My Art School Rant
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tombancroft's avatar
By tombancroft   |   
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I mentioned I had a rant about art schools and many of you said you wanted to hear it.  Well, its long so I hope you meant it.  This will make some of you angry, but I hope not.  I love art schools and I love their instructors even more!  Many art instructors are friends of mine.  This rant is about the art school teaching SYSTEM.  Money drives that, just like any other business, so there will be mistakes made because of greed.    So, without further ado.....

My Art School Rant

I have a love-hate relationship with art schools.  I love what they stand for- the pursuit of and love for creating great art!  I still get excited walking into an art school.  Seeing all the rows and rows of wonderful Macs, the energy (or lack thereof- we ARE talking about art students, after all), the artwork on the walls, the postings of upcoming events and guest speakers, the dirty floors, the whole deal!  The GOOD instructors.  The ones that still love the subject they are teaching.  The ones that did it for years themselves- and are STILL doing it- and show lots of examples of their own work and the work that is out there now that they are excited about.  As usual, everything I love about art schools begins and ends with the artists on both sides of the table/podium.  What I hate is how they are run/ set up/ organized/ developed.  Simply put, how they go about it is what I hate.  

I am generalizing here, but my overall impression of many art schools (especially when I was visiting them via my Disney job during the 90s) was that they were not adequately preparing people for the real world of getting a job as an artist.   THIS SHOULD BE JOB NUMBER 1 FOR A SCHOOL!  And I am specifically speaking about the fields of animation and cartooning (comic books, comic strips, and video game design included).  Most art schools did okay with teaching illustration and rendering techniques, but not thought process in how you create an image or character or performance.  The bigger, well-established art schools have gotten better at that in these last 10 years.  Still, I feel there is a big gap.  We are not being honest with students that have little to no talent either.  The art schools drive is to make money.  They are a business, so I can understand this to some degree- BUT they should NOT ACCEPT a student that is not preforming at"entry level" ability and/or does not have the motivation to improve him or herself!  

Side story/ example here:  My brother Tony and I went to California Institute of the Arts way back in 1988.  Even then, it was known as a tough school to get into because it was (again, at the time) the only school in the US that had a character animation program.  We sweated out putting together our portfolios all summer and get them in on time for them to get reviewed by their board.  We found out we were accepted and it was a very happy day.  Now we just needed to get the huge amount of money needed to get BOTH of us into school.  Somehow, we did.  Upon our first day checking into the dorms at Cal Arts, we were excited to meet some of our fellow Cal Arts Character Animation freshman.  Checking into her dorm right across the hall was a nice girl that said she was in the Character Animation program also.  She was timid but said she really wanted us to see her portfolio because she was scared of the upcoming challenges of the program.  We looked it over and our jaws dropped.  The portfolio was made up of scraps of paper with what I would call "phone doodles" (what you draw when you're in a long conversation on the phone).  But not good doodles.  Not even elementary school level.  Our hearts sank.  Why did we kill ourselves to get into this school?  Was it a good school?  Was all this money we worked all summer to earn going to get wasted?  Everything we had built up about Cal Arts was thrown out the window in that moment.  That nice girl made it worse by saying (and this is a quote, because I will never forget it), " I just threw this together because I had to show SOMETHING.  These are all sketches I did years ago in high school!  I HAVEN"T DRAWN IN YEARS!"  Giggle.  She said that she had written a touching letter about how being a dental hygienist wasn't her dream and that she wanted to have a second chance and become an animator.  We went back to our dorm room momentarily destroyed.  We soon found out that that year was the largest class of Freshman Character animation students that Cal Arts had ever accepted – about double the amount.  Why?  Because they needed the money.  Don't get me wrong, we soon found out that there WERE many great artists in our class.  Pete Doctor, Paul Rudish, Ashley Brannon, Greg Griffith (now the head of Cal Arts character Animation program), and many others that were excellent choices.   

Here's the point:  that girl never worked a day in the animation industry after she finished those four years at Cal Arts.  She went back to being a dental hygienist and if she's lucky she's paid off all her student loans by now.  She wasn't the only one out of our freshman class either.  Art schools should have SOME responsibility to whom they accept.  Portfolios SHOULD be needed to get in.  You don't have to be great, that's what the schools are there to do- make you better- but you should have some ability.   Cal Arts KNEW that girl wasn't good enough and if they wanted to help her out because they felt something for her dream, then they shouldn't have charged her.  But they did.  

I have seen too many GRADUATED art students portfolios that look like they are still at the high school level of drawing ability!  They are not ready to work in any advertising agency, illustration house, animation studio, or elsewhere they will be looking for work.  That's a sad situation when they have just spent a fortune on a four-year degree!  I thought about it one day and realized that the majority of what I had learned that got me that first job at Disney I had learned from an art book BEFORE I even went to art school!  Cal Arts was great, don't get me wrong, but it was one of the TOP art schools at the time and the only one in the United States (at the time) teaching character animation.  Yes, I got what I paid for there.  But for many, even today, they can learn more from good art books than art school.  The reason: because art books are created by working artists- professionals.  Usually, artists that are at the top of their profession.  They wouldn't get a publishing company to publish their book if they were not.  The sad truth of art schools/programs is that many of the professors and instructors (not every professor or art school, mind you) are NOT experienced enough in their fields.  They are NOT the top in their industries.  Lets face it; they don't get paid enough to be.  Some schools like Savannah College of Art and Design, Ringling in Sarasota, Joe Kubert School, Art Center and Cal Arts in California, The Art Institutes and others like them are strong schools with good instructors.  I speak mostly of the state schools and other schools that are not "art schools" but schools that have started up their art programs in the last 10 years because "animation and video games are hot" and they feel they can cash in on the demand by creating new departments and programs for that field.  The two big reasons why we have this problem is 1) money- not paying enough for stronger professors and instructors but spending any money necessary to have the most up to date technology and 2) the drive to meet accreditation standards.  This means that the instructor more than likely will have to have a bachelor's degree- or usually- a master's degree to be employed by a university or art school.  That cuts out many of the working artists with experience out there.  I don't have a degree.  I wish I did, but it just was not needed when I got into the industry.  I don't think it is now. For every job I've ever had, I have never been asked if I had a degree.  Ever.  Except when I was curious about teaching at a local art school (that I won't name).  It was THE FIRST question they asked me.  And that was to teach a character design class where they were ALREADY using my book as the textbook for the class.  I was qualified to do the job for major studios, write the book, but not teach the class.  This isn't just me; I've seen this happen time and again.    

Some of your are going to read this and say, "Tom is saying don't go to art school.  Teach yourself.  Don't get a degree either."  I'm not saying those things, but I'm also NOT saying them either.  It's a big decision and it's a personal one based on your ability, your financial background, and what schools you are looking at.  Personally, I DO think artists should go to art schools.  I think we need to learn motivation and hard work before we jump into the talent pool and try and get that first job.  If it's a good school, they will still get mad at you if you don't turn in an assignment.  That happens outside the school, but when it happens in real life, you don't get paid and don't eat.  Another big reason is your peers.  Your fellow students end up teaching you as much or more than the instructors.  Their passion and ability is equal but different from yours- so our their influences.  You learn about new blogs, websites, and artists from them.  More importantly they become (hopefully) life long friends and people that help you find jobs for the rest of your life.  I can get into (almost) any studio on planet Earth because of my past art school connections.  After school ends, everyone goes their separate ways and that's a good thing.  Stay connected to them.  Oh, and then there are the artistic things you learn at a good art school.  I'm not even going into that, but that's the main reason to go.  You should leave there with a portfolio full of things you would not have even thought to have included had you not gone to art school.  

I do think getting a degree is helpful also.  You never know when you may think, "Hey, I'd like to teach a class based on this new book I just wrote."  When I was 20 that never crossed my mind, but things change.  

I still love you art schools.   Just get better, kay?  Stay cool.
anonymous's avatar
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alexishenry66's avatar
I was at a Canadian art school in Oakville and I was in a art program (duh) and seen at least 2 people that drew people with the artistic skill of a 4 year old... seriously. And all I thought was wow why am I here? I can draw anything I see in almost any style especially realism. I felt defeated bc I paid so much to get into the program and they accepted them... i get they need money but don't let them pay if they can't even draw what the teachers were expecting to see. I don't find it fair if they get a 60% and I get a 75% because they are being nice to someone who can't really draw. I am putting all effort in and doing fairly decent life drawings and this guy drew circles that weren't proportionate at all for the body and to get that mark (60%). As much as I want to believe I'll go back to art school, I'm thinking of sticking to books because it's clearly working for me.
SashimiCake's avatar
SashimiCakeHobbyist General Artist
Though I am not of age to attend an Art School, I've always dreamed of it. This Entry really made me see the real side of a School, and not just an Art School. They all drive for money, always have. Like you said, they can accept someone (like that girl you mentioned) with little to no talent, because of the money they have. I think it's horrible that prestigious schools have been taking in inexperienced beginners because of greed. Ugh, and here I thought Art School was for professionals.
AnnaWieszczyk's avatar
AnnaWieszczyk Digital Artist
Amen to that. My art school was a joke.
TheCelestialDemoness's avatar
TheCelestialDemonessStudent Filmographer
I had a similar experience with one of the Art Institutes. The one I went to was horrible, I was literally one of the only students in the entire animation department that can actually draw! D8 And to make it worse, the student art on display was several years old. Currently, I'm in a local community college to sharpen my art skills before I try to find a good art school that actually has good instructors. The work I got was too easy, and repetitive. I want a challenge, I want to get my art to industry standards. Currently I am still updating my gallery with my current work. I am well aware I still have a long way to go. I want to be as good as the artists frequently featured in ImagineFX magazines. 
BFan1138's avatar
BFan1138Student General Artist
I personally think this applies to ANY school nowadays.
Follygon's avatar
FollygonProfessional Digital Artist
chelseakenna's avatar
chelseakennaProfessional Digital Artist
And reading this now after the link to it from your other journal entry...this echos so many of my thoughts on the art school experience. I feel like I was given a lot of very fantastic technical instruction in art school, and I definitely feel learning the techniques and fundamentals are important. You need a good foundation...but I feel like my education stopped short a bit there. Maybe this was partially my fault at the time for not pushing myself more (I was so concerned with my technique being perfect because I wanted to "do well" in school) but at the same time, I felt like I could have been given better guidance as well.

It wasn't until senior year, when I was working on a project in a realistic fine-art style for an editorial illustration class that someone finally told me, "You know this doesn't have to be realism, you can do this in whatever style you want." I had fine art fundamentals (drawing, painting, rendering, realism) pounded into me for so long that I felt like I never had a chance to go beyond that until after school. I could render a realistic still life with great execution, but had no idea how to set up an interesting composition for a storybook illustration, or how to creatively design characters, or how to choose an interesting color palette. To this day I feel like I'm still trying to "catch up" on those things.

It became really clear to me after graduation that doing well and working hard in school doesn't necessarily equate to having the skills necessary to succeed at a chosen art profession. And I'm not entirely sure why I never learned that at the time, but I sure wish I had. I feel like I'm playing catch-up with my art education now to get to where I want to be with my career.
tombancroft's avatar
tombancroftProfessional Filmographer
Thanks for the comments. Based on your DA gallery, I'd say you are well on your way. Keep it up!
chelseakenna's avatar
chelseakennaProfessional Digital Artist
Thanks! :)
DanjysBasement's avatar
DanjysBasementHobbyist Traditional Artist
This is actually a quite informative text about (US-) Art schools, but after you stated your reasons why you think people SHOULD go to art school,it would have been nice if you had talked about what people who do NOT have the lt up some of my opportunity to go to art school (be it for financial reasons, not getting accepted or whatever) could do to improve, teach themselves and not losing the courage in pursuing drawing.
When I left school, I applied for a local Art school (not that I live in Germany, not the US), but did not get accepted, for one of the reasons you stated. I didn't have a proper portfolio. I actually had been drawing a lot, but those were all sketches that weren't really planned out, that I scribbled on literally anything (scraps of paper, drawing pads, even the tables at school, which really got me in trouble). I was drawing all the time, which certainly built up some of my skills, and at art class in school, teachers assured me that I had potential. But, as was a very chaotic teenager/early twen, I was not able to focus on any planned out project outside of school. So, after graduation and looking what I could do with my abilities, I soon found, that I did have almost nothing that mette standard of a proper portfolio. Stil, I wanted to try to get accepted badly, so in desperation I slapped together a portfolio of some school work, the few "proper" drawings I had done on my own and several works I had (again in desperation) created sollely for the purpose of putting them in my portfolio. That I didn't get accepted didn't come as a BIG surprise, since I knew that this most likely wasn't enough, but still I was crushed by disappointme and stopped drawing almost entirely for several years.
This was eight years ago and I got over my "drawing depression" a few years ago. I've been reading lots of books on drawing, character design etc. (including your books) and I learned quite a lot. I even got some small illustration jobs for posters of local events, which already gets me excited as hell :) So,as of now, things are looking pretty good, and I'm almost constantly learn something new. Still, sometimes I wish I had a teacher/mentor i could talk to, or at least other people who draw on a similiar level myself. As of now, drawing for me is not about becoming a professional artist, but I want to get as close as I can to master the art form (illustration/cartoons mostly). Why? because I want to. I'm doing this mainly for myself and my peace of mind.
Sorry for the long post, but I needed to et this off my chest after reading your journal entry
if you had any advice what I could do in my situation, to improve, not losing the focus etc, I would be very grateful :)
Dan Waziri
Randumbz's avatar
I'm in high school and a girl in my design class is already at professional level lol
DianaGoins's avatar
DianaGoinsStudent Filmographer
Thanks for posting this. It is sort of a bittersweet time for me right now at my school. I study media arts and animation in Texas (more about oil and gas industry), but I would like to find work in California's entertainment industry (pretty silly because of the economy right now), so I am gearing my portfolio more towards that. I like the instructors I have now and the ones I used to have. I probably never would have gone in such a different direction in animation if it wasn't for going to the school I am at now. Most of the students I meet are also great. The only thing I don't like is that our program doesn't teach a lot of the basics, like hand-drawn 2D animation (they tell you the basic principles, but never how to do them). I practice those parts outside of my classes. Would this make employers hesitate when considering hiring me? I know it's about the work, but I read in another of your entries that they separated CalArts students from the rest during the internship you had with your brother at Disney. Do you think it would be unwise to tailor my portfolio to an out of state job rather than a job in my state?
Wavedrake's avatar
WavedrakeProfessional Digital Artist
I just read this--yes only now but--shoot. My university isn't a dedicated art school, and I did get an art degree from there but... shoot, they didn't prepare me, I'm ticking off almost all the missing items you described. Shoot. I guess I have to get whatever I can get of work and teach myself all I'm missing in the meantime. \:
Nekoponn's avatar
NekoponnHobbyist Digital Artist
Wow, quite the rant! 0: I'm wanting to go to The Art Institute of Wisconsin to major in graphic design. o-o Everyone seems to be really nice there, and the building is very nice, as well. o-o But yeah, it is quite expensive. ;~; I just hope in the end, it will be worth it.
Gilko's avatar
GilkoStudent Digital Artist
This is exactly what I'm worried about :( My uni is terrible I've been there for a year now and I feel that I'm wasting my time
StarlitKnight's avatar
StarlitKnightProfessional Filmographer
After reading this you have me seriously worried and doubting my degree. I'm a recent graduate of the Art Institute of Philadelphia and am currently looking for a job in the field but don't seem to be getting any bites. I thought it was because of the economy right now, but could I be wrong? People have told me I'm a good artist but that has always been friends, family, classmates (who fall under the friend categories) and teachers. I have always relayed on the teachers' opinion above the others because they were there to make sure I got better rather then sparing my feelings. Reading this has changed my view on that. Is there any way, in your spare time, that you could go to and tell me if I waisted money on four years of college and thank you for this eye opener because I never realized.
tombancroft's avatar
tombancroftProfessional Filmographer
I don't mean to scare anyone with this rant. Sorry about that. It IS a tough time to get a job right now- in ANYTHING, much less art which is probably up there with wanting to be a movie star/rock star in toughness level. Keep drawing for the love of it and do what you have to to pay the bills. Its what we all do when starting out. You're not alone. You'll keep getting better while you look around for opportunities. Once you get those first couple art jobs under your belt, it usually gets easier.
godmaschine's avatar
pretty exciting to see 'scad' show up here, because that's the school i want to go to. ._. i always worry about schools being total bullshit. art schools always seem to be begging for $$$ but allowing any bottom feeder in. it's cruel, because they are WAY too overpriced to allow kids to crash and burn, especially when, at 18/19, you don't EXACTLY know what you want to go into. it's almost a scam.

but then again, if one applies themselves...

i still don't know, which is why i'm going to crash at an associate school for a year, because i want to go into the game field, but have NO CLUE if i should just focus on concept art [which is my dream] or if i should expand that to minour in something else. i would love to animate but have no clue where to start, etc.

;~; sucks.

but this is wonderful advice.
Ninjerina's avatar
NinjerinaStudent General Artist
I agree with you on just about every point. I'm currently attending AAU in SF after trying to do adequate research on quality of education v. cost of degree. While there are certainly some great instructors at the school that have pushed me to be better and offer great critiques, for the money I've spent there's been a few teachers that have no business being paid to "teach". The worst offender was an instructor who would spend a good chunk of my class time struggling to open up the software correctly. Yes true technical issues arise....but NONE of my other instructors ever seemed to have as many issues as this person. They received a 1 star on RatemyProfessor (the worst), other students complain about them similarly, I'm sure he gets abysmal student reviews....and he's on the roster every semester. It's not right, and not fair to us trying to learn the ropes.

My other huge issue with the school is the bureaucracy. Its a for-profit school, and they dont try to hide it. Within the 3d animation program, they dont have much in the way of consultation throughout the program, to assess where you are. I've been told by my illustration major friends that they have a midpoint review. One of my anim friends who graduated this past Spring found out at the VERY END of his education there last minute that he had to have a final review to graduate. I'd never heard it mentioned either til' he brought it up. It seems like these are key things that should be taken care of. I'm all for student initiative and bettering oneself outside of class throughout the process, but in the administration's pursuit of squeezing out every dollar they can they have sacrificed some cohesiveness in several programs.

The school also has no portfolio review when you enter and virtually no scholarships or financial aid (through the school, you can still get FAFSA).

The classes are usually overcrowded and many instructors dont have enough time to give everyone proper critique. The school owns 1% of city property now and while they are stingy on upgrading equipment or building proper classrooms (some people are in classrooms with no types of walls at all), they greedily have multiple garages showcasing Roll Royces and other vintage, extremely expensive cars downtown.

I've certainly learned a lot about my major from attending art school, but I often wonder if I chose the best school to actually get a job. I think if i could go back and do it over again for a 3d degree I probably would have tried going to Ringling.
PharaonicWolf's avatar
Interesting post. I really enjoyed reading it. As someone who just completed an Education program at a major university, I would like to add to your comment about not being allowed to teach a class even though you had written the book. There's a big push in the field of education right now to hire only people who are "highly qualified," which is usually measured by the level and type of degree that you have. All teachers grades K-12 are required to be highly qualified in all areas that they teach.

This law doesn't apply to universities, but since there's such a big push for schools to be able to "prove" that their instructors are qualified to teach, many set exceptionally high standards for the formal education of their instructors. I agree that in your situation it's ludicrous - if you wrote the textbook, really, who would be more highly qualified than you?? The issue is that administrators and politicians want to be able to prove that their money is going to someone "worthwhile," and one of the few credentials that people from all backgrounds understand and accept is a degree. Should it be that way? Probably not.

On the other hand, I've been on the opposite end, where a teacher with very limited formal education was a secondary instructor in one of my university classes. Based on her performance as our teacher, none of us trusted her or respected her intellect. She was a lovely lady - very kind and helpful - but she could barely write a complete sentence and just did not have the skills to teach a university class. She ended up being removed from her post partway through the semester because too many people complained. So I understand what institutions are trying to accomplish by placing those kinds of restrictions on who they hire.

I've learned over the past four years that a great deal of education is really controlled by public opinion, which is often misinformed and does not always steer us in the direction that is best for the students.
Orangeandbluecream's avatar
OrangeandbluecreamStudent General Artist
Very true.
I am going to the art institute, and if my crap art is best in the class you know something is wrong.
MissouriMutants's avatar
MissouriMutants Traditional Artist
When I was in highschool, I did an AP art program for college, and the winner of the AP art program at the end of the year would get a scholarship. Now, I'm not one to get into loads of debt, (my theory is if i don't have the money, i don't need it) so I worked my butt off to get that scholarship. There were two scholarships going out that year, and the two winners were people who didn't even want to do art. They hated it. But they were good at it and they needed the extra credits. That ticks me off. And, another thing is: I find it highly irratating that when I pick up a comic book, and I open a very good drawn cover, and the interior looks as if a child grabbed a crayon and scribbled on it. Here I am, working my butt off, and someone who goes to college gets the degree, gets the job. How is that fair? I'm a thousand times better, but because I refuse to go into debt, I am the one who gets screwed? But, I'm not one to back down from a challenge, so a challenge it is getting into the art world.
Chelo-kun's avatar
Chelo-kunProfessional Filmographer
I've graduated from SCAD in 2008. My friends told me I couldn't get work because I finished school the same year the economy went sour. I worked on some commercials and I'm working for Smorgasbord Production in LA, thanks to the internet. I've also been planning to get my real estate license to start making money to move to California. I figured if I surround myself with the right people again, I can start building my portfolio the right way. After reading your rant, my heart sank. Is the economy the only thing that went sour??? It's been a long time since I got an honest critique, let alone from someone who knows their stuff. I need to find someone to review my latest portfolio and demo reel to give me some reassurance, er, reenforcement, whatever it is. More importantly, I DO want to make this career work. So don't hold back! If it destroys me, it's only reason enough to start rebuilding for the better.
serendipity72's avatar
serendipity72Hobbyist Artist
I went to an art school in San Francisco which shall remain nameless, but is amongst the best schools in the state. I started as a 3d animation major, but when all my figure drawing instructors told me I should focus on drawing and learn the computer stuff later, did I listen? Not for another 2 years! Then I changed to story boarding, but realized that I just don't draw fast enough to do that for a living.Moved on to concept art and visual effects, but wasn't great at character design. Finally, at the very end, I decided I wanted to be a children's book illustrator, but by then, I didn't have time or the ability to take the art classes I needed, so my amazing department head shoved me into as many art classes as she could. Unfortunately, my portfolio was not nearly where it needed to be in order for me to get any sort of work, so I ended up going to grad school (can you say cha ching for the school??).
Grad school did everything the undergrad program didn't; it allowed me the chance to spend all of my time drawing and took me through the entire process of illustrating a book. Along the way, I also learned that I am pretty good at portraiture and figure drawing. It's also where I honed my skills with my chosen medium (pastels). I believe I am absolutely ready for a career now, but with the economy tanking, it is harder than ever to get a foot in the door, so I'm working on self publishing for mobile devices.
Obviously, I am drowning in debt now, and fighting to not regret my decision to go to art school. There needs to be a better system for helping students figure out where their skills are and helping to develop those. There are also some very rudimentary things most don't seem to teach that I think are important such as how to frame and/or mount and mat your work. I still don't know how to do this, but I'm sure there's a book or you tube video out there somewhere.
anonymous's avatar
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