Want To Be An Artist? Here's Why You Should Forget About Art School

by Grant Goodwine

So you want to be an artist? Good for you! You want to go to art school? Well, now you're just being silly.

Twenty years ago, I would have said, "GO FOR IT!" But this is 2013, baby, and college isn't getting any cheaper. In fact, tuition is skyrocketing. I might come off sounding like a complete ass in this article, but it's only because I’m being brutally honest in trying to give you some advice. I, myself, have been to art school, and even though I gained some knowledge from it, it was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life.

Where to begin?  Oh, let’s just start with the obvious factor: money. Let me be the first to tell you that the life of an artist is far from luxurious. It could be exciting, rewarding and enlightening, but if you want a life of luxury, this isn't the career choice for you.

If you really do have the gift, you know very well that you don't choose art. Art chooses you. People are just born with that certain flame in their hearts and a creative mind, to boot. And some of you will do anything it takes to become a great artist. This is why you shouldn't go to art school.

Along your path to graduating with an art degree, you are more than likely going to financially scrape the bottom. It’s best to scrape the bottom without a giant debt monster rising from the depths, reaching out its tentacle-like appendages and dragging you in between a rock and a hard place. You should use that money on something other than further instruction on the craft you already know well. What about art supplies, books, travel fares, alcohol (let’s face it: you're going to have those nights), or even merchandising your own product?

Even if you graduate from an art school, it is far from guaranteed that you will land a job in art, at all.  You will most likely end up working retail or waitressing just to make ends meet and pay off loans on top of that. You can apply, apply, and apply some more to all the art-related job listings you find all over the country. But guess what?  You are not the only one applying. There are thousands of art school graduates in the same boat, trying to land that desirable design job, or that prestigious job at that one animation studio, which means your chances of being the only appealing candidate are very slim.

And even if you succeed in landing that job, you’ll end up a worker bee. If you truly want to be creative and see your ideas manifest into something fruitful and enjoyable, commercial art isn't for you.  The bosses, the superiors, and the clients own you, and they know what they want. What they want is what you do.

And if you want to be a painter and do fine art, well, I hope you have some rich connections. Fine art is a luxury and commercial art is a necessity. I, myself, paint, but I do it for the love of doing it, rather than for generating sales. When I make money off my work, it’s either from illustrations, graphic design works, or products I designed and put money forth to produce.

Whichever path you take, even if you land a fulfilling art job, it’s still not going to be enough to pay off that loan with ease.

I’m not saying you’ll go to art school and not learn. I am saying a good amount of the lessons taught in art school consist of fluff and bullsh*t. If you are already enrolled in an art school, take everything you learn with a grain of salt - except for art history. Art history is pretty solid because it’s based on factual information, which can greatly influence your work, instead of what's based on theory of how to produce ‘good’ art. The good art always breaks the rules and theories, anyway.

You know the saying, "Those who can’t do, teach"?  Well, that case is made in art school. A good majority of the teachers are failed or struggling artists looking for a little stability in their lives.  These people have the power to either really help you out and guide you towards a good career, or set you up for failure. Some teachers are cutting out the competition one classroom at a time. Welcome to the shark tank, baby.

Now don't get me wrong. There are art teachers out there that are successful, brilliant, and genuinely looking out for your best interest.  I was lucky enough to have a few really great instructors while I was in art school. These artistic minds are there to help you, if you just ask for it.

You don't even have to be enrolled in the school for them to help you out. And even though as much as I love and appreciate those teachers for what they taught me, I can’t say their instruction was worth the debt I'm now in. If those teachers are reading this themselves, I know they understand. If I learned anything of artistic value from my three years in art school, it was from them.

Now it’s confession time, folks. I did not drop out of art school. I was kicked out, and I will proudly admit it. Why was I kicked out? The school was more in favor of working on projects digitally, instead of traditionally, and I am a die-hard pencil on paper kind of guy. So for a lot of the projects and assignments, well, I just lost interest, and my GPA suffered from it.

Around this time I also gained quite a bit of ambition and started going to a lot of concerts with my portfolio and business cards and introducing myself to the bands to which I offered my illustrative services. Because of this outside personal lobbying, I also missed classes. I’m sure some teachers at the school still call me lazy. But when I make art and do outside work to better my art career, well… I do it on my own damn terms.

My own personal goals are what clashed with art school, but let me tell you something, ladies and gentleman. The bands I skipped class to go see have opened more doors for my artistic career than that school ever did. Within a month or so after getting kicked out, I produced by first t-shirt design for a band, and it’s been a hit.

Another confession I have to make is that most of the tricks I have developed as an illustrator weren’t learned in art school.  They were techniques I have taken on from studying successful artists on my own time. So you can say I am more or less 80 percent self-taught.

If you want to become a great artist, don't ask to become one. You become one. You don't need someone to give you an assignment. You learn technique because you WANT to learn. You learn because you WANT to get better. Study art you admire. If you find a successful artist to look up to, ask that artist for advice, or even ask for their mentorship. Taking a class with a strict and bound curriculum might make you more knowledgeable, but it sure as hell won’t make you a better artist. The art is in your own hands and ability.

In fact, a large number of great artists are, or were, self-taught, such as Leonardo DaVinci, Van Gogh, Tolouse Lautrec, and even Walt Disney. The way of an artist isn't about education or knowledge; rather, it’s pure skill and mettle.

It’s going to be a long, hard road. You will be kicked down. You will be called sh*t worthless. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, folks.  It’s going to take patience and nerves of steel. If you have fears and doubts, lock them away.

The art industry is a savage game. If you really want to become a successful artist, know that it is far from a straight road. You are going to need to learn how to adapt and take a different path from what already exists. Meet people; network your tits off. As horrible as it is, knowing the right people is crucial in this unforgiving game – as it is any other.

When I reference "art," I’m not limiting it to visual works, solely. It could be painting, writing, music, acting, or whatever craft. But above all, no matter what your trade, know that art school is not going to make you successful. If anything, the education makes you more knowledgeable on concepts, and it throws you into a pool of debt in the end.

It’s just not worth it in my opinion.

If you want to be successful, you need the passion to teach yourself and never stop learning. You need the courage to keep pushing forward, even when the world and the odds are against you. And you need to get out and meet people.

Debt? That is doing nothing for your future in art, but it is setting you back.

I can’t say that I’ve reached my ultimate level of success - yet. But I have grown; I have made my mistakes and learned from them. Now I have a story to tell in hopes of saving you and other aspiring artists from boiling alive in financial hot water.  Chances are, if you are pursuing an artistic career, money isn't the most expendable thing in your possession.

Top Photo Courtesy: Favim