This is a very long post but it’s something that’s been on my mind a while. It’s advice, if anything. I wanted to be a professional artist once, too.
So you want to be a professional artist. That’s wonderful! The world can always use more professional artists.
Now that you’ve decided you want to be a professional artist, there are some roads for you to take:
Become a Star Artist
You’re every gallery’s favorite. Your stuff is certain to bring in money. People are dying to get your stuff. Collectors pay big cash for what you make. You’re a big name in the art industry, easily recognizable. You can do whatever you want and people are sure to pay for it.
This will not happen unless
1) Someone in a high place takes an interest in your stuff and decides to sponsor you
2) Something happens and the public at large becomes extremely interested in your stuff, which in turn means someone wants to sponsor you.
Chances are neither thing will happen. This isn’t a road you can take unless it opens itself up first, so don’t aim for it.
Sponsor and publish your own work, never having to rely on someone else thinking it’s interesting enough. That’s wonderful! And it won’t happen unless you’re wealthy enough to do it, because this is expensive.
You also likely won’t be making any money off your art unless you have the cash to put into advertisement - and good enough advertisement to make people want to spend their money on it.
This likely won’t be the road you’re taking, or if you do take it without already being a millionaire, chances are you won’t stay on it unless your self-published things catch the eye of a wealthier sponsor than you (which could be one person or multiple people, e.g. Kickstarter).
Pitch to Sponsors
You still want some control over your own work, but you don’t have the cash to back it up, so you pitch it to potential sponsors and publishers. This is by far the most common route for artists who want to try and make money off their own work without needing to be hired by anyone else. You’ll put together a portfolio and you’ll go knocking at galleries, publishers, or anywhere else that may take an interest in your stuff. You may send in your portfolio to some more established artists to see if you can get a recommendation from them.
It would be a good idea for you to get into Fine Arts at a university(/college) somewhere, because that’s the best place to start looking for connections. Be aware, though, that this road can be brutal if nobody takes an interest in what you do. I was in art school and I heard a teacher say that he would rec students he liked to galleries. Students he, specifically, liked.
This route is all about getting in someone’s good graces. Be ready for rejection and failure. Chances are you’ll encounter this a lot before success. Have a backup plan, like a different job or freelancing on the side.
An inconsistent road, but one that may be a little less brutal than the above, if you’re willing to give up some of the freedom over your work. As a freelance artist you’re going to do work for other people, so being able to work with someone else’s ideas without losing interest or dramatically slowing down is key.
Work may come in large amounts making you overwhelmed, or it may not come at all for months. You need a backup plan for this route too.
Taking commissions is similar to freelancing, but there are things you can get away with when doing commissions that you can’t when freelancing:
You need to have good, prompt communication. If you leave your employer hanging for days they’ll find someone else. Work inquiries need to take priority and need to be replied to ASAP. Keep your contact information updated. Check your work e-mail daily. If something happens and your availability is spotty or nonexistent, update your contact info. If you’re suddenly without internet/phone access find some access ASAP and include updating your clients or potential clients in your list of first things you’ll do when you are able to communicate.
You need to work with a deadline. The “don’t rush me” thing does not work here. Chances are you’ll have an established deadline in a contract and you’ll need to abide by it.
You need to be polite. Having an attitude may make you look cool on the internet, but it’ll make you look like a drag to your employer and chances are you’ll screw yourself out of work.
If you’re not able to draw for other people or work under restrictions this is not the road for you.
Work For Hire
The most stable of all routes and also the one that almost completely strips your control over what you do. You’ll be hired by a company and have a steady salary. On the other hand, anything you make at work belongs to the company (unless otherwise established in a contract, but chances are it will be a work for hire type deal which means copyrights belong to the employer and not you).
You need to have all the qualities of a freelancer plus the ability to work well under pressure and in a team. You need to make what is expected of you and this can be a very frustrating road when what is expected of you isn’t what you think is best.
On the other hand, this can be a gratifying road if you stick to it. Senior artists - like say, lead artists in games - can get a lot of recognition and build a fanbase. The stress may be worth it when you see your work recognized out there, when you see it printed in a book or a game.
For this to happen, though, you need an unconditional love of whatever the industry that hires you makes. If you’re an artist in a company that makes games, you need to love games. Your life’s dream needs to be to see your name in the credits of a game. You need to get happy fuzzies from seeing your art in a game.
Why? Because this is a stressful road. You don’t get to choose what the final thing will look like. You’ll work under instructions. There will be days when nothing you make pleases your editor. There will be days when everyone has to extra time to be able to meet a deadline. If you don’t love your work you will burn out very quickly.
Unless you’re already rich enough that food is always on your table, you won’t get anywhere as an artist without the support of other people. Be it sponsors, publishers, buyers or employers, you need people to appreciate your work to get somewhere. You don’t need to be popular, though - you need to advertise yourself to the right people. Just being popular doesn’t mean you’ll be a successful artist.
This is a difficult profession and it’s permeated by rejection and failure a lot more than by amazing stories of success.
If you want to take your art hobby to a career level, you need to know what you’re getting into. Don’t just blindly go into it - do some research first. The above may not always apply in your case, so look into what the field is like where you live. Don’t let me discourage you, but think very carefully about whether you’re really ready for it. There’s no shame in keeping art as a hobby. Like any career, you need to be very sure that it’s something you want to do for a long time, if not your whole life.
Lastly, keep in mind that being good at art may be important, but treating it as a job like any other is more important. Be prompt, be communicative, be polite. Art as a hobby is for you alone. Art as a job is for you and for others. Don’t forget that.