5 Things I Never Learned in Art School

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It’s been a while since I graduated from college, but what I learned and what I didn’t is still a clear memory. I think that time often allows us to look back in retrospection with a clearer picture. I never would have been able to put this list together a month, or even a year after my graduation. But now, over 20 years later, it’s clear to me how art school benefited me and how my exceptions of what I was to gain from attending were wrong.

Call this a disclaimer if you like, but each person will have a different experience with art school. Each experience, each school, and each personality is unique. My journey took me through two different programs at two different schools.

In this post, I’ll share what I didn’t learn in art school. In the next, I’ll share what I actually did learn.

I Never Learned How to Draw

I never learned how to drawSurprise, surprise. I didn’t learn how to draw in art school, well not directly anyway. I thought that I would. Many students think that they will learn a few magical secrets that will propel them to greatness and most think that their professors have the all of the answers. I quickly learned that my professors could tell you what you did wrong, but couldn’t seem to provide answers on what you need to do to fix it.

So, I did my own searching for answers. I developed my drawing skill by accepting that answers needed to be found. They were not to be “gifted” to me from my professors. (Perhaps they didn’t have the answers in the first place.)

Developing a portfolio for college? See: Art Portfolio Tips

I discovered that drawing was a skill that required a thirst for knowledge, a real passion for the craft, and dedicated practice. It wasn’t until I fully devoted myself to improving my skills (on my own) through research, self-discovery, and practice that my drawing abilities started to improve drastically.

Along the way, as I taught myself, it become clear to me how I could teach others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I became a teacher.

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I Never Learned How to Paint

I never learned how to paintIt should come as no surprise that I didn’t learn how to paint in art school either. Sure, I was exposed to painting in various forms, but techniques weren’t shown to me. We were given assignments and time to complete them. Our work was then critiqued at the conclusion.

One of my professors kept one of my paintings to use as an example, but never told me why he kept it or what I had done correctly.

I’m reminded of the movie, “Art School Confidential” (affiliate link. Just like in the movie, our professors gave vague assignments, walked around during studio time, occasionally nodding in approval, and then a critique would follow. (By the way, if you attended art school and have never seen this movie, I highly recommend it. It’s not a “family” movie by any means, but the stereo types of the characters are “spot on”.)

Sometimes, paintings that were clearly awful got a lot of attention and even praise from the instructor. Usually it was because they were “breaking the mold” as the professor would say. But most of us knew it was because they simply couldn’t paint any other way.

I Never Learned How to Market My Art

The reality is that art is a business. By nature, successful artists are also entrepreneurial. The unsuccessful ones shy away from selling or marketing. Sure they may have great vision, skill, and execution, but nobody will ever see it. Van Gogh was an artistic genius, but a miserable business man.

Finding financial success as an artist requires both artistic skill and business savvy. Marketing yourself as an artist, no matter what the speciality, is crucially important.

Surprisingly, I never learned how to market my art in art school. Back in those days, it was all about “tear sheets”, which where printed samples of our work that were sent to publishers, galleries, and so on. All we were told was to make them and send them out. No direction beyond that was ever given to us as students.

Luckily, it is very easy to market yourself as an artist today. A website can be created in a day, by just about anyone.

Here’s a guide on how to create your own site in a matter of minutes…How to Create an Online Portfolio Website.

Art can be sold online through various online vendors, like Etsy. Here’s a guide on selling your work through Etsy…How to sell Your Art On Etsy.

Beyond that, it is simply a matter of persistence and hard work.

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I Never Learned How to Make a Living as an Artist

Marketing your art is one thing, but actually making a living as an artist is another. I didn’t learn how to make a living as an artist in art school. I didn’t learn how galleries worked with artists and how dealers worked with collectors. Again, I had to do my own research on these things.

Believe me, it came as a real shock to learn that some galleries would take a 50% cut of the price of the work and some as much as 60%.

These days, artists can work directly with patrons by selling online and keep 100% of the price of the work. This reduces the price of the work and allows the artist to make more money.

I Never Learned How To Roll Film into the Spiral Film Holder in the Dark

I spent 6 years in art school in total. (It wasn’t because I had bad grades, if you were wondering – I graduated Cum Laude). In that time, I took almost every studio class available. Printmaking, Illustration, Sculpture, Painting, and Figure Drawing were the standards, but I also took classes that were outside of my concentration. For example, I took a class on Lithography and even a class on making musical instruments from clay (one of my favorites).

But then there was Darkroom Photography. It wasn’t even called “Darkroom Photography”, because all photography was created in a darkroom. (Digital cameras were new and very expensive.)

I can’t tell you how many rolls of film I destroyed trying to loop through that scroll in the dark. Each time, I destroyed the roll. For a college student with limited funds, this was extremely frustrating.

Luckily, I was able to find a classmate that performed this task for me. To this day, I have never learned how to do this properly. Thank goodness for digital cameras, because without them, I’d literally still be “in the dark”.

It may sound like I didn’t learn much of anything in art school, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I learned quite a bit in art school and I’ll share what I learned in the next post.

What about you? Are an art school graduate? Are in art school now? Are you considering going to an art school? What are your experiences?

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Lesson Discussion

  1. This sounds like law school. The only difference is usually what lawyers produce are not things of beauty.

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