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What is a Graphic Artist?

Jane Harmon
Jane Harmon

A graphic artist is a craftsman who composes visual material for printing or digital display. Originally, he or she would create plates which could transfer designs to paper. Now the plate-making is automated, if plates are required at all, and the artist does most of his or her work completely digitally, on a computer.

Ads in magazines or newspapers and on the web are all created by a graphic artist. They may create the picture, or may use photographs or stock imagery. Text is composed by a copywriter, and artist is responsible for selecting the appropriate font, color and placement for maximum impact of the message. Graphic artists are usually commercial artists, but there are more and more working entirely in digital media producing fine art — that is, art whose purpose isn't to sell a product or convey a message, but is meant to evoke an emotion, convey a feeling or present a mood.

A graphic artist creates digital designs on a computer.
A graphic artist creates digital designs on a computer.

Graphic artist needs a firm grounding in the discipline of the visual arts — composition, color theory and so on. A poorly composed ad, with conflicting and annoying colors, will be quickly overlooked by potential viewers. Graphic artists work in a particular software system, such as Adobe® Photoshop® or CorelDRAW®, but produce images in a standard format, either for camera-reproduction to print, or for online display. These days, someone working in this position must also be able to create animated images and even video.

Graphic artists create magazine ads.
Graphic artists create magazine ads.

A graphic artist can take a photograph of one individual and 'cut out' and transpose their head to the body of another individual; put a politician's head on the body of someone in a bikini, for example. With a sufficient degree of skill and plenty of time, a graphic artist can construct elaborate scenes entirely from computer-generated shapes, using the careful introduction of texture, color, reflections and shading. Computer-generated characters have starred in movies. There is some reason to believe that graphic artists will create the stars of the future, who will never have a flesh and blood existence at all.

Discussion Comments


How do you get work if you're basically a storyboard artist?


@everetra - Regardless of whether it’s art or not, I wouldn’t advise anyone to get into the field without at least a modest amount of artistic ability.

That’s why I never got involved too deeply – and I spent a lot of money on sophisticated software programs. But I couldn’t produce anything, not only because of the sophistication of the software, but because I lacked skill.

You need to demonstrate ability. Even basic photography skills can pave the way for you to work your way around the software, in my opinion, because you learn about color and composition and stuff like that.


@Mammmood - Since we live in an age of digital media, a lot of the art forms are kind of blurred together, whether you are talking about movie making, animation, illustrations or so forth, in my opinion.

The graphic designer artist dichotomy is one such example. Graphic designers can work in retail or advertising fields. What they do has direct commercial value; really it’s just glorified advertising.

Yet many of them will call it art. On the other hand, we have real “artists” who protest that the stuff the designers are putting out is anything but art.

I won’t take sides, but it does highlight the point that people with varying degrees of abilities can get into the graphic design field.


@NathanG - I agree, but I’ve noticed that software has changed the marketplace in radical ways. If I had to use one word, I would say that software has become an “enabler.”

That is, it has opened the doors for people who are not all that artistic to get into the fray. Take the example given in the article about computer animation.

Nowadays people are telling stories with machinima, which is a form of an animation that uses 3D game engines. It used to be that digital movie making involved a graphic artist needed to create the animation.

Nowadays however the machinima software will create the animated characters and you only need to direct them. Does it help if you’re a graphic artist? It might. But you won’t be using a lot of drawing skills as such. Instead you will be focusing on “painting” scenes for maximum dramatic effect in my opinion.


I have a friend who has worked as a computer graphic artist for quite some time. He is quite proficient with industry standard photo editing applications like Photoshop, in addition to animation tools like Flash and other animation programs.

The one thing he tells me is that he has to keep learning. There are always new tools out on the market, and with each new tool there is a new learning curve. It’s tough to stay ahead in this business when you’re competing against young college graduates who have learned the latest, in demand software applications.

The problem with a lot of the applications is that what’s hot today may be obsolete tomorrow. So he says that in the end you have to focus on sharpening your core artistic skills, knowing that any software application is merely a tool in the hands of a craftsman.


I am a freelance graphic artist, and I love my job. I have done a lot of business cards and some brochures for people, and when they tell me that they love my designs, it makes me so happy.

Though I do love choosing fonts and deciding where elements should go within a certain space for the greatest effect, I really love designing things that require the use of photographs and color. I like cutting out the background from behind a flower and applying a drop shadow to give the impression of depth, for example.

Most people tend to keep it simple when it comes to business cards, but they get a bit more creative with their brochures. They often leave the design up to me, and I create several examples for them to look at. I can't think of a more fun job than this.


@anon37032 – You need someone who markets themselves as an illustrator. Though some graphic artists are capable of doing it all, those who focus on illustration will be able to do a better job.

In college, I studied graphic design, and though I planned to focus on ad creation, I did have to take an illustration class. I found it challenging, and I also discovered that not all graphic artists are illustrators, least of all, me.

I'm much better at choosing text and images and making them flow together cohesively than drawing images to express what is going on in a story. It takes a special skill to draw cartoons well, and you might also find an illustrator who calls himself a cartoonist. This would also be a good candidate for illustrating children's books.


@cloudel – The graphic artist salary increases with the prestige of a company, I believe. Ad agencies like the one I work for have to design complete advertising campaigns for their clients, and since they can charge a good bit for this, they can afford to pay their graphic designers well.

After all, they want to motivate them to do their best work. Plus, there is the added pressure of presentation. I have to show my ideas to the clients in a meeting once I have designed them, and this adds stress to my job.

I also have to sit down with the clients before beginning on their project to get a grasp on what they want to do. I gather ideas for the angle, the colors, and the overall feel of their campaign before diving in, and I think that talking to them directly instead of going through a sales rep helps me do a better job of giving them what they want. Nothing gets lost in translation.


@anon19243 – I work as a graphic designer at a newspaper, and I think that I make the least amount of money out of all types of graphic artists. I have read that the salary range is normally between $25,000 and $60,000, but I make about $21,000.

The environment at a newspaper is extremely rushed. We have to be able to churn out ads at a rapid pace. They still have to be effective, and the customers must approve them before they run, but we always have to keep our time restraints in mind.

I have heard that graphic artists working for a big advertising agency have much more time to compose their projects. This is probably due to the amount of money at stake. It would be nice to have the time to really focus on one thing at a time, though I imagine the pressure to be perfect would be much greater.


How many hours do you work if your job is a geographical designer?


I need someone to illustrate children's books. Who do I need?


i like it but you guys don't have the job environment or the salary range(or do you)

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    • A graphic artist creates digital designs on a computer.
      By: vukas
      A graphic artist creates digital designs on a computer.
    • Graphic artists create magazine ads.
      By: Berna Şafoğlu
      Graphic artists create magazine ads.
    • Newspaper ads are created by graphic artists.
      By: by-studio
      Newspaper ads are created by graphic artists.
    • A graphic artist is typically familiar with color theory.
      By: WavebreakMediaMicro
      A graphic artist is typically familiar with color theory.
    • Graphic artists may manipulate images, such as changing or adding colors to a photo, for advertisements, marketing or artwork.
      By: cristovao31
      Graphic artists may manipulate images, such as changing or adding colors to a photo, for advertisements, marketing or artwork.