So you've decided to journey on the path to become an illustrator. As a new traveler, you'll need supplies and skills to get to your destination. You look around and found a huge training center: "Art School". It seems promising with the teachers and shiny tools, but you'll have a to pay a big fee, and you don't want to figure out how to climb this mountain all by yourself.... So the question is, is art school really worth it?
In this post I'll talk about the pros and cons of art school and self education, so to make your journey easier at the foot of the mountain.
Art schools are universities where you study art as a major, and you receive a degree certificate after you complete the studies. (Examples: CalArts, SCAD, RISD) Having a degree is important to some people, as it will make your resume look better and qualify for certain jobs. Who knows you might want to switch to another career in the future? Some art related jobs such as art teachers and gallery curators often require you to have a degree as well.
Proper art education
Art schools with good reputation will give you an all-rounded, break-you-then-make-you resurrecting kind of experience. You'll have to unlearn the ways you've been drawing and start again from the beginning. Your creative skills will improve greatly as you follow the curriculum and critique each other's works. Teachers in art schools have usually worked in the industry for some time and they provide great career tips and insights.
One of the greatest benefits of art schools is the connection to industry professionals. Knowing the right people can help to get your foot in the doors of your dream job (Disney, Pixar, Marvel, or your favorite publisher/game company). Most art schools are practical: they prep you to land a job. You will learn how to build a strong portfolio, promote yourself and pitch ideas to clients. Some art schools also offer internship and mentor programs, which serve as great career stepping stones.
Sounds awesome, right? However, all good things comes with a price... and for art school, a very big price. A full undergraduate degree in an art school is equivalent or sometimes more expensive than normal university tuition fees. A lot of students will graduate with a bunch of loans and spend their first few years as starving artists in debt. What's worse, studying in art school does not 100% guarantee you to become a successful artist, so you'd better give a second thought at this investment.
Practice makes perfect, so expect to spend long hours in the studio honing your art skills with little time for everything else. Studying art in a full time degree is exhausting, you'll often feel fed up and don't want to ever pick up a pencil again. You might enjoy drawing as a hobby, but it will be different when all you do is draw.
Certificates are not compulsive for illustrators
Honestly, you don't have to have a degree to be an illustrator. Clients hire you for your art, not for your education background. There are lots of self-taught artists out there who didn't go to art school and they have a great illustration career. Some developed their distinctive style because they didn't go to art school and got brainwashed in drawing things as certain way.
Lots of online resources
You don't have to go to art school in order to learn the ropes, resources are everywhere if you look for it! You can find books/online tutorials/youtube videos that teach things from drawing cats to framing comic panels. You can follow great artists, emulate them and improve your art skills. Just like the saying, "nothing in the world is difficult for one who sets his mind on it", no one stops you from learning to be a better artist.
If going to art school requires too much money and time, then self-teaching is the opposite. You have absolute freedom on your path. You can have a day job and practice art at night, without worrying about homework deadlines and being in debt.
Lack in fundamental skills
If you want to become a character designer in Dreamworks, then you would have a hard time learning by yourself. Some illustration positions require highly trained drawing skills in human and animals, and those fundamental skills are best learned in art school. Without a curriculum forced on you, it's easy for us to only draw the things we like and skip the tedious training.
Little industry knowledge and connection
Starting your illustration career as a self-taught artist is less privileged than an art school student, because you have little connections. You can make great art, but if you don't know how to show it to the right people, or know how the industry works, then it'd be difficult to find a good job. Even if you landed a nice job, you might not know how to protect yourself and get taken advantage of.
So... did it scare you away? Or maybe reading this post makes you want to enroll in art school even more? I hope you have a better view of both options by now. My advice is: if you don't have to worry about money, go for art school. If you have no money or you're not sure about your career path, don't.
But some of you might ask, are there other options? The answer is yes. And I'll cover them in later posts!
People often confuse artists and illustrators. Both make a living from selling their art: fine artists sell art in an gallery, while illustrators sell art as a service to clients. Illustrators apply their art skills on solving creative problems, and that's called applied art.
The beautiful thing about applied art is, instead of creating art purely for personal expression, you create art to help others achieve a bigger project, such a movie, a book, or a video game. Before I enter the industry, I never knew illustration is needed in so many areas. So in this post I will share with you the types of work illustrators can do (as far as I know):
Probably the most well known job type, books can vary from children's books, textbooks, teen novels, adult fiction and non-fiction books. Each type of books requires specific skill sets, so illustrators usually focus on a certain type of book. (I draw mostly children's books.)
Newspapers and magazines, whether printed or electronic, require illustrations on a regular basis. Some are about illustrating a concept on current news and topics, and this type of illustration usually has higher creative freedom.
We see ads everywhere! Companies use art to sell all kinds of stuff, including products, food, games, services, events and basically anything you can think of.
This should be the most popular corner for aspiring illustrators nowadays - being part of the entertainment industry. Movies, animations and games need a ton of development, and illustrators are needed in many divisions:
In early stages of production, concept artists help to explore and set the look and feel of the movie/animation/game. This part has the biggest creative freedom.
Everything needs to be designed - even the cabinet in the corner and the windows outside the houses. This part requires extensive research to make sure the designs fit the story's culture and era.
Storyboard requires less artistic skills but more cinematic skills. The artist needs to be the director, visualizing the scenes from a script. This part needs a lot of editing to get the right look.
Color artists need to be skilled in using colors to convey different moods - called color compositions. This part happens in later production stages when the designs and storyboards are confirmed.
Illustration makes us more likely to buy a product. (As an artist, I always look for pretty package illustrations whenever I go shopping in the supermarket.) This can range from canned dog food to CD covers.
Retail Product Illustration
Have you ever buy a birthday card or a pretty cushion with cute patterns? Some illustrators specialize in creating greeting card designs and patterns. The art can be applied on all kinds of stuff - bed sheets, mugs, curtains, bags, T-shirts...(You can check out my online shop for products!) This area often touches licensing which I'll talk about in later posts.
Other lesser known but existing illustration types
Medical illustration: accurately shows how bodies work
Natural science illustration: accurately depicts animals, vegetables and minerals
Technical illustration: accurately shows how machines work
There is actually a very large and diverse range of work for illustrators, so don't feel discouraged if you can't draw pretty Disney princesses - your art style might be a match in another area.
In life, we are usually taught to play it safe. Don't make mistakes. Take the well-beaten path. See, lots of people took that road and succeeded, therefore you should too. But here comes the question: what if we don't want to?
When I decided to study Geography and later on, Illustration, most people's response was both surprised and concerned. I was top of the class all the way till high school, why would I choose such an unpopular subject rather than the ones with the most promising future - such as Law, Medical, or Accounting? (These 3 subjects are the favorites in my culture.)
"Because I love to draw" is not a satisfactory answer to many. Just because you love something, it doesn't mean you will make a decent living from it... or does it? Back then in art school, I was terrified that I won't find a job after I graduate. But I got my first job, then the second job, then another... and now I have a steady and sufficient income being a freelance illustrator. I'm so glad that I took the road less traveled.
Why take the road less traveled?
Live a life that's true to yourself, not the life others expect of you
Life is short, don't waste most of it doing what you dread. If you don't have any particular passion, feel free to go after any profession. But if you do have a burning passion, follow it, cultivate it, and make it your lifetime career. Live a meaningful and happy life doing what you love, rather than regretting spending so many years working just for money.
A more interesting and unique journey
Taking the road less traveled may be more challenging, but equally more rewarding. You'll encounter all kinds of weird stuff, meet lots of interesting people, and get to work on exciting projects. It might even take you to places you have never imagined! I'd say my life would be much more ordinary if I didn't take the leap to become an illustrator.
It might be easier to succeed
We often fear something because we are not familiar with it. People who's not familiar with illustration wouldn't know illustrators are needed in many areas: film, animation, games, books, packaging, toys, and the pretty mug on their table... If most people choose careers other than art, then you might actually have an easier time succeeding because there's less competition. (My primary school classmate, now a lawyer, once told me there are too many law graduates nowadays and it's hard to find a good-paying job.)
So pack your bag, gear up and create your path in the forest.
(The child in the artwork is my younger self with a boyish bob haircut.)
Hello! I'm Bonnie Pang and I'm an award-winning illustrator and comic artist.