Art career description of a fine artist

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Sally James has always carried her sketchbook everywhere – even drawing while she is on the bus or train. These rough sketches are the starting points for the drawings and prints she sells at exhibitions and through her dealer.

Do you make a living from selling your work?

Yes I do. I work on big art projects as well, though, and am currently running a project for the Countryside Agency with 100 young people, using art to interpret their local heritage. My work varies in price from around £75 for a small, unframed print, to £2,500 or more.

What kind of drawings do you do?

They are mainly figurative and often involve story-telling. One very popular print is one I made of a group of beautiful African musicians on a London bus.

I have always kept a pocket-sized sketchbook filled with hundreds of drawings I have made while standing at the bus stop or in an orchestra rehearsal. I base my finished drawings on these studies and use materials like charcoal, ink and newspaper to make collages.

You also make prints?

Yes, and I am hoping to have my own printing press in the future. I do etchings, which involves drawing onto a copper plate with a sharp tool and then 'biting' the plate in acid. The acid burns away the areas that I have marked and leaves a groove. I apply ink to the plate and then use the printing press to transfer the ink to the paper.

How do you sell your work?

I have always enjoyed organising exhibitions. You can hire a gallery space to do this, but that is expensive, so I have been lucky to be offered exhibition spaces in return for a small amount of commission on the sales. I have now had a dealer for a couple of years who takes my work to the big art fairs.

What was your last exhibition?

I organised a private view at a friend's flat in London. That took about a month to put together, but normally for a gallery show I would start preparing a year in advance. Framing is an important part and my biggest expenditure. You have to get the work to the framer in plenty of time. About five weeks before the show opens, I send out around a thousand invitations to a mailing list of buyers and collectors that I have gradually built up.

What happens during the exhibition?

Anything from 100 to 300 people could turn up for the private view, depending on how many invitations I have sent. I have to make sure the work is displayed properly and organise food and drinks. I can then talk to people about the work and get their feedback.

What do you enjoy most about the job?

Working for myself. You need selfdiscipline, but the advantage is that if you get it right, you can be a good artist and be your own boss.

What is the most difficult thing about your work?

The lack of structure can be hard, financially and artistically. Most selfemployed people I know work far longer hours than friends in salaried employment. I probably work a 15-hour day and I feel I have never done enough. If you are doing other work to tide you over, it is easy to lose track of what you are doing and to get out of the habit of drawing – then you can easily lose confidence.

Sally's route to a career as a fine artist

  • Art scholarship in the sixth form.
  • First exhibition paid for her drama degree.
  • Jobs in theatre design and as assistant to various artists and sculptors.
  • Part-time MA in printmaking.

Sally's fine artist career tips

  • Draw, or at least make notes, every day – even if it is only for five minutes.
  • Do not expect to sit in your studio waiting for inspiration to come. You have to work at it.

List of other art careers












Salary of a fine artist

  • Very few artists and sculptors make a living solely from selling their work.
  • They may earn a living from other jobs which they fit in with their creative work. Income depends on what people will pay for your work.

What is required to become a fine artist?

  • Many A level art students who hope to become artists and sculptors take a Foundation course in art and design and then may go on to a degree course, perhaps specialising in painting, drawing, printmaking or sculpture. Some, though, are self-taught.
  • Working with or for an established artist is a good way of getting experience, learning skills and making contacts.
  • A good portfolio of work can be more important than qualifications.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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