Back to School
Recreating Art School (part one)
Knowledge and Structure
Prior to the internet, access to specialized knowledge was locked behind the closed doors and paywalls of
colleges and universities. Alongside came the belief that these institutes are the only way to guarantee a “real” education. However, as many professionals in the creative industry can attest, not only are degrees unnecessary, they often cost students thousands of dollars and waste their time with irrelevant or outdated instruction. Luckily, due to the rapid accessibility of technology, large quantities of high-quality educational content created by working professionals are available to students like never before. The problem students now face is not a lack of information but rather how to approach it…. Which instructors are good? What subjects should be studied and in what order?
This three-part series of articles provides students with the tools to craft their own at-home education. In this first article, we encourage you to define your career goals and design a blueprint for your education. Then, you’ll be introduced to effective discipline building strategies to complete your studies. In part 2, we’ll give advice on mentorships and community. Both are very important to recreate on your own if not going to a school that provides those for you. Finally, in part 3 we’ll discuss workspaces and equipment for being an effective student and artist.
Getting the Knowledge
Having the internet at your fingertips is like having access to all the libraries of the world through all eras of human history. Author Ray Bradbury expressed his overwhelming sadness entering a library, wanting to weep knowing he’ll never live long enough to read all the books contained within. Regardless of your feelings towards libraries, students can’t just read all the books expecting to improve, but must instead read the books best suited to their goals. A good place for students to begin their education is with the foundational skills all artists require regardless of specialization such as draftsmanship, composition, and figure drawing.
Proko – a resource for students to learn foundational skills in drawing has over 800 video lessons on figure drawing, portraiture and anatomy. With these foundational skills mastered, students can apply this knowledge to whatever niche they choose to specialize in, from Character Designing to Storyboarding to 3D Modeling.
Alex Huneycutt (AKA RadioRunner) made a comprehensive breakdown of the foundational skills necessary for a career in the arts. This chart can aid students when designing a blueprint for their own education.
While traditional educational institutions can provide students with some foundational classes, the quality of their instruction can vary wildly. Instructors may lack the proficiency or professional experience necessary to teach certain topics. Another disadvantage of these institutes is their one-size-fits-all approach which lacks the specialization needed in today’s art careers. Many art departments lump different disciplines together without specialized programs, meaning fine artists, graphic artists, photographers, and animators receive the same series of classes. The advantage of an at-home education for students is the ability to customize it specifically to their career goals, allowing them to spend time and money on the most up to date classes and resources.
Design a blueprint. Plan your path.
The first step in utilizing the knowledge available to students is to design a blueprint tailored to their specific goals. Defining their current set of skills and outlining their end goal (e.g. a certain career or skill set they hope to achieve), allows students the opportunity to figure out the stepping stones in between. This technique allows students to efficiently pursue their goals in two ways. First, it reduces wasted time on classes and resources they don’t need. Second, students can spend double or triple the amount of time on classes and resources essential for achieving their goals. Concept Design Academy has given students several blueprints for different entertainment art career paths.
Students may ask, how do I know which classes to take / books to read / resources to use in my blueprint? The short answer is, continue to ask questions and look for answers! When students continue to seek answers and information they’ll start to notice the same teachers, books, and schools that pop up. Students cannot look to learn animation without stumbling across Aaron Blaises’ amazing resources. These searches for information can often lead to online communities who collect and share some of the best learning resources with each other. Participating in these communities gives students valuable insight into high-quality resources by reading what other community members have recommended and used for their own studies.
If students need inspiration when designing their blueprint, they can contact schools or search their website for a class schedule. This allows students to see which skills the school has deemed necessary for specific careers, and can help design their blueprint by exposing the content within each course. Ideally, students would compare multiple class schedules to see where they overlap, cluing them in on the most important skills.
To get an even more detailed understanding, look up the instructor’s syllabi for the exact class content, reading list, and required software or supplies. An example of a course syllabus can be found on Marshall Vandruff’s website. There is one potential drawback to be aware of – due to the slow process and expense to change curriculum, some of the information in these brochures might be outdated or no longer relevant to current industries. As such, the most up to date information can be found by taking classes with or talking to working professionals.
Since teaching online has become a lucrative business, many professional artists have turned to online
teaching. Many artists you already follow may have shared their knowledge with the world, whether through an online school like Proko, CGMA, Schoolism, and New Masters Academy or independently through Patreon and Gumroad, or their own websites like Aaron Blaise, Stephen Silver, James Gurney and Mike Matessi.
The accessibility of the internet has changed the educational landscape dramatically. 20 years ago the only way a student could learn from film director Martin Scorsese would be through an $8000 class at USC. Now, students have access to his director’s commentary on DVD and online through Masterclass for a fraction of the price. However, it is worth noting that artists with amazing skills don’t necessarily have the same skills when it comes to teaching. Their minds are primarily focused on how to make the best painting, and not necessarily how to communicate their process to eager students. In fact, John Singer Seargent once said of himself , “As to describing my procedure, I find the greatest difficulty in making it clear to pupils… to serve it up in the abstract seems to me hopeless.” In some lucky instances, students can find an amazing artist who is also an amazing teacher, as is the case with Steve Huston and several others I’ve already mentioned.
Even if a student cannot take classes with professionals, reaching out to them at conventions or on social media can provide valuable insight on constructing an educational blueprint.
Keep in mind, professionals are very busy so a student’s best chance at getting a reply is to have specific, easy to answer questions. Students should use this as an opportunity to learn something unique about the professional’s career or how they got the education necessary for their role. Questions that are too broad can take a long time to answer. And questions that can be answered with a simple Google search might get ignored. If the professional replies, always follow up with a note expressing your gratitude for their time.
Another valuable resource for students designing their blueprint is current job listings! These listings spell out exactly what skills and software companies expect new hires to have.
Once students craft a blueprint best suited to their educational and career needs, how do they best utilize it? By building a structure around it. Many people struggle with making and following a schedule, in fact, a major benefit to attending a traditional educational setting is the structure it provides. Formal class time, homework, feedback, and lab hours are predetermined and the student’s role in their creation is minimal. Outside of this environment every little decision and the follow-through falls on the student’s shoulders, as such, distractions often become much easier to say “yes” to because there’s no formal time for work or study. With these obstacles, how do students create an effective structure for themselves?
One way to create structure is to mimic the deadlines students normally have in school. These deadlines
cannot be arbitrary but must have consequences to encourage students to finish. For instance, submitting artwork to a contest, or making a drawing for a friend’s birthday are both deadlines with consequences.
Another reliable way of building a sustainable structure is to cultivate discipline.
This can’t be done by brute force, as discussed by Wendy Wood in ‘Creatures of Habit’ on NPR’s Hidden Brain Podcast , rather, the ideal way to build discipline is to reduce friction between you and the difficult task you’re setting out to achieve. Everyone is familiar with the surge of enthusiasm for New Year’s resolutions, only to find themselves neglecting them weeks later. Instead of relying on the burst of adrenaline gained by starting a new project, the trick is to have sustained enthusiasm by wiring your brain to find the activity enjoyable. The two main ways to reduce friction include removing obstacles and giving immediate rewards. These actions transform difficult tasks into pleasurable activities, and over time, into habits.
Finding creative opportunities to reduce friction helped me establish and maintain a gym routine.
Instead of going to a gym 15 minutes away in the opposite direction of work, I removed this obstacle and reduced friction by finding a gym only a short 2 minute walk away from work. I could park my car at work and during this 2-minute walk, immediately reward myself with a quick breakfast or coffee from a local cafe before my workout, reward myself with a podcast during the workout, and reward myself with a nice shower after my workout so I could return to work feeling refreshed and clean. The immediate gratification provided by these rewards creates an environment where I look forward to an otherwise difficult task. Committing to a difficult task in a rewarding environment will take about 6 months to turn into a habit. Take this opportunity to design the structure and habits purposefully, tailor them to your environment and needs, and do not make them difficult.
As an artist, have fun and be creative with the solutions!
Reducing friction can be used to keep students motivated in class as well. Classes can be broadly categorized as “product” classes or “process” classes. Product classes give students an opportunity to use their skills creatively and apply them to a project, such as illustrations or portfolio pieces. Process classes give students skills necessary for their career but may add friction to the educational process with technical and repetitive content, such as perspective or anatomy. It’s up to the student to make the content engaging and fun. Students should ask why they’re learning the subject in the first place (because they love designing characters? because they love telling stories?) and figure out creative ways to relate the assignments back to the things they enjoy. Speaking from personal experience, students excited to do fun assignments will put extra time into fixing things that aren’t their personal best and be driven to do extra research. I once took the assignments in an extremely technical anatomy class and related them to a life/death theme. This opportunity allowed me to enjoy learning the material and motivated me to get better at the fundamentals because I was pursuing something fun and interesting to me at the time. Author Alan Moore explains how important enjoying the process is, “I decided that I was never going to write a story that I personally wasn’t interested in. I kind of developed a method by which I would take even unpromising material, make it into something that was fun for me, that was either amusing or intellectually stimulating, or you know, that my use of language or storytelling or something like that. Some element in the story that would provide me with sufficient motivation to do a good
job on it.”
It is important that no matter where a student’s current skill level is, they always strive to do their best work and go beyond what’s required of them for an assignment.
Students never know what opportunities may reward them for their efforts. In High School, I was given a rather ordinary bouncing ball assignment for an animation class. I could have easily turned in the expected assignment, but instead found a way to merge it with my interest in billiards at the time. Driven by my enthusiasm for the project, I created a bouncing billiard ball animation with little characters and a storyline. By doing my best work with the skills available to me at the time, I took an ordinary assignment and created an award-winning project which introduced me to a mentor and ended up on American Airlines flights. Aim high and don’t hold back.
Beyond building good habits it is important for students to be aware of bad habits that gradually build-up due to negligence or inattention. Students should carefully survey their study habits and avoid tricking themselves into thinking they’re progressing by binge watching videos. Don’t watch art lessons like you watch Netflix shows.
Traditional school structure separates each topic and grants time to fully absorb it, allowing students to practice their retention with homework and quizzes. Watching a video is equivalent to attending a lecture or demonstration, but studying at home tempts students to watch another video, and then another, and another. Binging content in this fashion would be equivalent to finishing one lecture and jumping into a new lecture on a new topic, and if a student did that 4 or 5 times in a row with no break, would they really have any time to absorb or understand what they spent the day learning? Would they even remember the content of the first lecture? Carefully treat lessons watched online as if they are a lecture by an instructor. Create exercises based on the information in the video lesson and practice it in your own projects. There’s no immediate punishment to letting at-home art studies slide, except the long term punishment of not ending up with the skills you hoped to achieve.
Here we must end by highlighting one of the limitations of at-home education, a lack of accountability to other people. Yet fear not, intrepid student, we will return in the next article to show you how to build your own network of accountability and find mentors to aid your studies. Until next time, stay tuned!
Proko is an online resource for artists where they’ll get fantastic art instruction videos that are both entertaining and educational. Proko’s core message is to make learning fun. If you’re having fun and enjoying the learning process, you’ll learn better because you’re paying attention, will retain more information, are more likely to continue learning and much more likely to go back and re-watch the tutorials. You’ll also leave more inspired and highly motivated to go practice. If ‘fun’ and ‘informative’ had a baby they would name it Proko.