Do You Need to Go to Art School to Be an Artist?

Students ask me all the time if they need to go to art school to be a professional artist. I don’t mean online tutorials or a mentorship program like the one I offer through my site here.

I mean going to art school and getting a degree in art. Or even just going to liberal arts college and getting a degree in art, like I did.

It’s becoming more and more relevant as young people generally are evaluating whether or not the cost of school outweighs the potential benefits of a degree. And for many of us, having a college degree is just an expected part of being a member of the work force now.

But does this apply to art?

Well, it depends on a few factors.

The art gallery system

This is probably what most people think of when they think “art career”. We’re talking free wine, jazz music playing in the background, and a white-washed room filled with carefully curated sculptures and paintings.

Actually, this is what I had always imagined a career in art to be. I’ll admit, the idea didn’t totally thrill me, but that’s what all my professors had experience with, and so that’s what I expected.

In fact, this is what 90% of art programs will teach you. First, you study for years with traditional media until you find your expressive voice. Then you start putting your work in coffee shops and even small galleries, hoping that someone will be captivated by your work.

You charge what seems like an insane amount for a painting, but it’s just what you see other people charging. And it seems to work for them.

And you try to meet the right people and get your art in the right places, and maybe some day move to Manhattan and become a big star.

Now, this might be for you. And if it is, there are plenty of opportunities for it. I tried it myself for a little while, and decided it wasn’t for me.

I just wanted to paint pretty pictures and come up with cool creatures and fantasy landscapes, and it just never seemed to fit in. The galleries tend to attract more “conceptual” art (not to be confused with concept art). People want an idea or some kind of deep story behind the work. And I just wasn’t interested in that.

So… art school?

The point being, if you’re an artist, this is a possible route for you. So do you need to go to art school for this?

Well, maybe. There are a lot of great (and very expensive) art programs out there that can teach you exactly how to work in this system. It’s a lot of networking, understanding how to price your work, how to create perceived value, etc.

But honestly, I doubt anyone in a gallery is super concerned with your credentials. They care about your art, your story, and your showing history. In some cases, it probably won’t hurt to have on your CV, but is it necessary? Probably not.

What about concept art?

Some of my weapon concept art for an independent project

Ok, so I told you I wasn’t interested in the gallery system. But I tried it for awhile, unsuccessfully. After graduating college, I started learning about these incredible artists called “concept artists” who were creating incredible, masterful works of art as part of production pipelines for films and video games and such.

I knew I had found my calling. But was I qualified?

The answer, I soon found out, was: well, not really. But not for the reasons you might think.

Concept art is a highly competitive field. The skill threshold for entry level positions is incredibly high. But is anyone checking to see if you have a degree?

Absolutely not.

All that matters is your portfolio quality, and your ability to demonstrate value to the studio. If you can prove that you can do exactly what they need, in the right style, with sufficient quality, you’re probably gonna get hired. You probably don’t even need a high school degree.

So, if paying for art school or even special “concept art schools” is what you need to get your portfolio to that level, then go for it. But honestly, for the price of a university degree, you’d be much better off saving that money to pay for rent and food while you build your skills.

All of the information you need to get better is online, much of it free. And having a dedicated mentor can really help, too. The rest is just practice and time, and more practice.

And illustration?

“Arrival”, painted in Photoshop

Yeah, same thing here. In fact, probably even more so. Illustration work is usually more of a freelance thing, and requires a lower skill threshold. Most of my early professional work was illustration. Book covers, album artwork, personal commissions for friends and family. Logos, posters. Whatever people would pay money for.

And all that matters for that is that you’re easy to work with, and have proved that you can create decent art. Having some skills in business, marketing, finance, etc. will help, too. But I learned all of that myself after going to college. A lot of it is trial and error.

The verdict

There are plenty of other industries that artists can pursue. Logo design, graphic arts, comic art, and more. All of them more or less follow this same trend.

Honestly, if you know you’re serious about art, I would skip the degree. That’s what I wish I had done. There are a lot of other expenses that money could go towards: overhead fees for websites, ads, mentorships, and more, that can supplement your own learning and research.

If you’re interested in learning more about what you can do to start working towards you art career without going to college, check out my YouTube channel for tons of free resources, or if you’re really serious about art, you can book a one-time session through my mentorship program, and we can make a plan for your art career. I assure you it’s much cheaper than an Art degree :).

Until next time,

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