Starting a Career in Art

By Armand Cabrera

I see a lot of young people coming out of art schools these days saddled with high debts and little to prepare them for the real world of a working artist. I thought I would offer some advice on making a living as an artist.

A portfolio is worth more than a degree

Your portfolio is your strongest asset, degrees don’t matter. When you start looking for work avoid jumping into the market too soon if your work isn’t at a professional level. This is the biggest problem I see for most students when they decide to get into art. They compare themselves to the bottom of the professional market. Always compare yourself to the top of the market and work on your skillsets to achieve that quality.

Know what you are worth

Decide on a price for your work before you ever approach a venue with a portfolio. Do your homework for the industry you want to work in. Know what salary ranges are and what is expected from you as an artist. Never apply for a job beyond your skillsets no matter how much you want to work. Make sure you know what you need to make each month monetarily to pay your bills. Know how long it takes you to paint each piece in your portfolio. That way you know how much work you have to finish each month to live comfortably.

Never undersell yourself.

While it is good to start low and work your way up, don’t give away your services –ever. Respect the process and your craft and it will provide you with a living. There is a lot of noise about how tough it is to get into the industry. There are more opportunities now than when I started. There are so many venues now; social gaming, online gaming, plus all the consoles on the market and all the TV and Movie opportunities. There is a lack of qualified artists in the industry mainly because schools are cashing in on the art craze but aren’t training the students properly.

Start small and work your way up.

I started getting work locally then regionally then landed bigger national jobs. I didn’t start by trying to get a job at the top. I built a portfolio of solid work at every stage that I was proud to show.
I went to conventions a couple of times a year and showed my work. It is how I landed my first jobs in the industry.
I did the same with competitions when I wanted to get into galleries. I entered local, then regional, then national competitions. I Stayed and competed at each level until I received recognition and awards.

Go where the work is

When you are starting out you can’t really afford to stay in East Gall Bladder forever if there are no jobs there. Those smaller markets tend to be more saturated because of the limited jobs opportunities. The pay tends to be lower and the skill requirements do too. That can help you find work if you are properly trained but probably won’t sustain you fulltime. Once you conquer the local market it is time to consider going to where the jobs are. You have a much better chance of getting an art job in Los Angeles or Seattle than South Dakota.

Create your business identity

This is often overlooked starting out. Have a professional looking website or blog and show only your best work. Secure your domain name and use an email with it for work. Don’t advertise for Hotmail and Google. Your email should be your name. Like Join as many professional networks as possible. Avoid creating blogs where you express your opinions on aliens and the illuminati conspiracy.

Have business cards that have all your contact information. Get in the habit of handing them out. While it is okay to have a digital business card to share if you have a smart phone but smart phones only make up 19% of the market.

I will come back to this  in a couple of weeks with more on the actual process of running a business. Invoices, contracts, tax strategies for a sole proprietor and the like.

2 thoughts on “Starting a Career in Art

  1. Hi Armand,
    thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experience. What kind of advice would you give to people starting late in art and having a completely different background?

  2. Oli,

    I think a lot of the same things apply. If your changing careers toward more personal art you have to still follow some career plan and be smart as a business.

    When I transitioned away from production art to galleries I kept my job until my gallery sales matched my income. I approached painting for galleries with my same work ethic, so I had quite a bit of inventory when I started applying. This helped me establish myself quickly. I also knew my illustration abilities didn't always help in my gallery painting so I took classes and workshops from established gallery artists. They helped me move my work towards a more painterly focus. It is still my style of painting but the priority of the mechanics of my painting changes for gallery work. I think the fact I was used to painting everyday has helped me to survive the economy up to this point. Also I treat it as a business and Diane and I are constantly trying new markets and venues for my work.

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