You might not think becoming an artist is something that requires a college degree. After all, it’s easy to assume that someone either has natural talent or they haven’t.
There is some truth to the fact that people need a certain amount of innate artistic ability to succeed in this field, but even the most naturally gifted artists can benefit from an art degree program.
“College just looks better on your resume whether you’re a freelance artist or employed by a company,” says Maegan Shipp, a freelance graphic designer and art teacher in Lowell, Michigan. She earned a bachelor’s degree in animation with a specialization in 3-D art modeling from Southwest University of Visual Arts in Arizona.
Not only does studying art in college introduce you to new techniques and help refine your skills, but it also allows you to build a portfolio and make connections that can result in better earning opportunities. “You’re absolutely taken more seriously,” Shipp says.
Keep reading to learn more about how to become an artist and what you can expect from this career.
How do I know if becoming an artist is right for me?
Although it may seem obvious, to succeed as an artist, you need to love creating art. You also should have some natural aptitude for your medium.
“You need to have an artistic ability,” Shipp remarks.
If you aren’t sure whether you have the aptitude or interest to pursue art as a career, try taking art classes prior to enrolling in a degree program. For instance, high school students may be able to sample a variety of mediums through their school art department while adults may find community education courses through local arts councils or even community colleges.
In addition to enjoying art, you should be comfortable with the idea that you may be working for yourself. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 58% of craft and fine artists and 63% of special effects artists and animators are self-employed. That means these artists are either working on a freelance or contract basis, or they are creating art that they can sell directly to consumers.
While many people like the freedom of self-employment, it’s not for everyone. If you prefer working as an employee, rather than a contractor, check to see what job opportunities are available in your field before committing to becoming an artist.
How to become an artist
Unlike professions such as teaching and nursing, there is no set path to becoming an artist. Some people are self-taught and forgo formal education while others choose to earn a bachelor’s degree in art.
“I think you have to do a lot more legwork if you don’t have a degree,” Shipp says.
Art degree programs can teach you how to be a better artist as well as provide network connections, career advice or mentoring. Within an art program, you’ll also build a portfolio that can be used to demonstrate your skills and land work after graduation.
For those who plan to sell their art directly to consumers, art majors may be able to take business classes in college which can help them determine how to set prices, market their work and complete other tasks. Meanwhile, if you plan to work in-house for a company, an art degree is required by many employers.
Even before enrolling in a degree program, students will need to create a portfolio that can be used in the college admissions process. Taking classes in high school or through local arts organizations may be the best way to create a collection of work that can be shown to colleges and universities.
“I would fill [high school electives] with any and all art classes offered,” Shipp says. “The more well-rounded you are, the better.” Then, once you get into college, you can focus your attention on your preferred medium or specialization.
Education options: How long to become an artist
Wondering how long to become an artist is an understandable question, and it depends on the art program you choose. Some community colleges offer an associate degree in fine arts which can be completed in two years. However, a four-year bachelor’s degree is more common.
“You’ll spend a lot of time in your studio classroom,” Shipp says but adds that students should expect to take some non-art classes as well. Psychology, basic math and history were a few of the classes she needed to complete in order to earn her degree.
At the University of Nevada, Reno, a bachelor’s degree in art includes a minimum of 12 credit hours in studio art and 12 credit hours in art history. The University's Art Department also offers the following areas of emphasis:
- Art history
- Book and publications art
- Digital media
- Graphic design
- Photography and videography
Another option is a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Interdisciplinary in nature, this program encourages students to be creative and explore a variety of specializations.
A comprehensive approach to art education worked well for Shipp when earning her degree. While she always dreamed of being an animator for Disney, after graduation, she married and moved to the Midwest to be closer to family. While there weren’t animation studios nearby, she was able to use the graphic design skills she learned in school to land an in-house job with a fundraising firm.
“Every company needs some type of graphic design and marketing,” she says. By gaining experience in a variety of specializations, Shipp was able to use her degree in a way that she hadn’t initially anticipated.
Careers in art
By the time you graduate from college, you should have extensive hands-on experience in your area of interest. Hopefully, you have also made connections with professionals who can help smooth your entry into the workforce. However, at the end of the day, careers in art depend largely on the artist themselves and their ability to seek out artist jobs.
“You have to be your own advocate,” Shipp says. She thinks working as a successful artist is a realistic goal but one that requires effort. “You can get there. It just depends on how much work are you going to put into it.”
For all specialties, self-employment is the route taken by the majority of those pursuing careers in art. If you’d rather not be self-employed, here’s a look at where else artists work, according to the BLS:
- 12% of special effects artists and animators are employed by motion picture and video industries.
- 11% of art directors are employed in advertising, public relations and related services.
- 9% of graphic designer are employed by specialized design services.
- 8% of craft and fine artists are employed by independent artists, writers and performers.
Regardless of which path you take, industry organizations such as the College Art Association, The National Association of Independent Artists and local arts councils may all have resources to help you on your path to success.
Future of artist jobs
While there have been some warning bells rung about the possibility of artificial intelligence taking over commercial artist jobs, particularly in the field of digital media, the BLS expects there will be continued growth in arts occupations in the years to come.
From 2021-2031, the government agency expects job growth to range from 3% for graphic designers to 6% for craft and fine artists. Although technology may become part of the artistic process – from the use of 3-D printers to AI-rendered images – a machine isn’t likely to be able to replace the creativity or imagination that a human artist brings to their work.
If you have a love for the arts and dream of making it a career, don’t be afraid to pursue a career in the field. Explore your degree options and talk to an admissions coordinator to take the first step toward becoming an artist today.
Maryalene LaPonsie has been writing professionally for nearly 25 years and has extensively covered topics including education, personal finance, retirement and investing. Her work has been featured on U.S. News & World Report, Forbes Advisor, Money Talks News, MSN and elsewhere on the web.
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