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What I Wish I Learned in Art School

I went to art school because I loved to paint and draw as a kid, and I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t really know what an artist did. Four years and 80 thousand dollars later, I graduated from art school with only a vague idea of what an artist did, and a very fractured portfolio made up of a hodge-podge of homework assignments and figure drawings.

After art school I spent years floundering and did not make enough money to support myself even marginally until several years after college. I felt blindsided - I’d been very successful and my teachers told me I was talented, so I though an "art career" would magically unfold before me.

Only now, 15 years after graduation, do I have an idea of what I should have been taught about how to "be an artist". Lucky you, I am going to share for free what an 80K education should have taught me.

If I were advising an art student now, this is what I would tell them:

Decide what you want to do
For someone who likes to draw and paint in high school and wants to draw and paint for a living, there are essentially two routes: Illustration, where other people pay you to create what they want, and Fine Art Painting, where you create what you want and hope other people buy it.

(There are a lot of other art careers, but I'm just focusing on what I wish I'd been told, as someone who just wanted to paint and draw with traditional materials.)

Illustrations are the drawings and paintings you see in magazines, newspapers, on book covers, and in advertising. Publishers and ad agencies hire freelance illustrators to make those drawings and paintings. A successful illustrator has a consistent flow of freelance illustration jobs, and hopefully earns a living at it.

Fine art
Fine art paintings are sold in galleries to people who want to have original art in their homes and offices. A successful fine artist develops relationships with galleries, consistently shows and sells their artwork, and hopefully earns a living at it.

Research art schools
Not all art schools are the same. Some art schools are better for fine art, some are better for commercial art/illustration. Some are more expensive than others – a lot more expensive. Pick an art school that will help you achieve your goals. Visit schools and ask lots of questions about what their graduates do, and what the school does for career counseling. Be specific about what you want.

What to do while you are in art school
By the end of senior year you need to have a portfolio of 10-20 works of art that hold together as a group and look like one person made them all. If you want to be an illustrator, develop a portfolio of illustrations all in one distinct and cohesive style.

If you want to go the fine art gallery route, pick a theme and do a series of paintings on that theme. Show that you can work hard and consistently to make a cohesive body of work.

Portfolio development takes forethought and planning. You won’t have a cohesive portfolio if you just gather up all your art school homework assignments and call it a portfolio. Art school should teach you this. It doesn't.

What to do after graduation
The minute you leave art school, if not before, professionally photograph your portfolio, and start to submit your artwork. Submit your illustration portfolio to small local magazines and print publications. Submit your fine art portfolio to local galleries and art fairs. Submit to contests and juried shows and apply for grants. Submit over and over and over. Assume you will get lots of rejections, even if you were successful and "talented" in art school.

For Illustration
Do illustration jobs for free or very cheap at first so you have professional pieces in your portfolio, not just school assignments. Over time you will replace the college projects with professional work. Publications who hire you to do illustrations need to have an idea of what the finished illustration will look like based on your previous work, and they need to know you are reliable and will finish the project, so present your work accordingly.

For Fine Art
If you want to go the gallery route, this is the most important thing you need to know about being a gallery artist: Galleries need to see that you can produce a consistent output of paintings at a consistent level of quality. Galleries are a business and they need to know you are reliable. Some galleries won’t even consider painters who don’t have a master’s degree so you might need more school. Grad school will teach you how to produce consistently, and they will teach you talk and write about your work.

No one ever told me these things at art school. As an artist you have to think of your artwork as a product and you have to learn to market and sell your product. Most artists don’t like to do this. But most artists also don’t like to operate cash registers or serve food either.

This blog post Is Going to Art School Worth It? is a great article about deciding whether to go art school.

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Reader Comments (11)

Very interesting post. I find the students that I teach are much more attuned to the nature of what comes next. They ask way more questions about career than I ever thought of and are certainly more conscious of getting the most in an entire sense from their education.

The difficulty in answering said questions is that the path to follow is almost always self defined and there are very few easily transferable steps that each of us can follow.

I am still waiting for the art entry level position that lets you continue to grow while you make a modest living. Does it exist? I don't think so...

February 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJason Brockert

That's good to hear that students now are more proactive. And I am sure many art schools now are more practical than they were 15 years ago.

I always understood that in choosing to be an artist I would have a rough road and never make much money, I accepted that - I grew up with parents who followed their dreams instead of money, so I was used to the life.

But I thought having a big-name school on my resume, and a "talented" portfolio from that school would help in some way. It didn't.

I could have floundered the same from age 21 - 25 without having paid 80K for the privilege.

Do you think going to such an expensive school was worth it for the cache of the name, in terms of helping your career? Maybe it helped some people more than I, I was a pretty naive kid.

February 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Hi Sadie,
Love your recent long form posts, and congratulations on such disciplined studies. The drawings are deep, especially for pencil! Good thoughts on art school. RISD definitely didn't hold our hand, although there were classes like professional practice to help get illustrators all neatly bound. I avoided those and just asked David Niles for a copy of the handouts at the end. I stuck to the exploratory classes. And then I found comfy staff jobs, and like you, it took 15 years to grow into what I could do with it all. I'm still glad I took my approach, and still glad RISD took its approach.

Your work is going places! Have fun, keep painting.

February 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterderek

This is a great set of advice for young artists--or any artists. I graduated nearly two years ago and I am slowly figuring out a lot of this stuff (though I could not have worded it as well or succinctly as you have!). In my personal experience, art students are pretty clueless about this stuff and most of their instructors don't care to tell them about it, or if they do it's in a pretty hazy manner. I too graduated with a motley collection of homework assignments and figure drawings also, and no sense of what life as a professional artist might be like. My peers and I had little sense of cohesion in our body of work; what little we had came from a series of works we did once we hit upon something we liked doing, or resulted from an independent study if we happened to do one (they weren't exactly encouraged). One of the things that's illuminating about your list is how life as an illustrator vs an artist in the fine arts will differ.

My undergrad experience took place at Carnegie Mellon University, where I earned an interdisciplinary degree in humanities and fine arts. I took enough art classes to see what it was like, and it was not pretty, especially in terms of how young artists are prepared for the wide world. One time I met an illustrator who had gone to Carnegie Mellon back before it axed its illustration program in the nineties. Near graduation time, the conceptual art students came to the illustration students and begged for advice on putting together a portfolio, marketing themselves, etc., because the illustration program's instructors took care to devote time to those subjects and the other programs didn't. Once the illustration program was vaporized, no one had a chance.

I have to wonder if these issues will be addressed any time soon. It sounds like art schools have been falling short for at least three decades now.

February 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnnalisa

My own school experience is much like Dereks (we went to school together so big surprise!) in that it took awhile for the lessons to really sink in but once they did I wouldn't trade the foundation I was given for anything. The philosophy at RISD is to teach thinking and problem solving through visual means in that we don't necessarily get the super technical training that some other schools offer but we are given an understanding of how to approach a problem, be it art or career or cooking related and figure our way through it.

Nothing revolutionary but I think while it takes longer to develop those skills to apply the problem solving I have always felt that I have the tools I needed to figure out the more day to day stuff and bring it into a wider picture of my own life, somehow.

Was it worth it? absolutely - but with the current costs of tuition (and rising) its getting harder and harder to know if it is worth it.

February 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJason Brockert

Art school does seem very expensive considering what most artists make, but most artists make the decision to go with that notion in the back of their head.

Coming from an illustration background, I think we were fairly prepared for the real world at school. That being said, 4 years wasn't really enough to learn everything. You really need to get out there and crash and burn.

Was it worth it? I think so. I think of the time I spent at school as a foundation to my career. It set a precedent for work ethic and a realization of how many great artists there are out there. I can't say that I would be where I am today without it.

Besides, I haven't seen any openings for an artisan's apprentice recently, so I'm not sure what the alternative is.

March 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCory

Hi Sadie
I love your latest body of plain air work, its so inspiring. Keep up the great work.

March 31, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdee shanny

Loved this article.
Here's an update on your $80,000 art school experience... I'm in the process of trying to get my 18yo daughter into art school. The problem is all the schools we've looked at are in the range of $40,00 per year... YES $160,000 for four years! Honestly. (okay, I have found some around $30,000, but just as many at $50,000)

I attended art school in 1975 (in Paris France) and it was around $700 per semester. I thought that was expensive. But even with inflation, it was still a bargain. After I left art school, I spent a year in hiatus, hidden away and honing my skills on my own. I learned and grew more that year than any other time of my life.

Do I want my daughter to attend art school. Yes, but not at all costs.

Has it got to the point that only the wealthy will be able to afford these institutes?
Are we going to have to develop new systems of teaching so that those who want to attend, can?

Here's another page worth viewing. My comment is #5 on the list:

June 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hi Anon -

If I were considering sending a student to art school right now, I would research and visit ateliers. There are many in all parts of the US now (and abroad) and they are much much cheaper than art school.

Most are not accredited, so she won't have a degree, but I think a student would gain a level of ability and discipline that would prepare her well for adult life. Of course it is a risk sending your child out into the world without a degree, but I would consider it.

I learned to be a graphic designer with $400 worth of computer classes and $100 dollars in how-to books - after art school. My design skills were unconsciously developed while I was studying "pure" drawing and painting at art school, but the actual technical skills were not difficult or expensive to acquire.

I don't know what your daughter wants to specialize in, but from my experience fundamental drawing and painting skills teaches a lot of basic design understanding that can be applied in more "commercial" ways with only a little more investment. (not to insult graphic designers at all - I wasn't a top designer and I am sure if I had majored in design at RISD I would have been even more successful as a designer, but I made a comfortable living at it, more than I'd expected from an art degree).

It's great you are so involved. The best thing you can do is invest the time with your daughter now to get a really clear idea of the differences between different art schools and different ateliers, and what life will be like for her during and after school. Of course the future is always a mystery, but a vague send-off to an art school based on a vague idea of it's reputation is not the best way to do it. (Speaking for my own experience)

June 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Anon linked to a great article: Is Going to Art School Worth It? I just added a link to this article to the bottom of my original post, see above.

June 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

I see you have left a good comment on the 'Creep Machine' site (of which my comment appears prior to yours). I have now seen two good articles (blogs) this day on the subject. Thank you.

PS - I'll get an Google account so I won't have to be Anonymous anymore!

June 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous
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