Advice for Aspiring Artists
When my wife and I participate in art shows, we are asked a lot of questions about what it’s like to be an artist and what it’s like to attend art school. In an effort to answer some of these frequently asked questions, I thought I’d share my experiences attending art school and share some advice for people who may be considering an art school education.
Like many artistic people, I’ve drawn since I was old enough to hold a pencil. In elementary school, I struggled with literacy, so my mother introduced me to comic books. Comics motivated me to read, to write, and to draw. In junior high, I decided that my life goal would be to create my own comic books, but I didn’t think that I could support myself financially if I pursued that goal. Because of my fears of becoming a “starving artist”, I decided to study graphic design in college. My plan was to support myself as a commercial artist and to work on my comics on the side. I studied graphic design at a local liberal arts college and in my free time I made comics that poked fun at the eccentricities of college life.
I quickly learned that having artistic talent in one area of art doesn’t mean that you have artistic talent in every area of art. I loved graphic design and could tell good design from bad, but my brain simply wasn’t wired to create graphic design. After two years of study, my professors told me that I didn’t show enough potential to remain in the graphic design program. I was told to transfer to fine art or to drop out of the art department completely. I was devastated. I didn’t see an economic future as a fine artist, so I decided to focus on becoming a commercial illustrator. I turned all my fine art projects into illustration projects and finished undergraduate school intending to be an illustrator.
Once I completed undergrad, I felt that my artistic skills were decent, but I lacked business skills. There were no business classes in the fine art department. Because I had no idea how to run a business as an illustrator, I decided to continue my studies. At the encouragement of my fine art professors, I enrolled in graduate school at SCAD in Atlanta, GA.
Graduate school honed my artistic skills. I had the opportunity to enroll in SCAD’s sequential art program (basically a program for comic book artists) but I didn’t want to accrue massive amounts of student loan debt. To participate in the sequential program would have extended my graduate degree to at least 3 years. The cost of graduate school was too expensive for me to rationalize spending more than 2 years to get my Master of Fine Arts degree, so I studied Illustration instead of Sequential Art. I earned my M.F.A. in illustration and then launched myself into the world of freelance illustration.
I spent four years trying to make a living doing freelance illustration and graphic design. Because of my inexperience and geographic location (Podunkville, SC), I couldn’t find many employment opportunities. Few businesses in my area were willing to pay for illustration work and I didn’t know enough about web design to be a full-fledged graphic designer. After four years of struggling, I finally decided that it was time to make a change. I went to an employment agency and they placed me with a local IT business. My immediate financial worries were erased and I finally had time to take stock of my artistic direction in life.
I looked at my life and I saw that I had been miserable the entire time I worked as a graphic designer. I decided to stop doing what I thought was “the smart thing to do” and to start doing what I had always wanted to do. I took a couple of comic book characters that my wife and I had developed and started making comic books. I used my knowledge of graphic design to self-publish our books through online printers and signed up artist alley tables at nearby comic book conventions. I’ve only spent about a year and half working on comics, but during that limited amount of time, I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m not making a living off of my comics yet, but I do see the potential for making a secondary income. Working a “day job” currently takes the financial pressure off of my back, pays off my school loans, and gives me the disposable income to invest in developing the comic book business that I’ve always wanted to pursue. I travel from state to state selling my work at conventions, and I’m happy as a clam.
Advice for Aspiring Artists
1. If you want to make artwork, make it and make lots of it. The only way you get better at art is by doing art. In college I spent a lot of time reading books about artwork, which isn’t a bad thing, but the fastest way to learn is to get your hands dirty making artwork and experimenting with different mediums.
2. Become friends with other artists. Artists are some of the nicest people on the planet. Find someone your own age or an older artist and work on projects together. Having artistic friendships keeps you from getting discouraged, encourages you to produce artwork, and improves the quality of your work. I’ve learned more from working beside another artist than I have ever learned from reading a how-to book.
3. Don’t try to be someone else. When you’re starting out, you’re going to want to imitate the artwork of other people around you. You’ll go through phases where you copy the drawing style of your favorite artist. That’s a good and natural phase to go through, but don’t let yourself get stuck in it. You’ll learn a lot from imitating someone else, but don’t try to become a carbon copy of that person.
4. You don’t have to go to art school to become a better artist. Art school is beneficial in many ways, but it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll find a job or that you’ll become the next Pablo Picasso. What is art school really? It’s an atmosphere where experienced artists force you to work on projects in a specific time frame, where you are forced you to work outside of your comfort zone, and where you are forced to accept constructive criticism.
If you’re motivated, you can educate yourself without an art school education. Watch “how to” Youtube Videos. Check out books from your local library and use them to practice techniques. Attend live drawing sessions at your local art gallery or your local college (a lot of colleges will let you attend live drawing sessions for a small fee). Introduce yourself to a local artist in your home town or at your local art museum and offer to help them out in exchange for giving you some artistic pointers. I once helped a local artist whose car had broken down. In exchange for some car rides, he invited me to his home studio and reviewed my portfolio. He even offered to let me work on projects with him so that I could learn the trade and so that he could get some help meeting his deadlines. When I was in undergraduate classes, I found that the best student artists had worked with older artists when they were young adults. By the time they entered college, they didn’t need any more art classes. They were head and shoulders above everyone else and when they graduated, they went out and became working professionals almost overnight.
5. You don’t need an art school degree to work as a professional artist. I’ve known high school students that went to work at design firms right out of high school because the quality of their work was amazing. A dirty little secret that I’ve learned is that some talented people don’t need to bother with art school at all. If you know someone who is hiring and your work is good enough, you don’t need a degree in art or design. You just have to show the right person your artwork. I have a lot of friends who travel selling their artwork at conventions and art fairs. All they need to make money at those events is a knowledge of how to collect sales tax, a product, and a customer with disposable income.
6. Don’t give into your fears and don’t give up. Being an artist is hard work. Making money while being an artist is even harder work. It’s sometimes a scary thing to pursue art. You’ll often times be plagued with self-doubt about the course you’re taking with your life. As an adult you’ll wonder if you’re going to make the rent or be able to afford visiting the dentist. Family members will scratch their heads and do their best to steer you into different directions. You’re going to go through times of deep discouragement, but don’t wallow in them. Realize that these are all things that every artist has to go through. Buck yourself up and get back to work. Sometimes you’ll need to take a break from your artwork. I’ve noticed that every couple of months, I’ll hit a week or two where I just can’t make anything. That’s fine. Take a break and read a book or hang out with friends…then go back to work the following week. Success as an artist takes time and effort. A few lucky people have overnight success, but for most of us, it takes years of dedicated hard work to reach our goals.
7. Be proactive. Being an artist is all about self-motivation. Create your own projects, deadlines, and goals. You can’t just sit around waiting for a project to fall into your lap; you have to make your own projects. If you can’t find the perfect artist job that you want, you have to create it for yourself. The most successful artists that I’ve known have built their own businesses from the ground up.
Advice for the person considering art school
If you want to attend an art school, take a minute to evaluate why you want to attend that school. Is your motivation to become a better artist? To become a working professional? Are you clueless about what you want to do with your art? Are you going to that school so that you can party with eccentric people? There are a lot of pros and cons to attending an art college. Knowing why you want to go is a good thing. Here are a couple of other things you should keep in mind when making the decision to enroll.
The Pros of studying art in college
1. You’ll make connections in the art world. If you study art in college, you’re going to rub shoulders with dozens of artists. Make connections with as many artists as possible. Maintain those connections after you graduate. Many times your art buddies will be able to help you find work after school and can provide helpful advice when you’re trying to make business decisions. Good art schools will bring in working professionals for you to talk to and work beside. They’ll bring in editors, artists, and art directors to talk to you about the companies for which they work. When these people visit the school, make a good impression, introduce yourself, and find out these people’s contact information. You never know when they may be looking for interns or employees in the future.
2. You’ll be forced to work outside of your comfort zone. Human beings like to be comfortable. As an artist, it’s easy to get into an artistic rut where you work the same way over and over again. Art school forces you to branch out and try new mediums. It forces you to experiment. You may find that you really like the medium that you’re used to using, or you might find a new medium that just blows your mind. The hallmark of a good artist is that he’s always pushing himself to evolve the quality and content of his work. Art school helps you develop your artistic evolutionary drive.
3. You’ll produce lots of artwork. In school, you’ll face deadlines and quotas that force you to make artwork efficiently. You won’t have time to be lazy. You’ll finish one project and the next will be staring you in the face. Because of this fast pace, you’ll see your artistic abilities grow faster than any other time of your life. Art is a muscle and art school is the Olympics. You’ll quickly learn your strengths and limitations as an artist and you’ll learn how to evaluate your work with a discriminating eye.
4. Art school will give you access to equipment that you don’t have. Art schools allow you to work with equipment that you probably can’t afford. You’ll get the chance to work with the latest versions of Adobe Creative Suite, professional printing presses, and fancy animation programs. Getting a leg up with the latest tech or fancy printing press can be invaluable in helping you land your dream job.
5. Art school will provide you with skilled mentors. The professors at most art schools are masters in their fields. You’ll get the opportunity to be trained by some of the most skilled artists in your area of interest. You’ll be a participant in a microcosm of the master/apprentice relationship. Your professors will often be your harshest critics, but their criticisms will push you to become a better artist.
The Cons of Art School
1. Massive Debt. In all honesty, the biggest problem with an art school education is the price tag. Attending a big name art school is the equivalent of taking out a 30 year mortgage on a home. If you earn a four year degree at a school dedicated to teaching art, you’ll probably end up $100,000 in debt. If you attend a smaller school that simply has an art department, you’ll probably be paying $40,000+ for your degree. Graduate school will probably run you $50,000.
Here’s a financial breakdown of my education. Undergraduate school was around $40,000. I attended a private college in my home state and was able to use scholarship money to pay for most of undergrad. I lived at home for the first two years and had financial help from my parents to pay for two years of living in the dorms. When all was said and done, I owed $8,000 once undergrad was finished. Grad school cost me $50,000 for my two years of M.F.A. education. Once I graduated, I had 6 months of grace, and then the student loans went into repayment. My minimum repayment started out at $400 a month and because of my payment schedule, it increases every two years. I’m currently at the $500 a month repayment mark.
2. Art school introduces you to the principles of creating a business, but doesn’t teach you how to run a business. The art school you attend will (hopefully) teach you the basics of being a freelance artist, but you won’t get any actual business classes. You have to figure out how to do your taxes, bookkeeping, marketing, and budget yourself. The reason I went to graduate school was because my undergraduate education didn’t teach me how to run a business. I hoped that grad school would make up for that, which it partially did, but I’ve found myself wishing that I had some heavy duty business classes under my belt. If I could do undergrad over again, I would have minored in business. Having that business minor would have largely eliminated my reasons for attending graduate school and I wouldn’t be $50,000 in debt. On a side note, if you’re looking to take some business courses, a lot of cities actually have annual small business classes that you can attend for a relatively small fee. Check out their department of revenue websites and you should find a list of available classes.
3. An art degree doesn’t guarantee you a job. I spent four years after graduate school applying for any art related job that I could find. I pursued freelance illustration, graphic design, education, marketing, and any job opening that was slightly art-related. There were times when I felt that I couldn’t mention my master’s degree because it would make me seem “overqualified” for the job I hoped to receive. I earned my masters so that I would be qualified to teach on the college level, but when I applied for educational job openings, I was told that I needed at least 8 years of work experience in my field. When I did have interviews with design firms or “traditional” employers, I found that my degrees didn’t matter. All that mattered was the quality of my work and if I knew how to use the computer programs that they required for the job. I’d consistently receive feedback from interviewers that said “Your artwork was great…you were easily in our top five picks for the job, but there was just someone better than you that applied for the job.” When you’re job hunting, you’ll find that there will be stiff competition and usually the best portfolio gets the job, not the highest college degree from the fanciest art college.
4. Art school can leave you a little bit bitter. If you attend art school, you’re going to rub shoulders with people who “get all the breaks” and who “make it big” almost overnight. A select few of your classmates will have overnight success and if you’re not careful, you can find yourself getting a little bitter at their success when you’re working your butt off without much to show for your efforts.
Advice for the Art School Student
If you’ve decided to study art in college, congratulations! You’re going to have a lot of fun…and you’re going to experience many, many sleepless nights. Enjoy yourself and learn a ton. Here’s a couple of pointers that I like to share with people who are enrolling in art school.
1. Get your prerequisite classes out of the way first. If you’re going to attend art school for your undergraduate degree, get your “bonehead” freshman prerequisite classes out of the way first. Find an inexpensive community college whose credits will transfer and take your English, math, and history classes there. If you’re going to pay the premium price to attend art school, don’t pay a premium price for the non-art classes. The same thing applies if you attend a state school and major in art. Knocking out your prerequisites at a cheaper location will save you and your wallet a lot of stress when it comes to paying off those student loans.
2. Take classes outside of your interest, especially technology-related classes. When you’re out of school, having some knowledge of computer based design programs can make the difference between landing a job or being unemployed. If you apply for “traditional” employment after school, you’ll find that employers expect you to know how to use a plethora of computer programs. Become acquainted with Adobe Creative Suite, After Effects, Flash, and any animation or 3d rendering programs that you can get your hands on. Study what you want in your core classes, but fill out your electives with a variety of tech classes. Take some screen printing classes as well. If you ever get into a financial pinch, you can use that screen printing experience to get work at a local tee shirt print shop. Print-on-demand tee shirt businesses always seem to be looking for extra help and they’ve helped several of my art school buddies stay afloat financially when they’ve had difficulty paying the bills.
3. Take advantage of all available internships. Internships are worth their weight in gold, even if they are unpaid. If you can land an internship in your field of interest, you’ll get a taste of the real world. You’ll see what it’s like to work that job “day in and day out” and will quickly learn if that job is something that you truly enjoy. Internships will also help you populate your resume. The biggest problem I ran into when I applied for employment was that businesses wanted me to have at least five years of experience in my field. Internships help you earn those years of experience while you’re still in school. The greatest advantage of working an internship is that it “gets the ball rolling” on establishing your business connections. These days, most people are hired because of relationships. An internship puts you in front of a lot of people who could potentially refer you to other businesses that are looking to hire employees.
4. Work while you’re in school. You want to do everything you can to diminish your student loan debt. Your interest kicks in once you’re done with school. If you work to pay off your loans before graduation, you’ll have less interest to pay back once you have your diploma. Working will also provide you with the extra funds to job hunt, buy art supplies, and go on any school related art trips (which are awesome). A word of caution…I’ve had friends who just lived off their student loan money while in art school. Because of that, they had cushy school experiences, but when their student debt came due, they had heftier loans to pay.
5. Take advantage of networking opportunities. Attend every networking or industry-related event that your school hosts. Networking is the name of the game. It’s pretty much the only way you’re going to find paying work. Get involved in art clubs at your school. Better yet, research the city you live in, find out if it has any professional art leagues, and join them.
6. Develop a unique and eye-catching portfolio of work. Your portfolio is the thing that will make or break you. Your artwork speaks louder than your art degree, your clothing, or your work experience. Make it impressive.
7. Learn to be easy to work with. There’s nothing worse than an artist that has an overinflated ego or an attitude of superiority. Develop good customer service and communication skills. In the real world, you’re going to have your toes stepped on and some of your ideas shot down by employers. Don’t take it personal. Learn a little bit of humility and patience. If you’re a likable person with an easy-going personality, you’ll get repeat customers and referrals. If you don’t work well with others, you’ll have difficulty finding work.
8. Make time for personal art projects. Several of my illustrator friends have gotten work because of personal projects they created. What caught the eye of potential clients wasn’t a flashy art school project; it was a fun little personal piece of artwork that the artist made for his own enjoyment. Make a series of personal projects to include in your portfolio or website. Your personality and passion will really shine through those projects and the artwork will grab other people’s attention. For example, when I completed the first issue of one of my comic books, I posted it on my blog. A magazine editor that I had worked for in the past saw it on my site and decided to hire me to illustrate an issue of their children’s magazine. He said that the “whimsical” nature of my comic pages caught his eye.
9. Forge friendships with positive, motivated people. Nothing will drag an artist down faster than a bad friendship. If your friends are negative, unmotivated, or lazy, you need to make some new friends. We become the people that we surround ourselves with. Being an artist is difficult; you don’t want your closest relationships to make your life any more difficult.
10. Have a plan once you graduate. Don’t wait until the last day of classes to think about life after school. If you don’t set goals for yourself, you’ll wonder and waste precious time, money, and resources. Think about where you want to go with your artwork and set up a plan of attack to reach that place. Plan out baby steps and start toddling towards your goal.
11. Have a secondary career path or day job. The thing to keep in mind with artistic careers is that they usually are “nontraditional” and pretty fluid. A lot of them are contract or freelance based. It’s rare to find an art job that you’ll work for 30 years. You’ll find yourself bouncing around a lot. Having a dependable day job or secondary career path can pick up the slack if you “hit a dry spell” of art related work. Sometimes having a non-artistic day job can give you the extra time and money you need to further develop your artistic career goals. Be aware that it will probably take you several years to get any sort of freelance business running.