When I was 21, I decided I wanted to become a Concept Artist. After a few years of practice and learning more about the entertainment industry, I realised that I actually wanted to be a Freelance Artist.
However, there’s no set career path for becoming a Freelance Artist. I had no idea how to make it happen.
I contemplated whether going to university to study art would help.
To cut a long story short, I decided not to get an art degree - 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 about what a Freelance Artist is:
A Freelance Artist is someone who is paid to complete art commissions - someone who produces artwork to a client’s specification and for their use, in return for a pre-negotiated fee, and sometimes royalties. This could be art for private clients to hang up in their houses, or for commercial clients to put in a TV advert, or anywhere in between.
Freelance Artists usually work for multiple employers at the same time, or in quick succession.
Freelance Artists are usually self-employed, and so have to cover their own taxes, health care, sick pay, equipment etc, but get to choose when they work, who they work for and what they work on.
As a fantasy artist myself, this article is written with the assumption that you are interested in creating fantasy or science fiction art for the entertainment industry, but ‘freelance art’ is by no means limited to those genres; it’s just what I’m most experienced with.
What you need to be a Freelance Artist
Freelance Artist Portfolio
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 stylised, 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 best advice for your portfolio is to figure out the specific style and subject matter you like to work in most, then concentrate on becoming as good as you can 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.
I’ve even been niching myself a bit further recently by prioritising fantasy characters decked out in armour and flowing drapery. It’s not the only thing I paint, but it’s where my emphasis lies, and I hope to build a reputation for it.
Fundamental Art Skills
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 learning the fundamentals that will improve your own 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, like myself, you'll probably be able to work with whatever drawing software you prefer (Photoshop, Clip Studio, Procreate etc), as the client likely just wants a jpg file at the end - if you're a 3D artist, the client will probably need the art in specific file formats, so the specific software you learn will be important. In this case learning the industry standard software for your discipline is probably your best move.
A Decent 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 as your work will be flawed and no one will have heard of you, but keep on building your skills and portfolio, keep on putting your work out there and 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 a lot of 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 changes make the art worse - it happens quite often, but you often have to roll with it and let it go.
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’ve only asked for art samples. 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 skills?
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.
How I became a Freelance Artist
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 on 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 doing things like making this site, but I still had to teach myself most of it.)
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.
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 game and film ‘Art of‘ 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 in my spare time.
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’re more likely to push yourself to make better art when you’re being graded on it. 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. I’ve had quite a few jobs from being recommended by another artist.
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 to be a Freelance Artist?
Learning all of these skills on your own requires a lot of self-discipline and persistence.
If you think you’ll be able to cultivate enough discipline, you can teach yourself everything you need.
I’m going to be very honest here: if you can’t build the discipline to learn these skills yourself, without a syllabus to direct you, and teachers to point you in the right direction, you probably wont be well-suited to being a Freelance Artist.
Being a Freelance Artist is very self-directed. You only get paid when you produce results, and producing results is completely down to you. Without self-discipline, you are going to really struggle to handle the job.
Teaching yourself the art fundamentals is like a practice run for the kind of discipline you are going to need to direct yourself every day as a Freelance Artist.
You don’t need to be a discipline-machine already; self-discipline can be learned, as my discipline was quite low when I started to teach myself and has definitely improved since then.
You just have to be willing to push yourself, and dedicate yourself to learning and improving.
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 about studying art.
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 tell him to teach himself the art fundamentals.
But I would ALSO tell him to spend just as much 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 in building and running a successful business are as important as your artistic ability.
Hey, I’m Christopher
I started making digital art in 2009, became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, and now I’m able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world.
I created this blog to help other artists make the same journey.