There is no set career path for becoming a freelance artist, so when I was figuring out how to do it, I contemplated whether going to university to study art would help.
I decided not to - but I managed to become a freelance artist anyway!
You don’t need a degree to be a freelance artist; what you need are good art skills, a good portfolio, confidence and persistence.
Being socially competent is also useful. A degree could help you get all of these things, but you can also get them without a degree. I’m going to break down the decision to try to figure out whether it would be worth it for you, but before we begin let's make sure we are all on the same page:
For the sake of the article, we’ll describe a freelance artist as someone who is actively getting paid commissions - someone who produces artwork to a client’s specification and for their use, in return for a pre-negotiated fee. This could be for private or commercial reasons; either would fall into the definition of freelance.
Freelance artists are usually operating as self-employed, and so have to cover their own taxes, health care, sick pay, equipment etc, but get to choose who they work for and what they work on.
Also, as a fantasy artist myself, this article is written with the assumption that you are interested in creating similar work for the entertainment industry, probably fantasy or science fiction art.
What you need to be a freelance artist
When applying for freelance art jobs, 99% of what you’ll be judged on is your portfolio.
What a specific job will want in a portfolio really depends on the job - some will require an artist who paints grim and moody landscapes, and some will want an artist who draws cute and bright characters. Some will be after photo-realism, and others will need a graphic, comic-book look.
A few jobs will need a flexible artist who is able to move between lots of different styles and subject matters, but most jobs will want the best artist they can afford, who is absolutely killer at a specific type of art.
My advice is to figure out the specific style and subject matter you like to work in most, then combine them and concentrate on becoming as good as possible in that niche.
For myself, I most enjoy painting fantasy characters, and I most enjoy painting with an impressionistic style; I have concentrated on improving at that specific thing over other subject matters and styles.
Now, when someone wants an impressionistic fantasy character painted, I’m much more likely to be hired than someone who didn’t niche themselves.
Most jobs will need an artist with a good understanding of art fundamentals, like perspective, light, colour, anatomy, form, drawing, etc. Make sure you concentrate on the fundamentals that will improve your portfolio the most - if you paint characters, improving your anatomy knowledge will have a huge impact on your portfolio. If you paint urban landscapes, working on your perspective might have more impact.
Depending on the job, you may need knowledge of specific software. If you're a digital 2D artist, you'll probably be able to work with whatever software you prefer - if you're a 3D artist, the client will probably need the art in specific file formats, so the software you use will be important. In this case learning the industry standard software for your discipline is probably your best move.
Your attitude, personality and lifestyle
The most important thing you need to become a freelance artist is the right attitude.
Building up your art fundamentals alone will take self-motivation, discipline and persistence, as well as a hunger to seek out knowledge.
You’ll have to be able to identify what you need to learn, how to learn it, and then actually put in the work.
You’ll need resourcefulness to find work, and you’ll need confidence to apply for jobs and put your artwork out there on the internet. At first you’ll probably be ignored, but keep on building your skills and portfolio, keep on applying, and you’ll land your first commission.
Eventually you’ll be reliably getting work, so you’ll be able to start charging more, and get picky about the jobs you take on. Your art and reputation will grow to the point that clients start seeking you out.
But until then it’ll require confidence and persistence.
You’ll also find that once you’ve gotten your first jobs and have ‘officially’ become a freelance artist, you need to build a host of other skills, such as the discipline needed to work to a deadline, to manage your money, and to change your art to suit your client even though you think their ideas are terrible.
Notice how nowhere in these requirements did I mention a degree!
I’ve worked for games companies, writers and done many, many private commissions; no client has EVER asked if I have a degree. They only care about getting good, useful art for their money.
But will a degree teach me this stuff?
So, clients don’t care if you have a degree, but could getting a degree help you learn all the above things?
To be completely honest, it depends on the degree. A degree in illustration or in painting from life will probably help you improve your art fundamentals. A degree in fine art or graphic design might have some relevant skills, but probably less so.
Research the specific courses at the specific colleges and universities you’re interested in. Look into the syllabus and what it covers.
Find out the kind of work previous students made while on the course, and what those students have gone on to do.
Even better, try to get in touch with someone who has taken the specific course at the uni you are interested in, ask them what they learned, and how valuable they found it to be.
Degrees are expensive, and many will be filled with hours studying topics that will not help you become a freelance artist. Nearly all degrees out there are going to be teaching you things you do not care for, and have no intention of using, so research thoroughly.
What I did
I’m going to let you in on a secret; I do have a degree! But it’s not in art.
I have a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. I took student loans, and in return I learned many things about software and coding, about computer hardware and about logic.
Halfway through the degree I realized I had chosen the wrong subject, and wanted to learn to draw and paint instead. I still had to pay back those student loans though, even though I don’t use 99% of what I learned (1% of what I learned has been useful, in making this site!)
I should have taken my time, really thought about what I wanted to study, and done thorough research into the different courses I was interested in.
So, while I was at University for my computer science degree, I started teaching myself to draw and to paint using advice I found online. I watched Youtube videos and read articles like this one.
I bought a handful of books, mostly art books and a couple about figure drawing from imagination. I went to life drawing classes, and carried a sketchbook with me every time I left the house.
I painted in Photoshop on the evenings and weekends, and slowly pieced together an extremely cheap art education.
And now I’m a freelance artist, with no art degree.
Why get a degree?
If a degree is completely unnecessary, why get one?
The biggest benefits in choosing to get a college degree are the accountability, and the networking.
You’re more likely to show up for lessons when you’ve paid a very large sum of money for them. You’ll also be surrounded by other aspiring artists - you’ll be able to share tips and tricks you’ve learned, and push each other to do better.
The benefits of knowing other artists don’t end when the degree does, either; one day your peers will be looking for work, and some will eventually become successful freelancers. The entertainment industry is very small, and artists helping each other to find work is commonplace.
Some countries like the USA are more likely to grant visas to visitors who have degrees. If it's your dream to live in a specific country, check into whether a degree could help that happen for you.
Should you go for a degree?
Learning all of this on your own requires a lot of self-discipline and persistence, and that’s pretty much what it comes down to.
If you think you’ll be able to cultivate enough discipline, go for the non-degree route.
If you don’t think you’ll be able to, and think you’ll be able to handle the debt you’ll probably need to take on, then your best option might be the degree route.
I will say this: if you change your mind halfway, and decide to quit your degree to learn by yourself, you’ll probably be saddled with a lot of debt. If you do it the other way around, start off learning by yourself and then decide to get the degree after all, you lost nothing. I know which I’d pick.
With this in mind, I would encourage everybody to try a single year of learning by themselves - give it your best shot. If at the end of that year you still feel you need the degree, then at least you are going in much more informed.
A degree is expensive, and debt doesn’t feel real until you have to start paying it back, so take this decision seriously. As I already mentioned, research the degree thoroughly.
I should also mention, there are certain fields of art that will prefer you have a degree, such as medical illustration. But the entertainment industry doesn’t care either way, it’s all about skills and portfolio.
If I knew then what I know now
If I could go back and help out young Christopher, I’d tell him not to get any degree - I’d still tell him to teach himself the art fundamentals.
But I would ALSO tell him to spend just as much, if not more time learning about productivity, entrepreneurship and digital marketing.
Make no mistake, when you become a freelance artist, you also become a self-employed entrepreneur. As a freelancer, it’s my opinion that your skills as an artist are actually less important than your skills in building and running a successful business.
So if you want to be a freelance artist, but still REALLY want to get a degree, consider studying business or digital marketing. It’ll probably have a much deeper impact on your chances of success.