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.