Should you go to art school? Expectations vs. realities

November 11, 2022

It’s a crucial question for any creative young person, and for plenty of creative older folks: should I go to art school?

Many of my articles are rooted in my own experience with tablets and digital art. But I didn’t go to art school. So I asked a few people who did about how their expectations for art school compared to what it was really like — and to weigh in on whether it was ultimately worth it.

Eric Z. Goodnight, 41 is a Tampa-based t-shirt printer, digital art tutorial writer, and pinup artist who attended East Carolina University for a BFA in Communication Art from 1999 to 2004.

Bodie Chewning, 49, went to New York’s prestigious School of Visual Arts (SVA) from 1991 to 1993. He dropped out, but is still making a living as a concept artist in Brooklyn.

They both attended art school a while ago, and the landscape has changed a lot. I wanted to talk to a more recent art school attendee, as well. And I found one!

Rachael Forbes, 23, obtained a Fine Arts degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania from 2017 to 2021. She’s not currently employed in the arts, but instead is working an unrelated job on-campus as she saves to return to school for her Master’s.

Their experiences are diverse, and yet it should be noted that they aren’t exhaustive. Your experience could be totally different! Take their first-person perspectives for what they are, and make your own decision after doing plenty of research.

Art canvases Raychan Unsplash
Photo by Raychan on Unsplash

Did you have plans for what you wanted to do with your degree, or did you just see it as a means to get any industry job?

Rachael: Yes. I want to be an art historian, and I have a Fine Art degree with a minor in Art History … so now I need to go back to school. But for a lot of people who just want to be an established artist, a Fine Art degree is all they need.

Eric: I was shockingly cavalier about what I was going to do with my degree, because I had no idea what I was doing. Part of it was my background, coming from a very rural place where an art career was a foreign concept. When I left a long-tenured art job in 2018, my father suggested I “get a job working outside.” They still have no idea what I do for a living.

Bodie: Probably the latter … I was thinking of doing comics at the time of application, and SVA’s big line was that their professors were all “working professionals.”

How much of a burden is or was your student loan debt?

Rachael: A pretty good-sized one. I was lucky enough to be able to split it with my family, so I have 50% of the debt and my parents have 50% of the debt — but considering my 50% is $30,000 without any student loan forgiveness, it’s still pretty sizable to have to carry.

Eric: One of the few fortunes of being an elder millennial is that I got in before the dramatic rise in tuition. My parents were able to afford to put me through a state school, and I never had any loans after getting my undergraduate degree. Even in the 2000s, I was aware how lucky I was to not have that debt.

Bodie: None, as I was lucky enough to have scholarships and family help. Also, ‘91 to ’93 tuition was like a fraction — well under $20k if I remember correctly — of what it is now.

Part of the appeal for some aspiring students is that the challenge of having to meet deadlines will force them to produce art. How valuable did that discipline turn out to be?

Rachael: Very. Nowadays I don’t practice as much anymore because I work full-time, but it’s ingrained in me from how much I did it. I don’t find myself coming back to a painting after a few months and being like, “Oh no, I lost all ability to paint!” I will never forget how to do it.

Eric: As a neurodivergent person who discovered their ADHD in their mid 30’s, I don’t think I really learned any discipline, nor will I ever. It’s nearly impossible for me. I did, however, learn a great work ethic, and that has served me well in everything I have ever done … work ethic and discipline might look the same from the outside, but internally it’s very different.

Bodie: Oof! I didn’t really understand the utility of basic art skills and discipline at that age, so I’ve gotta say I really just staggered through it all. Had a tough time making deadlines and keeping my ambitions realistic in any way.

How much of the art skill you came away with ended up being from instruction vs. self-taught for projects?

Rachael: Both. It really forces a large amount of practice. At my school, every single studio art class required eight hours outside of class a week in-studio. So I was practicing 40 hours a week outside of classes on top of the classes themselves … so 60 hours a week at least. It’s a lot, but it was worth it. It forced me to get really good at what I was doing because I had no choice but to show up and put [in the time].

Eric: This is a difficult question, because I think after maybe a few semesters it all felt self-taught. We had a very rigid and academic school, but I feel like the inspiration and good critique [made me the person I am]. It’s difficult to say where any direction from a professor ends and mine begins, at least in terms of illustration. In terms of design, I had little-to-no idea what I was doing, so it was almost entirely them. I felt like I was struggling for quite some time. But it was an environment that I needed in order to grow as an artist, and I think all young artists should look for this, no matter where they find it.

Bodie: I’d say it was a mix. As a first-year illustration major, I found the basic instruction was all solid, with drawing and anatomy shining above the rest. When I switched to animation in year two, it was a very different story. It became more about access to basic tools like 16mm film and Oxberry [animation stands] and exposure to larger sound design and motion-control systems. And the teachers’ industry stories.

I found my time in Voltaire’s class — a continuing-education stop-motion film class I took for about three months after dropping out — to be a more useful experience than my three years as a “matriculating” art school student combined.

Wait, I just realized… Do you mean Aurelio Voltaire?

Yes, Aurelio. Funny, he used to go by just the one name. He was kind of an East Village goth personality and fixture during my time at SVA. I had a real bonding experience during my time in his class.

Aurelio Voltaire
Voltaire is a musician, artist, filmmaker, and a goth legend. Many fans are not aware of his background in animation. Image from Wikimedia Commons

It’s said that the most valuable thing about art school is the contacts, another common draw for prospective students. Did you make any there who helped you in your career later?

Eric: Is that what they really say? I’ve gotten zero job placements or gigs out of art school chums, even though I am still in contact with a good many of them. I worked on a Ludum Dare game project with my friend Will Jardine, and I have tried to hire my friends that went into web development or design. It’s not really gone very far even though some of my friends from that time have gone on to be quite successful. All my useful networking seemed to happen in my 30s. In my experience, networking at cons or in your local art scene is more fun and useful.

Bodie: Probably Voltaire. Everyone I met and the entire experience counted … but he became a locus for my eventual understanding of how one might carve a path through that particular niche industry.

What’s been even more useful — and interesting — to me is coming into contact with the people who went to the very same program ten years after me. That whole class is a group of comics and illustration powerhouses: James JeanMu PanFarel Dalrymple, and Chris MacDonald and his Meathaus zine crew are some of the most influential and inspiring artists to me presently.

Art School student wacom One

And finally, the question this has all been leading up to: Was it worth it?

Rachael: It really helped. It really, really helped. I don’t think you have to go to art school in order to be a successful artist, but if you need the resources and don’t have somebody to actively teach you or help you, or you don’t find the internet as helpful as other people, I think art school can really … propel you. You get a lot of resources, you get contacts, and most of your professors are pretty renowned or established, so usually you can go back to them later and ask for some push.

The debt’s a lot. College in general is unattainable sometimes for people, and it’s really hard as a regular working-class person to pay off that kind of debt. Especially for artists, because a lot go into that career without a lot of money promised to them.

But It’s all about what you make it. It’s not always for everybody, but in general, college is good if you want to do it, and it can be super helpful in the long run.

Eric: I’ve had a pretty decent career and have been able to do fairly well for myself because of my degree, and been able to do very impressive things as a result of the brutally hard work I put in during those years.

Going through college with no idea I had ADHD was incredibly hard on my mental and physical health. I look at that as the main price I paid since I had the good fortune to get out without debt. I think without a college education, I would be miserable, living in my small rural hometown, making bad folk art and working at a furniture store. If you live in NYC or San Jose, CA, maybe you can get away without an education. But for nearly everyone else on Earth, I feel pretty strongly that higher education is a net positive.

Bodie: This is something I still struggle with at 49. On one hand, most of my professors suggested dropping out to get a job in the industry. And I do believe experiences and execution count most, so that is a valid path. But on the other hand, I’ve been wishing I could go back to school and finish ever since I dropped out, although I’m still trying to train myself and keep growing on my own.

I think, if you’re the kind of person who can flourish under self-imposed regimens and find your own way to what you need, that it’s probably not necessary. But if you need [designated] time [to practice], and can use that time [wisely], school can be a real great opportunity depending on what you get up to.

Feature image photo by Matthew Henry on Burst

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