How to Decide if Art School is Right for You

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

There are a lot of good reasons for going to school to learn art. . . however, everybody else is doing it is NOT one of them.

I don’t have an art school degree. I took a painting class at the local community college the fall after I graduated high school. Five years later, I studied fine arts at a Christian university, where I majored in art. But I stayed only one semester.

Why? Because I knew what I wanted to do as an artist from the time I discovered crayons: I wanted to paint horses.

By the time I headed off to college, I’d already sold several portraits and was still selling portraits, so my art goals were specific. I knew how I wanted to paint, and what I wanted to paint. I’d even already chosen a medium that worked well for me.

These three factors made art school a poor decision personally. I enjoyed the time at school, but unless I wanted to go into teaching, there wasn’t much point in continuing to pay for formal education.

So if you’re considering art school, at any stage in life, I’d recommend asking yourself a few basic questions and answering them honestly.

Before going to art school…

How specific are your interests? If you enjoy art and don’t know how you want to pursue it, what mediums you want to work in, or what you want to do with your art talent, then a formal study of art may be just the ticket.

How advanced are your skills? Are you just beginning or are you already proficient in your medium or with your subject? If you aren’t, art school is probably a good fit. You can gain new skills or improve existing skills by studying with others at about the same level and from artists or teachers who are more advanced.

But if you’ve already developed a style with your medium and subject, be careful in making the decision for art school. Other options might actually serve you better.

What is your learning style? If you learn best in a classroom setting, definitely think about art school. If interaction with others helps you learn faster and better, you’ll probably find the setting of art school beneficial.

Another factor in favor of art school is if you like to explore new things and/or enjoy the camaraderie. If you do, art school is something you should consider.

If you decide to go to art school…

Choose a school that has a good reputation in the subjects and/or styles of art you want to learn. For example, going to a school that focuses on classic styles probably won’t help you much if you’re interested in modern art.

Learn everything you can in art school, but don’t let it determine what or how you paint. The skills you learn should advance your work, not derail it.

Look for instructors interested in improving basic skills and competencies. The purpose of an art teacher is to provide students with the tools to find their own way. Basics such as drawing, rendering, and understanding tools and media will give the enterprising art student everything he or she needs to know to forge their own path in the art world and to make their own mark.

Be wary of instructors whose primary goal appears to be cloning themselves. They are out there, waiting to turn every talented student into the latest version of themselves.

If their field of interest aligns with yours, that’s fine – that’s like an apprenticeship and you should take advantage of it. But if your interests and talents lie in another direction, studying under that instructor—no matter how popular or how good they are—could be detrimental to your life as an artist.

And lastly, while you’re in school, take a few business courses. Few artists will reach the level of a corporate CEO, but small one-person businesses run essentially the same way a multinational corporation runs. A basic understanding of income and expense tracking, basic bookkeeping, and general business practices will go a long way in advancing your business as an artist.

Remember your other options…

If you’re like me and already have well defined aspirations and goals, you might want to look at other options that advance those goals more quickly and for less cost. For example:

• Classical painting ateliers
• Workshops
• Local art groups
• Working for and/or with a professional artist

And, in today’s world, you can also get an excellent art education online.

So whether you decide to attend art school, find formal education from another source, or pursue self-education, the most important thing to do is keep a long view of your work and career.

Where do you want to be in one year? Three years? Five or ten years? If you’re serious about making art your livelihood, make sure you’re painting, drawing, or sculpting the subjects for which you have true passion. If you do that, you will never have a j-o-b. Your work will be your pleasure.

No one can ask more than that from a career.


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