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For example, fine artists who show in galleries are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the kinds of work that artists do. So in order to REALLY answer this question, I’m focusing on five common art careers. The following categories are arranged alphabetically to keep things simple.
NOTE: Most of the statistics that follow are gleaned from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). I’ve included the dates when available. Current numbers will vary.
Commercial artists are artists who work for other people in a business setting or as freelance artists. I was a commercial artist for a year for a small mid-Michigan business back in the early 1990s. My duties included drawing illustrations for products, as well as catalog layout, newsletter writing, and a handful of other incidental jobs not necessarily considered “artistic.”
The duties of a commercial artist vary from employer to employer and on the size of the employer. Larger companies may have dedicated commercial artists who do nothing but create art. Smaller businesses may have artists doing other tasks as well as creating art.
Commercial artists can also be freelancers. This means they own their own company and work for a number of clients rather than a single employer. Freelance artists often have more latitude in accepting or declining assignments, but less security in income. They only earn when they have clients.
As with most careers, the higher on the corporate ladder an artist is, the better their wages. In 2017, art directors (the highest level of commercial artist) earned an average of $92,500 annually. A more typical annual wage for a commercial artist is $48,700.
Visual artists & commission artists
Commission artists are artists who work for hire to create unique artwork for clients. That includes painting portraits of people and pets, landscapes, and any other type of “portrait” style art. Visual artists are doing the same kind of work, but they work for themselves with the hope of selling their work after it’s finished.
Both types of work can be sold through galleries, art shows, and from artist websites. In most cases, the artists are not working as employees. The income they generate depends on the work they produce and the amount of money they can expect to receive for each artwork.
Although the most successful visual artists made more than $90,050 per year in 2011 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) the average income was closer to $53,400, or about $25.67 per hour. The bottom 10% of visual artists took home around $19,150 per year.
Graphic design artists
Graphic design artists use typography, photography and illustration to create produce for clients and/or solve client problems. Logo creation is one common form of graphic design. So is magazine and publication design, as well as web design.
Graphic design artists can work for someone else or operate their own business. As of 2016, the median graphic design salary was $47,640. The bottom 10 percent of graphic designers made under $27,950 a year, while the top 10 percent earned over $82,020.
Illustrators & cover artists
Illustrators and cover artists are responsible for creating book covers and other types of covers and/or the illustrations inside books. Many manufacturing companies employ illustrators to create product art for operator manuals, assembly instructions, and similar publications for customer use.
Illustrators and cover artists also often work freelance, and charge a lump sum for each job. For example, a local book cover artist charges $300 per cover for his services, and a little bit more for interior book design as well.
In May 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that illustrators and other fine artists made a median wage of $49,520 a year. So half of all illustrators made less than that, and half earned more.
Artists can teach at public schools and universities, art institutes, through websites such as Patreon, and by giving private art lessons in their homes, studios, or even online.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, K-12 teachers earn between $46,999 to $56,630 per year, depending on where they teach (wages vary from state to state).
Artists teaching private lessons can charge between $20 and $50 per hour. Location factors largely into what they can reasonably expect to be paid as well, since an artist living in a small town may not be able to charge as much as an artist living in a larger market. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, however, since many successful teaching artists live in small communities that have a high interest in the arts.
Online courses level the playing field somewhat by making it possible for anyone with computer access anywhere in the world to take a class or course from any artist anywhere in the world. Artists who do the best have well-planned and executed courses that solve problems for other artists. A well-designed course website that’s easy to navigate and courses that leave students wowed can generate a seven-figure incomes.
Patreon has provided an especially lucrative platform for artists who use video as their method of teaching. The highest ranking visual artist on Patreon as of May 23, 2017 was Lisa Clough of Lachri Fine Art, who was earning over $6,000/month on that date (her earnings are currently $7,762 per month.) She teaches a range of mediums from graphite to oil painting, and does realistic portrait work, surrealism, wildlife art, marine art, and still life work, so her work appeals to broad audience.
Colored pencil artist Bonny Snowdon launched her Patreon page earlier this year (2019) and has already surpassed the $2,000/month level.
Of course, there are a lot more artists earning $0 to $2,000 per month, but much depends on your following, and your content.
Ultimately, how much you’ll earn as an artist depends on two major factors: employment vs freelance, and popular appeal.
Employed versus freelance
Employment comes with significant benefits such as job security, benefits, and being able to go home and leave the job at work. However, wages are determined more by what the employer can pay than by the work you do.
Freelance and self-employed artists have the opportunity to earn as much as they can, and many do far better than their employed fellows. But self-employment comes with significant risks. There’s no job security, and no employee benefits. Plus, you won’t earn anything if you can’t produce quality work.
Which brings me to the second factor:
Artists who produce something that people regularly want (like book covers, teaching videos, etc) tend to earn more than artists who do not.
The bottom line is this:
Self-employed artists can make a lot of money at art, but if you want to be one of them, you MUST be prepared to build an audience and spend time and effort developing your business. For many artists (and in my own opinion) this means the best plan is to work for someone else for a while. . . all while building your art business on the side.