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Emboldening Students To Thrive: Ringling's Caleb Prochnow

The idea of the "starving artist" is often presented as romantic in pop culture, but in the real world skilled artists aren't afraid to prosper as professional visual communicators. That's the message Professor of Illustration, Caleb Prochnow works to get across to his students at the Ringling College of Art and Design.

"I am an entrepreneur," said Prochnow, "I helped found a Stock Art and Design Company called Vector Genius and have found the process rewarding. As a business owner I try to share my experiences with the students in the classroom. I want my students to do more than just survive as an artist; I want them to thrive. At Ringling I believe that we teach our students how to excel in business as well as art."


Learning How the Pros Learn

A graduate of Ringling himself, Prochnow worked as a commercial artist for clients like Disney, Universal Studios, NASCAR, Ron Jon Surf Shop, Simon & Schuster and EA Games before returning to his alma mater to teach.

"I believe that my approach to teaching has developed over time and is a direct result from my industry experiences. I treat the students in my class as if they are working professionals, giving them the same guidance that might be given in any professional setting by an art director. I want my students to be prepared to meet the standards that will be required of them for any art and design job," said Prochnow.

Prochnow has found that teaching invigorates him and his creative work, which in turn invigorates his teaching. For him, it's a mutually-beneficial mix of activities that keeps him inspired. He's currently working on two of his dream projects. The first is a novel called Blood Fuel that he's co-authoring and illustrating, while also fully adapting into a graphic novel. Prochnow's second dream project is a visual development art book called Design Unscripted, a 100-page book that recently raised more than $15,000 on Kickstarter. The book features the work of Ringling students and alumni. Prochnow said that running the successful Kickstarter campaign was a fantastic learning experience for him and his students, and that he hopes to repeat the process annually.

"Ringling has a unique creative environment that is conducive to growing and expanding your craft," said Prochnow, "As a faculty member I have come to appreciate Ringling’s belief that its faculty members be practicing artists as well as educators. This belief has helped keep the curriculum at Ringling relevant to today’s job market and created a dynamic atmosphere that is fun to work in. I enjoy seeing fresh new work from my colleagues on a daily basis. There are also many extra-curricular activities that you can be involved in. For example, I am part of an amazing project by Ringling Illustration students and faculty members to create the Meanwhile comic."


Real Life. Real Challenges.

That's not to say taking on art from so many angles isn't without its challenges. Like a lot of creatives, Prochnow has to consider ways of keeping his busy schedule from becoming an Ouroboros.

"I would say my biggest challenge is finding a balance between creating new professional and personal work, family life and teaching. As an educator I want to make sure that all of the information I bring to the classroom is current and relevant, I tackle this by continuing to work professionally on freelance Illustration and design," said Prochnow.

As much as Prochnow focuses on giving his students the best education they can get, he's proud to have picked up lessons from them as well.

"I’ve learned that an artist’s personal attitude and their drive to succeed can be just as important if not more important than their artistic talent," said Prochnow, "I’ve seen my students overcome huge obstacles because of their willingness to learn and work ethic. Some of the students that have had the hardest struggles in the classroom have had the most success in the art industry. I believe that the struggle helped make them strong and prepared them for what they would face outside of the classroom. I have endeavored to apply this same tenacity and drive to my own art."

Supporting the respective strong work ethics of Prochnow and his students are increasingly powerful digital art tools that require minimal training to use, leaving class time free for honing skills.


Tools of the Trade

"The bridge between digital and traditional work is getting smaller and smaller. This excites me! I remember first learning to draw, sculpt and design digitally on a tablet. I relate those first efforts on the tablet with learning how to walk. I remember feeling awkward and clumsy like I was drawing with a rock," said Prochnow, "Now, Ringling students learn to work directly on the screen utilizing Cintiqs. I have seen students that have never worked digitally make the transition from traditional mediums to digital mediums with ease because of the technology. In the illustration department at Ringling we teach a traditional mixed media course before the students are exposed to the digital media. Because of the advancements in the digital programs students are able to make an almost seamless transition from the traditional media techniques to the digital media techniques." 

As much as digital art tools have improved, advancements in technology have also presented Prochnow with a few challenges; namely the occasionally unhelpful influence of the internet.

"Students nowadays are exposed to a lot more art at a younger and younger age," said Prochnow, "Online art sites and tutorials are now accessible to almost anyone. This can be a double-edged sword though. Many times a self-trained student will come into my Computer Illustration or Visual Development course and I will have to spend a significant amount of time overcoming bad habits, techniques or misinformation that they have learned online."

Prochnow does offer some practical advice for students who are preparing to begin art education, whether they're headed to Ringling, a high school class or otherwise.

"Practice your artistic craft every day," said Prochnow, "There is a lot of power in consistency. Learn to take constructive criticism. Many artists feel that their art is a personal extension of themselves. I do not. I believe that in order to excel at art you must first separate yourself from your art, that way you can look at your own work objectively and see it for what it is. Its success and its failures."