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Visual artists use their creative abilities to produce original works of art to express ideas; to provide social and cultural commentary; to communicate messages; to record events; to explore color, texture, line, and other visual elements; and for many other purposes. Fine artists usually create works for display in public areas or in private galleries. Commercial artists produce art that illustrates, explains, or draws attention to text, as in advertising and publishing. Craft workers, or artisans, create works that usually have a function.
Fine artists work for themselves. Their art comes from their own ideas and methods of working. They spend years developing their own style, focusing on a chosen subject, and refining their skills in a particular medium. Many artists work in only one technique or focus on one subject area throughout their lives, such as painting only large-scale oil portraits. Most artists change styles subtly as they gain experience in their art and in their lives, and some experiment with different media. For example, a sculptor who works in clay may switch to bronze casting later in his or her career. Many artists develop a particular style and apply that style across a broad range of techniques, from painting to etching to sculpture.
Painters use different media to paint a variety of subjects, such as landscapes, people, or objects. They work with oil paint, acrylic paint, tempera, watercolors, gouache, pen and ink, or pastels, but they may also incorporate such nontraditional media as clay, paper, cloth, and a variety of other material. They use brushes, palette knives, airbrushes, and other tools to apply color to canvas, paper, or other surfaces. Painters use line, texture, color, and other visual elements to produce the desired effect.
Sculptors create three-dimensional works of art. They may carve objects from stone, plaster, concrete, or wood. They may use their fingers to model clay or wax into objects. Some sculptors create forms from metal or stone, using various masonry tools and equipment. Some sculptors form objects with clay or wax from which to make a mold, which is then cast in bronze or other metals, plastics, or other materials. Others create works from found objects, such as car parts, tree branches, or even cans and bottles. Like painters, sculptors may be identified with a particular technique or style. Their work can take monumental forms, or they may work on a very small scale.
Visual artists also include printmakers, who engrave, etch, or mask their designs on wood, stone, metal, or silk screen. These designs are then transferred, or printed, on paper. Printmakers can also create their art using computers. These artists use computer scanners to scan the prepared plates and then reproduce prints using high-quality color printers.
Mixed-media artists incorporate several techniques, such as painting, sculpture, collage, printing, and drawing, into one work of art.
Multimedia artists create art for commercial and fine art purposes by combining traditional artistic skills with current technologies such as computers, scanners, and digital cameras.
Ceramic artists, also known as potters, ceramists, sculptors, and clay artists, work with clay to make both functional objects and sculpture. Their work often blurs the distinction between fine art and craft. They blend basic elements (such as clay and water) and more specialized components (such as texture fillers, colorants, and talc) and form the mixture into shapes using either manual techniques or wheel-throwing techniques to create dinnerware, vases, beads, tiles, architectural installations, and sculptures. Some ceramic artists make molds from materials like plaster and use a casting method. The formed pieces, called greenware, are fired in kilns at very high temperatures. The artists apply glazes and other finishes and fire them again to set the pieces.
Other visual artists that blur the distinction between fine art and craft are glass workers, including stained glass artists, glassblowers, and etchers. Stained glass artists cut colored pieces of glass, arrange them in a design, and connect them with leading. The leading is then soldered to hold the glass pieces together. Glassblowers use a variety of instruments to blow molten glass into bottles, vases, and sculptures. Etchers use fine hand and power tools, and sometimes chemicals, to create a design in the surface of glass.
Fiber artists create wall hangings and sculpture from textiles, threads, and paper.
Visual artists are innovators and are not bound by tradition or convention. They respond to cultural and societal stimuli and incorporate them into works of art. In recent years, they have used copiers, laser beams, computers, and other technology not originally intended for art as alternative media.
Most fine artists work alone. Once they create a body of work, they usually seek out a gallery to display and sell their work. The gallery owner and artist set the prices for pieces of art, and the gallery owner receives a commission on any work that sells. The relationship between the gallery owner and artist is often one of close cooperation. For example, a gallery owner may encourage artists to explore new techniques, styles, and ideas while helping to establish their reputation. As an artist becomes well known, selling his or her work often becomes easier, and many well-known artists receive commissions for their art. A sculptor, for example, might be commissioned to create a piece specifically for the lobby or outdoor plaza of a public building. A stained glass artist might be commissioned to make a window for a church.
Commercial artists include graphic designers, illustrators, art directors, and photographers. Their art differs from fine art in that it is usually created according to the wishes of a client or employer. Computers are now widely used to create illustrations, typography, and page layouts, but traditional methods are still being used for illustration. Original drawings, paintings, collage, and other two-dimensional pieces can be scanned and digitized and then the image can be manipulated using software programs. Commercial artists work primarily in the advertising and publishing industries and for businesses that need advertising and publishing services, such as retail stores.
In most cases, commercial art is closely related to textual matter. For example, a medical illustrator might draw a series of pictures to demonstrate a surgical technique. Advertisements often show a product, or someone using a product, along with text that persuades viewers to buy that product. Photographs accompany feature articles in magazines and newspapers to show the people and places depicted in the story. Art is also included to draw the reader's attention to certain textual matter. Art directors and graphic designers commission, select, and arrange visuals and text on the page so it will be easy to read as well as attractive and pleasing to the reader.
Craft workers are artists who make decorative, usually three-dimensional items that are often functional. They make jewelry, furniture, dinnerware, musical instruments, pottery, and quilts, to name a few. They use many of the same techniques as fine artists, including painting, carving, casting, and modeling, and they use a variety of tools from needle and thread to chain saws.
Another specialized area of visual art is evaluation and restoration. Painting experts preserve and restore aged, faded, or damaged art. They also evaluate the age and authenticity of the work. Restoring art can be tedious and detailed work, requiring the precise and skillful application of solvents and cleaning agents to the work. Art conservators also repair damaged sculpture, pottery, jewelry, fabrics, and other items, depending on their area of expertise.
Visual art is an intensely personal endeavor. Most artists are people with a desire and need to explore visual representations of real and imagined worlds. Their work usually continues and develops throughout their lives. Creating art is rarely a career choice but rather a way of life.