How long does it take to become a painter? It’s a question many aspiring artists have asked, and one without a clear answer.
For instance, it’s a lifelong journey for someone who has been encouraged to pursue art since childhood. For a career changer, it might take five to 10 years to develop core painting skills. Generally, formal art education takes about six years total, including four years to earn a BFA degree and additional two for an MFA.
Professional painters’ careers typically span three phases: emerging, mid-career, and established, and the duration of each phase varies from artist to artist. The average career in painting is at least 20 years, and many artists find that reaching “established” status is a lifelong endeavor.
All this is to say, you don’t need to be a child prodigy or “genius” artist to become a professional painter. Like everything else, fine art is a learnable skill that’s mastered over time.
Curious about how to become a painter? While there are many paths, here are some strategies for setting yourself apart from a hobbyist painter—and up for success in your artistic career.
5 Steps to Becoming a Painter
Step 1: Study the Types of Painting to Define and Develop Your Signature Style
Becoming a successful painter requires strategic planning. So, before you get further down the path of how to become an artist, consider the following: Why did you decide to become a painter? What expressions or ideas are you trying to convey? What problems are you trying to solve? What types of paintings do you gravitate toward and want to create yourself? In short, what’s your signature style?
For example, master painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock solved technical challenges on perspective, perception, color, and form. Painters have documented their observations throughout history in various styles, such as figurative, abstraction, narrative, compositional, symbolic, landscapes, and still life. The types of painting are also characterized by the movements or schools of Realism, Impressionism, Surrealism, Modernism, and Photorealism, to name a few.
And finally, according to Skillshare instructor and painter Jill Poyerd, “brushstrokes are at the core of being an artist, and an individual’s brushwork is one of the things that sets them apart from other artists.” Experiment with different brushstrokes and see which best express your purpose and messaging.
Step 2: Master Your Skill by Learning From Professional Painters
Anyone who’s ever asked how to become a painter has probably heard a similar answer: practice. And a common way to do so and to master your painting skills is to learn from the best painters.
Before the Covid days, aspiring artists haunted the museums to “copy” masterpieces and hone their techniques. Now, many have stricter access guidelines, though they may allow a few artists to sketch in the galleries. Another practical way to learn from the masters is through an apprenticeship or by working as a studio assistant for more experienced painters. Besides gaining technical skills, you’ll learn what it takes to be a professional painter first-hand.
That said, learning from the masters doesn’t mean imitating their work, cautions Skillshare teacher and painter LaurieAnne Gonzalez. As she says:
Step 3: Build Your Painters Resume and Portfolio
As you develop your signature style and technique, start building your resume, portfolio, and website to gain visibility.
A typical painters resume includes an overview of your education, exhibition history, press, awards, and artist residencies. If your experience is feeling light, you can create your own opportunities by applying for open-call shows at local galleries and artist communities, as well as artist residencies. But don’t limit yourself to the more traditional or “white cube” venues. Nowadays, art exhibitions pop up almost everywhere—public parks, retail spaces, and even outdoor venues. Use your creativity beyond your paintings.
Arguably even more important than a resume is a website. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it should showcase your work and include an artist bio that shares your story and how it relates to your painting. The more compelling your story, the more approachable your work will be for your audience. As your career develops, update your bio and add new work—your website should evolve with you and your art.
Step 4: Treat Your Career in Painting as a Business
Gaining recognition at major art fairs, galleries, museums, auction houses, and private collections is the goal of every aspiring painter. But as you navigate the strange and elusive art world, know that it’s not as glitzy and opaque as you think. Just as in any other industry, the painting community operates on trust and relationships.
That said, you do need to spend time building those relationships. Many people forget that crafting a career in painting is more than the mastery of techniques—you must cultivate a network of curators, art dealers, collectors, other artists, and potential clients, and make sure you’re showing up professionally any time you meet with them. For example, if you’re expecting a studio visit from a potential buyer or gallerist, make sure there’s enough space for your visitor to see your paintings without distractions and be ready to articulate your process and story behind the work.
Step 5: Go Beyond the Art Market to Sell Your Paintings
Although being represented by an established gallery has its perks, it takes a while to get there. In the meantime, it’s worth having a business plan to generate additional income sources as you move through different stages of your painting career.
Many artists nowadays are selling their work on Instagram. Once you’ve determined your ideal art buyers, do some research online and see what these people are looking for and where they usually hang out. You can then engage your audience with consistent content, images, and hashtags that resonate with them.
Becoming a painting instructor is another great opportunity to showcase your work and teach others your techniques while earning extra income and credibility. According to Skillshare instructor and illustrator Mimi Chao, “Itʼs been so rewarding to be a part of this supportive community while strengthening my personal voice and freelance practice along the way.”
Careers in Painting: What You Should Know
Making it in the art world is not a linear path. Many artists have additional day jobs to support themselves. With every stage of a professional career in painting, there will be some ups and lots of downs. Successful artists have learned to ride out the rough times. It takes lots of patience, persistence, and consistent practice to achieve success in the art world. Stay on the course by mastering your core skill, being open to opportunities, and collaborating with the artists in your community.
How Much Do Painters Make? Painter Salary and Money Expectations
Many people dream about becoming artists, but the idea of the “starving artist” deters people from pursuing this career path. But just as becoming an artist is a choice, so is being a “starving” or “thriving” artist.
Like any other profession, you have to start somewhere. When painters start out, they often don’t earn much, but as they gain recognition, the value of their work increases over time. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average income for artists (including painters, sculptors, and illustrators) was $50,550 in 2019. But that varies wildly, especially since many artists gain income through other sources.
And the best painters command much more! As of 2019, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (c. 1500) is the most expensive painting ever sold, commanding $450.3 million. It’s not just the dead artists shattering the auction records, though; living artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, David Hockey, and Jasper Johns represent the world’s highest-paid creative talent.
Of course, success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes many years of mastery, using your creativity to its full advantage, and thinking outside of the “white cube.” But remember: Being a professional painter is a lifelong journey, not a destination, and it’s all part of the process.
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