How Can I Become A Professional Visual Artist?

"I am interested in pursuing a career in the visual arts, but I’m not sure the best way to do it. I love to paint and feel like I have some talent and an interesting aesthetic, but I know I need more skill. Should I go to school? Do you have any other advice on where I should go from here to become a professional visual artist?"

asked by Benjy from Madison, WI

Becoming an artist can be a challenging path. It is important to have some kind of training, though where you go to school is flexible. When you first start out, it is helpful to be exposed to a variety of mediums, so you can choose the ones that inspire you the most and allow you the greatest freedom of expression. It is also important to find teachers and mentors that can see your talents and weaknesses and truly help you develop your skills to their utmost. The professional connections and networking opportunities possible in a school setting are invaluable.

Attending school, where you will be required to create a lot of pieces in a relatively short period of time, will be great for building your portfolio. It is also beneficial to have access to the studios, workshop spaces, and materials that are available at a school.

Some universities have great art programs, but those are only a good choice if you also want the full college experience, including general education classes and student housing, and extracurricular events. Attending a university or college is also a good a choice if you are hoping for scholarships to cover a significant portion of your schooling costs.

If you prefer to focus solely on your art, then a dedicated art school may be the best choice. The quality of art education at an art school is often more refined, as many of the teachers are also professional working artists actively exhibiting their work. There is often less of a general academic feel, and more real-world focus to help you prepare to be creating and selling art out in the real world. While public funding sources for art school are not as abundant as for universities; art schools often offer flexible programs with night and/or weekend classes, so you can time to hold a day job.

Another option, if you are clear on which medium and style you would like to focus, is to find a master artist under whom to apprentice. Learning directly from an established artist is a great way to deepen your understanding of particular techniques, and to investigate the full range of what it means to be a working artist. There will often be a lot of grunt work involved as part of your trade with the artist, but overall an apprentice arrangement will cost less than attending school.

Depending on the artist, you may have access to a studio to create your own pieces as well, and a good teacher will review and critique your work as part of your agreement. An apprentice relationship may even serve as a springboard for your career.

Whichever path you choose, it is important that you feel supported and inspired. Investigate the schools or artists that interest you, talk to the teachers, advisors, and former students. Keep creating art, and do everything you can to stay inspired and fresh.

Visit gallery openings and connect with professional artists to gain more exposure and cultivate an understanding of what makes artists successful. Build your portfolio. And seek out teachers that will truly nurture your talent, and your own passion and dedication will take care of the rest.

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