“It’s important to think about end-game goals for your college experience. Maybe you want to make inspiring friends and great connections or maybe you want to master a completely new medium. Ask yourself – what exactly do you want to get out of art school?” – Angella D’Avignon from Society 6’s “Should You Go To Art School?”
Are you thinking about a creative career, and wondering if art school is worth your time and money?
Making education and career commitments is such a personal process and requires research, reflection, work, and prayers (if you are someone who prays). Art school isn’t for everyone, just like med school, or business school, or whatever else. It’s a large decision and investment, which needs to be taken seriously. That being said, it enriched my life significantly and set me on the only career path I could imagine myself walking.
7 Art School questions I get asked regularly (with super honest answers):
Q: Which art school did you go to?
The old PNCA (photo source: Wikimedia Commons)
I attended Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon from 2008 to 2012. Every art college is culturally different and I spent all four years at the same one, so my experience is bound to be different from the next person. PNCA was, at the time, a small school compared to many others I looked at. My visit to Portland and tour of the school felt intimate, eccentric, and so optimistic. The school has since grown and moved into a larger building a few streets away.
The old PNCA Commons from the second floor. Photo owned by Holst Architecture
Q: What were the other students like? What kinds of students did well at your school?
Pen drawing from the sketchbook of Pat Perry. Please check out his work… it is absolutely amazing.
Our student body was very diverse, just as you’d find in any other college atmosphere. People came from all over the place and had a variety of backgrounds and goals, which made this a really interesting and inspiring place to be. I did notice that there was a collection of different attitudes about the purpose of art school, and sometimes that resulted in students changing their minds and leaving school. Some students were there mainly for the counter-culture communities and alternative atmosphere. Some came in thinking it would be a 100% “make whatever you want with no consequences” situation, and refused to explain their work or accept critique. And then there were many inspiring students who came to every class, asked questions, considered other people’s points of view, prioritized homework, tried new things, and as a result, communicated amazing ideas with fantastic artwork.
Q: What did art school teach you?
This photo and artwork belong to artist Freya Pocklington. Please check out her wonderful mixed media drawings.
A general list of things art school gave to me as a student:
– Exposure to new mediums and techniques helped me to find my favorite work processes and tools.
– Challenging assignments and critique days taught me how to think critically, speak, and write about my work. Many project prompts were left to the interpretation of students, but we had to explain our design and technical decision-making based on assignment guidelines.
– Opportunities to learn from visiting art directors, gallery owners, activists, and working professional artists who came to speak at the school.
– Critiques and art history lessons showed how other artists chose to communicate concepts and solve problems visually.
– Introduction to trends in the art market (this may or may not be a focus for other students — it depends on the school and the department you are majoring in).
– Numerous opportunities to research and make art about any topic I wanted to. Literally whatever I wanted to learn about.
Q: Do you think you could have learned the same skills by teaching yourself?
Photo owned by Arizona State University and found at art.asu.edu.
I know that the advancement of creative skills can’t easily be measured in hours, but if I were to compare the hours my teachers spent teaching lessons to the hours I spent brainstorming and creating by myself, the work I did alone took up way more time. 90% of the time I was teaching myself.
But let me follow that up by telling you that the 10% teacher instruction and student interaction were majorly inspiring to my growth as a young artist. Critiques in the classroom and discussions with a community of creatives were like fertilizer for my personal creative experimentation. I was introduced to numerous methods of problem solving, which I probably would not have come up with on my own because they came from other peoples’ imaginations. I learned about new artists in the real world every day because my teachers and fellow students would share the inspiring things they were feeling excited about. The things I heard from other perspectives about what we were each working on opened my mind and made a huge difference in the way I reflected on our assignments.
The article “No, GO to Art School” by Giuseppe Castellano is full of statements from professional artists and educators about what art school can offer students, which online classes and self-training can’t. You should absolutely read that full article if you are considering art school.
Q: Did professors ignore your interests and force you to follow their personal “recipes for good art”?
From an old 2010 sketchbook I worked on during school years.
I entered school with plans to be a painter, but later committed to the illustration program because I was interested in an advertising career and my awesome drawing professor suggested a change of major. The illustration department felt like its own community within the school. I personally never felt that my artistic interests and goals were stifled. Even as I received guidance from professors, there was still endless room for experimentation and we were each encouraged to find our own visual “voices.” But I will tell you that many of my peers didn’t feel the same way. Some felt bitter after leaving school because they didn’t feel they got the kind of instruction they were seeking. A friend of mine who went to another art school told me that figure painters were considered cliche and laughed at in that environment. Professors have personal biases and each school department has it’s own culture. It’s up to the student to decide when to defend their differences and when to go with the flow. I think my positive experience at art school came from balancing an open mind with the confidence to occasionally fight for my own way (when I felt particularly strongly about it). There were actually a few thesis presentations I attended where I heard a professor say that their expectations had been exceeded by a student who didn’t take their advice. Students who always thought they were right and the professor was wrong never tried new things and ended up not learning much — sometimes they dropped out. Students who wouldn’t take any risks for fear of disapproval didn’t seem to love school, either.
Q: Do you think paying such high tuition is worth the knowledge and experience you get from art school?
For me, the BFA was definitely worth the money and time. I had a totally unique experience in college, with excellent guidance from invested mentors, and was exposed to daily inspiration and the important perspectives of my classmates. All the knowledge I gained during school made me hungry for more progress, and I don’t know that I would have felt quite as inspired or confident without those years in school. Let me follow all that up by saying that there were many practical supports that made paying for art school possible for me. PNCA had offered some generous financial aid options, and I was awarded two large scholarships, which paid for 86% of my entire tuition. Some art schools are really helpful with this, but I found that others were not so quick to donate charitable funds to an art student. I was really privileged in this situation, and I recognize that finances are an enormous weight to consider for college, especially for a career path with tons of variables attached. Soon I’ll be sharing another post focused on how to prepare a portfolio and apply for art scholarships.
Q: Did you feel ready for the real world when you graduated?
Art school could not have prepared me for the way the business world sometimes treats creative professionals, nor could it have prepared me to know exactly how to stand up for myself. Life after school was definitely not clear or easy. At first, I was the only illustrator I knew in my hometown. I had a few bad experiences with dishonest clients, and I was discouraged to never hear back from several design job openings I had applied for. There were people who never paid me, and an art director from a big company who gave me the go-ahead before his boss signed off on a project. I then naively redid the whole thing without signing anything to guarantee I’d be paid for the extra work.
I’m not listing off the rough patches to throw a pity party or to discourage anyone from pursuing this career, but I want you to know I’m being honest. It has not been a cakewalk, and I still have so much to learn. There have been frustrating moments, and times I’ve made poor decisions out of naivety, but I learn something and get a little tougher (and more aggressive) every time that happens.
There have also been many times I’ve felt valued by clients, been hired to do projects I’m passionate about, had repeating business, and even earned some big paychecks!
In the past six years since graduating, I’ve had a lot of amazing opportunities in this industry — some offered to me by others, and some I’ve created for myself. In the time I’ve been on my own I’ve never stopped making art. I actually can’t stop, and that is a clue which tells me I’m on the right track. I felt the same way when I was applying to college.
BUT, the fact is…
Art school is not required for you to make money making art.
The bottom line is that if you care about what you’re making, you practice and practice and feel like you can’t stop because you love it so much, you stay curious and keep learning, and you make it a priority to SHARE your work with the world constantly, you have a very good chance of making money with your art. Business sense is a completely different skill set that requires attention, and the bravery part of sharing your art takes a lot of practice and effort, too. I am still practicing at all of this stuff, and there is still SO much I don’t know and miles of room for improvement. I look forward to learning more in coming years!
“Art school or not – if you are not willing to put in the long hours, the late nights, the work it takes to get better and better at your craft – the dirty work – you should probably find something else that you want to pursue. If you want to get anywhere with your art it takes a ton of hard work and dedication. It takes passion.”
For you, is an art career worth years of patience and your blood, sweat, and tears? You really have to love it to make it happen. If you do, you’ll make it happen!
Please also bear in mind that nothing truly good or lasting will happen overnight, whether you go to art school or not. Do yourself a favor and listen to this episode of Creative Pep Talk by Andy J. Miller. Sometimes when I feel like my career progress is just slowly creeping uphill, I need to hear words like these.
Hopefully the thoughts shared here answered some of your questions. I’m aware that this is a weighty decision and that others may have completely different opinions, which are totally valid and worth researching. If you want nitty gritty information about the financial dimension of this experience, stay tuned for my upcoming art school-related post called “How to Apply & Pay for Art School.”