This weekend I am graduating from college. As anyone whose attended a university knows, it took lots of long years, countless art critiques, late nights, and financial sacrifices to get my degree. It’s been a long journey, but I am so grateful for it! I’m proud of the work that I’ve done, and I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned, and every opportunity I’ve had.
Today many young artists and photographers ask themselves, is art school worth it? Is it worth the time and money? I’m going to start off by saying that I’m not going to answer that question for you. Every person is different, and everyone’s circumstances are different. There are photographers who attended art school who have successful careers, and there are photographers who didn’t attend art school who have successful careers. That’s a common trait in the creative field – you forge your own path. So I’m not going to tell you what to do. What I do want to share with you today is my perspective on art school, and why it was the right choice for me.
6 Reasons Why Art School was Right for Me
If you’ve never been to art school, you probably haven’t experienced an art critique. Here’s what it’s like: Image you are in a classroom, with around 10-20 other talented students and a skilled professor. You have spent hours doing research, planning a photoshoot, and editing your image. You have poured your heart and soul into this photograph for your assignment. Now, it’s time to hear what other people think about it. I’ve had professors do it differently, but essentially, you show your photograph to the entire class, and everyone comments on it. They tell you what they like. They tell you what they don’t like. The group tells you what is successful and working for you, and what’s not. Your photograph is analyzed and sometimes ripped to shreds (not in a mean way, just in an honest way) in front of a group of your peers and professor.
Don’t get me wrong – at first, this can be a really painful experience! It can be humiliating. Sometimes it makes students cry! But this feedback is also so incredibly valuable. Here’s why:
An important part of being an artist is knowing what message or concept you want to communicate, and how to best communicate it. As a beginner, this can be a difficult lesson to learn.
A prime example of this is a student in a video class a few years ago. The students were given an assignment to create a video based on a song. They were told to use footage of landscapes and places around the world. This young man decided to write a song about his breakup with his girlfriend. He chose a song that had the lyrics with the message “it’s all your fault, you did this to yourself” etc. Well, he pulled the video up on screen and pressed play, and the song started playing. “It was all your fault… ” and the images he used were images of Auschwitz. These images were of these desolate buildings, that he thought were just lonely looking landscapes, with the lyrics playing “it was all your fault this happened to you…”
It was SOOO bad!
Of course, his video was heavily criticized by the class. He was a beginner, and had no idea of the message he was unintentionally portraying. Luckily for him, this happened in the safety of a classroom, where it didn’t impact his career or job. Instead, he learned a valuable lesson to research and know what message your art is sending to the world.
This is kind of an extreme example, but really – it is so helpful having the feedback from your peers. Over time you learn how to create and build images that portray exactly what you want to communicate.
Another reason critiques are so helpful are because you make mistakes, and people identify them, and teach you how to fix them. You receive feedback that is fine tuned to your skill level, and where you’re at. You can receive personalized guidance to improve on your personal weak spots. You learn SO much from this process. It builds such a strong foundation!
My experience in art critiques have also helped me in my relationships with clients. As artists, especially when we’re just starting out, we build a really strong emotional connection with our work. It can be really difficult to hear and value criticism. Over time, you have the opportunity to form a different perspective. You learn to separate your personal intent and emotions from your work, and you learn how to look at it more objectively. You learn that when people criticize your art, they aren’t criticizing you personally. You learn to value the feedback, and improve from it. This helps you analyze it and improve. It also is SO helpful when one day (or many days, let’s be honest), a client or a member of your audience comes to you with critiques about your work. Instead of being offended or hurt, you can take the feedback in stride and make adjustments and become better.
Networking is key to career success as an artist. During my time as a student, I built relationships with many professors and peers. Now, many of my peers are becoming my colleagues in the professional world. I know I can email my professors, and they will still be willing to help me and give me guidance. Art school also provided networking opportunities professionally. I had many photography opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It gave me the opportunity to photograph for the Ambassador of Afghanistan in Washington DC. I landed event gigs photographing senators and CEO’s and nonprofit organizations. Although that’s not what I do today, these experiences taught me a lot about working with clients. I found job opportunities to photograph for boutiques and companies like Costa Vida through an alumni job board. I was a student who was always looking for opportunities to progress, and found gems of opportunities that helped me grow.
My time in school also taught me where to network in the future. I learned about websites, workshops, networking events, and more with resources to network, where I can meet leaders in my field. I’m grateful to have learned this, and look forward to utilizing these resources more in the future.
This was a HUGE benefit to me. This might be the easiest thing to say to yourself, “I can just learn this online”. The only thing is, having a comprehensive, thorough education of technical knowledge is so valuable. Sure, you can attend workshops and learn things online (I still youtube and google new techniques really often!). But when you are learning the basics, there are so many holes and gaps in education that’s found only online. This way of learning is like picking cherries off a tree – you select the cherries that look good and that you’re interested in, but you have gaping holes of missing knowledge that are important to know.
In school I was taught to know my tools. I learned the basics of exposure while using film, and in my digital foundations class. Later, I took professional retouching courses that taught me everything from really basic, industry standard knowledge (like chromatic aberration) to how to retouch skin for fashion and beauty photography, to how to composite images together for product photography. I also learned, not only lighting techniques, but how to approach lighting. I was trained how to look at an image, and figure out how it was lit from studying the light and shadows. I was taught to look at an image as I was shooting, and ask myself, how can I adjust this lighting to make it better? I was taught to distinguish subtle nuances that brought my work to another level, and will continue to help me learn for the rest of my life.
This thought process helped me improve my work so much. Overall, my education gave me a really, really solid foundation of technical knowledge that helped me build a strong foundation.
Assignments that Stretch You
Not all the assignments in art school are fun. Almost all of them are stressful in one way or another. I definitely had my share of assignments that I hated doing. And you know what? That taught me a lot. It taught me how to think in different ways. The variety of assignments helped me learn what I loved to photograph, and what I really didn’t enjoy. I got to know myself through this. I also learned a strong work ethic. Being a photographer full time is my dream job, and it is so fulfilling and SO fun. The reality of it is, though, that it is a lot of work, and a lot of the work isn’t fun. It’s important to learn how to create strong, successful work, even when you’re not excited about it or even hate doing it. You learn how to do a good job even when you aren’t feeling motivated. I think this is important in building a career, and it was a valuable lesson to learn.
Professional Knowledge about the Field
Some photographers learn about the profession through internships and mentors. You can find this without going to school, if you have initiative and are willing to do the work. When I started art school, I didn’t know anything about the professional field of photography. I’m still learning! Luckily, my professors knew a lot. I learned from professors who had photographed for Getty Image, who had photographed celebrities, who had created work for companies like Coca Cola and Sprint. My professors knew what it was like to work at a photo studio, to handle large commercial clients, to have a successful career. For someone who didn’t have any connections in the photo world, my professors were so helpful in helping me find my path. They also directed me to resources that I continue to use today.
Fundamentals of Art & Art History
This may be an unexpected reason, but having an art degree meant that I took a lot of courses in art and art history. I took drawing, painting, and sculpting. I also took classes on art history, from prehistoric to contemporary.
The fundamentals of art were crucial to becoming a good artist. The most basic fundamentals like composition, color, value, lighting, etc are crucially important in creating successful photographs. They are so simple, but if you don’t have a knowledge of them, your art is going to suffer. I learned these principles even back in elementary and middle school, but my college courses taught me them more in depth.
Art history was also incredibly valuable. The greatest artists in history have paved the way, and broken the rules, in ways that have literally changed the world. Having a knowledge of historic and contemporary artists is important, because it helps you understand the world that you live and work in. Studying art history is also an incredible way to find inspiration. There are thousands of artists and art movements to study, that can inspire you in creating new work. These classes were far more valuable in helping me be inspired and find an artistic voice than looking at Pinterest and Instagram.
As you can see, attending art school was a huge blessing in my life. It taught me principles to apply in my life to become a successful artist, and it made me a better person. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. I have a job doing what I love, almost no student loans, and financially support my husband and I while he finishes a Master’s program. I’m grateful for the security that it brings. It has helped my marriage, and will help me be a better mom someday. I’m so grateful for my professors and peers who helped me get to this point, and I am SO excited for the future!
If you’re thinking about attending art school, and if you’re wondering if it’s right for you, I hope this helped. To those who are wondering, my advice to you is to do your research. If you have a specific field you want to go into, research the universities. Learn what jobs are available, and where they tend to hire from. There are design and art programs that have very high job placement rates, and that have a history of very successful students and faculty. It’s also possible to keep student loans down to a minimum. Make sure you research finances, and know what options are available to you. Don’t get too scared by the price tag, but be wise! Education is an investment and for many it’s worth it. And know that if it’s not for you, that’s okay too.
For more resources on learning about art school & universities, here are some valuable articles I found.
Thank you for reading my novel! If you’re interested in chatting more, feel free to send me a message here!
Here are some behind the scenes photos from my graduation 🙂 I’m so grateful for all the love and support Chris gave me! Here’s to another phase of life!