Art school, education, and making a living as an artist
This post is a doozie! I sat down to write a few words about art school, and it just blew up. I have a lot of thoughts I guess. Hope you enjoy these kinds of posts. I'll keep writing them as long as you like them. I'm in need of ideas, so if you have a specific topic or question you'd like to see, send them my way.


When it comes to talking about art school and careers, there seems to be a lot confusion, panic, and hopelessness that comes along with it. I wanted to write a post that is hopefully more positive and helpful.

So, art school?

Do you need it? The short answer -- no. The long answer…

Maybe. You DO need an art education. Whether you get that at a school or not is up to you. There are many options besides traditional art school. You can teach yourself through books and practice. You can take community classes. You can find a mentor. You can take online courses. However, this path requires a lot of self-discipline and dedication. School will give you a regimen, a foundation, and probably a fair portfolio by the time you're done. And you'll meet people like teachers and fellow classmates, relationships that will probably last for the rest of your career. Personally, I needed school to do what I do today. That's not true for everyone, but I'm willing to bet it would help the majority of you.

If you go, choose wisely.

The biggest scary thing about art school is money. Art is not one of those professions where it is worth going into massive amounts of debt. It is worth a certain amount of investment, but be smart about it. There are big notable art schools that are known for cranking out great artists. They will have courses that will take you through your art education like a boot camp, which is a great way to get your butt in gear. That being said, they are expensive. If you can afford them, fine, but don't consider them to be your only options. Dedicate yourself to working hard no matter what school you go to. Don't expect the school to set the pace for you. Once you're out in the real world, the ones giving you work will not be looking at what school you went to. They just see your work.

Will art school get you a job? No.

A degree is more or less irrelevant in the art world (unless you teach). The value of school is how much it helps your portfolio. You are pretty much on your own once you graduate. When I got out of school, I cold-called a few people and got appointments for portfolio reviews. I put up a website. I sent out postcards. I found an agent. I went to workshops and conventions. I blogged and twittered and facebooked. I painted like crazy. These are the things that got me jobs. Not school.

Artists don't have a straight path to follow. It isn't a matter of Go to school -> Get a degree -> Get a job -> Make money.

This is what makes being an artist so scary.

If you want to be a doctor or a teacher, you pretty much have your stepping stones laid out in front of you. Not with art. The fact that I can't answer the question, "Do you need art school?" without a super long blog post is a testament to that.

And on top of it all, your skill level, art style, and amount of education are no guarantees of success or failure. I've seen highly talented painters get nowhere, while others are literally drawing stick figures and making bank.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means your success depends on lots of other factors, many of which you can control. There is a level of uncertainty and flexibility in art that is both exciting and exceedingly frustrating. But let me assure you of this:

There is not a lack of demand or jobs for artists.

It is totally possible to make a living as an artist.

In fact, it is highly likely you can find work as an artist, if you put in the work.

Let me repeat that -- It is HIGHLY LIKELY you can find work as an artist if you put in the work. It might take a long time. You might need a second job. You might need to modify your plan once or twice. You might not end up where you originally wanted. You will have to pay your dues. But it is very unlikely you won't see any fruits from your labor.

If you have been trying to be an artist for awhile with seemingly no results, reevaluate your strategy. Do you need to learn new skills? Have you updated your portfolio recently? Is your portfolio right for the jobs you're applying for? Have you gone to any events lately? Can you change your marketing plan? Have you done any personal projects? Are you producing and providing value? Are you educating yourself?

I am never done with these questions. I am ALWAYS working on one or several of them. If you find you are always doing the same things, using the same portfolio, contacting the same people -- then it is no wonder you are not getting anywhere. Think of what you can do differently or something that you can improve. Always.

Being an artist is like constantly jumping between extreme arrogance and crippling self-doubt. One moment, you believe your work is wonderful and blame the industry or market for not giving you more work. The next, you think you're terrible and will never make money or be successful. Neither of those situations are true. The work is there. Don't think it's not. But also don't assume it will be handed to you.

Be realistic. It took me about five years of dedicated work (not just dabbling or drawing as a hobby, but going to school and actually practicing with the goal of being an illustrator) to get my skills and knowledge at a workable level (not even great work; just capable). It's taken me ten years working in my career to build steady work, confidence, style, process, business savvy, and stability (sort of -- still working on it). And after all that, you will likely not be rich. But I have a comfortable home, I live a unique life with a flexible schedule, and I get to create things I love every day. I am wealthy enough.

If you need a plan, this is it.

I said earlier that artists don't have a path to follow. That's not entirely true. There are actually some very real, definite things that you can do and stepping stones to follow that will get you work.

  • Learn as much as you can. If you are a beginner, go to school or build your skills in some other way.

  • Get on the internet. This is the age we live in.

  • Have a plan. Know your market. Comics? Children's books? Animation? It helps to focus on one or two because they all have specific tasks to go with them.

  • Network. Get out of the house. Go to events. There are people out there who will actually help you be successful. Go meet them.

  • Promote your work. Send postcards, emails, and applications. Get an agent if you need one.

  • Learn how to run a business and how to sell your work. Also, you might need to know about icky things like contracts and taxes at some point, or find people that do.

  • Be brave. This job is not for the timid. But let me assure you, I myself am an extremely introverted and socially awkward person, and I made it work. A shy person can totally succeed. Just be willing to challenge your comfort zone.

And there is one thing that has helped me above all else that has helped my career.

  • Think of a project. Make it. Share it.

    Personal projects help you improve your skills. They give you something to do while you're waiting for the phone to ring. And above all, they help you show the world what kind of value you have to add to it.

    Projects will be simple at first. Your first project will probably be to build your portfolio. After that, the sky's the limit. Maybe you'll start a blog. Or a podcast. Or a webcomic. Maybe you'll make a children's book dummy or maybe you'll make fan art. In the art business, it's never JUST about making pictures. You have to share your brains, your likes, and your personality that makes you YOU. Find something you like making and share it with as many people as possible.

A few last words…

When you're done doing all the things I mentioned above, keep going and do it all again. Seriously. This is not a one-and-done process. This is forever your job now if you want art to be your job.

And do treat it like a JOB. Invest in an education. Take it seriously. Take risks. Art often starts as a hobby, but you're going to have to step up if you want it to be a career.

Skill is just half the work. I have been at this a while, and I feel like my skills have reached a good level. Sometimes I feel frustrated that I don't get more work. I'm good enough and experienced enough. People should be giving me work, right? But then I remember there is a whole other side to being an illustrator. I have to promote myself and pursue specific markets. I have to make an effort to create stuff that people will want to buy. I can't sit back and hope clients will find me. Beware of ever feeling entitled, or that your work is done.

Be patient. It takes practice, and it takes time, but that is true of any profession. If you want to become a lawyer, you know you're not going to get there by tomorrow. There will be years of work, education, networking, and money involved. It's the same with art. Remember that the process is just as legitimate as the doctor's or teacher's, and it can be just as fruitful. This is a job you CAN make work.

The majority of the world doesn't understand creative careers. They will make you think that making money from art is impossible. Remember, that is not the reality. This feeling is mostly the response to fear and the lack of a solid path that other careers have. But we artists don't have ONE path. We have MANY paths. You just have to find the right one for yourself. Whether you go to art school or not, whether you go into children's books or animation or comics, whether it takes you two years or ten, it's possible.

I hope that was at least a little bit inspiring? Feel free to post comments or questions if you have them.

Bonus download: 75 Ways to Make Your Art a Career

Don't know where to get started, or need to reevaluate your current strategy? I've put together a big list of specific tasks you can do to move forward, all in a handy dandy PDF. It's available to all patrons who pledge $3 and up. Check the next post for the link.