Should I Go to Art School?

September 6th, 2016 | Posted in General


I get this question often, especially from young artists (or the parents or young artists) who are seeking advice on art as a career and the role of higher education in that career.  Artists that ask this question seem to lean towards the idea that higher education is a waste of time and money, and parents of young artists that ask it lean towards the idea that college is a necessity. Both are wrong to some degree.

Art school or no art school is an age old question, but one with an easy answer… if you find the right school it is worth the time and money, but only for what it teaches you, not for the degree/diploma that it imparts at the end.

The one thing I stress about artists considering art school is that your diploma is meaningless… no one in the art world cares about your degree in anything. All anyone cares about is your work/portfolio. That makes the learning part of art school all that really matters. If you find a school or program that is really going to teach you and help you develop your art skills then it would be worth your time and money to attend. Just know completing the program and getting that diploma means nothing unless your work is good enough to get the attention of art directors. (That said, companies like Pixar or similar sometimes recruit artists via some high end art schools like Ringling in Florida, Cal Arts in Southern California or the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Still, your work is what gets you hired… but having attended those schools does open a few doors.)

Another thing I stress is that you only get out of art school what you put into it. You can quite easily breeze through school with minimum effort and get that meaningless diploma… after all “grading” on something as subjective as art is quite different than something as quantifiable as engineering or medicine or law. There are no “wrong answers” in art, so good or passing grades are also meaningless. It doesn’t matter how good the school is if you don’t apply yourself and take advantage of the resources the school offers.

Art school is often very expensive. We have a school here in the Twin Cities with a good national reputation called the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It is one of only a handful of fully accredited colleges that offers a comic book/graphic storytelling program, as well as well regarded programs in animation, illustration, fine art, etc. It costs an average of $32,000 a year to go there. That makes a four year “degree” a whopping $128,000. You can buy a decent starter home in this area for that. Ringling costs $42,000 a year. The Savannah College of Art and Design is $34,000/year. You get the idea. At least at the higher end schools it is a VERY expensive education for a career that doesn’t usually translate into big earnings except in a few cases. That makes art college highly unpalatable, or just plain unattainable, for many people.

I went to a small art college in St. Paul called the School of Associated Arts, which was literally housed in an old mansion on Summit Ave. I think I had 30 people in my graduating class. After some expansions and name changes it was called the College of Visual Arts when it closed its doors for good a few years ago. I would have gone to MCAD had I been able to afford it, but even back in the late 80’s it was out of reach for me financially. I felt I got a good education at SAA, especially because all the teachers there were working artists who made their living with their art, and only taught on the side. That meant I got a lot of real world education and learned how to actually make a living with my art, as opposed to a bunch of theory and no practical application. No art director has ever asked me where I went to school or what my degree is. In fact I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and was an “Illustration” major. I have no idea where my diploma is right now.

The bottom line is that those seeking to learn to be a better artist need only find a program that teaches them something worthwhile and helps them expand and develop their skills. That resource might be an art college, given they can afford the costs involved, but before you start paying tuition be convinced you’ll be really give the opportunity to get that worthwhile instruction. There are other, less expensive resources out there as well… online classes, workshops, tutorials, books, etc. The same thing applies there: you get what you put into it. In the end it’s all about how much hard work and time you put into developing your skills, and whatever talent you had to start out with.


  1. Jumble Jeff says:

    Well said, Tom! There is something to be said for the college experience. I went to a Big Ten school (Go Blue!) and being on a campus, meeting all sorts of people and seeing all sorts of different majors and schools, opened my eyes and gave me a much broader idea of possibilities. Studying things that were not art related was invaluable. I have two kids, one in her senior year in high school, and the both are leaning towards art/design. I’ve tried to discourage them with the intent of seeing how passionate they are about art. I think my daughter will go into a design school at a university, where I will demand she takes business courses. That is the one thing I tell art students when I visit classrooms. Most artist/designers, will be self employed at sometime, if not all the time. They need to know how to write a contract and know the things that a self employed artist/business person needs to know. That’s where a larger institution is helpful. But at the end of the day, it really is what you put into it and how you show your future clients and employers what you can do as a young artist.

  2. Sally MacIntyre says:

    Art school/college can teach valuable technique. But, an artist has a natural talent that he/she is born with. To put on to canvas what is in an artists mind is God given.

    • Tom Richmond says:

      I could not disagree more. Natural talent is an intangible that some artists have more or less of, but the vast majority of artists reach their potential because of years of hard work, practice and effort… it’s not handed to them with a wave of a magic wand.

      • Al Goodwyn says:

        Well said Tom. As someone with little to no God given talent, I started cartooning 25 years ago with a skill level one step above stick figures. I’m still at it, far from talented, but much further removed from stick figures. After a quarter of a century and a couple thousand cartoons later, I’m looking forward to my first cartooning lesson later this month.

      • Kathy says:

        Tom, I totally agree with you. I was a natural artist as a child but that needs to be disciplined with education and hard work. Only a true professional would comment like you have. Thank you

  3. Well said. I have a BFA at Mount Allison University but learned most of my skills at the university newspaper the Argosy.

  4. John Howard says:

    Awesome post. You have some great insight and your experience really shows through with this. I am three semesters away from a bfa in graphic design which I started after an 18 year run in the army. I can’t tell you how many younger students I know who are disillusioned after they recieved thier diploma only to find that they have a tough time getting a job. I have had some valuable techniques I’ve learned in the few art courses I’ve had but have found as much if not more usefulness in online tutorials which are free and some online courses which are not outrageously expensive. Like you said, it all comes down to your work/portfolio. I wish more aspiring artists would read this blog. Keep up the great insights!

  5. Having worked at an art college as an instructor for a few years I can say I could never fail anyone who had completed an assignment, especially after seeing how hard they worked. Also, we graded on a series of criterea for the assignment, so the mark technically did not necessarily indicate a great piece of art or a gifted student. This was not a secret. It also reminds me of the students that went on to have some success in employment were not necessarily the ones assumed gifted. For whatever reason, whether ability to self promote, sticktoitness, a mediocre to even poor art student would end up employed honing their skill on the job while the gifted may not have the drive or personality to put their foot in a door. That’s not to say there are not talented students that really worked hard to score a gig and for some mystery couldn’t get arrested. That breaks my heart. The results are a mixed bag as it is the answer of whether to go to art school or not.

    • Tom Richmond says:

      I agree. I always say the world is full of incredibly naturally gifted artists who can’t earn a living with their art because they can’t meet a deadline, work with a client, or promote/market themselves. On the other hand I’ve known a number of artists whose work is pretty mediocre (at best) who earn a solid living on their art alone due to hard work and a strong grasp pf the non-art part of the gig.

  6. Jeff says:

    Great post, Tom. I get asked this a lot too. I’m a college dropout with very few liberal arts credits under my belt. I had no formal art training except for a little in high school. I’ve taken a few evening figure drawing and design classes here and there way back, but I learned mostly by doing. I landed a job as a graphics assistant in city planning at 21 with a portfolio of logos, illustrations, cartoons, and infographics of my own making. That job taught me tons about 4-color printing, layout, composition, and graphic design It also required me to develop skills in cartography, architectural drawing, and illustration. Plus I was exposed to computer graphics/illustration at the birth of desktop publishing (how quaint that sounds now) when Macs were born. As for cartooning, that was something I always burned hours doing on the side, drawing cartoons before and after work. My city planning graphics job led me to work as a stringer at small publications, then later the art department at the local paper, and finally as staff editorial cartoonist.

    I tell young people all the time, that to become a cartoonist, it may not be art school that helps you most, but life experience through a job where you’re able to do some sort of graphics work, be it print shop, local government, or newspaper art departments (sadly, few of these are left). Plus studying the masters of cartooning, learn all you can about what makes their art/gag-writing/storytelling so, so great — talk to them. And read, read, read, then read some more. Read everything, novels, bios, plays, magazines, newspapers, matchbooks, whatever is handy. Be the sponge.

    And Amberlith… I tell them about Amberlith.

    • Tom Richmond says:

      Most kids I talk to do not believe amberlith ever existed. They call it “ambermyth”. Also zipatone, rubber cement and picas as a form of measurement are urban legends. Leading is something they used to do in old-fashioned industrial factories and kerning is what food companies do to an ear of corn before they can the kernals. A keyline is a kind of pie. Ah… the simplicity of the 21st century.

  7. Jeff says:

    *chuckle* They must really be confused by the QWERTY keyboard…

  8. “Natural talent is an intangible that some artists have more or less of, but the vast majority of artists reach their potential because of years of hard work, practice and effort… it’s not handed to them with a wave of a magic wand.” So very true. 27 years illustrating comics has done nothing but show me how damn much I learned and refined along the way. Whatever your “artistic” predisposition as you enter the fray , it is nothing compared to what the thousands of hours under the pencil, pen, brush, etc… will produce.

  9. Great Post Tom! I have a feeling this will be come one of your most shared because of the subject matter. I’ve played both sides of this argument (no art school or pro art school) and in the end, I agree with you, its all about WHAT school it is (the instructors) and IF they can afford it. I’m against students getting into 60k-150k worth of debt after they leave art school. Its no way to start your life as an adult and could cripple you for your entire life. The irony is that I am now Artist In Residence and head of the Animation program at Lipscomb University in Nashville. I take it seriously, though, how much these kids are spending. My number one goal is for them to learn as much as I can cram into them, always with the goal being a job they can get out of school. It won’t happen for all of them- and I tell them that, but if they work hard they have a chance. I’ll do my part and give them all the best artistic/animation teaching I can muster.
    AND- Speaking of online teaching…..we need to talk, new plans for you!


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