Art jobs require technical work as well as creativity, do you know what to expect?

Art Job Options: A Complete Guide to Art Jobs

Americans spend 30% of their lives working! And only 49% find their jobs very satisfying. A notable exception to that statistic is artists. 87% of arts professionals are happy in their work, and this could be why so many people are looking for art jobs.

When looking for jobs, many artists tend to venture towards the what, and get unlucky or frustrated by the who, when, where, and why. Figuring out the day-to-day of any art career involves research, asking questions, and taking some imaginative leaps. It can also take a whole lot of trial and error. 

Art Job Options: A Complete Guide to Art Jobs

To save you that time and money, we’re going to break down the details of art jobs. This way you can walk into your chosen major, job search, or first day on the job with a better idea of what to expect.

Art Job Highs and Lows

I left a great-paying job because I couldn’t handle working in the oil and gas industry. It wasn’t clear when I accepted the job that I was even going to be in that industry because it was such a different world. I worked for schools that were close to closing so I could have an opportunity to teach. Tried out careers in illustration, graphic design, art teaching, and art management before I found a right fit

I’ve been lucky to have these opportunities to try different art jobs and to step away when it didn’t work out. But artists in rough financial situations or those with families often don’t have that luxury. These are some of the pros and cons of jobs in the arts.

Art Job Benefits

This section is short, but the length of this paragraph isn’t an indication of how huge the benefits of a career in the arts are.

A huge chunk is the people that artists get to work with. If they’re not creators themselves, they are often people who value creativity who’ve made personal sacrifices like accepting lower pay and benefits to work in a profession they’re passionate about. Another big benefit is the opportunity to build a craft day over day throughout your professional life. 

Mostly, art jobs are the realization of your purpose. Art jobs help creators find a place in the world, which is one of the hardest and most valuable things a person can do.

Challenges of Art Jobs

But art jobs aren’t without the challenges of any other 9 to 5. They also come with several unique pitfalls. Some jobs require long hours, often insane hours. Others come at a much lower pay rate than similar jobs in other industries. 

For example, a graphic designer working for a museum or gallery will usually pull in lower pay and have less job security than one who works for a tech company. Another example– it’s usually better pay and less competition to teach high school science than it is to teach high school art.

Art job challenges include fair pay and benefits, as well as recognition for work

Another big factor in the right art job is creativity. Many art jobs can reduce artwork to factory work. Some prize attention to detail and repetition over creative problem-solving. Others involve churning out ideas but can be painfully stingy about giving employees an opportunity to execute those ideas, like creative direction in advertising.

Some businesses that hire artists silo their creative departments, so you won’t always have the information and resources you need to do your best work. Time is a big factor with creative jobs as well. Many jobs have a hurry up and wait feel about them. It’s not unusual for artists on the job to get last-minute deadlines and then wait for months before review or approval, with still more hustle to edit before the work goes out into the world.

Another important thing to consider: About 34% of working artists are freelancers. Going freelance means a lot of freedom, but it also requires marketing savvy, time management, and less energy for personal creative work.

Creative jobs are pretty competitive overall, especially teaching positions for art at the college level. This competition leaves many newly graduated MFAs floundering, especially if they pursued a graduate degree to teach.

Pros that can become cons and vice versa

If you’re looking for a workplace community, creative people can be a beautiful challenge. Some of the talented are amazing to be around, while others are tough to talk to, stubborn, and narrow-minded. 

Many creative jobs are also collaborative. For some personalities, that’s a bonus, but for others that level of compromise, communication, and interaction is tough.

It will be up to you to decide what is a win and what is a fail for you at work. 

  • Do you want to collaborate or work on your own? 
  • Do you want to own the full creative process or just a small piece? 
  • What projects do you think are worth working late for and which are okay to let go of? 
  • Are there outside awards that you want to win? 
  • Coveted projects that call out who’s who in your community?  

You’ll want to figure out what these highs and lows are in your chosen field, and whether those options excite or demotivate you. For example, if awards are a motivator for you, bookmark your favorites among the winners. This is a good way to find the companies and clients you’ll want to work with in the future.

Some of the tools I used when I chose to change careers at 40 can be helpful at any stage of your career. These tools can help you assess your desires and what you can and can’t accept in a job. 

Try the exercises in the post to determine your ideal work experience and use what you learn to gauge whether your art dream art job is actually a right fit for you.

Day to Day: What Does an Art Job Look Like? 

The tricky thing about any art job happens when fantasy meets reality. Art school is tough, but there are a lot of opportunities to invent, create, and challenge yourself. Art school is exhausting because that kind of work involves a lot of thinking and planning. There’s very little repetition in art schoolwork, so school is difficult, and so is the creative part of any art job.

In art jobs, you’ll usually be solving problems with specific constraints. Those can be challenging and fun to work with. When you do have more creative freedom and a chance to experiment, it’s something exciting to look forward to at work.

But one surprising part of most art jobs is that you may not have a lot of opportunities to create in your role. Often you’ll be doing something technical or repetitive with a lot of your office time. 

You’ll also spend more time revising. Most school projects involve thumbnails, an initial sketch, and then a final product. But most professional projects involve many initial sketches and at least three to five revisions. 

Depending on the client, I’ve done as many as eighteen revisions on a single project. And often, clients will approve a project and then come back with tiny changes. Your director could sign off on a proposal and then change the focus of that same proposal overnight.

If you’re interested in a specific company, read the blog or follow employees on LinkedIn. Read interviews in industry publications. Get to know the real day-to-day for the art job you’re aiming for.

There are hundreds of different art jobs, and this list includes some of the most popular options. 

  • Concept artist
  • Illustrator
  • Character Artist 
  • Sketch Artist 
  • Comic Artist 
  • Photographer 
  • Animator 
  • Art Professor 
  • Painter 
  • Sculptor 
  • Fine Artist 
  • Graphic Designer 
  • Junior Graphic Designer
  • Art Director, Advertising 
  • Creative Director, Advertising 
  • Jewelry Designer 
  • Art Handler 
  • Curator 
  • Furniture Designer 
  • Gallery Owner 
  • Artist Assistant 
  • Content Designer 
  • UX Designer

Technical and Conceptual Skill Sets for Art Jobs 

It’s easy to take a guess at the technical skills of a job based on the title, but if you give it a second look, most jobs will have several tiers of required skills. So, for every general job title, there can be hundreds, if not thousands, of different ways companies use that job title to reach a specific end goal.

For example, let’s break down the job of a character artist. On the surface, a character artist needs technical skills in figure drawing and anatomy, as well as a solid sense of color and some fashion knowledge for character costume design. Conceptually, character artists need to be able to break down the personality of an invented character and then make it easy to understand those qualities visually. 

For example, a character who is messy might have stains on their shirt. A stubborn character could have more pronounced eyebrows to make it quicker to convey that stubbornness. 

It’s also important to understand the foundational components of storytelling and character development from a screenwriting perspective. But let’s take a look at two different character artist job postings to see just how specific they get with technical and conceptual skill requirements. First a junior job postings:

Junior to mid character artist job description to help anyone looking for an art job

Then a slightly more advanced role:

Junior character artist job description to help anyone looking for an art job

And finally, a lead character artist posting:

Lead character artist job description to help anyone looking for an art job

To get the position, you’ll need to communicate your understanding and ability to perform these skills in your resume, cover letter, portfolio, and through many interviews. An employer doesn’t expect you to be perfect. They do need to know you’re worth the investment they’ll be making with their time and resources if they choose to hire you.

Start studying job descriptions in your chosen industry early. Take notes or make lists– do whatever you do when you’re studying for a school test. This way you’ll know absolutely everything you need to, including your strengths and weaknesses in those important areas.

Art Job Soft Skills 

Soft skills are the interpersonal skills that help you communicate and work with a team. They’re the parts of you that you can maybe change a little bit over time, like the way a river smooths the edges of a stone. 

But mostly, you are who you are. Understanding the soft skills you’ll need to succeed in a specific job or industry is hugely important.

For example, in the fine art world, most artists follow a similar path. They pursue residencies, exhibitions, and galleries to develop a strong reputation as individuals. Often it helps to know people who are already doing exciting things in the art world because they can connect you with opportunities you wouldn’t find otherwise.

I’m an introvert, so going to openings and chatting with strangers is really hard for me. But attending art schools and working for art schools helped me build a circle of friends and contacts in San Francisco. This group helped me build some respect and awareness for myself and my work. It took years.

Outgoing artists who are quick to make friends and are genuine, but don’t hesitate to put themselves out there tend to make progress a lot faster.

Most art jobs call for specific soft skills. It’s possible to do the work without them, but it often takes longer and is a tougher path to success. Many artists who don’t last in a specific workplace bail because of fit. Fit comes down to who you are and whether you fit in with that community.

Let’s compare the soft skills in the job description for a graphic designer with one for an art director in an ad agency. The soft skills for graphic designers are relatively general, and the emphasis is on technical skill sets.

Graphic design soft skills to help people seeking jobs for artists

But the art director job profile puts a much greater emphasis on soft skills.

Art director soft skills to help people seeking jobs for artists

Art Jobs: Potential Income

Your potential income determines many of your opportunities and to a degree, your quality of life. Most go through a sort of trial by fire, living on a tight budget until something happens that makes things easier financially.

It’s hard to get a high level of income while trying on different careers. Learning about a new industry on the job often means starting over and accepting the lowest income for your role. That usually lasts a few years, until you can collect enough expertise to score a higher-paying position. Every art job and industry has a ladder that looks a little bit like this. Some are harder to climb than others.

Put together a budget

As you choose a major or ideal job, think about how you’re used to living and put together a monthly estimated budget with those ideals. 

Calculator mini for this article with art job options

Imagine the way you want life to look like in your 30s. Maybe you want a two-bedroom apartment in Silver Lake and you expect to eat out a few times a week. You plan to have a car, a phone, and at least a few hundred dollars a month to spend on random ish. 

Are you in your teens or 20s when you make up this budget? If yes, scale that number up to cover the average rate of inflation each year until you reach that age. Add student loans if you see that in your future.

Now multiply that monthly budget by 12. That’s how much you need to make to break even.

Next, look at the average salary in your chosen location for your ideal job. If it aligns with your ideal budget, you’re in good shape. If not, you have some thinking to do.

  • Do you want to scale back your cost of living and stick with your dream job?
  • Do you want to check out other careers?
  • Are there other ways to supplement your income?

This exercise isn’t super fun. But it can help you see what your life could be like and whether that dream art job is worth it.

Commitment

Some art jobs are also lifestyles. With some art jobs, your workplace isn’t just a place you go to get work done, it’s everything– your social life, your favorite place to eat, your source of income. Sometimes that lack of boundaries is exciting and gives you an incredible feeling of belonging and empowerment. Other times it can be punishing, obsessive, and unhealthy.

As you look into your ideal art career, spend some time on social media to get a feel for how people in those jobs really feel about their job and community. Think about the commitment they’re making to success and what it’s costing them.

Social media can help you understand the pros and cons of jobs for artists
Images via Fishbowl Advertising Instagram

Freelance or Full-Time 

There are challenges, risks, and benefits to both of these paths. 

Full-time art positions

As of 2019, 70% of employees in the United States work full-time jobs. But in the arts, there aren’t that many full-time jobs. For the industries that do offer full-time roles, competition is fierce. Some industries only have a handful of full-time roles, while other art jobs are mostly full-time.

When I was finishing an undergraduate degree in illustration, illustration was almost entirely freelance. When gaming became more popular, full-time illustration jobs in the gaming industry became more common. To find a full-time role with my illustration degree I audited graphic design classes and built a portfolio that showed both skill sets.

Once you get a full-time job in the arts, there’s a consistent fear of losing it because it was so hard to get in the first place. Even if you’re not treated as well as you think you should, full-time jobs feel more stable. 

These positions often come with benefits, time off, and a community of interesting co-workers to solve problems with. But there’s also the fear of putting all your eggs in one financial basket. If you rely on a full-time job for your paycheck, you sail with the company ship in good times and bad.

Freelance artists

Freelancers work for themselves, sort of. You’re technically working for your clients unless you can pay yourself. Freelance is great because you are your own boss. You get to plan and organize your own time. You can also decide how much pay you deserve for the work that you’re doing. 

It’s difficult for those same reasons. The pay is rarely consistent and vacations are tricky. Freelancers need a clear set of boundaries and have to be really honest with and about themselves to succeed

Another benefit of freelance has that you don’t live in the land of any particular client. If your client happens to be an obsessive recipe hunter who can’t shut up about soup, you can limit that chatter to your occasional meetings. You might even enjoy it. But you may not feel the same way in a full-time role when soup becomes an everyday topic of conversation with your boss.

Now, pretend that soup is another person at work. If you’re a full-time employee, you are part of the cast of the production that is your job. 40+ hours a week of your life will be the drama that is your workplace unless you’re good at compartmentalizing.

As you determine your best art jobs, figure out whether freelance or full-time is the best fit for you, and whether your dream art job offers both options.

Industries With Jobs for Artists

Sometimes an art job isn’t in a standalone industry, it’s a role that serves multiple industries. Art jobs aren’t just what you want to do for a living, they’re about who and what you want to support. Look at the community, pay scale, mission, and expectations for your role in a range of industries. 

A company that’s a B Corp will have a stronger and clearer set of values than a C Corp. A graphic designer in a tech startup may focus on design work, but their workload may also include animation, illustration, and video editing. An illustrator who focuses on book covers may be asked to create greeting cards. What are your boundaries? What are you ok with and where will you need to say no?

Health Risks for Art Jobs

Art jobs have a decent amount of health risks. Artists work in a range of locations, climates, and contexts, often using heavy equipment and a dizzying number of chemicals. A lot of creative jobs also require repetitive tasks and the injuries that come with them, including but not limited to:

Sometimes the health risk is on your employer and sometimes it’s on you, but often the lines are a bit fuzzy. Artists often work in shared spaces and ventilation isn’t always at its prime. You might be inhaling hazardous dust or working with poorly maintained equipment. You may have an underlying condition that a specific chemical could aggravate.

A bed sculpture to illustrate the health risks that come with many art jobs.

Health stuff can happen at any time

These challenges can happen early or late in your career. I started wearing a brace for carpal tunnel when I was 20, and one of the reasons I shifted away from an illustration career was the toll it took on my wrists. Rebecca Horn started her art career doing fiberglass sculpture but she spent weeks in the hospital with a lung infection due to her materials. She continued in her art career making installation art instead.

It’s hard to sacrifice the career you love for health reasons, but there are strategies, workarounds, and creative solutions you can try. Still, it’s smart to know the hazards before you dive into a career.

Typical Career Trajectory for Art Jobs 

The typical workplace has a structure for advancement and promotion, but in this area too, the art world plays by its own rules. Sometimes there is a regular cadence to promotions or raises, but in art jobs, these moves are often up to the individual.

To determine the opportunities in your chosen career path, take a look at LinkedIn and website resumes or CVs of the professionals you admire in the industry. Count how long it took between changes in title, location, or exhibitions. Look through their interviews and take note of moments they said represented a major change in their career.

Title changes can come without a pay increase. Check out sites like Glassdoor or Comparably to figure out how pay and title play off of each other in your industry and to get a clearer picture of your future opportunities.

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Post by Jana Rumberger