What They Didn’t Teach Me in Art School
by Alan M. Clark, Jill Bauman, Chad Savage, and Steven C. Gilberts
The names of the artist in this post are links to their websites.
I have a degree in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute, and while I got a lot out of that education, there’s much that I learned only after college, in the “real” world. Here’s some of what my professors didn’t teach me:
- They didn’t teach me to be reliable, responsive, punctual, and easy to work with.
- They didn’t teach me how to communicate and make my services as an artist salable.
- They didn’t teach me that the world didn’t need me and my artwork and that I’d have to establish the value of my work before anyone would take me seriously.
- They didn’t teach me that the value of artwork is based on “perceived value” and that it is up to me to raise the perceived value of my work.
- They didn’t teach me that I needed to establish a good reputation for fulfilling the dreams of my clients if I expected to continue to get work (note that I did not say “the needs of my clients”).
Perhaps these things go without saying, but I think it would have been helpful if my professors had addressed them. Of course, I was young and full of myself and not paying attention to my teachers the way I might have. Perhaps they knew this and that practical experience was the best teacher of these basics.
When young artists ask me for advice, the first thing I say is, “Don’t be a flake.” Second thing I say is, “The business of getting work as an artist takes tenacity.” Third thing I say is, “Learn how to raise the perceived value of your work.”
What they didn’t teach me in art school was how to deal with the emotional ups & downs of an art career. That was left to parents, siblings and friends who questioned the practical aspects of my life as an artist.
They didn’t teach me how to be original or to set myself apart from other artists. This I had to discover on my own. They taught basic skills, but not how to “think” as an artist.
Art school does not teach you how to present yourself and your art to galleries or art directors.
They didn’t teach me about money management or setting up funds for retirement or investment. Working as a free lance artist can be a rocky financial road.
They didn’t teach me anything about the business end of art. There were no courses in copyright protection, contracts, tax deductions or artists’ rights.
They didn’t teach me about the struggles to pay heath insurance.
As an artist I followed my dream. I was willing to pay the consequences when it came to artistic, financial, emotion and spiritual challenges. The end result is that I have had a long and fruitful career. I don’t have to retire. Now, I am respected for my experience.
If I were teaching now, I would advise young artists to develop their drawing skills. I would tell them to participate in life-drawing classes–it will be the basis of everything else that they do. Then I would encourage them to find their own way of seeing the world and expressing it visually.
Don’t try to be like someone else you think is successful.
Have your own vision!
1. Personality & Integrity
When a potential employer is first informed of your existence as an artist,
if s/he’s got Brain One, s/he’ll ask his/her contemporaries “What do you
think of this artist”? You’ll be judged and juried without ever even knowing
it, based on (a) your personality and (b) your integrity. That is to say,
based on how you deal with people, and how you deal with your work.
Are you a charismatic character who meets deadlines? You’re golden.
Are you a shy, withdrawn type who meets deadlines? You’re still good to go.
Are you a prima donna jackass who meets deadlines? You might still get
Are you a charismatic character who misses deadlines? Outlook not good.
Are you a shy, withdrawn type who misses deadlines? You’ll have plenty of
time to doodle.
Are you a prima donna jackass who misses deadlines? Have fun in the vacuum
that is your life.
Be easy to get along with. Don’t miss deadlines. I can’t state it any
simpler than that. Go to conventions and buy the first round. Be funny and
entertaining at industry events. Post to industry message boards and have
something intelligent to contribute. Tell jokes. Be fun.
And don’t miss deadlines.
2. Say NO.
Seriously. Nobody taught me how to say “NO” without feeling guilty. It took
10 years of every sob-story band, writer, starving artist, et al begging and
pleading for my artistic assistance before I was able to say, with 100%
conviction and 0% guilt: NO. You don’t walk into McDonald’s and expect a
hamburger just because you’re a broke musician; don’t walk into my studio
and expect free art. My time and talents are valuable. Period. If you can’t
see that, that’s your problem.
3. Be Professional.
Any industry, no matter what its focus, is rife with political crapola,
rampaging egotism and nepotism galore. Your job? Stay out of it. Rise above.
Don’t engage in stuff that is beneath you as a professional artist, no
matter how tempting it might be. I am certainly not without sin in this
department, but the older and more experienced I get, the more I’m able to
resist it, because I’ve seen how it NEVER works to your benefit. If you’re
known as the guy/gal that is impervious to industry shenanigans, well, go
back and read Rule #1 above.
During my freshman and sophomore years I attended the Louisville School of Art which offered a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) program. When the school closed due to financial problems, I transferred the applicable credits to the BA (Bachelor of Arts) program of a satellite campus of Indiana University. This was the only option financially available to me at that time.
While both programs taught an adequately balanced curriculum of artistic fundamentals, they considerably lacked in teaching even a basic understanding of marketing artwork or artistic skills. In fact, the prospect of creating “art for hire” was largely a forbidden topic. In general, both establishments frowned upon commercial and graphic art and viewed it as “selling out” or “prostituting one’s artwork.” The rule was “art was done for the purpose of creating art alone, not for deliberate monetary gain.” Within the later BA program, this bleak financial future was not helped by the large amount of non-art required (and expensive) courses the degree demanded. Additionally, I encountered what has been a common complaint among many of my professional peers. Particularly within the BFA program (but also present within the BA program) there was an outspoken majority of both upper class-men and faculty that were openly opposed to fantasy and science fiction illustration. Once, when I mentioned my interest in fantasy illustration to a senior, her reply to me was “Don’t worry Steve, we’ll burn that idea out of you.” Ironically she was not saying this to be mean. She actually meant this as a positive and inevitable outcome of the BFA program.
Now I don’t mean to undermine the value of a college education in the arts. My time spent in the classroom was invaluable in learning the basics of composition, design, and color theory. Indeed, I feel that it is my background in the fine arts that has given my work a distinctive edge that helps people to identify my work.
But for the amount of money and time that an art degree costs, there should always be at least the potential of financial opportunity in compensation. Art for art’s sake might be a philosophy worthy of those who are independently wealthy, a Sunday hobbyist, or a tenured professor. But for a large number of artists, illustrating for a living is how the bills are paid.
In regards to higher education, my advice to young artists is that a college degree is a worthy endeavor, provided you avoid some pitfalls.
If possible, attend a Bachelor of Fine Arts program rather than a Bachelor of Arts program so that you will be able to concentrate on art. While I understand that it does not hurt to have a well rounded education, courses not specific to a degree should be chosen by the student or at least the faculty teaching the degree, not the financial department of the university.
Make sure the program will provide you with the opportunity to grow in your skills, not stifle them.
Develop your own style. I can’t stress that enough. During my college years I saw fellow students emulate the styles of favored instructors. The instructors and their work are still around, but their imitators have vanished. Conversely, some instructors tried to churn out clones of themselves. Professors of this type are best avoided as they can cause damage to a developing artist.
Don’t buy into the philosophy that creating art for profit is demeaning and lessens the value of the piece. This philosophy doesn’t apply to the endeavors of teachers, lawyers, musicians or doctors, nor should it apply to artists.
Artwork: The quad of images above is formed of artwork done by the artists who wrote this article; top left—Alan M. Clark, top right—Jill Bauman, bottom left—Chad Savage, and bottom right—Steven C. Gilberts.