Making a living as an artist?

Professional artists, I come to you for advice.

I find myself at a point where I am now deeply regretting passing on that scholarship to Savannah College of Art and Design. I’d like to eventually get into a field where I could utilize more of my artistic skills, but am completely at a loss as to how to do so. Moreso, I’m at a loss as to how to find a way to make a decent living from something I love to do.

Some background information:

I’d say my strength lies in drawing and portraits in particular, but I’m comfortable with a wide range of subjects and media. I’ve worked in pencil, conte, prismacolor, watercolor, oils, pastels, pen and ink and scratchboard. I’ve even done some fairly decent screenprinting (I have my own screens and lightbox). I’ve dabbled in sculpture and ceramics, and I’ve tinkered with metal and jewelry design as well. I’ve designed some needlework patterns and like to sew, and have created some quilts and other fabric art type pieces. One thing I haven’t had a great opportunity to work with is photography, but I’d love to take some classes.

So, setting aside that I missed the opportunity of a lifetime by not going to a good art college, what are some good resources for those seeking artistic jobs?
What kinds of skills and disciplines should I learn?
What fields offer fairly stable employment?
What areas of the country are best? (I know the town I live in is fairly deficient when it comes to culture and the arts)

Any information is appreciated!

It’s too bad you had to pass on the art scholorship, it would have exposed you to materials and techniques you probably wouldn’t try left to your own devices and expose you to people and contacts that would help in your carreer, but for heavens sake don’t lament the lack of a degree or anything. In the real making-a-living art world a degree (even from the best college) is not hardly as important as a bit of drive.

Just as a good start-off lets define the term “artist”. There are “Fine Artists” – sculpters, painters, etc. who are doing art sold through galleries and dealers to collectors. And then there are “Commercial Artists”, a nebulus term for artists who do everything from illustrating childrens books to Cocoa Krispies boxes to greeting cards to sculpting toys. Since the word “Commercial” is rooted in the word “Commerce” you can guess which of the two types gets paid occasionally.

If your planning to make a living as a Fine Artist, wow, good luck. Unless you’ve got a working significant-other or a trust fund it’s practically impossible to make a living exclusivly on ones art without a day job (or two), and day jobs have a tendency of taking over and monopolizing you time, energy and life.

The few Fine Artists I know who are making it in their respective fields got there by doing their work for the sheer pleasure of it in their spare time, developing a signiture style, and building an impressive portfolio over years and years, so when they do exibit it’s a strong showing that makes an impression. If a buzz starts and suddenly they have a marketable product they can make money with and lose the day job, it’s almost a happy accident.

If your still game to try it here’s a bit of advice: (1) WORK CONSTANTLY. The only Fine Artists I know who have made even the meanest living were driven like demons. (2)Develop a thick skin. Your going to get rejected alot, and not responded too even more (somehow the indifference is worse than the rejection). (3) Find a community that’s conducive to your art. Creative types always benefit from the support, criticism and ideas of other creative types. New York, Seattle, San Francisco – all very active creative communities, as well as around the better art colleges (the area around The Art Institute of Chicago I hear is having a bit of a renaissance).

Commercial art is a much more realistic way to make a living with art. Start out by working very hard for a few months. Do work that plays to your strengths in both subject and media. Afterward, go though these and pick out the ones which best exemplify your style – art directors prefer an artist with a well-defined style over one who can mimic dozens of others. Take these final, best examples and get them scanned or digitally photographed and cook up a nice promotional brochure with a blank side with your return address on it so you can just slap a stamp on, address and mail it to prospective clients. Don’t scrimp on the printing costs either. Your selling yourself here, and the only thing that art director knows about you is on that brochure, so look professional. Go with the heavy, glossy stock and don’t settle for washed-out colors. Also, don’t make the newbie mistake of including art-class charcoal sketches, figure drawing stuff, etc. unless it’s really, really strong. They scream “Art Student” and art directors are looking for pro’s who will deliver the goods with a minimum of drama.

"What are some good resources for those seeking artistic jobs?"

The 2003 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market. Read it, read it again, memorize it, love it. It has contact addresses for every greeting card place, magazine, poster manufacturer, childrens book publisher, etc. not to mention all the legal junk associated with selling your work, like copyright stuff, contracted work provisions, retention of original work clauses, etc.

"What fields offer fairly stable employment?"

Sadly, the best paying, most stable areas of art employment are in the somewhat creativly sterile fields of Technical Illustration and Layout Design (stuff like the Sunday advertising suppliments in the paper or the Sears catalogue). If you have really good chops you might try getting a job at an advertising agency. They like talent that can crank out both quick conceptual sketches for ad campaigns as well as finished, polished product. Be warned, it can be a high-pressure job, but if you can be creative at gunpoint it’s rewarding.

"What areas of the country are best?"

In your area, Atlanta is a great bet right now. It’s got one seriously growing little multimedia/ communications/ tech thingie happening that looks like a great opportunity to get in on at the ground floor (I’m considering it myself). Other than that New York, L.A., Chicago are the standard. Seattle and Portland are a bit anemic right now, and San Francisco is a right mess.

"What kinds of skills and disciplines should I learn?"

Like I said, play to your strengths. Learning-wise, you can’t go wrong with a good foundation in Color Theory, Composition, and Layout. Media-wise I’d suggest a good working knowlage of transparent watercolor technique and opaque acrylics. A good working knowlage of Photoshop or the very powerful (and more economical) Paint Shop Pro 7.

Wanna get another scholarship?

I live in Connecticut, and right here on the coast is Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts check it out. If you are a good writer, try writing a grant to them and work/study right there at the academy. There is nothing to lose if you don’t try. They are supported by the national endowment of the arts and there are plenty of grants on that website that may help you. Also, my daughter went there and worked her way through three years. Now she lives in Providence working for RISD - Rhode Island School of Design.

Try it out and remember to persevere.

Hmm. I doubt I can best Inky’s advice. I’m an artist, but I specialize in 3D CGI art for computer games. It pays well, but the job market isn’t too stable. I wish I had any urge to do something else, 'cause I’d love to not have to worry about being laid off all the time.

Good luck.

Hey Lightnin’, I’m curious where are you working? I’ve done time at Crystal Dynamics and EA myself (modeling and texture-mapping, respectively).

Lightnin’ and Inky. Nice to see some more game artists around. I’m an environment texture and lighting artist at Radical Entertainment (opinions expressed on this board are not necessarily those expressed by my employer :slight_smile:

XJETGIRLX: Game art is a pretty good commercial art to get into. There’s a lot of potential to have some sort of artistic freedom once you get high enough on the totem pole (I’m a senior artist so I get to come up with a lot of the “base” art). At the beginning your work is pretty much controlled by an art director but you still get to have fun.

Although knowing your way around a computer is good, having the fine art background is extremely important. When hiring, though, a company seems to look for teamwork skills and the ability to follow direction over even artistic skill. Odd, but once you’re in the field it becomes obvious why.

I guess there are a few of us here that can answer any questions about interactive entertainment, so ask away!


Thanks N. I’m off to start a thread on just that in GQ’s.

Sorry for this hijack, but I’m dead curious.

Niggle, where do you stand on the Lightwave Vs. 3D Studio Max debate as far as the better program to be knowledgeable in before diving into a company’s proprietary platform?


I’m blown away by the thoroughness and helpfulness of your posts! Thanks so much!

I guess I’m really not even all that knowledgeable about what fields have to offer in the way of the arts. I’d never even thought about game art – that sounds like something I’d love!
I’m a bit of a tech geek myself, hubby is working on a degree in programming and promised that once he gets a stable job I can quit and do all my artsy stuff, but that’s a ways off, and I’d love to at least get started on something I love now.

At the time I was awarded a $20k scholarship, it probably would have only paid for freshman year. I dunno, at the time I was just a little too put off by the whole ‘artist’ mentality, and didn’t want to get boxed into that coffeehouse and gallery crowd. Plus, it would have been incredibly far away, and I had just moved to the town I was in.

I’ve thought about looking into advertising, and I’m currently working on a coloring book for my boss’ muskogee indian school. I’m not really afraid of busting my ass or working under pressure, I just don’t really know what’s out there, and want to gain some information to narrow my search and hone my skills before making a great leap.

For Lightnin’ and Niggle re: game art –

What is the employment structure like for that industry? What levels are there?(i.e. where would I start and where could I end up?)

What programs are used mainly? What peripheral computer skills are necessary?

How much of a game’s design do you personally do? How is the work split up?

What games have you personally worked on?

Do you get to test the games for free? :slight_smile:

For Inky:

Thank you sooooo much for such an in depth answer! I’ll have to look into that brochure thing – clever indeed! Hubby and I are definitely determined to move soon, we just don’t know where. I’ll have to add Atlanta to the list of possibilities! As for selling myself, I work in politics now, so I think I’m getting an interesting education of how (and how not to) do just that (although I realize YMMV in different industries).

And thanks for the link to the Artists’ and Graphic Designer’s Market. I’m going to go buy that book today! Right now!

I’m fluent in Photoshop and PSP7 – what other programs would you recommend?

Again, thanks so much for the information!

I’m probably the wrong guy to ask about this. After spending a year of production time using 3dsMAX I have to say I really really hate that program.

In general terms though unless you’re going to be doing super technical stuff the program you know is almost totally irrelevant. When I first started I went in knowing only Imagine3D (old school program dating from 1986 when it was called Silver on the Amiga). I had to learn MultiGen Creator, 3DSMax and eventually Maya, which is what we use now. Ultimately it’s the company’s software that you’re going to be using though, in the form of exporters, plugins and of course the runtime engine itself.

In every one of these programs the tools are essentially the same. I can now pick up any package and do good work in it simply because of that fact. All that you have to learn is the interface.

So, in answer, just make sure you know at least ONE 3d program inside and out, because that knowledge is totally transferable.

Oh, and before I get flamed by 3ds advocates I just want to say the only reason I don’t like the program is because of the interface. It took me 1 week to get production ready in Multigen, a couple days in Maya but about 3 weeks for MAX. Ugh! Maybe the new version is better (last one I used was 3.1). Maya is a dream though – aside from some little quirks that you get used to pretty quickly.
XJETGIRLX: sorry for the hijack!


A lot of companies want you to have experience. Few want to actually GIVE you that experience. :slight_smile:

I got lucky in that a friend convinced his boss that I was a decent enough paper artist, and that I was good with computers. They hired me on for a month, and said, “learn this”. That was over seven years ago- needless to say, I got lucky.

Finding a company to (unpaid) intern for is, I’ve heard, a good way to get started.

As for how high you can go… well, it’s not inconceivable that you could start your own company, eventually… though I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. :slight_smile:

I mainly use 3DStudio Max, but with a lot of Photoshop and Fractal Painter thrown in. A lot of companies prefer Maya, though, and the fact that I don’t know that program has cost me a few interviews.

As far as peripheral computer skills, the main one is that you be comfortable with computers. I know several artists who don’t really know computers, and it makes their jobs harder (and mine, 'cause I usually have to help them fix whatever they just broke).

At most jobs? Not much- a lot of companies want the artists to just focus on producing art. These are known as Not Fun Jobs. :slight_smile:

The place I’m at, now, encourages everyone to have a hand in the game design- and it makes the work environment, and the game, better. In my opinion.

Usually, there’s four separate sections in a game company- Management, Artists, Programmers, Testers. In small companies (which I prefer, though they’re not as “safe”), these positions overlap to varying degrees.

Lessee… Ultima IX (PC), SpongeBob SquarePants- Revenge of the Flying Dutchman (PS2), and Jimmy Neutron (PS2) are the games I’ve shipped. I’ve worked on a lot (sigh) that haven’t shipped.

Yes, you get to test the games. Not that you’ll want to- testing games quickly loses its charm. :slight_smile:

Inky- and Niggle- I did some contract work for Origin, just finished at BigSky Interactive (also known as Kalisto USA and Daylight), and I’m now at a small company known as AsylumSoft, where I’m working on a MMORPG by the name of Dransik. I’m primarily a modeler/texture guy, but I’ve done a ton of animation and particle effect editing.

This is going to be different at all the various companies out there. Here there’s a pretty straight forward structure…

  1. Unpaid Intern (Usually someone who is in school at the same time)
  2. Paid Intern (After a few months unpaid, interns start to pull in a bit of cash. Usually an hourly wage. Not close to a full time person but enough to live on)
  3. Contract (Usually 3-6 months. This is just the closest thing to an order, but a contract person can make a lot more than a full time person - they just don’t get any bennies)
  4. Junior Artist - Usually get a full time contract from being an intern or a part time contract person. Salary and benefits
  5. Senior Artist/ Art Lead - This person is sometimes called a senior, sometimes a lead. Doesn’t really matter. Usually has several years experience, is exceptional at their job and has more responsabilities.
  6. Art Director/Master Artist. This is a branching thing - you can either go into management OR you can stick to creating art but have the same sort of input as a director might. Master is just so you can avoid having administration tasks basically. I don’t know why anyone would not want to do this. :slight_smile:

If you get sick of doing art from this point you can go on to become an associate producer, producer, etc. All are pure management positions.

We use Maya as a development platform. We’ve got a whole slew of in-house tools that are the greater part of our toolkit however. Things like animation sequencers, export tools, in-house SFX tools and much much more.

I use photoshop to paint textures but people are free to use pretty much whatever they want. The company buys licenses of each person’s favourite software. I think most people stick to photoshop but a few use fractal painter. As Lightnin’ said, knowing how to use a computer is VERY IMPORTANT! You must understand the logic behind what is going on in the machine if you want to figure out why things are broken. We’ve had people here that were amazing artists but their lack of computer understanding hampered their efforts to get ahead, and in some cases resulted in termination of their contract.

Oh - get really used to a tablet. Even though a lot of companies seem to find it OK to use photographic source images for textures you get a much nicer quality if you can paint texture from scratch. A tablet speeds up the process like you wouldn’t belive, and it’s (IMHO) way easier to use than a mouse for painting.

Although we all get input into what the design could be for the most part that is left to the design staff, all of whom derive great enjoyment from writing exhaustivly long documents. My design control is limited to world and prop designs which I do concept art for at the beginning of a project. Preproduction is my favourite time because I get to paint all day long and don’t have to deal with technical stuff!


I’ve worked on quite a few license-based games from NHL hockey (my first game) to Jackie Chan, A.I., and other movie-based products. I’ve also done work on in-house projects, but those have been in a concept art stage (wheee!!) and I haven’t had to go through and do the CG for it too.


Hell, you can get PAID to do that. I don’t suggest you try it though - it’s a horribly dull job and the majority of games aren’t really that much fun to play until the last couple months of development. Imagine testing a racing game…

-Start game
-Run car into left wall
-Restart game
-Run car into right wall
-restart game
-repeat for 12 hours