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transforming hundreds & hundreds of students into professionals since 2004

Tip #1: The Independent Art Student Life

So you want to learn independently? Free from a structured program you’d see at a university? The insane cost of tuition these days? Or you feel like you want to go in more depth than is possible in a classroom with 20+ other students?

Today, we will look at the realities of formal education (universities especially) compared with the independent “self-taught” student. I think there’s a lot that’s misunderstood about both of those situations. They all have advantages and disadvantages and the lines between them are actually very blurry.

I recently saw a video where an artist was explaining a study that claimed that most working artists (ones who who made their primary living from their art) actually had no degree. I thought this was very curious, so I looked at the linked study and found….drumroll… that the study and the artist in the video…had excluded DESIGNERS and ARCHITECTS.  That is…anyone who’s a graphic designer, motion designer, or concept designer. That seems to leave out a large number of pros who make livings and who learned their craft in a university or formal setting.

I also have a former mentor who likes to tell his clients and students that he never finished his art degree. Except, he really only had one class left. An elective.

None of that is to say that no one can be successful as an independent artist. I know plenty who are. They had very limited or zero formal university training. BUT, they did have some things working for them. Though I do have formal training (BFA in Illustration and MFA in Painting) I still had to pursue a lot of information and skills completely on my own. And those secrets can work for you too.

Formal Education

The Advantages!

Let’s start off with some of the advantages of a studying at a university. I taught at 6 and studied at 2.

First of all, they lay out a clear path for you to follow. Freshman year usually gets you through a number of courses that give you a big picture, some basic drawing and design skills and usually enough of a view that you can decide on a major.

Then there follows a number of classes planned out in sequence so that by graduation, you have a range of skills and a portfolio and maybe (if you’re lucky..) some work finding skills.

You don’t have to plan ahead, hopefully you have competent and inspiring teachers and a highly motivated community around you. Your teachers keep track of market trends and update as necessary. And you can trust them to take care of that. You’re in a situation that provides a space to work, critiques and feedback, a schedule to follow, and a sequence of development. You also develop a network with the other students and faculty that can last a lifetime. The school’s reputation may also be helpful and many universities bring recruiters from great companies who are looking for new employees with your portfolio of skills. That kind of initial certification can get your foot in the door, which is really what the degree and initial portfolio does for you!

Those are real tangible opportunities that are hard (but not impossible) to find on your own.

The Disadvantages...

That being said, let’s look at the real problems with Formal Institutions.

I’ve been teaching at universities since 2004, I and professors are well aware of the limitations of the classroom (as well as the advantages, more on that later!). The two biggest ones is the fact that there’s very little time and now they cost so very very much.

TIME:

A typical class runs for about 15 weeks in a semester and meets twice a week. That’s only 30 (80-85 hours or two weeks of a full time job) class periods to help you to get through a skill or process. For a while, I taught at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) in Hong Kong. They’re on a 10 week quarter system. That’s even more insane (20 sessions totaling 50 hours or a really busy work week…). Imagine all the things you need to know to do a decent figure drawing…in that little time.

Some students may find that’s more than enough time, depending on where they start out. It wasn’t for me, probably not for you. Most of us knew that it would take a couple more years beyond graduation to actually have professional level consistency. I didn’t feel I started making that level of work at all until the end of my first senior year semester.

COST:

In terms of cost, well…let’s look at some numbers. A private art and design university can run you $24,000 (+ 2500 in feeds)  per semester in tuition alone, not to mention living expenses (apartment, insurance, utilities, food, etc) estimated at $8,500. So, if we divide that 26,500 dollars into 12 credits per semester, we get 2208 dollars per credit. Your average studio class (like I teach) is 3 credits. That’s 6625 dollars to just take my one studio class. Divide that by 30 days of class. That’s 221 dollars per 3 hour class session, assuming you or I are never absent.

I never miss class.

That’s really really expensive. While it was cheaper when I was student, I could never afford that. I wouldn’t even think about it. There are reasons why it costs so much, but that’s a larger more boring economic discussion.

By the way, 4 years at 64,000 dollars a year (tuition, fees, and living expenses) is 256,000 dollars. The cost ends up being actually higher, since tuition does go up every year.

Art & Design University Costs 2022

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS:

There’s also the fact that your randomly selected co-students are sometimes not as motivated as your are. You may get really deep into it and others around you just want to get through it. Recently I reviewed some types of perspective with my figure drawing students who had been in my previous perspective class and I mentioned Vertical Vanishing Points (yes I have lessons on this in the full membership…), now it’s a really great subject and really really helpful, but…there was simply no time for it. That student would need to come to me during office hours or get lucky with the right book in the library.

I also had a number of students panicking this year that they were about to lose access to the course videos and demos I had put together for them in their course site so they could go back and review and use them in later semesters. Luckily, the system is set up so they can continue to have access as long as they are students. But that ends, eventually.

Path of the "Self-Taught" Artist

The Essential Ingredients

What does this mean for you?

Some of what the university does provide is really important. You can do things for much much cheaper and avoid debt, it may take you a little longer to get the portfolio you need. But, you can find other, sometimes better replacements for everything you find in a formal institution.

Instruction:

You can find tutorials and online and sometimes in-person classes with high level artists that are significantly cheaper than a university course. You can build up a schedule of your own time, but only if you are a diligent self-starter (if you’ve read this far, you ARE!). You will often find that most tutorials are really designed for professionals who already have a certain level of understanding and skills and not for the beginner.

It means you have to keep learning. However, if you are a completely “self-taught” artist, you do face some significant challenges.

Cost:

You can do this for much much cheaper. I paid 60 USD for a bundle of courses which contained content that, if I taught it, would probably take a semester to cover. That’s 100x cheaper… Or if you were to take a mentorship, even though they can cost a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars, they’re still much cheaper. Sometimes you can buy individual critique sessions for 20-100 dollars from artists.  No debt. You can work a basic part time or even full time job and do all of this.

Time:

Sometimes you need more, sometimes you need less. But I think if you committed 12-24 hours of study and practice a week, you could get as far or further than a university with some focus and a little mentoring. That’s very doable if you have a full time job. If you’re willing to live very cheap and work part time, you could do upwards of 30-40 hours of practice each week. You do have to learn time management, how to keep a schedule, make reasonable goals. contact mentors, and decide on a path of study.

Community:

Online communities are great! I joined in on the then popular forums like ConceptArt.org and CGTalk to post my work and get feedback. Social media has made this hard, because almost nobody posts on social media to get legitimate feedback. They just want the shares and likes. Don’t believe me? Try and post a real valid thoughtful critique on a young artist’s work (or pro’s…) and see the rage that follows, maybe not even from the artist, just from the rabid followers. So this can be a real challenge. You may need to find a Discord or create one where that is community culture. Where people are there to help each other out and you have specific rules of conduct to keep things civil. And you only get in on others’ recommendations and a group approval.

Mentors:

I mention mentors a lot, because they are vital. Every “self-taught” artist I ever met has not been self-taught. They didn’t discover artistic principles and practices on their own. They benefited from someone’s instruction whether on youtube, bought tutorials, books and workshops. Those were all mentors to one degree or the other. I do think it can really help to find a direct one, someone who’s work and career you admire. If they don’t offer one, then you can propose one. Many do make that available now.

Potential Problems

If you are a completely “self-taught” artist, you do face some significant challenges. These are real and you may struggle with these for a time before you find your focus.

Disadvantages like

  • a lack of direction
  • a lack of community
  • not knowing what’s really  worth your time
  • No feedback
  • indeterminate deadlines
  • threat of failure
  • lack of resources
  • a space to work/studios
  • support

A university provides a lot, if not all of that. But, as you’re well aware, it also does that at a premium (256,000 USD one). A significant one. And we’re seeing more and more in the news people who are questioning if the price is worth the outcome. At this point, as much as I love the colleagues and institutions I’ve worked at, I’m not always sure it is.  I do know it’s not for everyone and not everyone can get access to it. But you might be someone who really needs that formal rigid structure to get to your goals.

NOW WHAT?

As you start up, there are TWO things I would do.

First, look at your schedule (I use google calendar) and block off the time you know when vital things have to happen. Things like when you get up, when you have to be at work or in a class. Include the commute. Include meals. I include walks with my dog (Bosch!) and meals. Doing that first will show you what time you do have outside of those things that cannot be missed.  Then block out in 2-3 hour chunks of time at least 3-4 times a week for practice. Now that you have your schedule, STICK TO IT. Let others know that this is sacred time and you are not to be bothered or distracted. Turn off your phone, close Facebook on your computer and focus on completing the content at hand.

You will be shocked by how far you can get as long as you stick to a consistent schedule. If you’re not already used to doing this, you will fail, that’s ok. Just start over. It’s how we learn.

Second, designate a space to work.  This is your studio. You may need a table, small easel, desk, and your supplies. Organize your supplies so they’re easily accessible. At the end of a session, take a minute to put things away.  Sometimes you can’t keep full time exclusive access to a space. I’ve been there. I grew up in a large family. In that case, keep your supplies and projects together like a kit, so you can quickly get it out and get to work in the space you need.

HERE’S SOME HOMEWORK

  • What do you think? What makes a great “self-taught” student? Make a comment below!
  • ALSO! Post it on Instagram using the hashtag #myartprofessor (I follow that one!) So I can see what you’ve done!
  • Follow my instagrams RainlandStudios, PeterSakievich, & MyArtProfessor
  • For live streams (the instagrams!) Twitch and Youtube @myartprofessor!

NEXT UP!

In the next one, we will look at how to make your artistic development visible.

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