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.

Starting a Career in Art part 2

By Armand Cabrera
Starting a business as an artist or illustrator is a huge leap of faith for most people. I used to joke with my family that at least I didn’t want to be a professional poet which was the only other profession that you have even less chance of making your sole income from than being an artist.
Respect the process and yourself. Whatever it is you choose to do, treat it with reverence. I don’t kid around about my art, I treat it seriously. I am never afraid to turn down work that I think is beneath me or I think would demean my skills. I try not to be rude when asked to do something silly because I am an artist, but I really don’t need to paint signs for lemonade stands in the neighborhood anymore.
 When I started and I would get turned down for a job I would ask why and if I was lucky enough to get an honest answer I never ignored the advice given. Especially if it had to do with improving my skills so I could get professional work.
I have turned down questionable jobs because on top of everything else they wouldn’t sign a contract. Contracts not only protect you but also your clients. In my experience the only people who don’t want to sign a mutually agreed to contract are people who plan to break them anyway or have some hidden agenda that they don’t want to reveal.

If you take a job, do your best work possible. One of the bad things about lowballing jobs is it creates an atmosphere of doing things just good enough. I make sure that if I agree to a price for a job I get paid well enough to do my best work. If you aren’t going to do your best don’t take the work at all.

Reward yourself for a job well done. One of the things I learned was to pay myself first. Give myself a little treat when I finished a job just to make the parts of it that weren’t fun worthwhile. In really slow times that might not be buying something, it may be just a day off to sit around and read. Rewarding yourself for a job well done is important, especially as a contractor when a lot of the time the only compliment is the check.

Negotiating Contracts for Freelance Work

Armand Cabrera

In writing these articles, I am sharing my opinions and experiences as a freelance artist. I am not a lawyer nor am I offering legal advice.

In this article I am not talking about gallery contracts for easel paintings and this article is geared towards freelance production or illustration work. Gallery contracts have been covered before here.

Let’s say you have set up your business to start freelancing. You have a website dedicated to your work; you have a business name and bank account. You have a portfolio to show. You have done your homework and decided on a range of pay that is commensurate with the industry you want to work in. You start applying for work and get a return call about your portfolio and a client wants to hire you for a project. You speak on the phone and maybe meet in person to nail down the specifics of what is expected of you before you agree to take the job. This is a good time to be professional and ask about scheduling, delivery, compensation and payment. You are negotiating a contract.

At its basic level a contract is an agreement between two parties for services and compensation. When agreeing to work for a client you are entering into a contract. Do you know what the terms of that contract are? You can never assume anything about an agreement to perform work and that is why it is better to have a contract in writing. Some people are afraid to ask for a contract thinking they will lose potential business, but a contract protects both parties involved and helps clarify any misunderstandings before they can occur.

If a client is reluctant to create a formal contract I make sure all my questions are answered in emails as a follow up to the initial discussion. If I have met with the client over the phone or in person I tell them at the end of the conversation that I would like to clarify the discussion and that I will email them my understandings. This gives them a chance to correct any misunderstanding before work starts.

The courts have ruled that promises made in emails can be binding under certain conditions. Emails are not considered legal contracts. When I talk to clients either in person or on the phone I write the down the key points of the conversation in a notebook. This way I am creating a journal of the discussion and all of this information helps if there ever is a problem and you have to go to court or arbitration.

I stay positive and don’t expect problems, I just prepare for them. As a freelancer here are things you want to negotiate before you start work.


Are you being paid by the hour or the piece? Either way make sure the compensation offered is adequate with the work involved and fits into your predetermined range for work. I like to break up the assignments into first pass, second pass, and final approval. Once approval is given for a piece any changes afterward are a new assignment for work and requires more money.


How long do you have to complete the assignment? This includes the time it takes for research and reference and of course the work itself. Will the client provide any source material or supporting material? What are their deadlines for delivery of those assets?


How is the work to be delivered? If it is digital what are the specifications for the type and size of the files? What software do I have to choose from to do the work? If I am creating traditional art what medium can I work in? How is the piece to be delivered, can I send a digital file and who pays for scanning?


Payment is not the same as compensation. When and how are you going to be paid? Check, electronic transfer? Each system is a trade between cost and convenience. Do your homework and work it out with your bank or service ahead of time so there are no unexpected charges for you.

Do you get a portion up front? I always ask for a deposit up front and most of the time I get it. A deposit does two things it shows you the client has money and that they don’t expect you to work for free. For long term jobs like video games I like to set up milestones. I don’t like going more than a month at a time for payment, two weeks is even better. That way I don’t have too much invested if the check bounces or doesn’t ever arrive.

Model fees

If you are doing illustration it is always good to ask about model fees if appropriate. Some clients have a budget for them and some don’t; either way you need to know so you can negotiate a fair wage for your services.

Ownership and use of images

How will your work be used and what rights are being negotiated? You need to discuss this before you start the job. Can you use the work in your portfolio? If so when would that be appropriate? For movies or games you might have to wait until the property is released publicly. Make sure all this is understood from the beginning.

SourceTek Products

Armand Cabrera

From time to time I get questions about the type of materials I use and where to buy them. For my panel supplies I use SourceTek. It is a small company in Scottsdale Arizona that handcrafts their panels from the highest quality materials. JoAnne and Will Pierce are the owners of SourceTek and they are dedicated to excellent customer care and service.

SourceTek panels are the best panels on the market. I’ve been using them for almost ten years now. I just wanted to bring some of their new products to your attention. They have expanded their panels to include archival hardboard and a less expensive Academic Line that offers the same handcrafted professional quality of the other lines. The Premium line oil primed linen panels are made with Claessens linens. They also use Claessens acrylic cotton canvas for their Universal Line and the Academic line uses a medium weight polyflax canvas.

SourceTek offers three different substrates, Baltic birch, gatorboard foam and archival hardboard. These substrates are available with or without canvas and linen. They now offer more than 350 different panels.

Other products include the Silver Brush Grand Prix line of paint brushes and Holbein and the Che Son Painting Knives. Che Son knives are manufactured in Italy.

SourceTek has always been about providing artists with solutions for their painting needs. For years they have consistently maintained their quality when everyone else is cutting corners. If you are in the market for quality artist supplies and panels I recommend you give SourceTek products a try.



General Information:


(480) 483-6883, Arizona and Canada
(800) 587-5462, Toll-Free Within the United States
011-480-483-6883, International

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 14765
Scottsdale, AZ 85267-4765

Maine Workshop

by Armand Cabrera

I will be teaching another workshop in Maine again this year at the Acadia Workshop Center on Mount Desert Island. The center is close to Bass Harbor, Southwest Harbor and a short ride from Bar Harbor and Acadia Park. It will be a fun intense workshop and a chance to paint some of the most beautiful scenery on the East Coast. I hope you will join me. The workshop is from Sept 19-23 2011 and is limited to a maximum of 12 students. The weather is usually mild that time of year and we have a big professional art studio if inclement weather does occur.  I hope you will join me.

For More information contact Gail Ribas at the Acadia Workshop Center

Gail Ribas
Workshop Director
Acadia Workshop Center
7 Bernard Road
Bernard, ME 04612