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Submitted on
May 16, 2012


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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.
  • Listening to: pandora
  • Reading: Invincible
  • Watching: Modern Family
  • Playing: by writing this journal
  • Eating: too, too much.
  • Drinking: afternoon coffee
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TheCelestialDemoness Featured By Owner Aug 10, 2014  Student 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. 
mtman318 Featured By Owner Jan 29, 2014  Student General Artist
I personally think this applies to ANY school nowadays.
Follygon Featured By Owner Oct 24, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
autogatos Featured By Owner Apr 30, 2013  Professional 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 Featured By Owner Apr 30, 2013  Professional Filmographer
Thanks for the comments. Based on your DA gallery, I'd say you are well on your way. Keep it up!
autogatos Featured By Owner Apr 30, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
Thanks! :)
DanjysBasement Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2013  Hobbyist 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 Featured By Owner Jan 20, 2013
I'm in high school and a girl in my design class is already at professional level lol
DianaGoins Featured By Owner Dec 21, 2012  Student 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 Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2012  Professional 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. \:
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