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Graphic/Visual Artists

Visual artists use an almost limitless variety of methods and materials to communicate ideas, thoughts, and feelings. They may use oils, watercolors, acrylics, pastels, silkscreen, plaster, or any of a number of other media, including computers, to create abstract works or images of objects, people, nature, or events.

Visual artists generally fall into one of two categories--"fine artists" and "graphic artists"--depending not so much on the medium, but on the artist's purpose in creating a work of art. Fine artists such as painters, sculptors, and printmakers create art to satisfy their own inner need for self-expression. They are chiefly motivated by the need to depict a feeling or mood, or by a desire to experiment with new art forms and techniques. Graphic artists, however, put their skills and artistic vision at the service of a client.

Fine artists usually work independently, choosing the subject matter and medium they deem fit. Usually they specialize in one or two forms of art. Painters generally work with two-dimensional art forms. Using techniques of shading, perception, and color-mixing, painters produce lifelike and abstract works that may evoke or depict different moods and emotions depending on the artist's goals at the time the painting was done.

Sculptors design three-dimensional art works--either molding materials such as clay, wire, or metal, or cutting forms from a block of plaster, wood, or stone. Some sculptors combine various materials such as concrete, metal, wood, plastic, and paper. Printmakers create printed images from designs cut into wood, stone, or metal. The designs may be engraved, as in the case of woodblocking, or etched in, as in producing etchings.

Fine artists may sell their works to stores, art galleries, and museums, or sell directly to collectors. Only the most successful are able to support themselves solely through sale of their works, however. Most fine artists hold other jobs as well. They may teach art in secondary schools, colleges, or universities; give private art lessons; or work part time in a totally unrelated field in order to support their careers as artists.

Graphic artists, whether freelancers or employed by a firm, use a variety of print and film media to create and execute art that meets a client's needs. Graphic designers, for example, may design special packaging and promotional displays for a new product, or a distinctive logo for company stationery and products.

The field of graphic arts is not limited to advertising, however. Illustrators, for example, paint or draw pictures for books, magazines, and films. Many do a variety of illustrations, while others specialize in a particular field. For example, editorial artists specialize in illustrations for magazines, record album covers, theater posters, and other publications. This specialty is perhaps the most glamorous graphic art specialty. Medical and scientific illustrators combine an interest in art with knowledge of the biological and physical sciences. They draw illustrations of parts of the human body, or animals and plants. These illustrations are used in medical textbooks and in slide presentations for teaching purposes. Fashion illustrators draw stylish illustrations of the latest fashions in women's and men's clothing.

Some illustrators draw "story boards" for TV commercials. Story boards present TV commercials in a series of scenes in much the same way as a newspaper comic strip tells a story, so that the advertising agency and the client (the company doing the advertising) can evaluate the effectiveness of proposed commercials. Story boards may also serve as guides to placement of actors and cameras and to other details during the production of commercials.

Cartoonists form another illustration specialty. They draw political cartoons, newspaper comic strips, and comic books. Some cartoonists work with others who create the idea or story and write the captions. Most cartoonists, however, must have humorous, critical, or dramatic talents in addition to drawing skills.

Animators draw the large series of pictures which, when transferred to film, form the animated cartoons seen in movies and on TV. Animators are employed almost exclusively in the motion picture industry.

Working Conditions

Graphic and fine artists generally work in art studios located either in offices or in their own homes. While their general surroundings are usually well lighted and ventilated, odors from glues, paint, ink, or other materials may be present.

Graphic artists employed by careeres and art studios generally work 40 hours a week, 5 days a week. Some graphic artists, especially illustrators, are freelancers who do individual projects for those wishing to use their services. While freelancers can set their own hours, much time and effort must be expanded on recruiting potential customers and building a reputation for high quality and dependable work.


Visual artists held about 221,000 jobs in 1990. About 3 out of 5 were self-employed. Self-employed artists are either graphic artists who freelance, offering their services to advertising agencies, publishing firms, and careeres, or fine artists who earn income when they sell a painting or other art work.

Of the artists who were not self-employed, most were graphic artists who worked for advertising agencies, commercial art and reproduction firms, or publishing firms. Others were employed by manufacturing firms, department stores, the motion picture industry, and government agencies.

Visual artists are concentrated in large cities. New York City has by far the largest concentration because it is the center of both advertising and publishing. Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco also have many artists.

Training Other Qualifications, and Advancement

In the graphic arts field, demonstrated ability and appropriate training or other qualifications are needed for success. The device used by almost all in the graphic arts field to gain employment or freelance work is the "portfolio," a collection of examples of the artist's best work. Evidence of appropriate talent and flair shown in the portfolio is the most important factor used by art directors and others in deciding whether to hire or contract out work to an artist. In theory, a person with a good portfolio but no training or experience could succeed in graphic arts. In reality, assembling a successful portfolio requires skills generally developed in a postsecondary art school--usually in a 4-year program. Generally, an artist is better prepared for a successful career if he or she has such specialized training. For some fields such as scientific and medical illustration, highly specialized training is absolutely essential. A bachelor's degree in fine arts is less useful because it is focused more of art for its own sake than on art for marketing and other purposes. There are many kinds of art schools, some with 2-year associate degree programs, as well as vocational education programs. Some of these provide the technical skills necessary to get an entry level job but may not give the background necessary for advancement.

Persons hired in advertising agencies or graphic arts studios often start with relatively routine work. While doing this work, however, they may observe and practice their skills on the side. Those with talent may advance to assistant art director and then to art director. Others may gain enough skill to succeed as a freelancer or may prefer to specialize in an area such as calligraphy. Many freelancers get started by working part time as a freelancer while continuing to hold a full-time job. Others have enough talent and confidence in their ability to start out as a freelancer immediately after they graduate from art school. Many freelance part time while still in school, an excellent way to develop experience and a portfolio of published work.

The freelancer develops a set of clients who regularly contract for work at good rates. Some successful freelancers are widely recognized for their skill in specialties such as children's book illustration or editorial illustration. These freelancers earn high incomes and can pick and choose the type of work they do.

Fine artists and illustrators advance as their work circulates and as they establish a reputation for a particular style. The best artists and illustrators continue to grow in ideas, and their work constantly evolves over time.

Job Outlook

The graphic and fine arts fields have a glamorous and exciting image. Because formal entry qualifications are few, many people with a love for drawing and creative ability qualify for entry. As a result, competition for both salaried jobs and freelance work is keen. Freelance work may be hard to come by, especially at first, and many freelancers earn very little until they acquire experience and establish a good reputation.

Employment of visual artists, overall, is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000. Demand for graphic artists will be strong as producers of information, goods, and services put even more emphasis on visual appeal in product design, advertising, and marketing. Many new jobs will be created in advertising agencies and graphic art studios. Opportunities for fine artists are expected to increase as well, reflecting population growth, rising incomes, and support for the arts on the part of a small but highly educated and affluent segment of the population.

Competition in both areas is fierce, however. The supply of those seeking entry to this field will continue to exceed requirements in both the graphic and fine arts fields. Nonetheless, graphic arts studios and clients alike are always on the lookout for artists who display outstanding talent, creativity, and style. Talented artists who have developed s mastery of artistic techniques and skills should continue to be in great demand.


Median earnings for salaried graphic artists who usually work full time were about $20,800 a year in 1990. The middle 50 percent earned between $15,600 and $29,125 a year. The top 10 percent earned more than $38,500 and the bottom 10 percent less than $12,500.

Earnings for self-employed visual artists vary widely. Those struggling to gain experience and a reputation may be forced to charge what amounts to less than the minimum wage for their work. Well-established freelancers and fine artists are able to make a very comfortable living. Self-employed artists do not receive fringe benefits such as paid holidays, sick leave, health insurance, or pension benefits.

Related Occupations

Many occupations in the advertising industry, such as account executive or creative director, are closely related to commercial and graphic art and design. Workers in other occupations which apply visual art skills are architects, display workers, floral designers, industrial designers, interior designers, landscape architects, and photographers. The various printing occupations are related to graphic art, as in the work of art and design teachers.

Sources of Additional Information

For additional information on careers in the graphic arts, write to:

The Graphic Artists Guild, 11 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011.

For information on careers in illustration, contact:

The Society of Illustrators, 128 East 63rd St., New York, NY 10021.


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