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Getting Started in Painting

Learn the Basics

Painters create representations of the world around them, hoping to evoke an emotional response with their work. Highly regarded and successful artists, Wyland and Banksy, are considered cutting-edge painters; creating oversized paintings outdoors in urban and metropolitan areas, while early pioneer artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci chose smaller venues to express their artistry. Today's painter is free to explore a future creating work as large as outdoor murals and graffiti, or as intimate as a small canvas.

A painter creates works of art on a variety of surfaces, from traditional canvas, wood, and paper, to the sides of buildings. They typically use watercolor, acrylic, or oil paints to complete their work, and may combine different types of paint as well as other materials, such as sand or grit for texture. Painters may work on single pieces or a series, and may work for a museum, a company, or independently.

A career as a painter is extremely competitive, and in order to rise to the top of your field, you should find assistance or backing within the professional art world. As an insular society, the art world is fast moving, lifting up and then dropping popular artists at a rapid rate. Your personality and social skills may end up as important as your actual artistic talent. While trying to find success within the art world, many painters rely on pedestrian but reliable jobs in commercial arts or teaching to pay the bills.

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Master the Fundamentals & Grow Your Skills

Anyone with artistic talent can become a professional painter, and through sheer luck, become a great success. However, becoming an overnight sensation as a painter happens rarely and to very few artists. For most painters who made their mark in the artistic world, practice and preparation were key to rising to the top of their field. Since painters today must also do much of their own marketing and promotion, it would be prudent for aspiring artists to combine studies in both art and business or marketing to make a good living as a painter.

Professional painters rely on their own artistic talent, but like in most art fields, training and exploration of various methods and techniques must also be learned and cultivated. The best way to begin this training is with a degree in fine art. While formal training isn't absolutely necessary to find success as a painter, it's always wise to learn the basics of your art before attempting to branch out on your own.  Painters learn and improve their skills through repetition and practice. Even in art, practice makes perfect. In fact, most fine artists pursue postsecondary education, which improves not only their skills and technique, but also their job prospects.  Many colleges and universities, as well as private art schools, offer degree programs in fine arts.  Useful courses may include art history, studio art, 3D art, figure painting, color theory, geometry, physiology, and electronic imaging.

A bachelor’s or master’s degree in fine arts is typically necessary for management or administrative positions in private foundations, teaching positions at the college level, or positions in the government. In order to teach at a public school, an artist must also have a teaching certificate in addition to a bachelor’s degree. Internships, gallery shows, and apprenticeships are great ways to gain experience while in school. Interning at a local art gallery or museum can give aspiring painters hands-on experience, which looks good when commissioning your work, and gallery shows give artists an opportunity to get their paintings in front of an audience or other professionals in the field.

Once an artist learns the technical side of the art world, he or she should investigate the social side of the art world. Becoming a regular part of the local artists’ scene is crucial to getting your name as well as your work known. If your goal is to show your work in galleries, getting to know local gallery owners is a natural step to take. Professional painters should also develop a thick skin, as rejection of their work is a matter of course. As in all the arts, taste is subjective, and the only way to find patrons for your work is to keep showing it until someone sees it and likes it.

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Build Your Portolio & Resume

Portfolio

Every painter needs a professional portfolio — a collection of his or her best paintings to show potential patrons and clients. Building a portfolio will probably be an important part of your degree program, but it's also important that you continue to build on it; to show your artistic growth. Your portfolio provides visible evidence of your talent and expertise, as well as your taste and artistic style.

Resume

While everyone loves to discover a brand new artist, most people still look for education and experience when searching for a reliable painter to commission. While you work on your portfolio and develop your personal style, making a living working in the arts is a great way to add experience to your resume. Work with community activists to create murals in growing city centers, take a job painting portraits of pets and families, do commercial work for advertising agencies, or contact publishers to create paintings for book covers. Every piece of art you do gives you experience in the field and puts your work in front of the public eye.

Your Horizons

Get creative when it comes to selling your paintings. Rent booths at regional or nationally-recognized art fairs. Offer your paintings for auction at one of the dozens of fine art auctions found online. Sites such as Paddle 8 auction off fine art from well-known painters such as Wyland, Andy Warhol, and Paul McCartney. With thousands of buyers around the world, online auctions are a ready audience, and often offer a much larger variety of art than any gallery can show.

Most working painters make a living from a variety of other sources: commissioned works, paintings to be sold in galleries, speaking fees, teaching, and commercial works. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for fine artists, including painters, was about $45,000 in 2015.  However, the job outlook is expected to be slow, around two percent, mostly due to a sluggish economy. When patrons have more money, they can afford to invest in more art, so a painter's income is often directly tied to the state of the national economy. The amount a painter earns also depends on a wide variety of other factors, such as popularity, reputation, the availability of other income sources related to painting, and the geographic location where a painter lives and works. 

Get to Know Our Experts

Greig Leach

  • Title:
    Studio Artist
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    Richmond, VA
  • Experience:
    32 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Fine Art Painter
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    20 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Artist
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    43 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Painter Infographic