How to become a professional artist/illustrator

How do you become a professional artist in an age where almost everything we do is challenged by AI-driven generators, filters and what else is there? “Professional” means that you can live at least partly from what you create. If we hold on to that definition of the word, there are many categories of visual artists with some of them earning a lot more than others, so the first thing to decide when you’re thinking about making a career out of art is why you’re doing it and what you’re willing to sacrifice.

Below are a dozen or so categories. Note that a fine artist/painter — who is by definition self-employed — can earn loads of money if he/she manages to:

  1. create the sort of art that happens to be in high demand
  2. have the right contacts and/or play the market well.

People like Banksy have managed this very well — think about the shredded painting at the Sotheby’s auction.

Banksy — and many like him — is a freelancer and existence as a freelance artist comes with a lot of uncertainties, including an irregular income and not only being fully independent but also responsible for yourself (insurance, pension, etc).

There are types of artists, however, who, in general, are employed by a business.

Advertising Artist

An advertising artist usually works for an advertising agency and is responsible for designing visuals for marketing campaigns. It’s a fairly structured job where creativity is channelled through existing workflows and management structures.

Animator/Cartoonist/Multimedia Artist

Animators became famous in the previous century when the Disney and Hannah-Barbera studios started creating their animated TV and movie cartoons. In those days, they drew and painted every single frame of an animated scene on slides that were then scanned on film.

These days, animation software makes lives much easier and the careers no less exciting. There are more output channels than there used to be, including web animation and video games and therefore also more opportunities to find a job. An example of a cartoonist is Kim Jung Gi, a South Korean artist born in 1975 in the town of Goyang-Si. At 19, this budding artist enrolled at a Fine Arts School, majoring in Art and Design.

Architectural Designer

We all know what an architect does for a living, but an architectural designer’s job is less obvious. They create project layouts, plans and drawings, often using CAD software. In most countries, you’ll still need a bachelor’s degree in architecture, civil engineering or drafting.

Layout Artist/Graphic Artist or Designer

Graphic artists/designers work in a variety of jobs. They can be employed by an advertising agency, but they can also be freelance designers working for multiple clients, e.g. Fortune 500 companies with large in-house marketing departments. Layout artists usually design the layout of brochures, annual reports and books even and they too can be employed or freelancing.

Craft and Fine Artists/Painters

Craft and fine artists always work as freelancers to create original art. A good deal of successful artists are self-taught and have specialised in a specific type of art, such as sculpting, painting, drawing, etc. It used to be that painters, for example, worked for many years as an apprentice to a master (think Caravaggio, Rubens…). When fine artists earn a degree, they have not only learned about the skill of painting or drawing but also art history, philosophy, etc. You can earn salaries between tuppence and millions of Euros per year.

However, you must take into account that you’ll need between 10 and 20 years to make a living from selling your art at major galleries.


Many illustrators work as freelancers. You’ll be illustrating books, magazines, greeting cards, etc. As with a fine artist, there’s no formal degree required but many professional illustrators hold at least a bachelor’s degree in illustration or fine art. Heikala, for example, is an illustrator based in Finland. She works mainly with inks and watercolours. She sells products ranging from prints and books to apparel and accessories on her website.

Digital and filmmaking

The digital and filmmaking production sector is another industry where artists are employed. With movies increasingly depending on VFX (Visual Special Effects) and the gaming and filmmaking industries converging, game designers are destined to make a decent living out of their passion for creating close-to-life characters and scenes.

Fashion designer

The fashion industry has many types of jobs for creatives and the artistically inclined. In large companies, you’ll usually start as an assistant designer, with a potential to grow to a position of chief designer or director (Karl Lagerfeld, anyone?). Other jobs in this industry include fashion illustrator, sketcher and pattern grader. Some art schools offer a master’s degree in fashion, which can lead to eventually running your own fashion house.

Refining your skills

For some types of artists, an art residency may be a good way to refine their skills. An art residency may offer you time to devote to furthering your practice in a quiet and focussed environment or help with promoting your art.

Note that some residencies will require you to fully fund your travel, stay and the use of their facilities, whilst others may cover everything — travel, accommodation, stipends, equipment and studio space. Often, you will have to “payback” by donating one or several pieces of your artwork to the organisation.

Copyright 2019 - Frans Masereel Centrum
Copyright 2019 – Frans Masereel Centrum

The Belgian Frans Masereel Centre offers residencies and working space to graphic designers, artists and critics who want to work with intaglio, relief printing, screen print or lithography, or who want to investigate the relationship of printmaking with other visual arts. The focus is on creation and experimentation in the workshop.

The centre is located close to the city of Antwerp. Artists have the chance to reside during the whole year. Twice a year, a committee selects some 70 national and international artists and critics who reside in the centre for four to eight weeks.

You can find many art residencies in many different countries on the Res Artis and the Alliance of Artists Communities websites.

Fashion designers and illustrators may opt for one of the world’s international internships. Several of the leading companies like the Intern Group and Global Experiences have offers across the globe and programs for candidates at all stages of their academic or professional career. They state they’ll pair you up with an organisation that matches your profile, find your accommodation and provide 24/7 support throughout your program.

Career fields include fashion design, art, publishing and media, TV and film, fine art, graphic design, magazine layout and more. Note, though, that an internship can be expensive — you’ll be paying a fee to work for free and employment isn’t guaranteed at the end of it. Still, a lot of people feel like they came out better. Internships also exist for game designers/concept artists. Epic Games is currently (2019) providing full-time paid internships, including a Hero Design intern and a UX Design intern.

Read more:

  • about launching your business
  • how it works out for most people

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