Is Art School the Best Choice?

Chris Oatley, “Animal Farm: King Napoleon,” 2013

Chris Oatley, “Animal Farm: King Napoleon,” 2013


I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Spring of 2013, and for a long time I debated whether or not I wanted to go to an art school to earn my master’s degree (as, for the most part, the only type of master’s you can get outside of art schools is a Master of Fine Arts and I wasn’t interested in a Fine Arts degree). While I do very much value the education I got at CSU Sacramento, I still felt like there was so much more for me to learn. I wasn’t done with school. I’m still not done with school. So really, the question wasn’t whether or not I wanted to continue my art education, it was whether or not I wanted to spend the exorbitant amounts of money that art and design schools charge.

I felt irrational guilt over not going, like I was wasting my potential somehow, so I seriously started looking into schools and even set up a meeting via telephone with a representative from an Art Institute (before I heard about the controversy surrounding the various Art Institutes). The dude certainly knew how to sound encouraging, I’ll give him that. He said things like “portfolio reviews with established artists” and “our graduates get hired right out of school” and “professors who’ve worked for Pixar” (*GASP*). And naturally, I was feeling pretty excited, but I just couldn’t get past the staggering costs of attendance. Then he brought up a list of really awesome sounding classes…and I felt like a horse reaching for a carrot on a string.

Even though, in my heart, I knew I wasn’t going to go, I was still feeling pretty unhappy about my decision. Then Chris Oatley, an artist whose newsletter I’d been following for a few months, posted the following Livestream Q & A with Noah Bradley: There Are Easier Ways to Become A Professional Artist: ArtCast #60. The entire thing is worth listening to, but there is a section where they discuss traditional, brick-and-mortar art school education and whether or not it is worth the extremely high cost that was particularly valuable to me. They both said that if they could re-do their education, they wouldn’t go to art school and would instead take advantage of online opportunities and independent classes that would cost a small fraction of what art schools cost nowadays. Both of them came out of school with $25,000 to $40,000 in debt and are very successful artists and they still had trouble paying off their debts. And people are coming out of art schools today with $100,000 plus in debt. To hear all of my apprehensions regarding art schools confirmed by two industry professionals was incredibly comforting. It felt as though a weight was lifted from my shoulders.

It has been a sort of mission of mine ever since to encourage artists to really research schools and other opportunities before making any rash decisions because of misplaced feelings of guilt and responsibility, and/or parental pressure.

“Degrees don’t matter, opportunities do.” – Chris Oatley

If your portfolio is great, it doesn’t matter what schooling you have.

On that note, I’ll leave you with some online/independent art education recommendations:

I’m currently enrolled in this class and I cannot recommend it enough. Mr. Oatley is encouraging, enthusiastic, incredibly talented, and has got to be one of the nicest guys on the planet, no joke. The Magic Box is the most comprehensive digital painting class I’ve ever taken. There are fun assignments that you can upload to a forum for feedback from your fellow students. It’s great to be part of such an inspiring and compassionate community of artists. It’s subscription-based, but the best part is you can pause your subscription at any time, if you’re too busy to take advantage of it.

Schoolism is comprised of multiple different classes taught by multiple different instructors, including its founder, Bobby Chiu, and a bunch of other industry professionals. They offer classes in two formats: Critiqued Sessions and subscription-based where you learn at your own pace. In the critiqued classes, students turn in their assignments and the instructors give them one-on-one feedback, so it is more expensive than if you decide to sign up for a subscription.

I, personally, took Daniel Arriaga’s Characters for Animated Film, Terryl Whitlatch’s
Creature Anatomy, and last but definitely not least, Stephen Silver’s Fundamentals of Character Design and Exploring Character Styles. I loved all four classes, especially Silver’s. If I wanted to pursue character design as a career, I’d sign up for the critiqued version of Silver’s second class. They’re all worth the price of admission!

Skillshare is an online learning platform specifically designed for creators and makers of all stripes. Anyone can join Skillshare and enroll in online classes, watch video lessons, create projects, and even become a teacher. Since joining Skillshare, I've discovered a passion for creating repeating patterns, become an Adobe Illustrator pro, learned how to better market and brand my work, and countless other skills. As a Skillshare member (Monthly – $9.95/month and Annual – $96/year (20% savings)), you’ll have access to 1000s of online classes that you can watch on your own time, taught by creators from all around the world. 

Skillshare is the reason I’m on my current career path and I couldn’t be more grateful! I love it so much.

This last recommendation is a little more specific and personal for me. When I first joined Skillshare back in 2015, Bonnie’s courses there were some of the first courses I took on the platform, and they remain some of my absolute favorites. They’re also how I discovered my love of creating repeat patterns, and are the initial inspiration for my current career path. Bonnie is unendingly encouraging and lovely, and her classes are incredibly thorough, organized, and easy to understand.

To quoth the course page, “The Surface Pattern Design Immersion Course is an 8-week Online training program for creatives who want to learn Adobe Illustrator, pattern design and the business of how to become a licensing artist.”

I hesitated to sign up for this course because I’d already spent money on a few other surface pattern design courses, and honestly, I wasn’t sure how much more I could learn, but Bonnie is one of my favorite teachers ever, so I signed up anyway. And boy am I glad I did! I couldn’t believe how much more I learned. It still sort of boggles my mind, to be perfectly honest. Bonnie has a wealth of knowledge about Illustrator, business, and of course, design, and she shares it all in this course. It is, hands down, my favorite design course I’ve taken and I’ve taken quite a few! I could gush about it for forever, honestly, but I’ll spare you. XD

So there you have it, y’all. Research online education. You’ll be surprised by the affordability and, most importantly, quality of the content you find.

Good luck with your art education, whatever form it may take!