by Arnie Fenner
The topics of art schools, higher education, degrees, and the price tag attached to them come up all the time. You have to go/you don't have to go. This school is great/that school sucks. They cost too much, they don't teach the fundamentals, the instructors are incompetent, they don't prepare students for a career that will pay a living wage, etc, etc, and etc.
The complaints aren't always wrong, of course. These days a Bachelor's Degree can saddle the recipient with a student loan debt of $100K to $200K, depending on the institution. For every inspiring, nurturing instructor there undoubtedly is an equal number who are intimidated by creativity in others and shouldn't be teaching at all. Because of shifts in the marketplace—largely attributable to changes in both technology and society—some schools have pushed the fundamentals of drawing and painting to the rear to emphasize computer skills. Does that frustrate some students? Absolutely. Are the schools wrong to take that direction? I guess it depends.
What does the student really want? Do they want to paint book covers or work in comics or enter the advertising field or design films or become a gallery artist? What do they aspire to? What are their goals? Sure, everyone wants to be the best they can be, but it's not enough to "want to create art." The questions have to be asked: for whom? How? What? And the biggest question, of course, is: who will pay you to draw or paint or sculpt or film?
Yeah, it boils down to dirty old dollars. If you don't make them...you don't have a place to live and you don't eat. If you can't figure out a way to make your art cover your bills, you're not going to have the time to create it—because much of your time will be spent working at a different sort of job that will. I don't think I have ever known a successful artist who could only devote their energy and attention to their art part time. It's the way of the world—and while we all surely know someone who floats through life on a wing and prayer with barely a nickel to their name but who seems to get along just "fine"...we all know that person is an anomaly, an exception to the norm, and not us. (An exception who eventually gets hit by the proverbial bus.)
Above: A Life Magazine photo of students at the University of Iowa painting a model in 1961.
So we go to school, any school, for a number of reasons, and shoulder the expense to prepare for a future in which we can take care of ourselves and earn a living. To achieve the credentials that help us be able to earn a living. And if some schools think that teaching you how to put things together in Illustrator or Photoshop is more important than teaching composition, color, and anatomy...well, that's appropriate for some artists. Just as it's not for others. (And, yes, if you want to function as a commercial artist today, you had better bet that you will need some computer chops.) That's why you pick and choose your educational options carefully. Thoughtfully. Deliberately.
The flip side of the coin is that for any class, any school, any experience to be worthwhile, the student has to invest themselves in it, to literally wring every last bit of knowledge and inspiration that they can from it. One of the most valuable aspects of college—or junior college or workshops—is the interaction with other artists. The friendships, the shared experiences, the dramas and silliness, the failures and the successes, all are as important to making the artist who they are. And those contacts and friendships can go on to help your career when it's least expected (and perhaps most needed).
Do you have to have a 4 year degree to be a freelance artist? Nope. You just need to be good. Real good—which means you have to work hard, learn everything you don't know, and work harder. The competition is stiff and the market is fickle: what's hot today isn't tomorrow and the artist has to be like a sapling and bend in the wind, not break, then spring back with quality work that the market will respond to (and pay for).
Above: A Life Magazine photo of Thomas Hart Benton painting "Persephone"
at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1939.
If, on the other hand, you want to work as a staff artist for a corporation—Disney, Hallmark, Bernstein-Rein, National Geographic, et al—you need the degree. Skilled or not, without the paper Human Resources tends to toss your resumé in the round file. (Why work for such stiff-necks? Oh...money. Insurance. Security. Paid vacation. Educational opportunities. Retirement benefits. You know: dumb stuff like that.)
Freelance Vs Staff Artist is a topic for another day, but I think what I wanted to briefly touch on is that, regardless of your career path, if you want to be a successful artist you have to work at your craft and keep it fresh. Increasingly there are non-traditional avenues for artists to do so. And—here's the important thing—no matter if you're self-taught or have an MFA from Ringling, whether you're a novice or a pro of long-standing...
You should never pass up an opportunity to learn. You must never pass up an opportunity to get better. You never close yourself off from new experiences and influences and opportunities.
Independent schools and workshops have taken a firm hold on the illustration community, particularly in the last decade; their focus and structure can be invaluable to artists of all ages, stripes, and sensibilities. They can and do provide life-altering learning experiences at a cost significantly less than what is available at most institutions of higher education.
Being an artist means you're on an unending journey of discovery. You never learn it all. You never know it all. Your education never stops. And you should never be satisfied. That's why taking advantage of classes like the following...is something worth serious consideration.
The Art Department in Kansas City is headed by John English and features a stellar list of instructors including Jon Foster, Anita Kunz, Sterling Hundley, Jason Manley, Gary Kelley, C.F. Payne and the legendary Mark English.
The TLC Workshops in Bothell, WA got off to a rousing start this year with intimate, hands-on classes conducted by Justin Gerard, Brom and Iain McCaig [above], Terese Nielsen, and, this Fall, Gregory Manchess.
Rebecca Guay's The Illustration Master Class in Amherst, MA boasts an intensive week of instruction by such masters James Gurney, Boris Vallejo, Julie Ball, Greg Manchess, Dan Dos Santos, Irene Gallo, Iain McCaig, Brom and more.