Visual Artists

Significant Points

  • Nearly 60 percent are self-employed—about six times the proportion in all professional occupations.
  • Visual artists usually develop their skills through a bachelor’s degree program or other postsecondary training in art or design.
  • Keen competition is expected for both salaried jobs and freelance work, because many talented people are attracted to the glamorous and exciting image of the graphic and fine arts fields.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Visual artists create art to communicate ideas, thoughts, or feelings. They use a variety of methods—painting, sculpting, or illustration—and an assortment of materials, including oils, watercolors, acrylics, pastels, pencils, pen and ink, plaster, clay, and computers. Visual artists’ works may be realistic, stylized, or abstract and may depict objects, people, nature, or events.

Visual artists generally fall into one of three categories. Fine artists create art to satisfy their own need for self-expression. Illustrators and graphic designers, on the other hand, put their artistic skills at the service of commercial clients, such as major corporations; retail stores; and advertising, design, and publishing firms. (Designers other than graphic designers are discussed in a separate Handbook statement.)

Fine artists display their work in museums, commercial art galleries, corporate collections, and private homes. Some of their artwork may be commissioned (done on request from clients), but mostly it is sold on consignment through private art galleries or dealers. The gallery and artist predetermine how much each will earn from a consignment sale. Only the most successful fine artists are able to support themselves solely through the sale of their works. Most fine artists also hold other jobs. Those with teaching certificates may teach art in elementary or secondary schools, whereas those with a master’s or doctorate degree may teach art in colleges or universities. Some fine artists work in arts administration in local, State, or Federal government arts programs. Others work in museums or art galleries as fine arts directors or as curators, who plan and set up art exhibits. Some of these artists work as art critics for newspapers or magazines, and some work as consultants to foundations or institutional collectors. Fine artists also give private art lessons. Sometimes fine artists must work in an unrelated field to support their art careers.

Fine artists work independently. Usually, fine artists specialize in one or two art forms, such as painting, sculpting, printmaking, and restoring. Painters work with two-dimensional art forms. These artists use shading, perspective, and color to produce works that depict realistic scenes or abstract expressions to evoke different moods and emotions.

Sculptors design three-dimensional art works—either by molding and joining materials such as clay, glass, wire, plastic, fabric, or metal or by cutting and carving forms from a block of plaster, wood, or stone. Some sculptors combine various materials to create mixed-media works. In recent years, some sculptors have incorporated light, sound, and motion into their works.

Printmakers create printed images from designs cut or etched into wood, stone, or metal. After cutting the design, the artist inks the surface of the woodblock or stone and rolls or stamps it onto paper to make an impression. Some printmakers make prints by graphically encoding data and processing it, using a computer. The computer-enhanced images are printed using printers with specially loaded software or are transmitted electronically to be viewed on the Internet.

Painting restorers preserve and restore damaged and faded paintings. They apply solvents and cleaning agents to clean the surfaces, reconstruct or retouch damaged areas, and apply preservatives to protect the paintings. This is very detailed work and usually is reserved for experts in the field.

Illustrators paint or draw pictures for books, magazines, and other publications; films; and paper products, including wrapping paper, stationery, greeting cards and calendars. Some work may be done using computers, which allow ideas to be mailed electronically between clients or presented on the Internet. Many of these artists do a variety of illustrations, whereas others specialize in a particular style, such as medical illustration, fashion illustration, cartoons, or animation.

Some illustrators draw storyboards for television commercials, movies, and animated features. Storyboards present television commercials in a series of scenes similar to a comic strip and allow an advertising agency to evaluate proposed commercials with the company doing the advertising. Storyboards also serve as guides to placing actors and cameras and to other details during the production of commercials.

Medical and scientific illustrators combine artistic skills with knowledge of the biological sciences. Medical illustrators draw illustrations of human anatomy and surgical procedures. Scientific illustrators draw illustrations of animals and plants. These illustrations are used in medical and scientific publications and in audiovisual presentations for teaching purposes. Medical illustrators also work for lawyers, producing exhibits for court cases and doctors.

Fashion artists draw illustrations of women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing and accessories for newspapers, magazines, and other media.

Cartoonists draw political, advertising, social, and sports cartoons. Some cartoonists work with others who create the idea or story and write the captions. Most cartoonists, however, have humorous, critical, or dramatic talents, in addition to drawing skills.

Animators work in the motion picture and television industries. They draw by hand and use computers to create the large series of pictures which, when transferred to film or tape, form the animated cartoons seen in movies and on television.

Graphic designers use a variety of print, electronic, and film media to create designs that meet client needs. Most graphic designers use computer software to generate new images. They design promotional displays and marketing brochures for products and services, develop distinctive company logos for products and businesses, and create visual designs of annual reports and other corporate literature. Additionally, graphic designers, usually under the supervision of a design or art director, develop the overall layout and design of magazines, newspapers, journals, corporate reports, and other publications. Many graphic designers develop the graphics and layout of Internet websites. Graphic designers also produce the credits that appear before and after television programs and movies.

Freelance graphic designers put their artistic skills and vision to work on a project-by-project arrangement while working on a contract basis with other companies.

Art directors develop design concepts and review the material that is to appear in periodicals, newspapers, and other printed or visual media. They decide how best to present the information visually, so it is eye-catching, appealing, and organized. They make decisions about which photographs or artwork to use and oversee the layout design and production of the printed material. Art directors also may review graphics that appear on the Internet.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Most visual artists work in art and design studios located in office buildings, or they work in their own homes. Some fine artists share studio space, where they also may exhibit their work. Studio surroundings usually are well lighted and ventilated; however, fine artists may be exposed to fumes from glue, paint, ink, and other materials. Graphic designers or illustrators who sit at drafting tables or use computers for extended periods of time may experience back pain, eye strain, or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Graphic designers and illustrators employed by publishing companies, art and design studios, and graphic design firms generally work a standard 40-hour week. During busy periods, they may work overtime to meet deadlines. Fine artists and self-employed graphic designers and illustrators can set their own hours, but may spend much time and effort selling their services to potential customers or clients and building a reputation.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Visual artists held about 308,000 jobs in 1998. Nearly 6 out of 10 were self-employed. Self-employed visual artists either are graphic designers who freelance, offering their services to advertising agencies, publishing houses, and other businesses, or fine artists who earn income when they sell a painting or other work of art.

Of the visual artists who were not self-employed, many were graphic designers who worked for advertising agencies, design firms, commercial art and reproduction firms, or printing and publishing companies. Other visual artists were employed by the motion picture and television industries, wholesale and retail trade establishments, and public relations firms.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Training requirements for visual artists vary, depending upon the specialty. Although formal training is not strictly necessary for fine artists, it is very difficult to become skilled enough to make a living without some training. Many colleges and universities offer degree programs leading to the bachelor in fine arts (BFA) and master in fine arts (MFA) degrees. Coursework usually includes core subjects, such as English, social science, and natural science, in addition to art history and studio art. Art schools also offer postsecondary studio training in the fine arts. Typically, these programs focus more intensively on studio work than the academic programs in a university setting. Those who want to teach fine arts at the elementary or secondary levels must have a teaching certificate in addition to a bachelor’s degree. An advanced degree in fine arts or arts administration is necessary for management or administrative positions in government or in foundations or for teaching in colleges and universities. (See the statements for college and university faculty; and kindergarten, elementary, and secondary school teachers elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Graphic designers must demonstrate artistic ability and creative thinking. Academic training leading to a bachelor’s degree in art or design has almost become a necessity.

Illustrators learn drawing and sketching skills through training in art programs and extensive practice. Most employers prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree; however, some illustrators may be contracted based on past work.

The appropriate training and education for prospective medical illustrators is more specific. Medical illustrators must have both a demonstrated artistic ability and a detailed knowledge of living organisms, surgical and medical procedures, and human and animal anatomy. A 4-year bachelor’s degree combining art and pre-medical courses usually is necessary, followed by a master’s degree in medical illustration. This degree is offered in only five accredited schools in the United States.

Evidence of appropriate talent and skill, displayed in an artist’s portfolio, is an important factor used by art and design directors, clients, and others in deciding whether to hire or contract out work. The portfolio is a collection of hand-made, computer-generated, photographic, or printed samples of the artist’s best work. Assembling a successful portfolio requires skills usually developed in a bachelor’s degree program or other postsecondary training in art, design, or visual communications. Internships also provide excellent opportunities for visual artists to develop and enhance their portfolios. Formal educational programs in art and design also provide training in computer techniques. Computers are used widely in the visual arts, and knowledge and training in them are critical for many jobs in these fields. Graphic designers, especially those who are new to the field or who work on a freelance basis, need good communication skills to convey their ideas to clients and to contract for services.

Visual artists hired by advertising agencies or graphic design studios often start with relatively routine work. While doing this work, however, they may observe and practice their skills on the side. Many visual artists freelance on a part-time basis while continuing to hold a full-time job until they are established. Others freelance part-time while still in school, to develop experience and to build a portfolio of published work.

Freelance visual artists try to develop a set of clients who regularly contract for work. Some freelance artists are widely recognized for their skill in specialties such as magazine or children’s book illustration. These artists may earn high incomes and can pick and choose the type of work they do.

Fine artists and illustrators advance professionally as their work circulates and as they establish a reputation for a particular style. Many of the most successful artists and illustrators continually develop new ideas, and their work often evolves over time. Graphic designers may advance to assistant art director, art director, design director, and in some companies, creative director of an art or design department. Some artists prosper enough to succeed as freelance designers or to specialize in a particular area. Some graphic designers design web pages for their company’s Internet site. Others open their own businesses.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Employment of visual artists is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2008. Because the visual arts attract many talented people with creative ability, the number of aspiring visual artists continues to grow. Consequently, competition for both salaried jobs and freelance work in some, but not all, areas of visual arts is expected to be keen.

Fine artists mostly work on a freelance, or commission, basis and may find it difficult to earn a living solely by selling their artwork. Only the most successful fine artists receive major commissions for their work. Competition among artists for the privilege of being shown in galleries is expected to remain acute. And grants from sponsors such as private foundations, State and local arts councils, and the National Endowment for the Arts, should remain competitive. Nonetheless, studios, galleries, and individual clients are always on the lookout for artists who display outstanding talent, creativity, and style. Population growth, rising incomes, and growth in the number of people who appreciate fine arts will contribute to the demand for fine artists. Talented fine artists who have developed a mastery of artistic techniques and skills, including computer skills, will have the best job prospects.

The need for visual artists to illustrate and animate materials for magazines, journals, and other printed or electronic media will spur demand for illustrators of all types. Growth in the entertainment industry, including cable and other pay television broadcasting and motion picture production and distribution, will provide new job opportunities for cartoonists and animators. Competition for most illustration jobs, however, will be strong, because job opportunities are relatively few and the number of people interested in these positions usually exceeds the number of available openings. Employers should be able to choose among the most qualified candidates.

Very good opportunities for graphic designers are expected. Continuing growth of the Internet should provide many job opportunities, largely due to the demand for graphic designers to design and develop the layout of web pages. Additionally, businesses will continue to put emphasis on visually appealing concepts for use in communications, package design, publications, advertising, marketing, and television and video production, all of which require the skills of graphic designers. Despite strong demand for both freelance and salaried graphic designers, competition will be stiff for the best jobs because employers are willing to make attractive offers to the most talented and creative candidates.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median annual earnings of visual artists were about $31,690 a year in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $23,790 and $41,980 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $17,910 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $64,580. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest number of visual artists in 1997 were as follows:

Advertising $34,800
Periodicals 33,000
Mailing, reproduction, stenographic services 32,700
Commercial printing 24,700
Newspapers 24,100

Earnings for self-employed visual artists vary widely. Some charge only a nominal fee while they gain experience and build a reputation for their work. Others, such as well-established freelance graphic designers and fine artists, can earn much more than salaried artists do. Like other self-employed workers, freelance artists must provide their own benefits.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Many occupations in the advertising industry, such as account executive and creative director, are related to the fine arts and graphic design. Other workers who apply visual art skills include architects; landscape architects; photographers; and floral, industrial, and interior designers. Various printing occupations also are related to visual art, as is the work of art and design teachers. In addition, several occupational options associated with the Internet have emerged—for example, webmaster and Internet page designer. These jobs often require artistic talent, as well as computer skills.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For an order form for a directory of accredited college-level programs in art and design (available for $15.00) or career information in visual arts occupations, contact:

  • The National Association of Schools of Art and Design, 11250 Roger Bacon Dr., Suite 21, Reston, VA 20190.

For information on careers in medical illustration, contact:

  • The Association of Medical Illustrators, 2965 Flowers Road South, Suite 105, Atlanta, GA 30341.

For a list of schools offering degree programs in graphic design, contact:

  • The American Institute of Graphic Arts, 164 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Selected industries employing visual artists that appear in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries:

O*NET Codes: 34035A, 34035B, 34035C, 34035D, 34035E, 34038E, 39999E, and 39999H About the O*NET codes

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