How important is a formal art education, anyway?
A common question for many young (and not-so-young) artists is, "Should I go to art school? What art school should I go to? How important is art school? Will I be able to make any money from my art if I don't have a degree?"
Well, I'm not going to be able to answer all these questions for you. However, I will give you some of my opinions and share a few things that I've learned over the years.
The importance of an art degree
If you are really serious about a future in art, then yes, it is definitely a good idea to consider getting a formal art education. Look it it this way: if you've got the funding and you've got a good shot at getting accepted into an art program, then go for it! Why would you not? All other things being equal, some sort of formal education is almost always better than no formal education. At worst, you'll realize that it was a waste of money (this isn't terribly uncommon with art degrees, alas) but at best, it will be the one of the best things you did in your life. So, if you have the opportunity, you should definitely go for it.
The significance of a degree depends on the individual, however. I've known far too many people who proudly mention their art degree, but oh, wait . . . they haven't painted anything in 10 years and they've done absolutely nothing with the education. But they've got the degree! Wow! Is that supposed to impress anyone? It doesn't impress me. I am like most people—I want to see the kind of artwork people actually are able to produce. The question, "Are you a good artist?" should not be answered with, "Well, I have a degree, you know." That tells us very little about the actual quality of the person's artwork.
I learned a long time ago (while I was attending art school, actually), to not assume that someone was a good artist merely because they had a degree. This is sad, but unfortunately, true. There are too many people who are released from college with a "feel good" art degree. They were "creative" and they were given good grades, but they never were taught any basic skills. A lot of college degree programs teach students other concepts and theories, and leave them to study and build their skills on their own. Some students will go on to do this, others won't. Some colleges don't even offer the types of classes meant to help a student develop better skills! That's something they can do on their own time, or not.
Many students are left with the idea that the skills they come with as they enter school are "enough." They see what their peers are doing in class, and even what their teachers are doing, and are led to believe that "this is how it is, I'm as good as anyone else right now." They may be left with the feeling that putting their noses to the grindstone to develop better technical skills should not be a priority. No one else they know is doing it, so why should they? Or maybe they're told that it's not as important as they believe, and to not worry about it. Whatever the reason, many grads from art school are severely lacking in the skills department. They paid a lot of money, learned a lot of theory and made a lot of connections (and this can be a very good thing!) but unfortunately they haven't got the skills to back it up.
One of my friends experienced an extreme example of this phenomenon: he went through an arts program at a large and well-known Southern California college that was pretty much a waste of money. None of the professors running the program seemed to feel it was necessary to teach the students any of the nuts-and-bolts fundamentals of creating the work. The students "expressed their creativity" but they were given such useless, nonexistent instruction on how to handle materials and construct their works, that half of the things they made fell apart or in some way were technical failures. These students now have degrees, and many of them want to get into teaching. But who will hire someone as an arts teacher when they don't know how to actually make anything? And more importantly, why didn't these students realize that they were getting a useless education and revolt before they'd wasted all those years and dollars?
However, if a student can get access to the training and learning tools in college, and if they go that extra step to learn (sign up for specific classes geared towards skill-building) then their time in college might be the best thing ever. It's up to the student to stick their neck out, to research, to find out what they want and need, and make sure they get it!
Fortunately, not all art and creative educational programs are as bad as the example I cited above. Many are quite demanding and grueling. And wonderful. A good education should always be respected and desired. I know that my years at art school changed my life for the better and had a profoundly positive influence on the quality of my work. The secret is to choose a good school and to know what you want out of your education. Don't be like those hapless students at my friend's college who apparently didn't know any better.
As for the choosing of the right school for you—hey, don't ask me! I don't know what is in your area or what your unique interests are. You have to do that sort of research for yourself.
Being self-taught or having little formal education
Many people discover their artistic side later in life, or, for whatever reason, decide that it's not practical to get a degree in art. There is absolutely no reason to assume that because you have no degree, you won't be able to do much with your artwork. This absolutely is not the case.
I've shown my work in many art shows and galleries, and not once—not once—has anyone asked me where I went to school or whether or not I had a degree. All the gallery owners cared about was whether or not I produced work that they could sell. Gallery owners are pragmatic. They want to sell art. Art collectors are not going to buy bad artwork just because someone with a prestigious degree produced it. An art degree is not going to make silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Those who have no formal art education must not feel discouraged or insecure because of it. They should work on bettering their art techniques, in learning new things, in practicing and trying to be the best artist that they can be. They should not feel inadequate when they try to get into an art show or gallery, or when they show their freelance illustration portfolio to potential clients. Most likely no one will ask (nor care) about where they went to school. As long as the artwork is good, that's all that matters.
Moreover, a person without any formal art education should not feel automatically inferior or lesser than those who have more education. A good education should be respected, but not the the extent that one assumes, by default, that it makes a person "better" in some way. Remember this one thing if nothing else: it's all about the quality of your art, not about your educational background. Self-taught, art school, whatever. It is all insignificant compared to what you actually can do.
Now, don't think that I'm telling you that a formal art education isn't important. I'm certainly not saying that at all. There are many more employment and career opportunities available to those with degrees. If you are able to pursue an art education, then go for it. Do not tell yourself, "Oh, it doesn't matter." Do not do that. If you've got the resources to do it, you should definitely not pass up the chance. Just choose a good school that will challenge you and help you to be your best. Do not settle for a "feel good" (but useless) education.
Considering an atelier instead
In this era where college loan debt is crippling, one should think hard and long before making that investment for a colege degree. Are you sure it'll pay off for you? Would maybe an atelier be better? (Note, I'm not endorsing any of these schools or the website I link to. Use it as a resource and a jumping off point.) An atelier is a private school which focuses primarily on technical nuts-and-bolts painting and drawing skills. The emphasis will often be in a "classic" training of drawing, anatomy, figure drawing and painting from life, still life, and so forth. For some students, this will not hold any interest. But it's something that many of us are are yearning for, are desperate for, and we're not finding it in regular art schools. (There are of course exceptions to this.)
An atelier will not offer any sort of certification or degree. They are not cheap, but not nearly as expensive as a regular university or art school. Student loans are probably not available. But what ateliers can offer is actual skills—real SKILLS. Skills that can translate to art sales and success. The school may also help open the door for students to galleries and shows that want the kind of work that the students are doing. Definitely something to consider!
Having a passion for art
Remember that an art education will only benefit you if you put in a lot of effort. This was a big revelation for me when I was attending art school. Many of us in art school were geeks—you know, the type that had a sketchbook with us wherever we went, the type that had to draw everything and lived and breathed it. We loved it—always will love art. But some of my fellow students saw art as something they could shut off and on, like a faucet. They did their assignments, but not much more. They didn't love it. I don't believe that any of them produced anything more than average quality artwork. They may have earned a degree, but did it make them a good artist? I doubt it.
During my time at art school, I happened to attend the big comic book convention, ComicCon. There were many artists there, showing off a wonderful variety of artwork. Their work was outstanding. I asked artist after artist, "Where did you go to school?" Most answered with a shrug, "I never went." They were amazingly good artists, and they got that way because they worked hard and absolutely were passionate about what they were doing. I compared them in my mind to some of the students at my art school—the ones who only did the assignments and nothing more, the ones who groaned when expected to do anything extra. The ones who produced only "average" quality work. It was easy to see the vast difference between these two groups of people. One group loved what they were doing and it showed in their art. The other group didn't love to make artwork, and it also showed. Which group did I want to belong to? Well, that was obvious.
In the long run, an art degree is not going to compensate for having no love nor passion for art. An art degree is next to useless if it belongs to someone who isn't a good artist. (However, when applying for some jobs, a degree—any degree—can be useful, which is why I say that such a degree is "next to" useless. It's obviously not useless in some contexts.)
An art education is a sublime experience when the person getting the education appreciates it and loves creating art. And the artist who loves to create work and does it all on their own (self-taught) is also experiencing something sublime. It's the passion for the work that makes us excellent at what we do. A formal art education is often a wonderful part of that, but it is by no means mandatory.
More pontificating about the current state of art education can be found on my blog.
Copyright © JR Dunster 2002 - 2015 All Rights Reserved
No permission is given to use the information, (graphics, text) on this site in any other way other than for individual use. You may not use, publish or copy the information to a floppy disk or any other type of storage system or device without permission from me, JR Dunster. You may only print out one copy of each page (for personal use only).