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

I am a full-time artist and I make my living selling art. I also kind of went to art school, but I don’t recommend this to every creator.

I’ve been creating art since I was physically able to grasp a crayon. All of us have an artist in us, but we develop and grow differently. Formal education serves some of us, but it can also harm others. This applies to many subjects, but especially art. If you want to be an artist, art school could be right for you–but it’s not the only path you can take.

I don’t want to dissuade anyone from pursuing formal art education, but I want to say that if you have plans to do what I do now (primarily sell art directly to customers through social media, events, etc..) then you do not need to go to art school or have any specific credentials to do so.

In order to be an artist, you just need to know how to make the art you want to make. Where and how you learn to do that is up to you.

Here’s my history as an artist:

I have loved making art since I can remember. I was not naturally skilled in the beginning, but I created often and saw a lot of growth. All through Kindergarten to Senior year of high school, I took whatever art courses were offered. During non-art classes, I drew on all of my notes. At home, I drew the objects and animals around me to increase my skills. By the time it came to deciding what I wanted to do for college, many assumed I’d be applying to art schools, but that was the last thing I wanted to do because I didn’t trust I could make a living as an artist. (If money were no concern, something creative would have been my first choice.)

I started my freshman year of college in 2008 to pursue biochemistry at the University of Minnesota, because I believed what everyone told me: Being an artist means being poor. It only took me one semester to realize I wasn’t going to be a biochemist. So, I decided to switch to a cheaper university and enroll in the art program. Finally, I allowed myself to believe I could have a life filled with art. I could graduate with a BFA, figure out how to sell my work, and hopefully find some sort of internal peace along the way.

Annnnnd then I took a total of three college semesters of art courses before abandoning the art program.

My College Art Experience:

I did not enjoy being in my art program. Looking back, my discontent was because of two things:

  1. A single instructor that insulted the very thing that drove me as a creator.
  2. There was a strong focus on teaching conceptual thinking and less focus on teaching techniques.

When I declared an art major, I knew I wanted to learn art techniques, better my skills, and become technically proficient in the areas I was already drawn to. I had a general idea of what I enjoyed making and parts of my style were already formed. When I looked at the full course load for my school’s art program, I wasn’t interested in at least half the classes. This should have been a red flag that this program wasn’t for me, but I lacked wisdom.

So, I trudged forward. Honestly, my first two semesters were great. The focus was heavily on technique and there was a lot of freedom to weave my style into class projects. I was introduced to new techniques that I still value today. And then…

I took the one class that made me incredibly bitter toward art school for years:

Intro to 3D Design.

It’s a shame really, looking back, how this one class shadowed my entire perspective of formal art education until very recently.

Most art programs have working artists teaching the classes. This is an incredible asset to the students because the artists are immersed in the same professional world that the students strive to enter–but, there can be biases laced within classes if the teachers are not mindful of how they approach their lessons.

My 3D design instructor was NOT mindful of their biases.

When I entered the class, I was expecting to work with traditional materials and do figure studies or learn how to use tools for classic sculpting (think, Bernini), or play with ceramics and the pottery wheel to learn different means of construction. but no. No, that’s not what we did.

For our first assignments, we were given rigid pink insulation panels and cardboard. Which, okay, that’s fine, but what got me all riled up was how we were to use those materials. We were to make “conceptual art”.

Conceptual Art *grumpy face*

The literal definition of conceptual art when you Google it is: art in which the idea or concept presented by the artist is considered more important than its appearance or execution.

Though I was only 20 at the time I already knew what I liked making and it wasn’t conceptual art. I made representational art. I loved beauty and nature and enjoyed painting women and trees and birds. My work was whimsical and often “pretty”. I didn’t have the language to articulate why I was drawn to such things back then, but there was a deeper meaning and intention in my work that informs everything I do today.

There is a place for conceptual art, and a need for artists to understand the deeper meanings in their art. I am grateful I can speak that language after my education. Conceptual art itself wasn’t the problem.

The dangerously subjective determination of what is “good” and “bad” art:

This instructor didn’t just focus on conceptual art, but “good” conceptual art in their opinion. And that art was often discomforting or even grotesque. Their lessons focused on how to think like an artist that would fit in with the higher echelon of the art world like Damien Hirst, Banksy, and Jeff Koons, while explicitly stating that pretty art was not art. No. Pretty art was craft. There was even a conversation where they explicitly stated that artists like Norman Rockwell made craft and not fine art. (If you’ve ever seen Rockwell’s political work, you’d be shaking your head about now.)

Not surprisingly, I felt at constant odds with what they were expecting from me because I was essentially told that the “pretty” art I wanted to make was not real or fine art. I needed to make ugly/discomforting conceptual art to make it as an artist.

The real lesson here:

Depending on the school/class/instructor, the program you are interested in taking might not do what you want it to do. In my case, that one particular 3D design instructor left such a bad taste in my mouth that I felt compelled to leave the program entirely. My stubbornness is impressive sometimes.

I didn’t know who I was as an artist or what kind of art I was going to make in the future, but I did know that what I was being taught wasn’t fueling me. Suddenly, I found myself dreading going to all of my art classes. I knew deep down what my art was supposed to be and it honestly hurt to have someone say my art was not art. The silver lining is that after that experience, I doubled down on what I wanted from my art and that defiance served me well.

In hindsight, I should have researched more schools and found an art program that fit what I wanted and needed from my education. But it’s likely I couldn’t have known what I needed until I encountered what I didn’t need and got real pissed off about it. In that regard, my undergraduate art experience was actually beneficial.

Not all programs are made equal and not all ideas or styles of art are taught with the same intensity across institutions. And honestly, sometimes there are just bad teachers out there that leave you feeling bitter and demoralized. I hope you don’t encounter them, but if you do, I’ll be here to build you back up and tell you to make the art you want to make.

Now that we are past my slightly bitter rant, should you go to art school?

Three Questions to Ask Yourself Before Enrolling in a Formal Art Program:

Are you planning on seeking employment from an institution that requires a BFA or MFA?

If not, doing a full formal program for an art degree is unnecessary. If you want to work specifically in the art industry then could definitely be a good idea to get a BFA and eventually an MFA. But if you just want to be an artist who makes work and sells it, then a degree really doesn’t mean anything.

Should you have a desire to be an art instructor in K-12 or universities, you need a degree. If you want to work in a professional creative setting as a gallery curator, art historian, creative director, etc., then proving you know all the basic principles of design will be necessary. There is a lot to learn about art, and some careers will require extensive knowledge to perform job tasks. Plan accordingly and find the right school that gives you the knowledge you need.

Do you have very specific areas of interest and don’t want to study extraneous material?

I should NOT have set out to get a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art. An atelier program would have been a much better route for me since I was determined to work on specific skills to use within my already developing art style. Or I should have researched the instructors at different schools to find ones that made art that I enjoyed.

Some programs will put you into an art school mold. If any school tries to teach you what kind of art you should make and it goes against your core artistic desires, then I’d find another program.

If an instructor tries to push a niche style onto you, ask yourself, do you want to be taught how to think like an existing 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.

Do you have other ways to pay off school debt that doesn’t depend on your art selling?

My general rule with creative fields like art and creative writing is that one should NEVER go into debt while seeking education. Never. The art world is unpredictable. There is no guarantee you will make money as an artist when you graduate. If money is a concern, look for grants and fully-funded programs. Do not go to an expensive art school and think that you’ll be able to pay $50k+ in loans immediately upon graduating by selling your art. It’s possible, but not probable.

To be an artist, I still needed an art education, but it doesn’t have to be from a formal school.

I am thankful for all of the exposure to the arts I’ve had throughout 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 watch a YouTube video with the same instructions and then learn how to self-correct by stepping back from your work or working with a drawing buddy. 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.

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 more natural skills than others, but all artists have to practice. We don’t just magically become skilled artists. You can’t avoid all of the ugly practice.

There isn’t one right path for an artist to take.

Whether self-taught or an art school graduate, you can be a great artist if you put in the hours needed.

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 and creative writing after leaving the art program, I was more inspired to create. Take in as much information as you can on a variety of subjects that intrigue you. If you want to eventually run an art business, then consider taking courses that teach you crucial skills like accounting and marketing.

But again, to be an artist, display in galleries, or sell your own work, 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.

What is right for YOU?

Every artist is different, and maybe you will thrive in an art school. Maybe your instructors will inspire you instead of pissing you off like that one instructor did to me. I will say that education, in general, has value and you should never stop learning.

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?

Please leave questions and comments below while commenting is open or reach out to me directly through Instagram or email. I’d love to hear from you! Make sure to sign up for my email list below to never miss a blog post.



P.S. You probably know by now that I am here to help artists with these posts. If you need help with your online branding, Instagram account, or just want a creative accountability coach, then check out my consulting services. You can easily add a session to my online calendar now.

Further Reading: