As an artist, early on your journey of self-discovery, you might find yourself wondering, what's better, schooled or self-taught? What will give you the most knowledge, connections, insights and success moving forward? Although we'd love to think there's an easy answer, the response is actually far more nuanced. In all truth: it depends. Many artists have built successful careers without any kind of formal education, whereas for others what school provided was imperative to their artistic development. Whichever camp you're leaning towards, read on for insights on both sides of the coin. Knowledge is power. The more info you have, the better prepared you are to make a decision on what fits your particular circumstances.
Are you motivated, resourceful and thrive best with fewer creative constraints? If yes, going the self-taught route might work well for you. Below are some pros and cons to consider as you weigh your options.
I personally really needed a formal art education. But this doesn’t mean others do. Some people have natural discipline and ways to assess growth as artists. - Yuko Shimizu, Illustrator, New York
- Fewer creative constraints. Make the art you want, when you want, how you want. Feel like dabbling in clay? Creating larger-than-life 3D portraits? Or dedicating your practice to cross-hatching studies? Go ahead. It's your call.
- A wealth of knowledge at your fingertips. The internet provides a veritable playground for anyone looking to learn. Free resources and paid resources, of all shapes and flavours are at your disposal. As long as you stay curious and have the motivation, dedication and discipline to learn, the world is your oyster.
- You set your schedule. Feel like painting today? Not painting today? Learning about perspective? Testing out a new application? Or taking a short trip to refresh your brain? It's your choice. As long as you're good at managing your schedule and budget, the freedom is yours.
- Likely cost savings. As you'll be defining what you want to learn, when, you can pick and choose based on your preferred budget. Yes, there's still the cost of art supplies, studio time, and things like life drawing session fees, etc. to consider, but you have more control over what you choose to buy into. And there may be ways to save money, like looking for other like-minded individuals to split the cost of studio rental, or seeing if there's a way to barter for space.
Being self taught, you’re on your own. I know I learned more and more diverse things than most of my peers, new things earlier, was not put into a mold of what my work was supposed to look like, things like that. But with that also comes all the responsibility. Set your own schedule, find your own projects, find people, make connections, it’s all on you. In my case it worked out so far, I’ve just slowly built it up from connection to connection [...] but I have to work and be ready, nobody is doing it for me. - Shelley Graf, VR/AR & Game Developer, Germany
- It's all up to you. What you learn, how quickly you progress, what you make time for, the medium you choose, how adamantly you push through challenges, it's all up to you. Unless you have a strong support system around you, keeping you accountable and helping motivate you when you hit a slump, the future really is in your hands. The upside: the future really is in your hands. So make the most of it!
- Getting dedicated critiques can be challenging. Whereas in school you have teacher and peer critiques, when out on your own you'll need to seek out people to give feedback on your work. It's completely doable, but will take more effort on your part. And if you want to seek out specific individuals for their insights, you'll need to flex those networking muscles.
- Networking/job-hunting can be more challenging. Getting into the right circles and getting your foot in the door is challenging in all situations, whether you have formal training or not. But in the latter case, you don't have the potential leg-up of teacher contacts, alumni groups, etc. to ease that path. But that's where motivation, resourcefulness and resilience comes into play. Keep your head up and keep at it.
- Depending on your creative circle and personality, it could become easier to creatively stagnate. If you've built up a healthy circle of kindred creative spirits, they'll likely help alleviate this issue. As hearing alternate perspectives and approaches helps us problem solve and think outside the boundaries of our own imaginations. But if you normally thrive in collaborative environments, you might want to consider the impact if you didn't have easy access to that.
- It can feel lonely sometimes. Introverts and those who thrive on quiet focus might actually see this as a plus - time on your own to create and experiment, with no expectation of group/class interaction thereafter. But more time with yourself also means more time with your own personal demons. Self-doubt, imposter syndrome, fear of failure, and the like. These nasty fellows like to prey on us when we don't have other voices to drown them out. It's nothing to fear, just something to consider.
- It might make it more difficult to work abroad. Some countries, companies, and roles require proof of relevant formal education, especially at more junior levels. If you already know which area or industry you'd like to get into, do some research to see if you need to take any of this into consideration or if a strong portfolio and talent will be enough to get you in the door.
I personally feel that a mix of both would have been the most effective for me back in the day. Formal training in the end should just be training wheels for artists, not shackles that hold them down. Self-taught is great, but without self-discipline and knowing how the industry functions, it can take years, even decades, for artists to achieve a level they could’ve gotten to faster with formal training. - Stephan Rumping, Concept & Visual Development Artist, Netherlands
If you thrive with structured or collaborative environments, lack motivation, or gain confidence with professional accreditation, a formal education might be a good fit.
I personally prefer to be independent and thrive more that way, but a straighter path, more recognition and more safety are for sure valuable for a lot of other people. - Shelley Graf
- Teachers everywhere. Yes, you'll benefit from the experience and expertise of your teachers, but you'll also learn from your peers. Seeing how others interpret the same brief, draw from a different frame of reference, see the world and your work through their own unique lens can help broaden your horizons as well. Stay open to learning from all sides.
- There's *potential for more structured learning and developing teamwork experience. If you work well with progressive exposure to new concepts, tools, approaches, this may be more readily available via formal education. As will the opportunity to collaborate in teams. But you'll also be at the mercy of individual curriculums, so be sure to shop around and do your research before signing up.
- Potential fast-track to developing your eye. A random person on the street can tell if something looks good, or bad. But it takes skill, practice and exposure/training to learn how to verbalize that and understand the nuances. There are other ways to acquire these skills, but good schooling or apprenticeship *may set you on the fast track.
- Potential for easier access to tools, materials, studio spaces. Feel like taking a photography class, trying screen printing, testing out the latest texture software? Down the hall, to the left. When taking classes at a larger educational entity, you'll likely have easier access to different programs and their resources. Take advantage. Try different things, dabble, and hone in on what you like.
- Potential for networking and job leads. Working professional teachers, graduation showcases, alumni associations and mailing lists, classmate contacts, there's potential for a built-in group of contacts and future job leads from the get-go. But that doesn't mean that you get to rest on your laurels. There are no guarantees in life and just because you have an "in" doesn't mean you'll get the job. Hard work, dedication, focus, effort and resilience will be needed.
Looking back before art school, my completely self taught work was not bad. But I had zero idea what worked, what didn’t and how to get better. This, I learned when I went back to school. Learning from professors, but more importantly through my classmates.
Art school was NOT about learning technique and craft (though I did learn that too), it was more about acquiring an artist mentality. - Yuko Shimizu
- It can get very costly, depending where you go, and what kind of formal education you seek out (university degree, post-grad, part-time, trade school, etc.). Depending on where you go, student debt is a potential reality. Do your research and be realistic about what fits your budget and if it factors in, how long you're willing to take to pay things off in future.
- The framework can be stifling. Want to specialize in miniature cubist plein-air paintings? Great! But you still have to attend Drawing 101 this semester and finish the "Opinions on Pointillism Techniques" essay by Wednesday. And even if you're a natural with clay, unless the group is at the same level, you're likely at the mercy of the group in terms of what expert techniques you get to learn. If you prefer more freedom, that's something to consider.
- It might be too general. Depending on what school/program you sign up to, and how you learn best, some forms of education may feel too broad or too much like a taster pack. If you prefer having stronger control over which areas you specialize in, you may want to look at whether you'll have that opportunity in the school you're looking into, or whether you want to craft a study plan of your own.
- It doesn't guarantee success. Awesome, you graduated! Congrats! Now you're obviously a pro, are automatically prepared for the world, and are on to fame and success, right? Umm...not quite. Just because you graduated doesn't mean you're any more qualified or talented than the next person. What you get out of it depends on what you put in. And life experience doesn't just get bestowed at whim. As for where you go from here, that depends on a variety of factors, with motivation, determination and diligence ranking high on the list.
Whether you go to art school or not, an artist's path is not easy. Regardless of which you choose, focus, hard work, constructive criticism and time you put in are the key. So, it is important to pick something you love. When you do what you love, you can get through the toughest of times. - Yuko Shimizu
All this to say, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. And one option isn't any better than the other. Even with the above, there are still so many options that we didn't even touch on: a hybrid approach combining school and self-taught, different types of education, apprenticeships, and more. Every person has their own sets of needs and goals. And only you know what's important to you. So have a think on that, ask lots of questions, and start tailoring your answers from there.