I Want To Be an Artist

I want to be an artist. Most aspiring creators say this at some point early on, then they say it again after each setback or uncomfortable conversation. Again and again, one more time, then again. I want to be an artist.

I Want To Be an Artist

Disadvantages of being an artist and why it’s still worth it
How to become an artist
Quick paths to becoming an artist
Long term approaches to being an artist

Because choosing to create and invent is difficult, especially in a culture that offers little support and even fewer resources to artists.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Over 5 million people have jobs in arts and culture, creating $877.8 billion in GDP in 2017 alone.  There are over 100 different art major options at schools around the world, each representing multiple career paths in the arts. 

Chart with the number of people working art jobs in the workforce

Disadvantages of being an artist and why it’s still worth it

Most high school and college counselors aren’t sure what to do with artists. Many people see art-makers as fringe. Being an artist is mostly thought of as a desire, an impulse that will fade over time. 

Many artists are still dealing with old stereotypes including but not limited to:

  • Artists only make money after they die
  • The starving artist
  • Artists are all sad, lonely goths
  • Art is for rich people
  • Art is frivolous, a waste of time

The subtext of many of these comments is that it’s too hard to make it as an artist, so it’s not even worth trying. Is it because of the way our society defines work? Is it because many think of art as a passion? And it’s true, artists are often expected to do creative projects free of charge or accept substandard pay for their complex, challenging, and time-consuming work.

It’s tough to be an idealist

Another stereotype is that all artists are idealists. In this mindset, artists provide a public service to inspire and motivate social change. While this is often true, it can sometimes feel like a blessing and a curse.

After all, if the role of the artist is to change the world they should also reject traditional ways of living, including the influence of capitalism. Besides making artists feel like they are selling out no matter how earnest they may be, this perception also makes it easy to paint artists as deadbeats who are shirking their duty. 

With these challenges, it’s understandable that some artists will hear someone say, “Don’t be an artist” and give up. It’s not a logical decision, because the visual arts can be a lucrative field. Artists power industries including but not limited to advertising, ecommerce, and manufacturing.

Delivery truck showing that art jobs power all kinds of industries, not just creative ones

Without artists who became architects, construction companies would build the same thing over and over again. Without graphic designers, companies would have hideous logos that don’t effectively communicate. Anyone can take a digital picture, but professional photographers know how to take pictures that communicate ideas simply and powerfully.

Being an artist isn’t a state of mind. It’s not a greeting card philosophy. The arts are more than a passion project. Being an artist is a living, a practice, and an industry that is necessary to our society, and deserving of respect. 

How to become an artist

The arts are a complex and diverse set of creative pursuits. The idea that there is a single path to becoming an artist is laughable. But if you are searching on the internet for some solace and sound advice, there are a few things for you to think about as you move forward.

I became the family artist when I won an all-school coloring contest in the second grade. My grandma taught at my elementary school and beating 5th graders was a big deal. That year most of my Christmas presents were art supplies. I wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid for Christmas that year, so I used my supplies to make Cabbage Patch art. Then I won a coloring contest sponsored by The Daily Californian in 4th grade.

I said I want to be an artist when I entered a contest and won tickets to the ice capades image from the Daily Californian

We moved a lot when I was young, so recognition for my art made me feel special. It became a path for me to make new friends. Over time it became part of my identity and how I confirmed that I was worthy to be wherever I was.

I want to be an artist because I love to paint

There are many different types of art out there and hundreds of times as many ways to be an artist. One way to narrow down the kind of artist you want to be is to think about the art that you’re drawn to and the artists that you know.

For example, one of the first artists I loved was Van Gogh. He sold paintings through a gallery his brother owned, which led me to learn about other painters.

Another way I learned about what an artist does was my middle school art teacher Johanna Whisman. She made ceramic pieces for museums and participated in gallery group shows. Those experiences led me to focus on fine art for most of my career as an artist.

I didn’t know what fine art meant at first, I just knew that I loved painting. This was the 1990s and while the internet existed it didn’t have the extensive information on most topics that it holds today.

I want to be an artist because I don’t know what else to do

So, I listened to my teachers and made some wild hopeful guesses. At this point, no one in my world was very encouraging about art as a career. I knew I was going to go to college but I didn’t trust my high school counselor. This was because she discouraged my investment in the arts during both of our early meetings. I stopped checking in, and she stopped bothering with me. I asked my high school art teacher for school advice and he offered some opinions but nothing concrete.

My parents weren’t very involved but they were very concerned about the cost of college. We lived in San Diego and I didn’t pay attention to the California college deadlines. Even though I had good grades, college simply wasn’t on my radar.

Then it suddenly was, and I was scrambling to get everything done. I missed priority deadlines because I didn’t know what they were. My portfolio was fine, but no one wants their portfolio to look “fine.”

Applying to art school used to mean. producing slides and shipping slide portfolios, but now it's all done online

I decided to study illustration because I got second place in the illustration category at my district art show. I also chose it because it sounded like a compromise between painting, what I wanted to study, and graphic design, what my mom wanted me to study.

Quick paths to becoming an artist

Anyone can reach a long-term goal with the right set of micro-steps, and becoming an artist isn’t any different. These are some quick and simple steps you can take today. 

Decide to be an artist

Being an artist is such an abstract goal that all you need to do to become an artist is to make some art. 

Making art is rewarding all on its own. It is also proven to have a powerful impact on physical and mental health. If you’re looking for something more, there are a few other quick steps you can take.

Decide if you want to pursue art for yourself, professionally, or both

These definitions vary by the kind of art you make, where you live, and the community you want to be a part of. The average art director at the ad agency BBDO can make $115,000 a year. An art handler in Los Angeles who shows their work in galleries and museums usually makes around $43,000 a year, but they might also spend their time traveling across the country installing work and doing residencies. The average salary for a senior graphic designer is $63,000

Art director salary chart

Some countries, like Denmark and Germany, offer grants and living space to individual artists because of the value they provide to culture. Artists in the United States practice in a society that equates value with money, so many US artists equate success with selling their work. 

Create your own definition of success

Some artists are financially successful but critically ridiculed, like Thomas Kinkade. He was a recognized name in the 1990s and for several years his paintings and prints sold for thousands of dollars apiece from storefronts in shopping malls across America.

Many called his quaint paintings of cottages in lush green landscapes low art. His work was widely criticized by the artist establishment in much the same way that critics challenged the art fair model of the early 2000s and the social media boom that is putting galleries out of business today. He also had a net worth of over 70 million dollars when he passed away in 2012.

There are a lot of different ways to succeed as an artist who wants to earn an income, and there are hundreds of art jobs for the talented, creative, and hard-working.

Choose a focus

Art is just like any other field, it grows with complexity the more you learn about it. So, learn everything you can about art jobs, art media, and art communities.

When I studied illustration, I learned about drawing and mixed media techniques. I learned specializations within illustration and completed real-world assignments. I got some ideas about what a career as an illustrator might look like. It helped me figure out what I wanted and what I didn’t want for my future as an artist. 

Find the right art world for your personality

Personality matters too. Artist stereotypes paint a picture of a lone genius artist working frantically in the studio. Many high schools encourage or reinforce this idea, but art is a social practice. Most successful artists have a network or community that offers support, insights, and a network for promotion. It is your job to find these people. It doesn’t take too many, so even introverts can knock this one out.

Long term approaches to being an artist

If you want an art career, it’s a longer path. You can become an artist at any stage in life. Clyfford Still started making art in his early 20s, but you don’t see his best-respected paintings until he was almost 40. Louise Nevelson didn’t start making art until she was in her early forties. Vera Wang became a fashion designer at 40. Graphic design icon David Carson started in his early 40s too.

If you want to be an artist you don't want to give up communication, sleep, eating, sports, or making a good living.

Go to elementary, middle, and high schools that have good art programs

Many young artists excel and enjoy the art and crafts projects that dominate early education. These kids then enter the gauntlet of middle school and junior high. This period is when preteens are starting to figure out what they want next and are also struggling with changes in self-esteem. If they don’t show a high level of skill in an art form their teachers and peers admire, they may go from happy creators to critical disasters. 

Creators who aren’t encouraged during this phase often give up the arts entirely, so keep an eye out for middle schools with strong and supportive art programs or look for an outside program to continue developing creative skills. 

Next, young people who think they want to be an artist head to high school. While there have been some recent increases, public school funding dropped dramatically for well over a decade and art programs are often the first cut. It’s not unusual for high school art teachers to pay out of pocket for supplies and equipment. This has been an unfortunate trend for over 25 years. 

Depending on your area of interest, a great art teacher might not be enough. Look for high schools with a range of discipline-specific courses. Look for classes in:

  • Printmaking
  • Ceramics
  • Photography
  • Other disciplines that require special equipment you won’t be able to get at home

Ask for advice

Some also offer art courses that lead to careers in the arts after high school. While many high schools are cutting these programs at a rapid pace, others are expanding their art and design courses, so take a close look when you choose a high school. 

Advising is also important. High school students can sometimes go to their art teachers for college advice. But many high school art teachers have a stronger background in art education than art practice. Because of the hiring and educational requirements for high school teachers, even the best high school art teacher will have blind spots that make it difficult to offer college and portfolio advice to their students. 

The counseling office can be a challenge too. Most high school college counselors work with large and diverse populations of students. It is difficult to understand the complexity of the art world, let alone advise young artists of their school and career options if it isn’t an area of focus at the school.

Parents and students in this situation may want to hire a specialty counselor to address these needs off-campus. Vision Field and Beach College Counseling are some great options if you are looking for these services.

Reach out to friends in-person and online

Many young artists rely on the advice of their friends or influencers online to figure out what their options are as artists. Sites like DeviantArt and New Grounds are diverse and creative online spaces where thousands of young artists post, comment, and share artwork. These sites offer new and exciting options for artists, but they also have some challenges.

In this fast, complex, and fast-moving economy, how will today’s young artists move from posting their work to sites like these to the art careers that can fulfill their hopes and dreams? When selling art online, is it more important to make great work or to give people what they want?

Go to art school

Art school is a clear and effective path toward being a professional artist. It’s true, in today’s digital world it is simple to learn technique. But what naysayers who favor independent learning over art schools will learn is that there is no substitute for practice. 

TV with YouTube logo because you can learn things online, but it's not the same as art school

You can watch acrylic tutorials for hours but they can’t tell you the feel of the paint on a brush in your hand. An amateur course won’t show you how you see and mix color or the nuances. It can’t explain why your photo of your backyard looks so different from the one your best friend took. And practicing on your own at the level you will practice in a controlled educational community is not something most artists can do.

Read more: Is Art School Worth It? 5 Easy Steps To Decide if Art School Is for You

Another benefit of art school is the conversations. Most art schools base their courses on a critique model. This means you’ll get assignments and listen to lectures from your teachers. You’ll complete these assignments and then the class will discuss each person’s final assignment as a group. 

Feed your brain with interesting and challenging ideas and images

This structure is more helpful for some than others, but it emphasizes an important point– artists don’t create in a vacuum. What we make is a reflection of the worlds we choose to live in. High school artists who only look at DeviantArt will make drawings that look like what is already on DeviantArt. If you’re in a community college class where half the students don’t show up and you’re the best person in that class, it could be hard to push yourself. It might feel like you already know as much as you need to. 

It is uncomfortable to push ourselves. Change is awkward, scary, and hard. The fear of failure is real. But being part of a community that cares about what you care about means it will be tough. It also means that you will be part of a group of people who get where you’re coming from and what you want to do. These people can help support you as you grow. This is why so many artists, regardless of their student loan debt, say how important art school was to their work and what they’ve been able to do as an artist.

Pursue the arts later in life

There are a lot of variables that affect how a young artist goes from saying I want to be an artist to the creative practice that fuels them as an adult. Some young artists let go of making because of family or social pressure. 

While the advice above can be helpful for artists of any age, it is often easier for adults to figure out the right path for themselves as artists. When you have autonomy, income, and some life experience it’s a lot easier to make life decisions for yourself, though it rarely feels that simple. Also, the fear of lost time leads many to let go of their artist dreams forever.

However, many more make their way back. Over 47% of all college students are non-traditional students, meaning that they began studying at age 25 or older. So, if you plan to head back to school you won’t be alone. Another popular trend is low residency MFA programs for teachers and other adult professionals who want to pursue their art practice more seriously.

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Post by Jana Rumberger