In honour of September being the typical back-to-school month for colleges, this is my perspective on going to art school. It seems to be a debate for a lot of amateur artists and I thought it was important to share my thoughts on the subject. When I sat down to write this post I realized I had A LOT to say on this subject and for the sake of not posting basically a book on a single blog post I will be going into more depth on certain aspects of art school in future posts. For now, please enjoy PART 1 of my Art Student Advice Series.
DISCLAIMER: Everyone has a different experience with art school. This is based on my personal experience. At the end of the day, you choose the path you will ultimately go on. My hope is that my experience will help in the decision making process.
High School Is Over. So now what?
Of the many things you decided to do with your life, most people will go on to college. If you’re like me, you’ll get a full-time job for a while and then either decide to go back or roll the dice and try to climb the ladder of whatever company you are working for. Maybe what you really want to do is go to art school, but are afraid by the “You can’t make money in the arts” fear mongering speech. When I finally made the decision to go to art college, it would later realize it was the best life choice I had ever made up until that point.
Where It All Started For Me
Like most artists you will speak to, I have been drawing, painting and creating art for as long as I can remember, but I’m not sure I ever thought of it as a career. When I graduated high school, I was determined to be a rock star with my band at the time. Oddly enough, my parents seemed to be 100% ok with this (OK, maybe not my Mom 100% – but Mom’s have a 6th sense about things). I made a half-assed attempt to get into the local community college art program, and even took some continuing ed classes but it never went anywhere at the time. Eventually, my band broke up and I followed my heart to a city a few hours away that had a well known art school that I had once visited on a high school field trip.
After a few years adjusting to the new city, being away from all my friends and family, and the relationship I had moved there for falling apart, I was faced with a decision. Should I move home to the security of my parents house? or find a way to make something of myself, find something I was passionate about and go for it. Part of me was afraid because wasn’t I starting to get too old to go back to school? (Not true) Wasn’t everyone going to be much younger than me?(Also not true). Could I even afford to go to school?(not really, but I found a way).
I have to really credit my sister for what happened next. We were talking on the phone one night and it was almost like I was looking for someone to give me permission to pursue a career in the arts. I remember her saying to me “Barb, if you want to go to art school, then go to art school.” Simple as that. I guess for me that’s all it really took. My life hadn’t really gone as planned up until then and I was questioning my decision making ability at that point, so to have someone I care about and greatly respect say to “just go for it” was the affirmation I needed. I signed up shortly after that and never looked back.
I am a strong advocate for getting post secondary art education. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be going into more depth about the specifics of my art school experience in future posts including some pros and cons, but here are my top 5 reasons I went:
1. I would truly be challenged for the first time in my experience as an artist.
There’s something about being surrounded by a room of equally if not more talented artists that really “ups” your game. I’m not saying I hadn’t been exposed to other artists in my life or high school that were talented…. but once your get to post secondary it’s on a whole other level. Every artist, I imagine, has a bit of an ego and competitive spirit and it’s what drives us to push to be better in our respective art forms. Being around so many talented individuals puts your current skill set in all kinds of perspective. It’s not that you have to constantly compare yourself to others, but chances are if you’ve decided to pay good money to go to school for art you are doing it with the intention of learning and improving your skills and ability.
Aside from feeling challenged by my fellow students, I also had instructors that gave me what I would consider low marks compared to what I had been used to in high school art. Despite the initial disappointment on my part, I now thank them for it. If I had just gone on thinking that everything I did was perfect, I would not have stopped to take a second look at what I was doing and pushed myself to improve.
2. I would meet people there that I really connected with.
When I went to college, social media wasn’t even close to being what it is today. Facebook was in it’s beginning stages and many others didn’t even exist yet. While there are many ways to connect with people over the internet now, I would argue that there is still an advantage to being in a room with other breathing human beings. I made friendships with people in my time in art college that I will look fondly upon for the rest of my life. To be with a group of people and have an in-person shared common experience seems to almost be rare these days.
It’s easy to be project a certain filtered image on social media, but when you’re having in person experiences it’s a lot harder to fake things. Your classmates are also your future colleagues once the school experience is over. It’s basically a bonus of 4 years of networking. They are the people who will potentially vouch for you or recommend you for future work and projects. Chances are no matter how good your work is, they aren’t going to put their reputations on the line if they know nothing about you as a person and your work ethic.
3. I would have access to professionals in the industry and the chance to be mentored.
I was very lucky to have some exceptional instructors during my eduction. When you are in an art school environment you have almost unlimited access to the knowledge and experience they have should you choose to seek it. I got so much additional advice out of conversations I had with my instructors that didn’t happen during specific class times. They are fountains of information and they are there to devote their time to your learning. Not taking advantage of that in my opinion is a huge loss. The other thing to consider is that much like your classmates, they are also your colleagues post graduation which comes with the same advantages.
Some will also argue that you can learn through YouTube tutorials. Yes, you can. But I still think that when you are seeing someone work in person it’s a whole other experience. A lot of my instructors did demonstrations with media and having the ability to ask questions while it was happening was very valuable for me.
4. My full-time job would be creating art.
When you make the decision to go to art school, you are living and breathing everything art. Unless you are otherwise somehow able to be financially support yourself, dedicating yourself to a program full-time is a prime opportunity to focus on creating and improving your art.
I was so busy and barely had time for much else but there was part of me that had never been happier because I got to draw and design and create every day. My skill set also improved exponentially in the 4 years I was in school than it had in my entire accumulated time creating art previously. I’m sure I saved myself the equivalent of at least 4 additional years of learning on my own just by being there.
5. I would receive a degree that would help me get a job I wanted
While it is definitely possible to be an artist or a designer without getting a degree, I would argue that there is an experience and a level of excellence that is demanded from going through a degree program that prepares you for your future work experiences. I can’t speak for every other programs out there, but I know the one I took trained me to have a level of discipline and work ethic that I didn’t have previously. It taught me about time management and having a drive to excel. No matter what career path you choose to go in the arts, I highly doubt that there is anyone who will not hire you because you have an education. It may have been an expensive piece of paper, but I worked hard, earned it and am proud of it. The degree I earned also allowed me to get a higher paying job than I had previously. Had I stayed where I was before it would have taken me many more years to receive the same pay and I would not have had the other incredible experiences that I did.
Ultimately, the choice to go to art school is yours. It’s especially important to research your choice of schools to find the right fit. After that, your experience and your success lays in your hands. Post secondary programs are not a guaranteed golden ticket to success, but they give you access to the tools you need to get there. While the cost of art school can be out of reach for some, the important thing to remember is that if you are able to go and it’s something you are truly passionate about, you will find a way to succeed. It’s an investment in you and your future and you are responsible for the return. It’s hard work and a lot of failures and successes, so don’t do it if you aren’t 100% sure. If you are anything like me, and are able to have an experience like I was able to have, in the end it will all be priceless.