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