Getting schooled.

This post originally appeared in issue 5 of Pikaland’s Good To Know series back in 2009. I recently stumbled across a PDF of it and was pleased to see how much of what I’m talking about in here still holds true for me today.

Being an artist in any capacity involves having the natural inquisitive openness (and motivation) for knowledge and experience (the natural “student”) even before developing the technical-proficiency (the literal student) to interpret/ communicate one’s unique voice. The varying levels of success on either of these sides, or how well they work together for each individual, defines the ability to accomplish “art.” The first has to come from an innate drive, the second through practice.

You absolutely don’t need a school to practice, but the downside to the alternative (trial-and-error) makes for a longer process of getting where graduates are able to get in a relatively short amount of time — at least in certain areas. Art school grads are better able to set aside time to focus on developing their skills at a more relaxed pace (even under a tight quarter system) than “real world” training allows, and they — more importantly — have access to the network of professionals, resources and other grads that come with the territory.

The advantage most art school grads don’t seem to have is the more real-world side of client relationships, budgets, prepress/ troubleshooting, etc. This also takes practice, which explains why so few artists have much success right after graduating. Art students can also sometimes be too focused on “Design” or “Art” academically than as a worthwhile function of society. (It goes without saying that the burden of debt that art schools can often levee runs completely antithetical to creating art that may not be.)

I didn’t go to art school formally before I considered myself a professional artist, but I would never say I haven’t had to learn what I needed to be an artist/designer anyway. I have my undergrad degree in PoliSci, but worked in design and did art before and since. I later returned for a two-year degree in Graphic Communications to more seriously pursue what it is I really want to be doing (mostly to tie up loose ends and kick some bad habits), and am constantly on the hunt for tutorials and advice online and from colleagues every single day. (ed. note: this was written 3 years before enrolling in grad school) In doing so — while working as a full-time designer, a freelancer, an illustrator and teacher, concurrently — most of my days run 12+ hours, but it’s what I find necessary to move myself forward.

I’ve started teaching design in the past few years, and I see many students with the idea that once they finish their two-year degree (or measly “Career Certificate” — in some cases only two classes!) that they’re “done” learning. When I tell them what it’s taken for me to get where I am now … a very mediocre place at that … they cringe. For them to dismiss learning as “a checklist” is definitely evidence of the failure of the school system early on, but also indicative of the level at which consumer culture affects what people expect of it. They expect to “buy” a packaged amount of expertise called a “degree” — which may work for accountants — but doesn’t at all apply to the arts.

It’s kind of a shame: I’m of the belief that going on to a college-level program in any field is valuable because it builds the discipline and research basics needed to succeed in many areas of one’s life. The documented evidence that you can tolerate bureaucracy and boring pre-reqs enough to see something through to the end is an added bonus that employers can appreciate. The coursework becomes forgotten or irrelevant so quickly, its these other two that matter.

I know more than a few “artists” that have just ridiculously bad attitudes and no ability to withstand the slightest challenge to their immediate wants or preconceived ideas of what things “should be” like and never finished a single course, let alone a degree program. Similarly, their art careers languish. Others went through the paces at really expensive schools yet can’t support themselves and are going back for post-grad degrees hoping it’ll change things, or abandoning art altogether. On the flipside, I also have friends that barely graduated high school and did boat-loads of drugs but have enough of the energetic, open “natural student” in them to be wildly successful … but only through a decade or more of hard work and diligence.

You’re getting schooled either way.