5 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Art School
by Anne Kostecki
It's been 10 years since I've graduated college. Wow. This year I was supposed to have my 10 year reunion, but it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as many things were. I've been thinking off and on about my education, since until recently, much of my career has been as an in-house designer at a university. During my college years, my friends and I were quick to point out the inadequacies and shortcomings of our education. Don't get me wrong: I received a very rigorous, multidisciplinary education, and I'm proud of my school.
But going to college for art isn't the same as going for engineering or pre-med: there are many successful artists who have no higher education, or are completely self-taught. You can't really become a mechanical engineer or physician without going to college and receiving the requisite grades or graduate degrees. And, art is subjective: in many ways, you can't teach art. And so, in the 10 years since I've graduated, what have I learned? I'm hoping that this list can help you make decisions about higher education, or if it's too late for you (like it is for me!) we can commiserate!
1. The legal and administrative stuff MATTERS.
In the four years I attended college, there was not a single course, seminar, workshop, or any other sort of educational opportunity for art students to learn legal or administrative tasks. Nothing about how to file taxes as an independent artist, how to register your business with the IRS, how to keep track of invoicing, any sort of customer service training, NOTHING. And I was constantly on the lookout for these types of things, as you can tell. My friends and I often complained about the lack of "nitty-gritty" training we received in college.
Of course, our professors would off-hand mention the importance of these things, but there still wasn't a requirement to learn them. And if you ask me, if they had offered a class like that, it would've been full EVERY semester. Instead, there were required classes in things like art criticism, 3D and 2D design, drawing, and various electives, all focused on art philosophy and very "ivory tower," types of skills. Which is great, and I certainly learned a lot, but I would have gladly traded any of those classes for a legal crash course. And it would've been 3D design I traded, because I did not do well in that class!
Lesson: If there is any sort of legal or administrative training, TAKE IT, and don't look back. Sure, it might not be as fun as taking a fashion design class (yes, I did that) but if you have that opportunity, you should absolutely do it. Even if you don't plan on becoming a freelancer, you will benefit from understanding taxes, licensing, copyright law, anything of that nature. I had to learn most of these things the hard way, and sometimes when it was very late in the game. The earlier you can get a handle on administrative duties, the better.
2. Art is truly subjective.
Before I went to art school, I had a lot of interests. My childhood and teenage years were filled with me reading books and watching movies about all of my interests, and those things influenced what I wanted to create. I happened to love mythology, fantasy, dragons, mermaids, all kinds of things that fill a child's imagination. It made me want to become a children's book illustrator, and honestly, that was my career goal for many years in my life.
But once I started preparing my portfolio for college, I was told that there were certain things that admissions would want to see. Still life artwork, plein air work, an example of a figure drawing. Artwork that proved you worked from life, and to my adolescent brain, were BORING. Well, not entirely boring, but nothing that got the blood rushing the way that fantasy or surrealism did. I knew that I had to make some boring work, so I did it. I made a good portfolio and got admitted.
When I got to college, I looked around and noticed the types of artwork in the halls. It was more of the "boring" stuff, plus abstract expressionism, cubism, and other things that I didn't particularly care for. I noticed what types of artwork that the professors lauded, and what other students would praise as "brilliant." Sure, some of it was cool, and I genuinely liked some pieces that I saw, but there were many times I just lacked interest in the "sophisticated" things.
I started monitoring and editing my taste, and limiting what types of work I would gain inspiration from. I was afraid to share the fantasy artwork I loved, for fear of being called "juvenile," or "low brow." It was kind of exhausting not feeling free to share whatever I liked, and I regret it now. I wish I had the courage to create what I wanted, but it can be intimidating in the presence of art professors, historians, and other art aficionados.
Lesson: Don't be afraid of your art taste not being "sophisticated" enough. Art is subjective. Art "professionals" may mock or denigrate the work you like, but in the end, what matters is what YOU like. You are allowed to have whatever taste you want. No one should dictate to you what you should consume or enjoy. If people introduce you to new art, great. You have every right to like or dislike something.
3. Anyone can make art.
Have you seen the Pixar movie "Ratatouille?" In it, the famed Parisian chef Auguste Gousteau has a famous tagline: "Anyone can cook." At the end of the film, the food critic Anton Ego admits he was entirely mistaken about the meaning of this sentence.
"In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere."
When I say "anyone can make art," what I mean to say is: "a great artist can come from anywhere." This is truly an inspiring message, but I also kind of mean the tongue-in-cheek first meaning in that "anyone can make art." It seems that after 1917 when Marcel Duchamp placed a signed urinal in an art gallery and declared it art, that we have reached the end of "certain things are art, while others are not." I have a love/hate relationship with that idea. It seems that the first person to come up with a radical, almost ridiculous idea being art (such as a blank canvas, a discarded piece of trash, or a single line drawn on a wall) wins the declaration of "groundbreaking art." I could debate this ad nauseam, so I will spare you, but I think you understand the idea.
Lesson: An artist can come from anywhere, and be any type of person with any background. Artists are no longer just wealthy aristocrats or white men with patrons. Today, the ideas of art value diversity, and now more than ever, diversity is needed. You don't need an art degree to be a successful artist, but you definitely need to work hard. I can promise you: no artist thinks their job is easy, or that success was not hard-won.
4. Develop a thick skin.
Before I went to art school, we had art critiques in high school art classes. I was familiar with debating and questioning certain artistic choices with my fellow artists. What I did not understand was that criticism would become part of how I would be graded, because of its massive importance.
People, and some of them may be your friends/family/colleagues, may not like your art. They may criticize it constructively or destructively. And since we are artists, and often sensitive to our environments, this may hurt a lot. We pour ourselves into our work, and we spend so much time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears. It may feel personal, or confusing, or aggravating. It's so important that we recognize these feelings, take a step back, and ask ourselves, "Am I being defensive? Am I reading this person's body language as well as listening to their words? What am I not communicating with my art?" Even though we put a bit of ourselves in our art, it's not us that people are criticizing, it's the art. The distinction between ourselves and our art will not only help us accept criticism, but look at our art objectively and see room for improvement.
Accepting failure is probably the most important thing you will have to learn. Failure is inevitable. I'm sure that's true in every profession. But it's especially true in art. You will try new things, and they will fail. You will start a drawing or painting, and it will not turn out well. You will experiment with new art supplies, and you will have no idea what you're doing. You won't have confidence in every single thing you do, and even if you do have confidence in a piece, there will always be something more to learn. Recognizing this has been hard for me, but I'm so glad that I started learning it early.
Lesson: Accepting and doling out criticism is absolutely necessary when becoming an artist. The ability to separate yourself from your work, and to speak intelligently about other work when asked, will make you a more successful artist. Constructive criticism will not only help you improve, but you will learn how to constructively criticize other artwork you see and hopefully absorb those lessons.
5. Talent is not enough.
After I graduated college, I bought a book called "Talent Is Not Enough: Business Secrets for Designers" by Shel Perkins. This book was incredibly helpful for me when I first started freelancing, and I wish I had read it before I graduated. It has a decent focus on those who want to start their own design agency, so it goes over staffing, hiring, management, and other relevant issues. But more importantly for me, it included all of the important parts of being your own boss: contracts, taxes, legal issues, and aaaaall of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes as a designer or illustrator. It was the education I wanted in point number 1: "The legal and administrative stuff MATTERS"!
But in all reality: Talent is not enough. So many artists, designers, illustrators, and calligraphers have the talent to succeed as professionals, and don't. Why? Because they can't or won't put in the hard work, or are unwilling to take the inherent risk to become creative professionals. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that! Not everyone is cut out for the art/design lifestyle, and that's okay.
But if you think you are, then know this: talent is not enough; you need hard work and a willingness to fail. Artists/designers work nights, weekends, birthdays; skip vacations, work while sick, and compromise all sorts of creature comforts to make it happen. I've known creatives who counted every penny, dug themselves into debt, and worked crazy side jobs to make it happen.
Before college, I thought I was a hotshot artist. I had a lot of confidence about my skills, intelligence, and work ethic. HA! I think college has a way of waking you up the hard way. Everyone at my university was in the top 10% of their high schools (or higher), and had just as much talent as me, if not more so. I wallowed in self-pity a bit, and definitely didn't work as hard as I could have. I didn't fully understand that doing art professionally means working as hard as you possibly can to find your voice, promote yourself, take the necessary legal steps, and doing all of the administrative things you might not be prepared for.
Lesson: Be prepared to work. Hard. Be prepared to make mistakes and take wrong turns. Be prepared to lose money and sleep. You will have to sacrifice something: whether it be a comfortable, predictable lifestyle; periphery relationships; the other career paths you could take; or food and shelter (...I'm kidding!). I'm not saying this to be harsh, but to be realistic. I don't think a single professional creative would say they walked effortlessly into their dream job, without setbacks, fears, and sacrifices.
But would they say it's been worth it? To create for a living? I think so. Well, at least, I hope so!
I hope this was helpful for you, if you're considering art school, thinking about a career change, or just interested to hear about my experience. I'd love to hear from you if you have any questions. I promise I'm not a jaded, bitter artist ;)