How to Survive Art School and Not Lose Your Mind Doing It…

I’ve been talking to a lot of my art buddies. Over the years we’ve been comparing notes and damages. My education history was a lot of community college, a really nice summer workshop at a fancy school, and bouncing around a couple of state universities. This gave me a rather nicely rounded view of art education and the variety there of.

It occurs to me that others really don’t have this perspective. They usually go to one school – and if they don’t fit the faculty’s plans they get brow beaten until they do.  The university I graduated from in the end, was a huge example of that. Often I would get berated for being a square peg in a round hole and I just wouldn’t care.

So I’m going to share my tips and strategies on how to survive art school with your soul intact and not to lose whatever spark you had that made you pursue art in the first place.

First of all – try to find a school that fits what you want.

If you want to be an animator, don’t go to a school that has little focus on that.  If you want to study technique try to find a school that focuses on that.  I ended up at a school that was obsessed more with concept than technique and found myself rather frustrated in class.

If you can find it, look up the professors and their work. This often gives you an idea of what sort of school you are looking at. Some professors are very traditionalist, some are more about concepts, some want to push the envelope.

Art is fairly subjective, and professors are grand examples of that.  I’m not saying you have to get along with all of your professors or see eye to eye with them. But if you want to pursue abstract art and collage don’t go to a school where majority of the professors are traditional realists.

That said – if something happens and you find the environment isn’t what you  signed up for, transferring is an option. It might seem daunting and scary to change plans and schools in the middle of things, but it is possible. I’ve done it. Odds are you are paying money to go to college, might as well try to get your money’s worth out of it.

Second, keep your personal projects alive.

That OC you have? That little story you’ve been kicking around? Your slash fanart that you draw when no one is looking? Your obsession for drawing unicorns on the back of your notebooks? Keep those.  Never lose those. That’s what got you into art in the first place. That’s what YOU bring to the table.

Don’t bring them into class, don’t show your profs unless you and your prof get along and they show an interest in your personal work. As a rule, professors are not there for your slash fanart or robot drawings. They are there to teach and to broaden your mind.

But that doesn’t mean your ideas are less valuable. They are important to you. Even if you are swamped with assignments and deadlines try to pencil some time aside to work on those. Keep a blog, share them with friends, draw them on your white board, keep a separate sketchbook. Whatever.  Just keep working on things that make you happy even for a few minutes in a week.

Third, energy is never wasted.

This is something my dad, the engineer told me a lot when I was bouncing from school to school. Energy is never wasted and knowledge always comes in handy.

Try new things, odds are you are going to have many elective classes or odd gaps in your schedule where nothing for your major fits. So use this time to learn new things. Take a pottery class, learn how black smithing works, try out print making.  You may hate it, you may find you like it. But in the end it may help you later on down the way.

I took silk screening to fill a gap in my schedule and ended up enjoying it so much I took two levels in it. While I don’t get to use it too much these days I still use a lot of concepts I learned there in odd little every day ways. Plus knowing how to print t-shirts is a useful marketable skill.

Fourth, you are here to learn.

You may have been the best artist at your high school, or in your circle of friends. You may think you know everything you need to know and you’re just going to college to placate your parents. Or you may think that art is easy and you are going to cruise on through. You may in fact be an idiot.

Drawing for yourself is fun, drawing because you have to, is a bit less so. Stretching all your artistic boundaries and creating whatever the professor wants you to, is much much less so. A lot of what art school is for is stretching your boundaries and expanding your pool of knowledge. There are a lot of things you will not know, and that’s why you are here. To learn them.

Fifth, check your ego and don’t compare yourself to others. 

At art school you will end up meeting a lot of similar minded individuals. Some of them will be better than you skill wise, some of them will be worse. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and will have different knowledge and skills. Try not to let yourself get a big head dealing with folks who you feel are worse than you. No one likes a pompous ass, and the person who may suck at life drawing may kick your ass at pottery or graphic design and then you’ll just look stupid.

The important thing is they are here for the same reason as you: to learn and improve.

Inversely – try not to worry about those more skilled than you. You don’t get anything done if you are eternally glancing over at your classmate’s work. You get even less done if you are biting your nails and worrying about how much better they are then you.

Sixth – time management is your friend 

Forgive me if I sound like your parents or an old person. I could write a whole essay about this. My dorm room was covered with post it notes and a whiteboard of deadlines and events. Laugh all you want, I usually got a decent amount of sleep every night and only had to pull three all night-ers in my entire college career.

Putting stuff off until later seems like a great idea at the time you do it. But it just makes everything harder later. Trust me, if you can break your work load up into smaller bite size chunks over a period of time you’ll be a lot better off in so many ways.

I could probably add more to this article but at that point I’m just splitting hairs and going overboard. This was to be a general write up not a battle plan. Everyone’s college experiences are different and I’m not going to try to predict what everyone’s individual experience is.

However I will add one more tip: Try to enjoy yourself. Art is something that is very much an emotional experience. If there’s no passion or enjoyment in the creation of it there probably isn’t going to be much for the viewer to experience.


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