A few weeks ago I was contacted by a student called Andrea, who was interested in knowing both how to get the most out of her art course, and what it’s like being a professional artist. The answer I wrote ended up being pretty huge, so I asked her if she’d mind me posting it up here for others to read. It’s an interesting subject, and the two questions are very closely linked if you actually want to turn your art training into a career. I guess I haven’t really had a very long career yet, but perhaps it helps that my memory of Uni is still very fresh in my head. Here’s a slightly edited version of my reply:
Getting the most out of art college is a tricky thing. It’s part luck and part circumstance!
The luck comes in with your tutors, hopefully you’ll have interesting and open minded ones who work with your aspirations instead of imposing their own on you. If not though, the best thing to remember is to be open minded. You can learn a lot even from tutors you find frustrating if you embrace the challenges they give you as a sort of “artistic workout”.
The trickiest thing you might encounter is if you have a particular style or goal that your tutors aren’t fond of or discourage. If this happens, react fluidly. Use the opportunity to learn new styles and skills, whilst practising your own style and pursuing your own goals in private. Both sides of your work will grow richer and stronger if you let them develop alongside the diverse experiences this will give you. It will also be good practice for commercial work, for which you often have to adapt your style to a specific project.
The trick is to not be afraid to stray away your identity as an artist in order to experiment and try new things, but always keep an anchor in the sort of art you love (even if your tutors don’t share your opinions!). This will protect you from straying too far, or loosing your sense of identity and purpose entirely. You may still find that after your wanderings, you’re ready to move on from your original influences, but the important thing is that this is a decision you make yourself, based on your experiences and the new art you’ve encountered, and not because you feel undue pressure from tutors, or because you’re being forced to fit into a “course style”.
Having a clear set if goals in your head will help with this. Two important questions to keep in mind are:
What do I want out of this course?
What do I want to do afterwards?
The circumstance part I mentioned is to do with the physical opportunities that come with the course. Many people come out of art courses thinking they haven’t learned much because they neglected chances to learn that weren’t immediately obvious. Make sure to attend and make the most of every lecture, every technical workshop and life drawing class. Even if it’s something you think you wouldn’t be interested in, it might inform or expand your work and personal goals in ways you don’t expect. Ask your tutors about the course’s facilities and how to make the most of them. They’ll only be available whilst you’re there and the time flies by!
If you’d like to work professionally when you’re done, try to make opportunities for yourself whilst you’re on the course. If there isn’t a work experience section, ask your tutors how you can go about arranging your own. You might even be able to help them out if they also have an active career in art. Look for work opportunities and commissions in the holidays and learn what you can about the practicalities of working with technical specifications, professional editors and designers, and commercial briefs. Find out about and enter art competitions and attend conventions!
This is a lot to manage, so if you pursue all these things, it can be draining. Make sure to keep an eye on your levels of enthusiasm and energy. Put all you’ve got into it, but don’t burn yourself out! Some students leave art courses feeling like they never want to see a pencil again because they put too much pressure on themselves. Balance your work with sensible amounts of rest and enjoy the social side too!
With regards to being a self employed artist, there are good and bad sides. The good is that you get to set your own pace and make your own opportunities doing the thing you love! The bad is that success can only be achieved by enthusiasm mixed with hard work and the ability to take criticism and turn it into improvement. It can be a draining career at times, and there’s the danger of your personal and working life slipping into one another, and your enjoyment if both being dulled because of it.
If you’re aware of this though, you can use Uni as a personal training ground for your career. Often this is the one part that just can’t be taught, so if you’re interested in going professional afterwards, it’ll be up to you to bear this in mind and learn what you can whilst you’re there.
Try to take the group crits you’ll be having with grace, and don’t see your work being criticised as a personal affront (this is very hard to do for anyone!). Crits are invaluable opportunities to see your work through the eyes of others, and being able to criticise yourself constructively (as opposed to destructively) is a valuable skill. Don’t be afraid to admit inexperience and flaws in your work, but keep confident. Believe in your ability to improve, and seek ways to do so without developing too much of an ego, or too much self-deprecation. This is really the number one skill that an art course can teach you if you have the right mind-set. It’s a safe, enclosed environment in which the criticism you receive doesn’t mean catastrophe or loosing a potential job. Use this fact to your advantage and prepare!
Likewise you’ll have to learn how to pace yourself and become adept at arranging your personal time and regulating your own work load. I developed a very bad habit of overworking during the last half of a project and going not much in the first half. This was something I immediately had to unlearn when doing professional work! Half of being self employed is learning how to be strict with yourself and get the work done steadily and surely without making your life too rigid. From day to day, doing art for a living is both like and unlike any other career. In the end it’s still work, and even doing a project you’re enthused about can occasionally be boring when you’re drawing full time. Routine is a large part of it, and patience is a useful virtue!
With that being said, there are those wonderful moments when you finish an illustration or a project, see your work in print, hear praise from an editor, or sit back at your desk and think “I’m actually drawing for a living!”. It can be quite a thrill, and if your work gets popular there’s an unexpected social side in the form of conventions, running workshops, doing talks and presentations. It can be as rewarding as it can be frustrating ^_^
So I guess the recurring theme here is balance! I’m sure you’ll enjoy your course if you make the most out of it whilst keeping your work levels healthy. And I’m sure you’ll be successful if you keep your goals clear whilst seeking to improve and allowing for the unexpected to take you in new directions. Finally, remember that everyone moves at their own pace! Finding yours is half the challenge.
I hope that’s helpful for a few people, and I’d be interested to know what the response is from others who have been through art education and gone professional, or from anyone who went professional without going to art college.