Salary & Job Outlook for Artists

Nature of the Work

Artists create art to communicate ideas, thoughts, or feelings. They use a variety of methods—painting, sculpting, or illustration—and an assortment of materials, including oils, watercolors, acrylics, pastels, pencils, pen and ink, plaster, clay and computers. Artists’ works may be realistic, stylized, or abstract and may depict objects, people, nature, or events.

Artists generally fall into one of four categories:

  • Art directors formulate design concepts and presentation approaches for visual communications media.
  • Craft artists create or reproduce handmade objects for sale or exhibition.
  • Fine artists, including painters, sculptors, and illustrators create original artwork, using a variety of media and techniques.
  • Multi-media artists and animators create special effects, animation, or other visual images on film, on video, or with computers or other electronic media.

Art directors develop design concepts and review material that is to appear in periodicals, newspapers, and other printed or digital media. They decide how best to present the information visually, so that it is eye catching, appealing, and organized. Art directors decide which photographs or artwork to use and oversee the layout design and production of the printed material. They may direct workers engaged in artwork, layout design, and copywriting.

Working Conditions

Many artists work in fine- or commercial-art studios located in office buildings, warehouses, or lofts. Others work in private studios in their homes. Some fine artists share studio space, where they also may exhibit their work. Studio surroundings usually are well lighted and ventilated; however, fine artists may be exposed to fumes from glue, paint, ink, and other materials and to dust or other residue from filings, splattered paint, or spilled fluids. Artists who sit at drafting tables or who use computers for extended periods may experience back pain, eyestrain, or fatigue.

Artists employed by publishing companies, advertising agencies, and design firms generally work a standard workweek. During busy periods, they may work overtime to meet deadlines. Self-employed artists can set their own hours, but may spend much time and effort selling their artwork to potential customers or clients and building a reputation.

Significant Points

  • About 63 percent of artists and related workers are self-employed.
  • Keen competition is expected for both salaried jobs and freelance work; the number of qualified workers exceeds the number of available openings because the arts attract many talented people with creative ability.
  • Artists usually develop their skills through a bachelor’s degree program or other post-secondary training in art or design.
  • Earnings for self-employed artists vary widely; some well-established artists earn more than salaried artists, while others find it difficult to rely solely on income earned from selling art.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Post-secondary training is recommended for all artist specialties.

Formal educational programs in art also provide training in computer techniques. Computers are used widely in the visual arts, and knowledge and training in computer graphics and other visual display software are critical elements of many jobs in these fields.

Art directors usually begin as entry-level artists in advertising, publishing, design, and motion picture production firms. Artists are promoted to art director after demonstrating artistic and leadership abilities. Some art schools offer coursework in art direction as part of post-secondary training.

Evidence of appropriate talent and skill, displayed in an artist’s portfolio, is an important factor used by art directors, clients, and others in deciding whether to hire an individual or to contract out work. The portfolio is a collection of handmade, computer-generated, photographic, or printed samples of the artist’s best work. Assembling a successful portfolio requires skills usually developed through post-secondary training in art or visual communications. Internships also provide excellent opportunities for artists to develop and enhance their portfolios.

Many artists freelance on a part-time basis while continuing to hold a full-time job until they are established. Others freelance part time while still in school, to develop experience and to build a portfolio of published work.

Freelance artists try to develop a set of clients who regularly contract for work. Some freelance artists are widely recognized for their skill in specialties such as cartooning or children’s book illustration. These artists may earn high incomes and can choose the type of work they do.


Artists held about 208,000 jobs in 2004. Sixty-three percent were self-employed. Employment was distributed as follows:

  • Multi-media artists and animators – 94,000
  • Art directors – 71,000
  • Fine artists, including painters, sculptors, and illustrators – 29,000
  • Artists and related workers, all other – 8,500
  • Craft artists – 6,100

Of the artists who were not self-employed, many worked in advertising and related services; newspaper, periodical, book, and software publishers; motion picture and video industries; specialized design services; and computer systems design and related services. Some self-employed artists offered their services to advertising agencies, design firms, publishing houses, and other businesses on a contract or freelance basis.

Job Outlook

Employment of artists and related workers is expected to grow about as fast as average for all occupations through the year 2014. However, the competition for jobs is expected to be keen for both salaried and freelance jobs in all specialties, because the number of qualified workers exceeds the number of available openings. Also, because the arts attract many talented people with creative ability, the number of aspiring artists continues to grow. Employers in all industries should be able to choose from among the most qualified candidates.

Art directors work in a variety of industries, such as advertising, public relations, publishing, and design firms. Despite an expanding number of opportunities, they should experience keen competition for the available openings.

The growth in computer graphics packages and stock art Web sites is making it easier for writers, publishers, and art directors to create their own illustrations. As the use of this technology grows, there will be fewer opportunities for illustrators. One exception is the small number of medical illustrators, who will be in greater demand to illustrate journal articles and books as medical research continues to grow.

Salaried cartoonists will have fewer job opportunities because many newspapers and magazines are increasingly relying on freelance work. In addition, many cartoonists are opting to post their work on political Web sites and online publications. As online posting of cartoons increases, many are creating animated or interactive images to satisfy readers’ demands for more sophisticated cartoons.


Median annual earnings of salaried art directors were $63,840 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $47,890 and $88,120. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $35,500, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $123,320. Median annual earnings were $66,900 in advertising and related services.

Earnings for self-employed artists vary widely. Some charge only a nominal fee while they gain experience and build a reputation for their work. Others, such as well-established freelance fine artists and illustrators, can earn more than salaried artists. Many, however, find it difficult to rely solely on income earned from selling paintings or other works of art. Like other self-employed workers, freelance artists must provide their own benefits.