When I told a friend the topic for my post, he scoffed. “Succeeding in art school; how hard can that possibly be?” He said. “Isn’t it just four years of drawing and painting?”
He was being ironic, I think, but the real problem is that too many people who have no experience with art school and its intricacies actually believe it. In some circles, the idea of going to art school still carries a stigma that the students who attend art school aren’t receiving the same education as a student who attends a traditional four-year university. The stigma is silly and entirely inaccurate.
An art school certainly offers more specialized learning, but it’s curriculum and standards for success are just as rigorous as any other institution in the country. As with traditional universities, there are plenty of students each year who attend art school and quickly realize they can’t handle it. With the idea of helping some struggling and wayward students find their way, we decided to compile a list of five tips to succeeding in art school that we think we help students thrive in school, and after.
Check your ego at the door
Many students walk into art schools with a certain swagger and confidence. After all, they took plenty of art classes in high school and easily outpaced their peers in terms of creativity, skill, and knowledge. The problem with this line of thinking is that it usually leads to students inflating their skill-set and becoming overly confident in their abilities. Students entering art school should understand that the slate has been wiped clean. Every other student in your class is probably a talented artist. Like you, they were all probably one of the most talented artists at their high school, no matter what the field, and all of them chose an art school specifically because they wanted to further that talent.
If you walk in with an ego and expect every piece of work you produce to earn top marks, you will be disappointed. Your work will end up sloppy and careless and your instructors will notice that. The best way to improve your work and set the table for a career in art is to be humble. Enter school hungry to learn and eager to pick up new tricks and tips that will help you improve. If you don’t rest on your laurels and focus on improving your abilities everyday in class, you will get a lot more value out of your education, and chances are you will become a better artist because of it.
Keep an open mind about your major, but choose quickly
Art is a broad subject, and because of that, art schools typically offer dozens and dozens of different majors and fields of study. Some art schools require you to pick a major before you matriculate, while others let you choose once you have already started taking classes. Chances are, most students have an idea of which field of study they would like to pursue once they enter school. Maybe they were an excellent sketch artist in high school and think that is the right choice or maybe they are very interested in the fashion industry and want to become a designer.
Wherever their interests lie, they usually have an idea of what they would like to study, and there is nothing wrong with that at all, it just might behoove you to take a step back and consider all the options. At an art school, you have the opportunity to be exposed to many different disciplines within the field, and pigeon-holing yourself in one of those disciplines from the minute you step on campus may be counter-productive. If you are an excellent painter, obviously take some painting classes, but also consider some classes in another subject, at least so you can get the feel for what studying other types of art is like.
That said, don’t take that general approach to your studies for very long. Freshman year is for exploring your interests and figuring out where your true passions lie, but after that, it is in your best interest to settle on a particular subject and start to focus your education in that subject. If your education is too general, it will be difficult for you to stand out in any area, and standing out is what helps artists (or anyone for that matter) find jobs and become more appealing to employers.
So once you find a subject that you really like and are really good at, focus on it, try become the best in that subject that you possibly can be, because specializing in one subject will help narrow down your search for a job and might also give you a leg up as you try to jump-start your career.
Find a mentor
Teachers get their jobs primarily because of their expertise in a given field. You don’t usually see art teachers whose most knowledgeable subject is chemistry or complex mathematics. But these teachers can be useful in more ways than just simply passing along knowledge and information, they can be key resources to helping you get a leg up on a particular job or internship. It’s likely that if these teachers are experts in their subjects, they have been practicing their craft for many years, and over those years, they have probably made countless connections with people throughout the art world.
Students need to recognize that and treat their teachers not just as instructors, but as gatekeepers to the working world. It isn’t a bad idea to find a teacher who is particularly impressive or whom you share a great relationship with, and asking them for advice not just on your school work but also on your job search. Finding a mentor is important in any field, but it is particularly essential to your growth as an artist. While in school, a mentor can help you overcome particularly difficult obstacles, or help you complement your skill-set with more skills, or even help you unlock talent and ability that you didn’t even realize you had.
Once you are looking for employment, they may be able to help by putting you in touch with some of their connections, or writing a glowing letter of recommendation about your ability and your work ethic. These teachers can be your support system. They can help ensure that you don’t falter while you are in school, and they can help ensure that you flourish once you are out of school. There is nothing wrong with keeping your head down, studying hard, and trying to make it on your own. But if there is help available, especially help as beneficial and useful as these teachers can be, it makes sense to use that help in any way you can.
Take your portfolio seriously…but you already knew this
For most students already in art school, this seems like a no-brainer. Your portfolio is your resume, so obviously you should be taking its creation very seriously. But you would be surprised to hear how many students don’t spend enough time on their portfolio and instead just add to it without much rhyme or reason. This is foolish. The portfolio may seem like an unimportant aspect of your professional development compared to the heapings of knowledge you are gathering in school and class.
But when it boils down to it, that portfolio is going to be the best indicator of your ability as an artist. It is your opportunity to show employers the best work you have created and so it is important to ensure that you are choosing the work that goes into your portfolio carefully and precisely.
The good news is that an art school, there are plenty of people willing to help you perfect your portfolio. They understand the importance of creating an excellent portfolio and they will try their best to give you all the necessary resources to craft a great one. You should be using these resources whenever you can. Don’t just create a portfolio and expect that your work is done. You should create the portfolio, then critique it, then ask someone else to critique it, then ask people who know better if what you created is worthwhile or whether employers will remain unimpressed by your work.
Remember, the portfolio is the culmination of your years at art school, it tells employers and teachers and whomever else about you as an artist, and we don;t just mean about your talents as an artist. It should have parts of your personality and it should be creative, and engaging. So make sure that when it comes time to create it, you spend a lot of time making it perfect.
Make your own connections in the real world
Art school is for learning, yes. But you shouldn’t spend all of your time tied to the classroom and the campus. You should also be out on your own, showing some ambition, and trying to make a name for yourself in your field by meeting people who are already working in your field, and even some who aren’t. If you find a mentor, they will help you make connections, but any artist who really wants to succeed in the industry should also be doing that themselves. And it doesn’t have to be another fashion designer. Meet some people in the business world who will help you develop some business acumen, after all, it could come in handy when you want to start your own business.
Go to galleries if you are a fine artist, attend graphic design workshops and events, find people in the fashion industry who are willing to sit and chat with you about the industry. You don’t necessarily need to be looking for advice, you just need to be meeting this people and at least building the foundation for a friendship or working relationship with them.
There is a good chance that if these people are professional artists, then they have encountered some of the obstacles that you are likely to run into at some point. Use their experience to help you succeed both in and out of school.