What They Never Told You About Art School
Updated: Mar 8, 2019
Truth be told, when I entered college as a freshman, I fell into the trap of choosing a “safe” major. I spent my first two years of college with a typical schedule consisting of lackluster business courses and mundane general education requisites. But with each passing semester, I found myself less and less excited to go to class. Where I lacked motivation to indulge myself in the chapters of my macroeconomics textbook, I could spend hours after class drawing and painting in my apartment. Finally, I was forced to ask myself a very important question: Should I invest my time, energy, and money into getting a degree in something that I’m not passionate about?
While an art degree isn’t always necessary to flourish in the creative industry, it is becoming increasingly expected that high school graduates attend university. In many ways, a college degree is on its way to becoming the new high school diploma, or the baseline standard of education. In 1970, not even ten percent of the U.S. population attended college. Whereas, by 2010, over twenty percent of the U.S. population attended college . College attendance in the United States in growing exponentially, and it is only expected to continue moving in this direction. But the degree you choose matters, and it can affect your graduation-to-job acceptance rate and the return on investment of your college degree.
Coming to college, I struggled between choosing a major which might be more widely viewed to bring job security and success post-university, and pursuing my true passion of art. I believe that many people, young college students and adults alike, view an art degree as unrealistic, the “easy degree”, or perhaps even intimidating. I ultimately came to the conclusion that if I was going to invest my time, money and energy into receiving a college degree, it was more important to me to learn about something that I was truly passionate about. I am genuinely so glad that I switched my major to art, but hindsight is 20/20. If you are also considering following your passion of art and enrolling in art school, I’ve equipped you with a full list of what you will want to know:
Not Everything Is Art.
Art is theoretically subjective, and beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. But, in art school, there is a more distinct vision of artistic success. It is no longer about what “looks pretty”, and professors often encourage students to abandon overtired clichés and ideas. Lower level classes of art school will be more particularly restricting of creative freedoms as they focus around understanding technique, as well as the Elements and Principles of Art. In order to break the rules, you must first understand them. Objectively, in art school, a successful artwork is one created with intention, both visually and conceptually. So, always be prepared to create with a purpose and discuss your work often.
You don’t need to be the next Van Gogh to go to art school.
Do you have a passion for art, but lack the confidence that you may be the next Van Gogh or Monet? Don’t let that stop you from studying art! I can confidently say that, contrary to common conception, art is a skill just like any other; it’s all about practice. In my personal experience, there was a wide range of background amongst my peers in art school. While there were a few students that had taken private art lessons from a young age, many students had little to no knowledge on formal art when they came to art school. A background in art can be particularly helpful in building a strong skill set when studying art, but I have seen truly incredible progress amongst students after receiving more formal instruction. Those with little skill or knowledge before, who chose to invest many hours in the studio in order to understand and master techniques, often made the most progress as artists in the class. Also, don’t forget that everyone has their niche in art, and you may not have found yours yet. I saw students who selected an emphasis such as drawing or painting, and later discovered that they had a passion and talent for a totally different niche they simply hadn’t been exposed to yet, like printmaking or photography. It is not uncommon to go in with your emphasis undeclared or to later change it as you further sharpen your scope and skillset in a variety of different arts, so don’t be afraid to do that.
It’s Not THAT easy.
Before I was enrolled in art school, I was under the impression that the art department would be the easy route to earning a college degree. I though enrolling in a BFA major was basically a pass to straight A’s and no homework. While receiving an art degree may be easier in the fact that it doesn’t involve complex math or rocket science, it is a demanding major in other ways I didn’t anticipate. As an art major, I was surprised to find that I invested just as many hours, if not more, in order to meet deadlines and finish projects for my studios courses as I did studying and working in my previous business-related major. Most studio classes expect students to put in a minimum of 6-8 hours every week outside of class, but, those with the strongest portfolios usually invested more than that.
It’s expensive as sh*t.
As I strolled through the doors of the art department for the first time, I felt thrilled at the prospect of ditching hundreds of dollars in textbook rentals or purchases. Little did I know, I would need those funds and some extra to cover the add-on costs of my studio classes. Not only do you have to purchase an extensive list of supplies for every course, many art schools also require you to pay additional materials fees that cover the costs of supplies provided and shared by the class (i.e. large paper, gesso, etc.). The good news is that as you move to the upper-level studio courses, you will often find you can reuse at least some of the materials purchased from previous semesters. If you’re enrolling in art school, Cheap Joes and Hobby Lobby are going to be your new best friends. Hobby Lobby has a more limited selection of supplies, but they are forever having sales (and you can find coupons everywhere online to knock a few bucks off your purchase). Depending on where you attend school, some universities register their art studio classes through Dick Blick, where you can purchase all your items from one place with the click of a button. However, be wary that some supplies here aren’t cheaper, and they often end up quickly placing popular items on back order at the beginning of the semester.
You need to make a kick-ass portfolio.
A portfolio is the essential counterpart of an art degree. When you graduate university, people will seldom ask you about your GPA or how long it took you to graduate, but a strong portfolio can make all the difference in opening up more professional opportunities for yourself. More than your college attendance record or the grades you received in your classes, your portfolio is the truest demonstration of your abilities. If you attend art school, go in with a plan to give your all on every assignment in order to build a strong portfolio that showcases your personal style and your skillset as an artist.
Four-year track isn’t always the way to go.
That being said that a strong portfolio can make all the difference post-grad, you may find that a four-year degree isn’t always the way to go in art school. Most studio classes will demand a large amount of work in a short semester of time. Going the extra mile on every project that is due and investing many hours of time outside of the studio is what will allow you to finish your college career with a strong and diverse portfolio. By spreading out your studios over extra semesters, you will likely find yourself with the ability to invest that extra time on every piece without having to sacrifice sleep or a social life. An extra semester to earn your degree could also be the difference that allows room for resume-boosting experiences such as study-abroad trips or co-op internships. If you have the luxury of being able to afford an extra semester or two in your time at college, it is the perfect opportunity to have more time to create a stronger portfolio that will positively influence your post-grad career opportunities.
Classes are SUPER long.
Before I was an art major, I found myself in the majority of college students who believed that a semester’s course load is best organized by grouping your classes into a few select days. With skillful scheduling and a little bit of luck, you could find yourself with a long weekend every weekend. But you can toss that extraordinary plan out the window if you’re going to art school, because studio art classes in college are about three hours in length on average. Thus, cramming a lot of classes into one day, or even one semester, can quickly become very time consuming. If you’re considering changing your major to art or you’re about to start art school, I would definitely recommend spacing out your courses where possible. It’s a lifesaver when meeting project deadlines --- you’ll thank me later!
You may no longer be the big fish in a small pond, but that’s a good thing.
One of the beauties of art school is that you will find yourself surrounded by many people with the same interests and passions as you. That being said, you will likely not be the best artist in every class. Being around other talented artists gave me the push to transition from being a “good” artist to distinguishing how I could set myself apart from all the other “good” artists and develop my own personal style. If you go to art school, be prepared to be challenged by your peers, and be prepared to grow from it.
Yes, you will draw people naked.
No, it’s not that weird. All of my experiences with nude art models in college were professional and, astonishingly, felt completely normal. Life Drawing was one of the first art studios I took in college, and, as someone with a passion for portraiture, it quickly also became one of the best art studios I took in college. I gained so much through observing from real life, and honed my skills by practicing figure drawing exercises on a daily basis. The models are just there to do their job, and you are so busy trying to get your work down on paper that you aren’t thinking about the fact there’s a naked stranger posing in front of you. Most importantly, hiring models to pose for art can easily cost $100+ per hour, so it is a luxury most artists may not have after university. Make the most of your time while you have them for cheap, and learn as much as you can.
Don’t be worried about post-grad.
One of my biggest hesitations in studying art was how it would restrict my post-graduate opportunities. I was incredibly surprised at all of the options I discovered were possible to pursue with an art degree once I changed my major. With an undergraduate art degree, you can apply to assistantship graduate programs, many of which offer a tuition waver and even a per-semester stipend in exchange for a student teaching a couple undergraduate classes each semester. There are also artist residencies opportunities, where you can apply to actually get paid to travel and make art for free. Assistantship programs and artist residencies are both great opportunities if you want to take a few more years to hone your artistic style and build your portfolio on someone else’s dime, but that’s only the beginning. An art degree also opens the door to a variety of sustainable careers in the creative industry including digital animation, illustration, graphic design, teaching, art therapy, and more.
 “U.S. College Enrollment for Public and Private Colleges from 1965 to 2016 and projections up to 2027 (in millions).” Statista: The Statistics Portal, © Statista 2019, March 2018, https://www.statista.com/statistics/183995/us-college-enrollment-and-projections-in-public-and-private-institutions/