How to Become a Painter

An Early Art Form

Painting, certainly of the finger variety, is arguably the most ancient of art forms. The oldest known paintings are thought to be around 32,000 years-old. Today this medium is comprised of paint brushes, assorted tools, and a myriad of types and colors of paint. Tens of thousands of years ago the animals and abstract human figures that were pictured on cave walls were usually first engraved with a sharp rock and then painted using red ochre.  Red ochre is a pigment dug out of the earth that is made up of hydrated iron and that has a color range from yellow to deep orange and brown. Also, there was a black pigment available that was derived from carbon and was often utilized for outlining and shadowing. Though certainly crude in some respects, many of these cave paintings are quite elegant, beautiful in their gesture, and surprisingly sophisticated considering those who drew them were hunter/gatherer troglodytes.

The oldest discovered evidence of painting was found in rock-shelters in a remote part of northern Australia. Here, archeologists found used pieces of ochre that are believed to be at least 60,000 years-old! One can find ancient cave paintings all around the globe, from China and India to France, Spain, and Portugal, to the Western Hemisphere and including, of course, Australia.

What is a Painter?

When one applies some kind of color to any of virtually unlimited types of surfaces, one can be deemed a painter. Paint, typically water, oil, or acrylic based, is applied to a surface, usually canvas or paper, using a brush, or perhaps a blade, a sponge, fingers, or, of late, airbrushes and spray cans.

Painting is both that which the artist does, and it is also a noun designating the end result of the artist’s effort. Fine art painting is differentiated from what a blue collar tradesman might do when sprucing up a client’s home. As opposed to “art”, what contractors do is more aptly termed a trade craft.

Paintings can be naturalistic and representational, as exemplified in portraiture, landscapes, and still-life work and can also be abstract or stylized. Paintings can tell stories, provide symbolism, express and induce emotion, or be utilized as propaganda and/or be political in their message.

A great deal of painting has been inspired by religious belief and ranges from depictions of holy figures in both Western and Eastern faiths, to myth and legends, to scenes from the sacred texts of the world.

It is a painter’s job to take an idea and imaginatively represent the concept so as to be recognizable and, preferably, impactful to the viewer. In order to be commercially successful as a painter, it is important to keep in mind that what sells are works that are distinctly unique from what is already out there, work that embodies a signature style. When one ponders such greats as Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Georges Seurat, Warhol or Banksy, one instantly can associate their work with their names.

This is how you, the painter, can more effectively monetize your creative output- and, again, this is by being instantly recognizable and memorable through your work. This is what drives art lovers to seek you out and to collect what you offer. Develop your skills, create a signature style, promote yourself strategically, create momentum, and then you may just have a shot at becoming a self-sustaining and even successful painter.

Think and act like a business person as well as being an artist, and you just might sell enough of your work to live comfortably. This is when you can then know yourself to be a true “professional”.

Art and Making a Living

It is important to note that when one ponders a life of being a “professional” painter, he or she should keep in mind that very few who set out to become commercially successful ever reach that destination. As with all art, if you are absolutely drawn to it, passionately inspired by it, can hardly ever wait to get back to dipping a brush, and could never imagine doing anything else, then, assuming you have talent and technical skill, you might have the potential to do what you love for a living. Once you have committed to taking this big leap, there are a few ways in which to monetize your art work, ranging from public art commissions to galleries to selling your work on internet sites like Etsy or eBay.

See the infographic below for some statistics about this creative industry.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Greig Leach

Studio Artist

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
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  • Greig Leach
  • Richmond, VA
  • 32
  • Self-employed
  • Studio Artist
  • @artofcycling
My educational background was much more about learning than it was about degrees. I studied as a teenager at the Corcoran Museum School of Art in Washington, DC. After high school, I focused on fine art and photography, going so far as being the illustrator for my senior year yearbook. I attended two years at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland where I concentrated on commercial art and design. Desiring a much more professional educational experience, I transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. I was put into their advance placement program completing my first year over ten weeks in the summer. The university picks its 20 best applicants for this honor (or possible curse). I spent the next two and a half years pursuing commercial art, illustration and design, but then, on the advice of an illustration professor, I switched to the Painting and Printmaking Department. His statement to me was, “You’re a painter, go be a painter.” I spent three more years in the P & P Department before life forced me to move into the professional arena. In my last semester of school, my wife and I had our first child, I was working full time and I had three solo exhibitions in area galleries- I felt I had gotten what the university had to offer, and followed the opening in the professional artist world with full vigor.

Advice

Figure out what you want to make then figure out how to sell it.
My constant mantra for any aspiring artist is simple, figure out what you want to make – then figure out how to sell it. If you get it out of order, you are no longer true to yourself, and your work will suffer. If you have the luxury to work for yourself, why would you ever put yourself in the position of not creating what speaks to your heart? It is hard work, frequently long days, and most often for very little financial reward, but it is equally the most rewarding and spiritually satisfying work you can ever pursue. What is rarely explained, let alone taught, is that you are going out to be a small businessman. And given what your media, working style, etc., may be, you can end up employing any number of assistants, office personal, studio support, whomever. In addition, understanding tax law, income/expense management is key to being successful.

On education
As to education, I sought the toughest, most competitive art school I could afford. I was greatly inspired and challenged by my fellow students, so you want to be surrounded by the best student-artists you possibly can. You also need to seek out a school that has a wide variety of professors and then to learn from as many different teachers as possible.

Look at as much art as possible.
To get started, look at as much art as possible. Then develop your technique, and gain as much knowledge and skill as possible. At that point you will begin to find your own voice, your style will develop and you will create a body of work. Now it is time to get the work out of the studio and into the public’s eye. There are a great variety of ways to make that happen. Submit your work for juried exhibitions, develop relationships with fellow artists, and listen to what they are doing. Approach galleries in the way they have asked to be approached. Remember competition is fierce, so believe in what you are making, and keep making it, no matter what.

Simone Wright

Fine Art Painter

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  • Simone Wright
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 20
  • Self-employed
  • Fine Art Painter
  • @simonewright

I am predominantly self-taught. I attended ‘formal’ art school for about 3 weeks… and hated it. My passion and my specialty is wildlife and nature. I didn’t want to be doing figurative stuff or working on theory. I wanted to be out in the world and figuring it out. So I quit and instead followed the instruction of my heart.

Professionally, I have been an entrepreneur since I was 9 years old. I have never had a regular 9-5 job. I’m just not cut out for it. In addition to being an artist, I am also an author and personal coach – so I guess it’s safe to say that my professional life is ‘multi-faceted.’

Advice

Market yourself
Learn how to market your work with a sense of pride, knowing that your craft brings beauty and joy into the world. S-E-L-L does not have to be a dirty word. But learning how to do it from a place of heart-based service, without diminishing the value of what you do, is really important. Also let go of the false belief that you need to be a ‘starving artist’… many of my mentors are fabulously successful and most are good people. ‘Artist’ and ‘broke’ do not have to go hand in hand. Deeply value your work and others will value it as well.

Paint!
Paint, paint, paint, paint, paint, paint, paint- Paint big. Paint small. Paint fast. Paint slow. Then don’t be afraid to talk about it, tell people, show people. There IS a market for everyone.

Susan Moss

Artist

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My day starts at the studio after my Y swim at 9:30 and continues until 5. I have an assistant who makes stretchers, sizes and primes canvases, and helps me with loading large sheets of paper into the drawer, and with general studio maintenance, etc. I make large-scale oils and crayon on paper as studies. Then, when I get one I really like, I use it as a starting point for a large canvas. I take lunch in my backyard at mid-day and also take a nap.Then I’m good to go at it until 5 p.m.

Advice

Advice for newbies
My advice to a young painter would be to work every day on making art, keep improving, and show everyone who will look! You don’t have to move to New York! If you are good enough, New York dealers will come to you. As for education, look at everything you can. Go to shows, museums, read all the books on Art, ask questions. Go to school too, but the real education is practicing your art.

Get your foot in the door
To get your foot in the door, do the best work you can for a couple of years, then take photos and go around with them to galleries. That’s how I did it. Someone may like your work well enough to give you a show. And never fight with art dealers! They have so much power over the artist.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Painter?


One doesn’t need formal schooling in order to become a painter as one’s work will “speak” for itself. However, many fine artists do acquire degrees in art to improve upon their painting and drawing skills, to learn the craft and to be motivated to produce in a structured manner. Many painters earn degrees in fine arts, choosing universities and colleges that offer a focus in fine art. When one attends a school or a workshop, or is privately tutored by an established artist, it is also beneficial due to the potential for networking. If you live in a good-sized town or city check out the local municipal offerings that often include art classes and workshops. Your local community college probably offers extension and regular classes in painting and drawing too. It is probably a good choice to start with developing your sketching skills first and, should you be interested in the human form, to learn about anatomy. And, importantly, build a portfolio! Never stop drawing and painting- If you grow tired of creating, then perhaps this is not for you!

For the budding artist, it is quite obvious that a burning desire to create and a general passion for art are essential. As one of our interviewed artists stated: “Paint, paint, paint!” It is so important to build your portfolio! It is also a recurring theme in our research at the Art Career Project that an artist needs to develop the skill of self-promotion and to be a self-starter.

HOW DO I GET STARTED?

A good place to start is to get your hands on some books about painting. Absorb as much as you are able about painting and the kinds of paints available in order to determine your affinity. Go to YouTube and check out all the instructional videos there. Research art history and artists –essentially immerse yourself in this world and, after all your research, if you are still fired up by the idea of creating art, then next you might wish to sign up for an art class or private workshop. Alternatively, you can simply grab a brush and try your hand at it. Probably, it is wise to start with acrylics or water color, as both are easier to work with than oil. If, after trial and error, you have developed a love of painting then you may be ready to take the next steps toward a career in this fine art.

Before you even put a brush to canvas, observe the world around you like an artist does. An important part of being an artist is seeing things that others may not and reflecting your vision in your painting. You might for the first time really observe how the light changes throughout the day and the seasons. Ask yourself how colors affect you emotionally, how shadows are cast, and if you can also notice what is called negative space, which is what surrounds an object in an image or a view. It is what helps define boundaries and gives balance to your composition. It is important as an artist to take the time to be mindful and aware of your surroundings and to allow what you see and feel to be incorporated into your painting.