THE BLOG
05/30/2016 02:19 pm ET Updated May 31, 2017

Commercial Artists Who Dream of Fine Art Careers

"You can't dabble in illustration," Vicki Morgan, the illustrators' rep, said. "You have to be committed to this work and not just do it when you need some money. You're competing for every job against very talented illustrators who do nothing but illustration all day." Quite true, but a lot of graphic designers and illustrators don't want to dabble in fine art either, and Morgan as well as many other agents represent artists who both do illustration and exhibit their fine artwork in galleries. It is not an easy balance to maintain, because there is often a drop-everything aspect to commercial illustration assignments that may prove disruptive to the process of creating fine art, but trade-offs are a regular feature of artists' lives.
A smaller percentage of artists choose to leave the design field in whole or in part to pursue fine art as the main source of their income. For most of these artists, there is an extended period of transition, during which time they create art on the side, bring these pieces to galleries or shows to gauge their reception, and then go back to make some more. Some are more impetuous that others. Charles Warren Mundy of Indianapolis, Indiana, who had a 25 year-long career in illustration, sold two paintings at a local gallery in 1987 and immediately quit the illustration for full-time painting. "It was a leap of faith, but I've always believed in prayor," he said. A prolific artist who creates more than 100 paintings per year, he opened his own gallery in Indianapolis ("I don't show other artists' work here") in 1999 and supplies work to two other galleries in the Midwest.
Dahl Taylor, a painter in Albany, New York, on the other hand, has pursued a slower transition to fine art, more in the way of product diversification than a straight switch. He supplies a gallery in Saratoga, New York with equestrian images and the Maritime Gallery in Mystic, Connecticut with marine art; he has also been steadily building a reputation as a portrait artist, receiving commissions from area businesses, colleges and libraries. "I want to try out a number of areas, to see which ones have legs," he said. Another reason for his "juggling four or five different things" is that "if one or two areas are weak, there will be others that are strong, so I never have nothing to do."
Portraiture, however, is his primary interest ("there is an extremely long deadline on portraiture," he said), and towards that end Taylor has attended annual meetings of the Portrait Society of America in order to pick up tips at the various business workshops. He learned that "it takes a while to build a reputation, and a high percentage of commissions come through referrals. It's not like in illustration where you can just place a splashy ad somewhere and start getting calls." He also understood that he needed to build a portfolio of actual portraits. To begin to create this portfolio, Taylor offered his services for the Albany public television station on-air auction three years in a row, eventually sending out images from those portraits on postcards.
It took seven years for Taylor to transition from primarily relying on his illustration work for income to earning three-quarters of his livelihood from fine art, "although a big commercial assignment can skew that percentage." For Tom Christopher of South Salem, New York, the transition took closer to 10 years, as he sought to get a gallery to represent his paintings. "Illustration is a full-time job," he noted, "and, if you're not currently working on a job, you're out looking for one. Painting on the side is a secondary activity; finding a gallery is maybe a tertiary activity." For a number of those years, he went about trying to find a gallery in ways that were not productive. "I showed up in some galleries with my work, and they couldn't get rid of me fast enough. I sent slides to galleries and realized that was fruitless." Gallery owners are most receptive to artists who are known and recommended by other artists, dealers and collectors whom they respect, "but I don't have a social personality. I don't dress in black and hang out at art openings. As a result, I never met anybody."
Between fine and commercial art, it is generally assumed that fine art is a way to starve and the design and illustration fields are the way to make a living. "We usually counsel people who want to make the transition from fine art into the design field, because they think it will be more lucrative, but then they get a rude awakening," said Vicki Morgan. Perhaps, nothing in the arts is ever easy, although it is probably the case that more fine artists look to make some money in design than the other way around.
In some instances, the transition from commercial to fine art seems a natural outcome. Take both Barbara Kruger and Camille Przewodek, for instance. Their commercial work was quite related to their fine art, making the transition one of changing audiences rather than style or technique. Kruger worked for four years full-time and 11 years freelance at Conde Nast Publications as a magazine designer and picture editor on Mademoiselle and House and Garden, "taking a photographic image and putting words on top of it. It didn't matter that the words I put were meaningless: It was someone else's job to supply the final words."
Although she had pursued painting for a number of years, Kruger had not attended art school and "didn't know a bunch of people who could help me." Finding a place in the art world was a daunting challenge, she noted, since presenting work to dealers was a "humiliating experience" in general and, during the 1960s and early '70s, "the art world was not all that welcoming to women artists." The 1970s was not all that welcoming to painting either, and "I felt alienated from it." With artistic skills and some on-the-job training, however, Kruger developed a career as a commercial artist, but that also was not fulfilling for her and she did not feel wholly competent in her work. "I just didn't feel I had the wherewithal to be a designer," she said. "I'm not that good at solving problems in terms of visual imagery, and I felt that the intimacy between a designer and client that should be there wasn't there."
Over the years that she was a designer, Kruger began to build up a body of work based not on the painting she had previously done but on her work at Conde Nast. These large-scale word-and-photographic image pieces "objectified my experience of the world, transforming my job as a designer into my work as an artist. The two are related on a visual level, not on an ideational level." Kruger began to meet other artists, many of them younger than herself, with whom she exhibited her work in galleries off the beaten track. Her work attracted considerable attention, and it was eventually shown at alternative spaces in New York City (the Kitchen, Franklin Furnace) and, later, at galleries and museums. By then, artmaking was her full-time occupation.
Commercial art to Kruger was "a job, and I needed some way of making a living." Early in her career, Przewodek of Petaluma, California also thought about being a gallery artist but "decided that the gallery scene was too pretentious." She also wanted a way to make money. After earning a BFA in fine art in 1972 at Wayne State University, she took another BFA in illustration in 1983 at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. To her instructors at the college, she did not seem a good fit in the illustration field, because her style was loose and colorfully impressionistic. "I was told in art school to reduce the amount of fine art in my portfolio," she said. "I was told that I'd never get any jobs in advertising, maybe in editorial," but those fears were misplaced. Over the years, she has produced work for Alfa Romeo, Chevron, Del Monte, Northwest Air and RCA Records, among others. "My work looks painterly. I do a landscape with a car in it--the car happens to be an Alfa Romeo."