What makes an artist? Hint: it’s not art school

Background from Lost & Taken

I have a friend from college who recently opened an Etsy shop, and we’ve been chatting about business for a few months now. It’s been great to know someone personally who’s also going through this crazy selling-art-business, too. I can’t even tell you how nice it is to be able to pick up the phone and say the words “blog”, “tweet”, “convo”, “list”, and “Etsy” within a conversation and having the other person get it. It’s been nice to share similar experiences with her, you know?

So, anyway, my friend and I were talking a couple weeks ago, and in the middle of a crazy, rambling phone conversation (thanks to me – I ramble – shocking, I know), she made a comment that after seeing what real artists do, she doesn’t consider herself one. Cue the sound of squealing brakes going off in my head.

“What did you just say?”

I was so concerned that it took me a minute to hear between the lines. She wasn’t putting down her work, it was fear of not measuring up talking (hello, Marco, it’s been a while). She didn’t go to art school, she’s only taken a handful of art classes, and she’s nervous about branching out into the art world. This fear was less about her actual skills, and more about how she thought art school qualifies you to be an artist; and because she didn’t go to art school, she was hesitant to use the term “artist”. I told her that had very little to do with it, and by the end, I think I managed to convince her.

After our conversation, though, I hung up the phone with art school on the brain. And it occurred to me that I’ve heard that sentiment before from others, and it’s such a dangerous, limiting thought. So, having gone through a college art program and graduating with an art degree, let me clear up a couple of misconceptions about art school.


Misconception #1: Art school is glorious! It’s a time when I can really just delve into my art.

Mm… sort of.

I get why people look at it a little romantically. Being told to make art as a major? Given the freedom to find my own artistic voice? Having professors encourage you to “dig deeper” while giving you constructive criticism to be better? Yes, please, and I’ll take four more years, thank you.

As an art major, you learn how to stand up and take a critique, how to give one, and how to find inspiration. You learn how to translate techniques you’ve learned into a vision you see, how to find your artistic voice, and how to connect pieces into a cohesive collection. You learn design concepts, color theory, putting together a portfolio, and the nitty gritty bolts of different mediums like drawing, painting, graphic design, printmaking, ceramics, sculpture, and/or photography. You learn all of this and it is amazing.

But, like anything else, you still have bad days. You ‘re learning in a pressure cooker environment with extremely passionate, extremely opinionated people who may or may not have eaten, showered, or slept that day, or know what year it is, or what planet they’re on. You aren’t creating to create, you’re creating for a grade, and you’re doing it on subject matter or with materials that you may or may not care about.

I can’t tell you all the times I went back to my dorm and cried because of the harsh twenty minute critique I just endured; I lost count. I didn’t mention the sometimes crippling insecurity that comes with just not getting a technique, or how your professor looks at you like you’re an idiot because it’s not sinking in, or having both of those things happen when you’re in the middle of a required class you didn’t want to take in the first place. I didn’t mention the dozens of times I had to pull all-nighters to get my work done in time, and the long, exhausting day after (which included a critique, of course). You’re learning publicly, so you fail publicly; for people like me who don’t like attention on them, screwing up in front of a class of your peers doesn’t just suck, it can be damaging and have you questioning what you’re doing.

Coupled with all of that, my art program was part of a liberal arts college, so I didn’t get to focus just on art; I had science, math, and history requirements, too. Sure, I wanted to be in the studio all day and night (and sometimes was), but there were other things I had to do as well – papers, midterms, class projects. The first two years were rough as I struggled to find a balance. It got easier, but it wasn’t easy.

Which isn’t that dissimilar from life, if you think about it. I still want to spend all day in the studio, but I still have other responsibilities, too (stupid bills).


Misconception #2: If I had gone to art school, I would know how to run my own art business.

Eh, sorry, but no. At least not in the very traditional undergraduate type of program I went to.

Art school is good if you want to learn how to make art. But art school failed to teach me how to make any money from art, much less start or run an art business. Everything I now know about running an art business came years after art school, and with a lot of hard work on my part.

Maybe the graphic design students learned business principles, I don’t know; but in my fine art classes? Not so much. There were no lectures or discussions about becoming a legal business entity as an artist, or even pricing artwork (seriously – no one taught me how to value my work in monetary terms; that came way later). The post-graduation topics that I had were centered around exhibiting art in both galleries and art shows. It talked about portfolios and slides, presentations and artist statements… and that’s it. I walked out of college with a shiny fine arts degree and no clue how to financially support myself with it. I hope things have changed since I was in college…

Now, I could have (and maybe should have) taken business classes to fill in this information, but I honestly didn’t know it was even missing till four years ago. The only person who suggested it to me wasn’t an art professor, it was my sister, so I wrote her off at the time as “not knowing anything about the art world” (silly me). Coupled with no direction from my art professors, and no requirements from my art major, it never occurred to me how beneficial a business class or two then would have been to me now. Looking back, I’d like to think I would have taken business classes if I had known that this was what I would end up doing. But I was focused on a completely different direction (grad school) with a completely different purpose (art history).

I’m absolutely not blaming anyone for me missing an opportunity; even if someone had said something, I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway (willful, stubborn, and hard-headed were apt descriptions of college-age me). But I am saying that art school encourages an exhibition mentality, not necessarily a retail one, so it supports that mentality with the appropriate lessons about how galleries work, not necessarily lectures on how to sell your work.

So, if you’re looking at art school as a place to learn the business of art, I’m sorry; but that’s not how it goes. But the good news is that everything I mentioned so far – learning art, learning business – is not exclusive to school. You can learn all of this with or without it if you want to, and if you’re willing to put in the time.


Misconception #3: If I had gone to art school, I would be a better artist.

Mmm, maybe, maybe not. Like most things, it has to do with the amount of time, energy, and intention you put into it.

Here’s an example. I was in the same class year as two other guys. We all had taken art classes in high school, so all three of us had a pretty equal background in art. When you put us in the same figure drawing class, what do you think you got? Guy #1 was amazing at it, Guy #2 couldn’t draw a realistic figure to save his life, and I only did enough to fulfill the prerequisite to get into painting (I hated charcoal; still do).

Why such different results? It honestly didn’t have anything to do with talent; we were all talented. No, it had to do with the amount of time we each put into it. Guy #1 was great at it because he drew all the time; it was important to him to be good at it. So, he elected to take four years worth of figure drawing in order to perfect his skills, even when it wasn’t required. Guy #2 liked drawing, but wasn’t willing to improve his skills. He wasn’t open to critiques, he didn’t want to hear any suggestions, and didn’t see anything wrong with what he was doing, and you could tell. And I just wanted to get to painting, so I showed up, did the work, and went home. I cared only enough to do well in the class at the time, but I had no plans to study figure drawing full-time (I wanted to play with color), so my work was good, but not great. The results directly correspond to the effort we all put in.

Art school is not a magical fix or cure-all, and talent only gets you so far. Just going to art school doesn’t mean you’re going to learn anything, much less be an artist with skills. You still have to do the work and absorb what’s being said. You still have to commit to it.


My point

I am not saying that art school isn’t good; it is, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in it (even the bad parts). Art school pushed me and challenged me, and I liked being in a classroom learning these things. I liked asking questions from people who knew more than I did, and I liked being part of an art community. I liked discovering how I worked as an artist, what my talents and skills were, and how to get into the mindset of creating quickly and regularly.

But I say this to the people out there that maybe feel a little bad calling themselves an artist because they didn’t go to art school — it doesn’t matter. Art school does not an artist make (see Guy #2). What makes an artist is time in the studio, finding your style, and working on your techniques. It is a constant process, and hopefully during it, you’re open to evolving.

I said it up above, and I’ll say it again: none of this is exclusive to art school. You can learn it now. So, let go of the limiting thought that you aren’t an artist for whatever reason; it’s totally holding you back.

22 Responses to What makes an artist? Hint: it’s not art school

  1. Wow.
    SUCH an amazing post!

    Thank you for this, Brandi! I've felt this way myself many times before. It's nice that your friend had you there for her.

    I do respect those who put in the years at school, but I also take pride in the fact that I am completely self taught.

    Really great post!

  2. My mind has gone here so many times. I've taken a few art classes online and in person, but always felt like I was missing something. Although, I'm skeptical that an Art History class will make me more confident, I sometimes feel I would give me a little more peace. Who knows if art school would help, but I do think art school makes you practice, practice, practice… but, you can do that without art school. It's all about dedication!!

  3. Interesting to hear the view of someone who went to art school. Nice to know that at some point I can stop and think 'hey I'm an artist'. Cool.

  4. I completely agree, Brandi. Let me add that many artists (Basquiat to name a famous one off the top of my head) didn't go to school.

    You are an artist if you create. There are many different types of art and many different types of artists. We are all in the act of creation, every day.

    I don't care for labels for the exact reason that you brought this subject up. Labels are a way to make some people feel one way and others to feel another way. Poop on that! Your friend is lucky to have you to help straighten out this one-way thinking. Tell her to let go of her insecurities and just enjoy what she does!! Life is for living, right? Who cares what people think?

    FYI, art school is where one of my teachers told me that my work was "pedestrian" and tried to make me feel like a loser. She doesn't need that!!

  5. What a great post. I never thought of myself as creative until I found the bead world. I always loved color but couldn't figure out what to do with it. I still have a tough calling myself an artist…but believe that what you say that it is really about dedication and not about schooling is hitting the nail on the head. We have so many negative preconceived notions about ourselves that we never acknowledge the positive ones that many others see in us.

  6. Found your blog through a mutual friend (A Girl and a Brush – Wendy). All I can say is…THANKS! I totally needed to hear that today! 🙂

  7. Thanks for writing about this. I have found a lot of snobbery in the art world and it is lame.

    I don't have anything against art school. It pisses me off when people think/act like only people that have been to art school are real artists.

    Good point on art school not preparing people for business. It should.

  8. Really good post. I'd like to add that this is true of any major. For example, a journalism degree doesn't make you a journalist, business school doesn't make you a business person, and of course, art school doesn't make you an artist.

    If you go into a school thinking it's going to make you this or make you that, you're missing the point, I think. School is about learning, then taking that information and applying in it in a real-world scenario (i.e., the workforce, or starting your own business). You know what you are when you're done with school? A college graduate. And there are some things school will never teach you. You just learn from experience.

    Which is also why the whole "I have a college degree so I know more than you, person who has 15 years of experience" attitude is completely lost on me. No. You have a degree. Great. Now show me you can actually apply what you learned and make something work in the real world. (All of this coming from someone in year 4 of an MFA program, so I truly believe in education, but it will only take you so far.)

  9. The only way to be an artist is to make art. Period. It took me a long time to figure out that what I was doing was making art. I get a kick out of people asking me where I went to art school (this especially happens when I am working at the Gallery Q, and hard to get over the self-imposed stigma when I am surrounded by artists who actually DID go to art school, but yet they welcome me as one of their own)… I tell them that I have a G.G.A. and I am not afraid to use it. They seem impressed and that silences them as they try to figure out what that stands for (Gemnological Graders of America? Great Gemstone Artist?). Then I chuckle and tell them that G.G.A. stands for "God Given Ability."
    It was the same way when I went to college for a Secondary Education English degree… I was studying at one of the world's largest and most respected research colleges and all my professors wrote the textbooks that other colleges used (in fact I am credited in one that my practicum professor was writing at the time and I was one of the case study/guinea pigs). Would you believe that I never once in college was shown how to write a lesson plan? It wasn't until my first week of teaching where I was asked to produce my lesson plans for the week to be approved by my principal that I learned that I really had no idea what he was talking about! I still don't know how to do that, but I faked it really well for 5 years!
    Art is life and if you experience it and produce more art then you are an artist.

    This is a wonderful response to the nagging that goes on in the voices in our heads to tell us that if we didn't go to art school we can't possibly be an artist. Pffft.

    Thank you for the inspiration today, Brandi!
    Enjoy the day!

  10. Thank you! I still think I totally suck, but I always thought that if I went to design school, I would be better at managing my own business and what not. It’s somewhat of a relief to know that I could suck just as bad even if I did go to school.

    XD I kid. But I seriously, you have really brought up a lot of good points and reminders about what being a designer is and what it entails, and what we should all be cognizant of, regardless of our level of training or education in the field. I have nothing but love and respect for my colleagues in design. From those of use who haven’t had the pleasure of actually being a ‘colleague,’ in studies, to those of us that have.

    So thanks again for writing 🙂

    It’s not typical that I visit a blog and am quite so taken with the whole thing, but I am just loving yours. I have been here before but I obviously did not give it the proper peruse, because I’m totally sold now, brandigirlblog.com is a new favorite.

    Keep up the good work.

    <3 Lauren
    Are you on CL? If so, –CL'er pseudonympho

  11. I realised I was an artist when my husband told me I was. His definition is someone who creates all the time. (I draw, paint, create intricate jewellery, take photographs, play the piano write, etc.)

    It could be someone who spends time in the kitchen to create a beautiful meal and present it artfully on a plate; a musician who explores new chords, rhythms, musical combinations; or a more typical definition of an artist, like a painter or sculptor… whatever it is, if that person needs to ‘create’ — however they define it — they are an artist.

    So, I guess we’d all better just embrace it, huh? YEAH!!
    Lauren recently posted Sir BanjoMy Profile

  12. Very insightful post! I had some great profs– ones who could somehow communicate what being an artist really was, some (mostly) lousy ones who only made the right noises and fooled people into thinking what they did was great. I call this “Emperor’s New Clothes” art– see it at a gallery near you! Although I went to four different colleges, I didn’t stick around for a degree and I would put my knowledge up against any college graduate today! I probably got more art education from the various courses I took at a great independent school in Berkeley– Fiberworks– than I did in an academic environment. When I attended RIT’s School for American Craftsmen, I felt my greatest achievement was having 3 of my pieces chosen by my peers for a show. The student work was fresh, innovative and well crafted. The work displayed by the faculty was dredged up out of storage and was stuffy, boring and irrelevant. Made it pretty clear that once you got tenure, your life as an artist was over. Learning the basics of 2- and 3-D design is useful, seeing other people’s work is useful, learning to look critically (not in a negative way) at your work is important. But working under pressure is never useful and churning out work just for the sake of finishing a class is a total waste of time. While I was in Berkeley I got involved with a group of fiber artists and learned from them how to get my work into the marketplace but even when the work is great the overall economic climate makes a big difference, especially when so much time and materials go into the final product. And you’re totally correct– art school does not do a good job at teaching this (although RIT did require a trimester’s class in selling your work). Thanks for your post!
    Christine Damm recently posted All Buttoned Up!My Profile

  13. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this post and your blog as a whole. I’ve been a photographer for several years, but have struggled with the insecurity of not having formally studied. This, along with having been married to a very skilled, very “certified” photographer (with a BFA), who was not at all bashful about reminding me of this fact, has served to stifle my progress in work and life. I am educated in a different capacity, my clients offer me ample praise, but I am still left with those nagging “I should have gone to art school” thoughts. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  14. […] Side note: I’m not sure at what point I decided that one degree wasn’t enough, or at what point I felt like I could only succeed as a professional artist with a BFA instead of the professional training I already had, but at some point it became the only answer. I fell under the myth that to be successful, I had to have a BFA. I had to go to an “art school”. […]