculating the costs of the project and providing the client with an estimate
- Providing a set of ideas for the client to consider
- Sourcing a supplier and researching where to get the best price and quality products
- Managing your finances including studio space rentals, material prices, taxes and other issues that come with self-employment
- Promoting yourself online and through various other channels
- Liaising with gallery owners, curators and other artists
- Maintaining a portfolio
- Negotiating the sale of your original artwork
- Working on your own projects alongside the work you do on commission
After a few years, successful artists are occasionally able to afford to take on an assistant to help with administrative and financial aspects of their work, allowing them to focus more on the creative side.
What are the hours like?
In creating, marketing and selling their own work, most fine artists will not usually stick to the normal 9 to 5. You might find that you will have to meet clients and suppliers within this sort of timescale, but in creating your work it’s usually up to you. Work on site-specific projects, for example, in shops or community spaces, may be according to the opening hours of these spaces and similarly, if you rent a studio, you might have to stick to opening hours.
There are hundreds of great opportunities open to you which have the potential of allowing you to sell your artwork. However, there are also a number of false opportunities that should be avoided as a waste of time. The trouble comes in distinguishing between the two. There are open exhibitions, commissions and residencies advertised online which should be looked into carefully before you apply. You should look to apply to at least two or three of these a month as there is a certain skill involved in the application process which you will need to practise and keep on top of. As you progress you will become better at separating out the opportunities that will bear fruit and the opportunities that are a waste of time and effort.
Watch out for group exhibitions that cost high fees to enter, online galleries that will strip you of your copyright and programmes that will trap you in a cycle of pointless payments. A few good sources for finding legitimate opportunities include Artquest, Re-title and a-n.
What kind of salary am I likely to earn?
It is doubtful that there is any other career in which individual salaries vary as much as they do in fine art. Financial success is dependent on the quality of work, the output of individual artists and the medium they work in.
In terms of selling work in galleries or through an agent you should give consideration to you talent. A student on a BA course should expect no more than £1000 per piece and an MA student no more than £2000. This varies depending on the size of the work, the materials used and the level of intricacy. Every major accomplishment, for example, winning awards, selling out a show or even selling a few pieces towards the beginning of your career, you should add 10% – 20% to the amount you charge for your work.
A number of artists find that they have to work in separate jobs alongside their fine art projects to pay the bills or study to improve their skills and chances of a fine art career. An online degree is a great option as it allows you to strike a balance between working full-time, working on your portfolio and gaining a respected qualification at the same time.
What skills will I need?
In order to become a successful fine artist you will need the following skills and attributes:
- Outstanding artistic skills across a range of media
- Critical understanding of the creative process
- Knowledge of colour, pattern and visual texture
- The ability to articulate creative ideas
- The ability to work to deadlines
- Interpreting a brief and work to the needs of a client
- Great communication skills
- The ability to work on multiple projects at the same time
- An understanding of how the creative industry works
- Familiarity with current artistic trends and movements
- Knowledge of art history
- Self-motivation and determination
Many fine artists are engaging with digital software, such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, as the art world becomes increasingly digitised. Some ‘purists’ avoid such software, which is fine if you prefer to stick to traditional methods, however, there is some exciting work being done digitally in the field of fine art as the software becomes increasingly advanced and you should take an interest in the current trends in your industry.
Installation art is also seeing an increase in technical skills as electronic equipment becomes cheaper and more accessible through the proliferation of open source software and the maker movement. If you are interested in this field you should consider the Arduino website.
You should at least be aware of the opportunities presented by these new digital developments and certainly know how to use blogging platforms and basic digital imaging software to enable you to market your work online.
Choosing to study for a degree qualification
You will find it much easier to get your work displayed in respected galleries if you have an accredited qualification. A qualification shows that you are not just a hobbyist but serious about your work and the art world as a whole. The higher the level of your qualification, the more respected your profile will be and the more money you will be entitled to charge.
The quality of your work is obviously a big factor in how galleries, buyers and agents perceive your work but working towards a degree will not only improve the level of your artistic skills, but provide you with valuable expert feedback allowing you to gauge how others perceive your work. A degree will also help you respect yourself, be confident in your abilities and conduct yourself as a professional artist. Following on from a BA in fine art an MA in fine art can help you stand out even more:
Choosing a course
Take care to choose the type of course and mode of study most appropriate to your needs. Full time study at an attendance based college or university is the norm, but this usually involves relocating, and if you have work or family commitments this may not suit you. You may prefer a flexible, affordable alternative such as an online course which can be studied on a part-time basis. You need to be confident that the course you take really does prepare you for the profession, so don’t be afraid to ask questions of the provider.
Stand out from the crowd
How you define yourself as an artist is very important in influencing how others will view you. Try to think carefully about what it is that makes your art different from everyone else’s and come up with one line that describes this fully in as few words as possible. Art buyers, gallery representatives, prospective clients and agents are busy people so you will have to pitch your work to them as succinctly as you can.
While the work in your portfolio will speak volumes for your ability, people that you pitch to will also want to read about what to expect from you in the future and what you are like as a person. Get your art noticed by setting up a blog or website showcasing your skills. When working online, remember that you should be careful to watermark your images to protect them from copyright infringement.
Fine art within the creative industries
The creative and cultural industries is a broad based term used to describe a wide range of economic activities associated with the Arts and the generation of knowledge and information. This ‘creative economy’ includes disciplines such as architecture, the visual arts, advertising, craft, cultural heritage, literature and publishing, the performing arts, film music, and the television and radio media.
Fine art fits in to this group and can be branched out into its own different specialisms. Fine art is often funded by various bodies for the important role it plays in society but it is often difficult to determine exactly what this is. Fine art is often praised for challenging the way society is run, providing an intellectual form of entertainment and a much needed outlet for society’s emotional exasperations.
The creative economy
Global economies are driven by a combination of competition and market forces and these in turn are determined by the countries, cities, companies and individuals who develop a competitive edge. Even in times of recession, intelligent companies will invest in the creative and innovative solutions that the creative industries can provide; advertising, branding and establishing media presence being prime examples.
Between 2011 and 2016, the number of jobs in the Creative Industries in the UK has risen by nearly 20 per cent, accounting for 1.9 million jobs. This has gone up by nearly triple the rate of the UK economy as a whole. In 2016, it was reported that creative industries contribute a staggering £84 billion a year (just under £10m an hour) to the UK economy (Source). The creative industries will generate significant numbers of jobs over the next decade and it is estimated that 1.2 million new workers will be needed in the creative industries by 2020 (Source).
What does this means for jobs?
In the UK alone, the creative and cultural industries were known to employ 678,480 people working in 74,640 businesses in 2012. Of these, a significant number were employed within the design industry specifically. These included the following discrete disciplines: advertising design, computer game design, costume design, exhibition design, fashion and footwear design, industrial design, interactive design, interior design, product design, textile design and graphic design. Breaking the headline statistics down to extract those relative to design alone reveals that in 2012: There were 193,969 people working in the design industry, of which:
- 51% are in communications, interior and exhibition design.
- 42% are in product and industrial design.
- 7% are in stage and set design.
- 34% of the design workforce was located in London and the South East of England.
- 32% of the design workforce was self‐employed.
- 14% of the work force was working on a part‐time basis.
- 50% of those working in design have a Level 4 qualification or above.
Men and women are equally likely to have a qualification at level 4 or above. Specifically, the statistics reveal that there are currently 40,000 businesses specialising in graphic design within the UK. This information indicates that career opportunities in the design sector are growing and the prospects are excellent, but competition for vacancies can be keen.
It’s difficult to provide figures for fine artists as starting a career is generally slow; however, many of those employed in the creative industries have a fine art degree which provides them with industry specific skills relevant to a number of varied professions. To focus on a career fine art, graduates usually have to take on full-time or art-time work alongside their career as an artist. With perseverance, however, you should aim to be working in your own studio and funding yourself through art within five or ten years of graduation. A few figures for fine art graduates in the UK are:
Graduate destinations for fine art in the UK:
Further Study: 9.7%
Working and Studying: 5.9%
Types of Work Entered in the UK:
Retail, catering and bar work: 29%
Arts, design and media: 23.8%
Secretarial and numerical clerks: 8.6%
Caring and education work: 7.4%
Here are some handy websites to have a look at when searching for jobs and information about trends within the industry: Design Week, Interior Design, Creative Pool, Creative Jobs and British Design Innovation.