What Is A Career In Visual Arts Like?

"I am passionate about creating art, and thinking about going to art school and really diving in. But I wonder if I will feel fulfilled as a professional visual artist. Can you tell me what it’s like to really like to be an artist, and share some of the day-to-day of that kind of life?"

asked by Georgette from Olympia, WA

The visual arts are a creative and diverse field. The day-to-day life of working artists varies wildly, depending upon the specific medium and one’s level of dedication.

In school, budding artists usually focus solely on creating and critiquing art. There are long days of class and studio time, and the expectation to create many pieces to develop skills and build one’s portfolio. If a new artist chooses instead to apprentice with a teaching master artist, the days will be a little different. Depending on the art, the apprentice may be doing a lot of preparatory and support work for the teacher, such as mixing paint, stretching canvasses, hiring models, updating the artist’s website and online portfolio, managing the artist’s schedule, and/or household tasks like cooking and cleaning. In an equitable mentoring relationship, the apprentice would also be creating pieces in the studio with the supervision and feedback of the master artist.

Once complete with school or apprenticing, the artist will be most served by setting up a studio or workshop. This will be the artist’s home away from (or attached to) home, and needs to be as supportive as possible. Most professional artists have a dedicated workspace, and find it to be crucial for them to be inspired and efficient.

Most new artists need some kind of side job to sustain them financially while they build their portfolio and professional connections. It is important to find a job that pays well enough to fulfill one’s needs but still allows plenty of time and energy to create art. In this case, a typical week would include 3-4 workdays at the job, and 2-3 full days in the studio. Many artists find they are the most creative at night; so they work simple jobs in the afternoon, like serving in a café, then work on their art in the evenings.

If artists reach a level of income that allows them to focus entirely on their craft, then they can create whenever they like. Some artists work faithfully every morning, then spend their afternoons taking in other’s art at museums and galleries to stay inspired. Some artists will dive into a particular project, working long hours for days, weeks, or months until the project is complete, then taking a vacation for a few weeks or longer to recuperate and prepare for their next piece. Some artists are able to create all the time, switching mediums and styles, creating for the sake of it without having an expected outcome. Some artists can only work when the inspiration strikes them to create a particular piece, and they focus solely on that one piece until it is complete.

In addition to creating your art, a large part of building an artistic career is networking, cultivating professional connections, and marketing one’s art. Finding buyers is a complex dance, involving galleries, agents, stores, and/or creating and maintaining a website and social media presence.

Artists are often more successful when they hold public art shows, volunteer for public creative projects, and in other ways cultivate positive publicity and make themselves visible to the public. Many pieces are bought based on the reputation of the artist and the exposure the piece receives, even more than the subjective quality of the piece itself. Being able to navigate the art world with grace and perseverance is an important part of a professional artist’s career.

Ultimately, your day-to-day life as an artist will depend on you. It can be as intense or gentle as you wish to create it. There is also the factor of chance, whether or not your art sells can determine how much of your time you are able to dedicate to it. Enter the profession with curiosity, and pay attention to the patterns that seem to serve and inspire you to your greatest expression.

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