You Don’t Have to go to Art School to be an Artist

Once upon a time, (my short art education bio)

I’ve been creating art since I was physically able to grasp a crayon (like every child). All through K-12, I took whatever elective art courses my school offered. During non-art classes, I drew on all of my notes. At home, I doodled for fun.

I went to college for art. Well, not at first. I started my freshman year of college in 2008 with a declared major in Biochemistry at the University of Minnesota (because why on Earth would I want to be an artist when the economy was in the sh*tter?!). One semester and a nervous breakdown later, I switched to a state college and decided to pursue art as my major. Because art makes me happy and some schools are needlessly expensive.

Three more semesters and an identity crisis later, I switched my major to creative writing, thanks to the art program pissing me off. Annnnd, two semesters and a major breakup later, I quit school for a year and came back with a desire to pursue psychology as a major. (There are many reasons why I chose the name “messy ever after”. My personal life was a big factor.)

During my last year of classes, desperate to stop my academic indecision, my school let me build a bachelor’s program that argued art, psychology, and creative writing were an educational trifecta, and I should be given a Bachelor’s of Elective Studies.

Now to the actual point of this post

How an art specific program or school can be a total waste of your money and energy.

When I switched my major from art to creative writing, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to do art anymore. I’ve always wanted to make art. Even when I run from it, it just keeps pulling me back in. I left the art program, because I wasn’t getting what I wanted from my education.

I declared an art major to learn art techniques, to better my skills, and to become more technically proficient. Sadly, that was only about 50% of what I paid for.

When I took my first 3D design course in college, I was expecting to work with traditional materials and do figure studies or learn how to use tools for classic sculpting. (Think, Bernini) Instead, we were given pink rigid insulation and cardboard and given an assignment to make “conceptual” art. I didn’t want to make conceptual art. I wanted to be taught art techniques. “Conceptual” art isn’t a technique. It’s a way of thinking.

By the end of my third semester majoring in art classes, I wanted to scream every time someone said “conceptual” art. I know, I know. I’m an abstract artist that doesn’t work with tangible subject matter most of the time so my art is a bit conceptual, but that’s not the point. The point is that art schools don’t necessarily focus on teaching you art skills. They focus on teaching you how to THINK like an artist.

Though, not just any artist. They teach you how to think like an artist that would fit in with the higher echelon of the current art genres. Like Damien Hirst, Banksy, Jeff Koons.  It felt very, “make ‘x’ kind of art to make it as an artist”. I didn’t want to do that kind of art. I wanted to do my art.

There are many many types of artists in the world. There isn’t a mold that we need to fit into, but educational institutions can’t help but create a mold, standardize it, and then shove all the students into it. It’s the American way. I, being incredibly stubborn, was pissed off all the time when making art for some of the classes I took. I wasn’t proud of the end products, and I was being told the art that I wanted to make wasn’t actually ‘art’.

Granted, I had a few instructors that were phenomenal and didn’t force their opinions of art onto the students. They gave assignments that left enough room for the students to explore their unique vision. I liked them. These were the very specific classes like Drawing 101+, Painting 101+, etc.. They did in fact focus on the specific techniques I was hoping to learn. Unfortunately, if I wanted to graduate with an art degree I would have had to continue slogging through the bullsh*t courses geared towards conceptual “high” art and abstract thinking. No thank you.

Things I learned and loathed in Art School:

  1. You can’t be a fine artist if your art doesn’t make people think.
  2. If you just want to draw or paint “pretty” things, you are not a fine artist, you are a “crafter”.
  3. Your art can lack technical skill, but if the ‘concept’ is intriguing and fresh, you can make millions.
  4. State colleges often employ adjunct art instructors who also work at the expensive art schools, because the education system sucks at paying instructors a livable income. (So, a fancy art school can literally give you the same art education as a cheap state college.)

I didn’t like what I learned while enrolled in an art program. I wanted to make pretty things. I wanted to make art that was pleasant to look at. I didn’t want to make art that elicited a visceral and unpleasant reaction from the audience. I didn’t want to have to explain why my art was meaningful. I just wanted to make my art and work on my technical skills. Thus, I switched to creative writing and worked on art in my own time.

I’m going to keep saying it, but you don’t need to go to an art school to become an artist. In fact, you might actually become your best artistic self by avoiding the institutionalized mold a school will shove you into. There is value in college courses that focus on technique, but I am wary of people telling me the “right” way to think. Yes, thinking conceptually and abstractly is a really important skill, BUT it’s not the only way to make art.

It’s not about where you received your instruction. It’s about the hours you’ve dedicated to practice.

To become a technically proficient artist, you don’t need the best instructors, expensive supplies, or a fancy degree. You need time, patience, and the ability to push past your work that ‘sucks’. Yes, some people are born with a little more natural skill than others, but all artists have to practice. We don’t just magically become a skilled artist. You can’t avoid all of the ugly practice.

Whether self-taught or art school graduate, if you put in the hours, your source of education doesn’t matter.

Again, you don’t have to go to art school.

In fact, I encourage you not to. For one, you’re going to have a degree that means nothing to most employers. If you want to be an artist, you may eventually be self employed so does the degree really mean anything?

Two, liberal arts education tends to be wildly overpriced when compared to the income you’ll make after graduation. Please, please, please avoid graduating college with over $40k of debt and a liberal arts degree. This shouldn’t be the norm.

Three, the art school mold. Do you want to be taught how to think like a modern artist, or do you want to be taught art skills to make YOUR art? New art genres aren’t taught in school. They are pioneered by the artists that do their own thing after learning the basics.

Four, artists gain inspiration from the world around them. Going to college for something unrelated to art can actually inform the art you produce. When I chose to focus on psychology, I was more inspired to create. Take in as much information as you can in a variety of subjects that intrigue you.

You still need an arts education.

You just don’t have to get it from a school. I am thankful for all of the exposure to the arts I’ve had through my life, but art teachers cannot make you a great artist. That’s all up to you.

For example, in drawing classes, your instructor will likely spend 10 to 15 minutes giving you a lesson on basic art techniques and then give you an assignment to practice those techniques. You’ll spend the next hour or more of your class doing the work. Then you may get another 5 to 10 minutes of corrective advice from the instructor. After class is over, you’re expected to spend additional hours working on those techniques. You have to put in the work.

You can easily watch a YouTube video with the same instructions and then learn how to self-correct by stepping back from your work. For free. It doesn’t matter what your source of education is to be an artist. What matters is how much time you’ve put into your art.

When you DO need an art degree.

Should you have a desire to be an art instructor in K-12 or universities. You need a degree. Depending on your goals with art, you may actually need that expensive piece of paper in order to get hired by an employer or seek post-graduate degrees. Plan accordingly.

But again, to be an artist, display in galleries, sell your own work, do freelance graphic design work etc. you do not need to go to art school or have a degree in art. Most of the time, you just need to prove you know what you’re doing.

***

Every artist is different, and maybe you will thrive in an art school. Maybe your instructors will inspire you instead of pissing you off. I will say that education in general has value. Never stop learning.

All I want you to get from this is that you don’t need art school or an art degree to be an artist. Anyone can be an artist. You don’t need permission to learn or create. You don’t have to spend a bunch of money, and you don’t have to create what someone tells you to create. Make the art that you want. You don’t have to fit into a mold.

If you are looking to learn more about art techniques, I’ve put together a list of resources to learn for free or for cheap here.

But what do you think? Do you need an art degree? If you already went to art school, what was your experience? As always, leave me your thoughts in the comments while they are open. Or reach out to me directly through Instagram (@messyeverafter). I love hearing from you!

Now, go make some art!

-Kelly

P.S. If you enjoy my blogs and gain any inspiration from the content I put out there, please consider becoming a Patron of Messy Ever After on Patreon. Pledging just $1 a month enables me to keep doing what I do. Plus, you get extra little perks like phone wallpapers!

Further Reading: