Thoughts & Process: Cautionary Tales of Art College

You’ve heard it before: Should you go to Art College? I’ve seen many a professional artist say not to, that all that matters is a good, diverse portfolio. This statement isn’t necessarily wrong, but its problem is that it condenses quite a lot of talking points, valuable information, and warnings into a simple sentence that doesn’t properly address concerns with the recipient. If we seek to really hammer home these consequences of art programs so we don’t lead the youth astray, this could also have the added benefit of forcing these academics to improve in what they currently lack. At the same time, is this possibly dangerous advice, when studies like this indicate that around 65% of today’s jobs require degrees? This is going to be a write up for all prospective artists out there, a thorough break down of some of the issues of art school.

Before we dive in, I want to get a couple of things out of the way. First off, the types of schools I’ll be addressing in this post are going to be the more art-focused schools, as opposed to larger community colleges that happen to have an art program. Next, I will make a few references to my art college experience for the sake of examples, but I’m not willing to completely tarnish the school’s reputation because of this, as there were some very good people involved in my experience. If you really want the name of my school, you can easily find it elsewhere, but for the sake of this article, I’ll be calling my school… OHNOART. Finally, for those of you who’d just like a bullet list of advice, I’ve made one at the bottom of this page just for you. Wink.

General Education

One of the worst things about high school is how many years and hours of time you have to sink into courses irrelevant to your interests, such as calculus classes when you’re looking to be a wood worker. Most people would imagine once you get to a specialty school, you could just focus on your interests for 4 years, especially since you are directly fronting the costs, either traditionally or through loans and grants. Well the sad thing is, irrelevant courses don’t just stop after high school graduation, after all, each school has multiple programs to sell! Normally you don’t declare your major until the end of year 2, and the academia is set up to make you take courses that would fall under other majors you may not have interest in.

In order to get into my chosen major of New Media, aka: Digital Arts, I had to take two different 3D traditional art courses, one metal-smithing and one just…general 3D traditional arts. That was just one of the multiple requisites before declaring a major. I managed to get 5 courses in my first 2 years that were relevant to my major; meaning in those 4 semesters of 5 courses each, I had 15 courses not directly relevant to my interests and 5 that were. These courses I was forced to take in order to graduate consisted of academics such as Foundations of Public Imaging, Critically Analyzing Contemporary Art, and most insultingly, a First Year Involvement class, which just was a time slot to make sure you were keeping up with your projects. $40k please.

A meme picture of a statue of Jesus Christ wearing a golden crown. The text below him says "ART SCHOOL AIN'T CHEAP"

But hey, if you managed to make it through those first 2 years, you finally get to take multiple courses relevant to your major! Oh…you still have some outside requirements like two more math courses and a state-specific art-wank class…whelp.

Technique

A lot of artists come into art schools thinking that by the end of their 4 year term, they’re going to have learned the skills necessary to make masterpieces, or at the very least, business competent artwork. One thing that helps them develop artwork in this manner is technique: the various repetitive practices used to develop a skill. If you’ve ever seen a popular artist get comments under their posts something akin to “what brush/tool do you use?” and the artist responds with a generic common tool, chances are the person asking the question really wanted to know the technique behind the tool. How an artist actually uses a tool makes a momentous difference in how a finished piece looks. So you’d think that if you went to an art school for 4 years, you’d learn a multitude of techniques to improve your art, right? Well, if that was the case, these types of art school posts like mine wouldn’t exist.

In my entire 4 year experience at OHNOART, which again cost $40k per year, I got a grand total of… one relevant technique, and it was possibly one of the easiest ones you could find online: using opacity and flow on a tool brush to build up lights and shadows.

An image showcasing two different effects of a tool brush, one used at 100% opacity & flow, the other used at 50% opacity & 100% flow overlapped 8 times.

Now the thing that bites the most about this is that this means for most of your school projects, you are essentially just winging how you create your work on your own, and not actually learning anything new for your processes. But don’t worry! You’re still going to get graded on how much effort and skill was in your piece and how well you pulled it all together. Here lies the problem: if you’re in a class like this, you are essentially paying to make your own artwork and get it critiqued, while picking up no knowledge of value along the way. Especially in this day and age where there are some lovely people willing to share their skills online, anyone can make their own passion projects at home. This is one aspect I’d love to see change more in continuing art curriculum: make more projects about trying different techniques and seeing what the artist values in each practice, as long as the techniques are relevant to that student’s major.

Networking

This is the biggest talking point for me. This is going to be what helps you get work after you graduate, and what ultimately makes your 4 extra years of education pay off. At the same time, this is one of the hardest parts of continuing education I find to get right, seemingly no matter the educational program. Anyone will find out very quickly how much it bites when a school sends you back out into the world as a graduate, with no career help whatsoever.

The factor that makes saying “don’t go to art school” so dangerous, in my opinion, is that both education and experience are hard walls to surmount when it comes to applying for jobs. Online job applications are known to be absolutely ruthless when it comes to meeting certain requirements for a position, and resumes get constantly trashed for seemingly minimal things, like having a bad file name on your resume. When hundreds of people are applying for the same job as you, it stands to reason that if the job requires a degree, those with the actual degree will get selected for interviews, even if you have a fantastic portfolio. So is it responsible to constantly decry art colleges, when recruiters get pickier and pickier looking for their diamond in the rough? However, then you have the issue of those who actually have degrees not having professional work experience in their respective fields, because you know… for some reason actually making the art relevant to the business for 4 years doesn’t count. The true answer is that job searching is getting more stacked against the applicant everyday, with no signs of stopping. But the one thing that a school could at least do for you, on top of giving you access to these professional tools, is get your foot in the door with a job or opportunity to get you this “professional work experience” and get you to stand out among the rest, right?

The problem is that so many colleges in general fail at this step too. The actual ratios of students finding work right after graduation is depressingly sobering at 35%, as many of these schools simply do not have the networking elements required to give these students success. What’s worse, networking can be considered a skill that the student themselves needs to develop and utilize, despite these students obviously not being able to have the relationships with higher profile individuals that actual schools can. Is it really necessary for me to say it’s not a realistic take for 99% of the public to have relations with high profile individuals? But for those who do want to try and network themselves, so many businesses these days put a disclaimer on their jobs ads saying “No phone calls/walk-ins!”, so actually networking in a more personal manner isn’t viewed favorably anymore. The fact is that students need help getting in the door, and at some point, we need to start looking at the educational institutions that fail them.

All this is on top of the fact that art majors have even worse luck. For most digital arts jobs, you need to live in very specific areas or risk being in a dead-job-zone. At least traditional fine arts have a bit more flexibility, but still need to be near populated tourist areas for success. Personally, it took me 1 year and 4 months to find a full time job in my field, and I was one of the lucky ones. Fellow classmates of mine never found anything, and those 4 years of art education simply became a fond memory.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Other things I want to address would be:

  • If there is one thing art school IS good at doing, it’s putting a student through a constant process of others critiquing their artwork and getting more comfortable to putting their creations out into the world. However, I’ve seen multiple students fail to separate themselves from their art, and take any critiques or helpful advice as personal attacks. It’s very common for these types of students to quit out of frustration.
  • College/university in general is very good, especially if you attend one outside your hometown area, at making you come out of your shell and develop your own opinions and perspectives about the world. For example, I was a sheltered and shy individual before I was uprooted from my quiet state. Once I finished my education, I became much more outspoken and found I had a completely different worldview than my parents, which they thankfully respected. However, at the same time I can’t pretend you won’t achieve similar results by just packing up and moving to a different place for 4 years, and let yourself be a fish out of water.
  • It might sound like throughout this post, I’m merely complaining about my own specific experience, and that if someone else went somewhere else than OHNOART, they might have a more positive education. The sad news however, is that these issues plague art schools and are commonplace, recounted by multiple graduates who’ve attended institutions. I’d love to be the one person crying wolf in my corner of the internet, because it would mean a majority of artists are having helpful experiences at these schools. But sadly, that’s not the case.

Conclusion & Personal Advice

If, at the very end of this write up, you or someone you know still wish to attend art school, that is a fine decision. I wanted to make this discussion to allow readers and affiliated parties to make a more informed choice. My personal advice to those still taking the leap would be:

  • Avoid schools in rural areas. Jobs, internships, and relevant opportunities will be extremely limited in these spots.
  • Get to know what businesses, partners, and affiliates the school has student relationships with.
  • Research your school of interest to fully understand the types of courses you’ll be taking in your 4 year program.
  • Do not major in a broad/vague program, such as Computer Arts or Drawing. Pick one that has a clear specialty with professional teachers that can guide you.
  • Take the steps necessary to make yourself more comfortable with putting your artwork on display, so you can properly display your portfolio in school events.
  • If you’re looking to be a Graphic Designer, learn to code.
  • Finally, try to fully realize what it is you want out of your education.

While I don’t regret my art college experience, I cannot deny that the school was set up in a manner that led me a lot of unnecessary heartache. So to those of you going into art school, keep your heads held up high and enjoy your time, but please make sure these 4 years of education don’t cause you 4 more years of frustration. Finally, to all of you, thank you for reading this far. I wish you the best, until we meet again.

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