How to Become a Painter

01

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.

02

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.

03

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. 

Helpful Resources

  • Interview with Aleta Pippin,
    Fine Artist & Abstract Painter

    Tammi Edwards
    Tammi EdwardsJun 16, 2012

    I became a painter quite by accident. Here’s what happened. I moved to Santa Fe in October 1991 from Houston, Texas. In Houston, I started my own business (not art-related) in 1984 and had grown it to three locations. Moving to Santa Fe was a lifestyle change. In Hous...

  • Interview with Kristy Rice, Stationery Designer & Fine Artist

    Tammi Edwards
    Tammi EdwardsJul 02, 2012

    Have you ever stood in the greeting card aisle of a store and wondered how you could become one of the designers? Meet Kristy Rice, stationary designer and fine artist. As many artists do, Kristy thought her career was meant to be in another field, teaching. She soon re...

  • Interview with Steph Calvert, Illustrator

    Anna Ortiz
    Anna OrtizOct 28, 2012

    Get to know accomplished Graphic Designer, Steph Calvert. Learn more about how he applies his training from Savannah College of Art and Design throughout his career, how Steph has navigated the demands of the business, and ultimately became an accomplished illustrator.

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