Job: Digital Artist
The role: Digital artists utilize software tools to create visual works for a variety of purposes, ranging from murals, public art and galleries to advertisements, video games, movies and television graphics.
“The role of a digital artist is not entirely different than [any] other type of artist or craftsperson, it’s just that there’s fewer barriers to creation,” explains Alex McLeod, a digital artist based in Toronto whose work can be found in art galleries, advertisements, music videos and public art installations in Canada and around the world. “I was trained as a painter, but I wouldn’t be able to do most of the things I do now with only that toolset.”
Mr. McLeod explains that there are some full-time positions within advertising agencies, virtual-effects studios, video game studios and other creative digital industries, but the vast majority of digital artists work independently.
The digital nature of the work also allows artists to reproduce, distribute and display their work more easily than traditional artists, often making freelance work more lucrative than in-house positions.
“There are so many wonderful [opportunities] that are afforded to me because the work is created digitally and disseminated digitally,” Mr. McLeod says. “I can have work screened in Abu Dhabi at the same time that it’s screened at Yonge and Dundas Square [in Toronto], just from a DropBox link,” he says, referring to the cloud-based storage service.
While Mr. McLeod operates his own studio, most digital artists are able to create, showcase and sell their work from home. However, the job also typically involves a lot of travel to exhibitions, art fairs and office meetings with clients.
“Before COVID-19 I was in a different city every month,” Mr. McLeod says. “Travelling was important for networking, and we can still network [remotely], but there is a lot of importance in that face-to-face communication and the opportunities that come out of it.”
Salary: As with many freelance positions, salaries can range widely for digital artists, even those that are well established, like Mr. McLeod. Unlike other artist types, however, operating costs for digital artists are relatively low.
“We don’t have the same physical constraints,” he says. “Our studio can be Starbucks.”
Mr. McLeod says earnings not only vary from one artist to another, but also from one year to the next. They typically fall between $60,000 and $120,000, he says.
Education: There are no formal educational requirements for digital artists, and one can learn much of what they need to get started through free online tutorials and YouTube videos, but Mr. McLeod strongly recommends some level of formal training.
“I think education is always super important,” he says. “You’d have all this credibility, and a peer network; it’s amazing what a peer network can do, and it’s very hard to acquire a peer network without going to school.”
Mr. McLeod says no client has ever asked to see his credentials before commissioning him, but he doesn’t believe he could have gotten this far in his career without formal artistic and business training.
Job prospects: Because of the digital nature of the work, job opportunities are not limited to any one geographical area, providing work opportunities all over the world.
“There’s no shortage of people that want to collaborate,” Mr. McLeod says. “If you have a drive inside yourself, even if you can’t find a studio to hire you, you can build a portfolio and try to build a following.”
Challenges: As with most freelance roles, digital artists who work independently are challenged by fluctuating pay, late payments and inconsistent workloads. “It’s feast and famine; you don’t really know what’s going to come up,” Mr. McLeod says.
Why they do it: Digital artists enjoy the freedom to create art in a format that has no physical constraints. “It’s like playing God,” Mr. McLeod says. “Anything I can think of or a collaborator can think of, we can find a way to make it happen.”
Misconceptions: Digital artists often get confused with other professionals who create visual products in digital formats, such as graphic designers and illustrators. “It gets a little murky, because there is no official definition,” Mr. McLeod says.
In Mr. MacLeod’s view, what differentiates his work from those other roles is that he is commissioned to come up with original ideas, rather than bringing someone else’s vision to life. “A digital artist is someone who explores an idea, creates their own narrative and builds something original through their practice,” he says.
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