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Is Formal Education Necessary to Become an Artist?

Sonal Panse,

I was listening to an art podcast on iTunes – you really need to listen to some of the podcasts there, if you haven't already; they can be very inspiring and entertaining - and the artist spoke about going to art college after a long and unsatisfying business/advertising career. Someone I know recently decided to change career tracks in a similar fashion and we had a discussion about whether it was necessary for her to study art formally. She already has a degree in her field, so was it really necessary for her to put in four or five years for a degree in art? Couldn't she make it with some informal learning?

Now I'm a strong proponent of good art colleges, but, that said, I don't think they are the only means of learning.

With the many resources available on the Internet, it is possible to devise an art course for yourself, provided you are able to remain motivated enough to go the distance on your own. There are scores of great sites giving in depth information about art history and aesthetics, about life drawing, gesture drawing and sketching, about composition, color theory, and working in different media. There are videos and podcasts of artists giving demonstrations, explaining how to do something, or discussing different aspects of work and career.

In addition, there are many offline classes, workshops, and art retreats.

A really resourceful and committed person can derive a broad learning experience on his or her own by exploring these avenues; certainly more than someone that completes art college with a lackluster attitude.

In the end, it is really a personal choice. You should carefully consider all sides though, and assess your own learning ability.

Some of the pros of getting a formal art education -

  • You are in an environment where making art is taken seriously.

  • You work alongside other creative people and this can be very inspiring.

  • You pick up social skills and build up contacts.

  • You learn from people who are more accomplished than you. We are not always the greatest judges of our own work, particularly when we are still developing. Having an experienced artist look at your work and offer guidance and suggestions is invaluable for creative growth.

  • You learn about things that you might otherwise have not known you needed to know. When you learn on your own, especially if you have no prior artistic experience, it can be a bit tricky knowing where you should start and how you should proceed. The time you would take to figure that out is saved in an art college, because the curriculum has already been laid out for you. It's a bit like not needing to invent the wheel all over again.

  • You learn about how the art world operates from people who have actually worked in it.

  • Where you studied can make a difference in your career to a point, and, even if it is your portfolio that matters in the end, it's good to have a degree. You get taken more seriously, because, it's obvious, you have invested the time in learning the profession and you were evaluated to a standard acceptable in the industry.

Some of the cons of going to art college -

  • It can be expensive.

  • You may not get along with the crowd or the professors.

  • The art that is being taught may not be to your taste or interest.

  • A degree will not always guarantee success, especially if you don't have a strong portfolio to back it up.

The main thing to remember is that you don't – and, in fact, shouldn't – ever really stop learning, whether you take the formal route or the informal one. There is always room for further development.