I recently sat down with writer, Chris Jalufka. He asked me about my experiences in Art School and my thoughts on it all. Here are his questions and my previously mentioned thoughts (plus some of my student work).
1. When the time came to venture off into college, was art school always your first choice?
Yes. I was never a very good student, at least not with the three Rs. So there was never a time when UC "blah blah" was on the table.
I did not enroll right after high school. Instead, I spent a few years drawing underground comics by day and I made balloon animals by night. It actually worked out pretty well. Eventually I got swept up in the dot.com tech boom. When the economy tanked around 2000 I found myself not only out of work, but laid-off from an industry I never sought out in the first place. "graphics grunt work" I called it. I had gotten so far away from what I loved: painting and drawing stuff that makes people laugh. I was eager to learn how to do it better. So I decided to go to art school.
Enrolling in art school takes a level of humility that I didn't have as a young adult. Seeking instruction means swallowing your pride and admitting you have a lot to learn. I had a puffed up sense of my abilities and got very sensitive when anyone critiqued my artwork. Being professional, even a professional student, means putting all that bull aside, putting 100% of your efforts into your work AND not being so attached to the final product that you can't rip it up and do it all over again.
2. Do you think an art education helped get you to where you are today, at least skill-wise?
It definitely did. But it's funny to think back on what I thought an art education would be. I had these odd ideas that there were a few very specific rules and secrets I needed to hear. Then after four years in school I would walk out as the best artist I could ever be.
The more accurate way to see art school is as a solid start. Art school is FIVE years of total immersion into whatever craft you're taking on. It is constant practice, experimentation, discussion. It's your time to fail over and over. That's how people learn.
Probably the main thing I learned in art school was what hard work really looks like, and how much hard work it takes to even make a dent in an art career. Art education is just the beginning. The boot camp that gets you practicing, teaches you how to start and finish projects on a specific timeline.
A typical assignment in your final year as an Animation or Illustration major might be: Re-imagine the characters from The Wizard of Oz. Then the instructor waits for you to come back with your artwork and he tells you how it could be improved a bit. That's it. That's when I realized an artist doesn't necessarily need an instructor to tell him to create projects. Anyone can pick a tidbit from history or a story that's in the public domain, a Grimm's Fairy Tale maybe, and draw a comic, do some character designs, make a picture book. Anyone who continually takes on their own projects (and finishes them) will do fine eventually, art school or not. Half of my artist-friends are proof of that.
3. When you started school, what was your main focus? Did your major change over the years?
I remember my first day in school. It was an orientation day, I think. They told us "OK Animation majors stand over here. Illustration majors over here." I still had not decided and suddenly felt all this pressure to decide, like where I went to stand would decide my whole future. So dumb. I soon settled on Traditional (2D) Animation, but the program was so similar to Illustration that I teetered back and forth, creating my own program that focused on concept art, background painting, character design, storyboarding for animation.
Like I said, it's your time to fail. Not on grades and assignments, I always kicked ass. But as far as choosing directions. You can take a class and when it's over say "Alright, I was curious about ____ but I hated doing that. I never need to delve into that again."
4. The big question: Would you do it again knowing what you know now? What would do differently? The same?
I don't worry about re-writing history. Maybe the better question is would I recommend going to private art college?
The short answer is yes IF you really know that you can't/won't do anything but your art whether you can earn a living from it or not AND you do not go into debt in order to attend said art school. If you have a full-ride scholarship or the most generous, wealthy parents ever or you got into a gnarly car accident and the settlement will cover your tuition, then go for it.
If you are going to take out Federal or private loans to do it? No. So many of my fellow students had never drawn anything before enrolling in college but they loved watching anime or Pixar movies and thought it would be fun to move away from their parents and learn how to make cartoons. "Computer! Begin rendering amazing animated movie...Now!"
Private art schools, while offering some great instruction, are mainly in the business of talking young people into taking on enormous loans. Prospective art students love art, not math. We go in seeing these loans as numbers on a form, with only a vague sense that this money needs to be paid off, with interest. But that future date that seems like a million years from that first day of enrollment. "And besides, by then I'll be a super-successful animator or painter and money won't be a problem. Right?!" The truth is, student loan payments hurt for even the most successful graduates and never quite to go away.
There are two main things we get out of art school:
Total immersion. Nonstop practice doing what it is you want to be good at. Constant feedback and encouragement (at least, more than you would get outside of college).
A large network of professional artist-friends. It's great to have friends. It's even better to have artist-friends. Aside from the general comradely in shared interests, it is your employed artist-friends who will help you get in on jobs.
Art school is a very expensive, packaged set of experiences that someone could technically replicate on their own. But it takes a very special kind of person with an incredible amount of drive, organizational and social skills to make it all happen without the structure of a school.