Entering Art School

By Samuel Crowe [11.30.06]


Every time I read a forum or newsgroup, there is always the same type of question regarding what to do after graduating high school. Many people want a career in visual effects, animation or games and they want to know what the best schools are. To answer that I will simply say, there is no "best" school and most likely never will be. There are far too many variables involved when deciding to "grade" the top quality school for the ever changing world of digital media and art.

In this article I will explain some of the basics of what to look for in a school and just touch on what to expect. Before I begin, I should point out that this document is Art related, not programming or whatever, strictly art. I will also mention this many times, but every school has its own requirements for accepting students. Be sure you research what those requirements are, if any.

I'm going to keep this as simple and short as I can, because I know many of you are hungry for the information and may need to come back to this a couple of times for reference. So expect a lot of bullets and numbers.

First thing you should do is research the area you are most interested in:

Once you decide the area you want to focus in, start researching what the artists do in that field. It's important to know the backgrounds of these artists, especially if they had a formal education in the arts. You may be surprised at the number of successful artists who have strong backgrounds in Fine Art.

Once you get some preliminary research done and you have a strong idea of what you want to study, it's time to start looking at schools (colleges).

School Types

 Here are some schools to choose from:

As you research some of the types of school above, you may notice the differences in what is offered and what is expected of the students.

University. You will have a major and be required to take "core" classes that are not related to your major. You are expected to graduate with a "well rounded" education with a specific concentration in your major or major and minor. The classes tend to be larger for a University.

Private. Much like a University but more focused on a single area, such as fine art, digital art or animation. You may be required to take some basic courses but they most often relate to your area of focus in some way. Class sizes are usually small due to either a set limit of students accepted or higher than average tuition fees.

Internet based. Many internet based programs are offered through schools or by "Atelier" type shops. These vary in size and price as well as area of focus. It's best to ask around or ask for information, such as a copy of the syllabi used and examples of the instructor's and students' work. Classes are sometimes capped at a specific number of students. Keep in mind that if the class is being taught by a working instructor who is either working in the "field" or teaching, the class may be smaller than average.

Atelier. These schools are more like workshops where you will learn specific styles and techniques. You usually pay per course and they are small in size.

Degree Types

Enrollment Status

Each school has their own requirements for what a full time student is. Please check with your school of choice as to what the requirements are for full time enrollment.

Each class you take will be associated with a specific amount of "hours" or credits. The total amount of these hours or credits will determine your enrollment status as either fulltime, part time or other.

Your enrollment status affects your financial aid and ultimately how quickly you graduate.

After that fast run down of some of the types of schools and degrees that are available to you if you wish to pursue art, I'll list in more detail what to look for and some other useful information.


For most of you, this will be where you end up going, mainly because of the price and the fact that you can get more financial aid from a University. You have a huge choice of where you can study art if you decide to go to a University.

Most, if not all Universities, require that you have taken specific tests in order to be accepted. Each State in the United States and each Country has their own requirements as to what is required for admission as an undergraduate. So be sure you check and ask for an undergraduate catalog. The catalog will have just about every bit of information you could want. You can also ask for any packets regarding entry exams portfolio requirements for the art department.

Think of a University as a conglomerate of small colleges. Each Major area of study will be listed as a "department." Some schools may have different names. Examples being:

Most departments are labeled by what the major area of focus is and some may be combined. So if you see Department of Art and Music, this does not mean you be taking music courses, just means the two departments are combined.

If you plan on attending a University, be sure to check that they are certified by an accrediting association such as the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. The importance of accreditation means you can contact the association and ask for information about the art program at the University and they are required to give you all the information available, good and bad. They also grade the courses being taught and pay attention to the work being produced by the students.

You will be required to take core classes when you enroll. These are classes such as algebra, probability and statistics, history, biology, physical education, English... The list goes on. Each school has a list of required core classes you must take as well as what is required by the major you choose.

The price to attend a University is based on some common factors, but keep in mind that each Country may have very different prices for tuition.

Now where's the financial aid office?

Those are just a few of charges that will go into your tuition. This is about the time you walk over to the financial aid office and want to talk about help with getting money. I'm not going to delve into the bottomless pit of information about financial aid. There is a plethora of information available from the school's financial aid officers as well as the internet. Best advice I can give anyone about financial aid... Only get what you need!

If you get loans, make sure they do not accrue interest while you are in school and do not require you to pay them back until after you graduate. Get all the grants and "free" money you can. These never have to be paid back.

If you are or were in the military you most likely will have the G.I. bill to help pay for you classes and tuition as well as enough for books and other supplies. Go to the Veterans affairs office and talk with them.

On average, you can expect to pay anywhere from $1500 to $5000 a semester in tuition only. There are some Universities that charge well above $5000 a semester or quarter, as I said, prices vary greatly.

The type of degrees that are available to you at a university for art majors:

 Private Art School

Take all the information above about the university and double the price of tuition.

Most private schools are more focused in specific areas of art.

You may find that some private art schools do not offer the same amount of financial aid as the Universities.

Private Schools are usually smaller in class size and do not have tenure for faculty. Non Tenured faculty means fresh instructors are brought in at least every two years. This is good in the fact that you are more likely to be instructed by people who currently hold jobs in the industry you are interested in. This is also bad in that you do not benefit from an experienced instructor who, through years of experienced teaching and experimenting, can offer you other ways of thinking and working that may not be available from the more ridged guidelines of the professional workplace.

Prices for some private schools range in the $10,000 to $45,000 per year area. Private schools usually only offer a two year associates or bachelor's degree. In some cases you may find that you are taking double the credit hours per semester or quarter in order to get a bachelor's degree.

Financial aid is available and in some cases is equal to what is offered to University students.

Types of degrees available to you at a private school:

Internet Based Schooling

As stated earlier, many universities offer their classes to you through "distance learning" or internet based class rooms. Please check with each school to find out their hardware and software requirements.

Personally, I have yet to find an internet based learning program that offers anything other than a certificate in art.

Many of the internet based classes are capped at a specific amount of students so the instructor can spend time communicating with the students. You will also find that not all of the courses required to earn a degree are available to you through online schooling. If you decide that you want to take online courses, make sure that you are able to transfer those credited hours to another university if you intend on gaining a full degree.

Prices vary for these types of classes. If it is university based, you can expect to pay normal tuition and registration fees. If the class is workshop based, you will see prices in the range of $200 to $600 range.

Like any class, attendance is crucial as is completion of work. Many internet based programs will only meet once a week or once every two weeks. During that time, you are expected to complete all the work that was given and be active during discussions and critiques.

Depending on the type of internet class you are enrolled in, some financial aid maybe available to you, but it will be limited.

Types of degrees offered:

Atelier (Workshop)

You will find that Ateliers or workshops are very specific in what they teach. If you are looking to gain a specific set of skills and concentrate on those skills this is the place for you. Classes are small so the instructor can work one on one with the students. You will be spending most of your time practicing your skills as an artist and less time doing research or writing documents. These types of schools require a great deal of personal time and effort in order to achieve the high goals that are set.

There is very limited financial aid available to students who wish to go this route.

I do not know of any Atelier that offer degrees, most offer a certificate after successfully completing courses.

Classes are usually taught by industry professionals and working artists. You are guaranteed professional advice and work methods. You can expect your artwork to look exactly like or very close to that of the person teaching the class. In most cases very little freedom is given to developing your own style while attending classes. You may find that some of the advanced classes offer more freedom, but you need to show you have successfully completed the basic courses.

Prices range in the $300 to $1500 range per class.

Degrees offered:

 Portfolio Requirements

Many schools require that you submit a portfolio before being accepted into the program. I personally do not agree with this method-if you exhibit the skills needed to be accepted, then why bother going in the first place? Many schools do this to ensure that you are serious about perusing a career in art, as well as the basic understanding and skill needed to produce quality artwork. Portfolios also allow the school to structure their classes. If they see that are receiving a large number of portfolios that are of poor quality, then the school may need to put more emphasis in the basic courses.

Be sure you check with each school to see what the portfolio requirements are. In general, here is a list of what you may be asked to show in your portfolio:

Or let your creations make your portfolio for you.

Choosing a School

Choosing a school to attend can be very nerve-wracking at first, especially if you just graduated from High School yesterday. If this is you, you need to stop reading this and start researching the schools you want to attend, as well as the career you want. Once you have that information, then come back and read the advice section.

If you are still in High School, then you should start researching as much as possible. Keep a record of the schools you find and list the types of degrees, the types of programs and of course the fees required.

Do not choose a school because a popular artist graduated from there. Do not choose a school because it is "popular." Do not choose a school because they have a "high recruitment of students into the industry." Here is why:

A popular artist graduated from that school, so you want to go there? You will find that no matter what school you go to, it is up to you as an individual to work on your skills. As an illustrator friend once said: "Art school is where you go to teach yourself."

High recruitment has always a big selling point. Keyword there being "selling." A university or any other school is a business and in order to stay up and running, they need your money. Many schools invest heavily in advertising their courses and degree programs. One of the all time favorites is to say: "we have a 90% recruitment of students who graduated" or " 90% of our students are currently working in the industry after graduation." The first question you need to ask is, "What industry?" Does McDonalds count as the "industry"? Yes it does! How many of those students are still working in their chosen field? Much if not all of this information is given to the school by the graduating students through alumni organizations. How much of it is true or false is unknown. In some cases, schools do have a high recruitment ratio, but what you need to ask yourself is: will that ratio still remain in two to 4 years when I graduate? Chances are slim that it will.

Once You're In

Time to party and stay drunk! No afraid not, all those movies you've seen are far from the truth. If you decide to spend your time partying then you will soon find yourself with about $50,000 of debt and no school to attend. I'm not saying to avoid fun and parties, but I am saying be smart about it. Colleges and other schools offer so many distractions it's amazing anyone graduates. Just be smart about it.

But don't be down.

Accept the fact that you're going to produce low quality art, stop trying to impress your classmates by looking for shortcuts to produce "popular" or eye catching art. Instead, I suggest making your mistakes and learning from them and then moving on. Make progress as much as you can. Keep everything you do, no matter how bad it is. At some point, those bad drawings or paintings can be recycled or used as great pieces of personal inspiration when you are in a rut.

Drop the ego that you are the best artist on campus, there will always be someone better and if have a big ego you will lose the chance to work with or learn from the "better" artist.

Art students are poor!!!! You will have very little money to spend on booze and eating out. This is because you're always buying supplies. Your art supplies usually last for about the length of a semester and it's time to buy more. Do not buy all your supplies at once. You may find that you only use a quarter of what is required.

Pay attention here, because this is the most important bit of information I can give any starting art student...

Take as much of color theory, basic design and art history as you can! Everything you do, painting, drawing, 3D, animation all of it, is based on your understanding of color theory and design. You must master these fundamentals before you graduate and expect to have a successful career. The good news is, as artists, you will find that most of color theory and design comes natural to you. You just never had the opportunity to study it in depth and master it. Learn Art History, learn about the masters before us and study them. Understanding art movements throughout history will have a strong impact on you as an artist as well as the type of work you produce.

Do not wait until the last minute to complete your assignments. What is the point of doing that? You're not going to learn anything; you're only doing it because you are required to. Always try to learn from everything you do, spend some time understanding the way you think and the way you work. If you are concerned with getting an "A" there is a big possibility you are only doing the basic requirements to pass the class. Because of this, many instructors set a very high bar for what is required to get an "A."

Keep a collection of artists and artwork that you like. Keep this file on your computer or in a box somewhere. As you mature as an artist you will notice that your tastes change as well as your style. It's important that you understand this and learn from it. Always ask yourself: "What do I like about this image, what is this image telling me?" Sometimes you may just like the image for what it is, other times you may hate the style, but love the story it presents.

 Why Go to School?

This is also a huge question that comes up in most conversations. Why go to a school and pay all that money when you can just buy the books or DVD's?

If you break it down, it's going to cost a little less if you do that, but it will still be expensive. You need hardware, software, supplies, space to work, paper to print on, or paint on... the list goes on.

The most important difference between a "traditional" education and "self education" is environment. In a classroom, you will be exposed to others art as well as their way of thinking and working. You will get critiques from instructors and other students. The sharing of ideas in real time between other artists will go a long way in helping you to become a better artist.

Another reason is exposure, and no, not the exposure of the nude for figure drawing, the exposure to different areas of study. You may have decided to go to school to become an illustrator, but then decide that you like animation or photography more.

Self education is very hard and very daunting in the beginning. It is up to you individually to keep up to date with what is going on in your specific area of study as well as being able to produce competitive or better art. You must constantly challenge yourself and rely on close family or friends for educated and constructive criticism. You must rely on your own will power to study and complete assignments with in a set amount of time. Otherwise you could spend months on a single image and only learn a few things, where as you could have learned those same things in a few days with proper time management. At some point you must build a network of other artists to discuss techniques and ideas.

If you truly want to be the best artist you can possibly be, do both. Be an overachiever in school and work your butt off out of school doing things that interest you and experimenting with various media. Bounce ideas off your fellow students then work on those in your own time.

Your ultimate goal is to become the best you can be at what you enjoy doing. This also includes graduating as fast as you can. Going to school is much like the scene from an Indiana Jones movie... You are working your way out with your prized object in your hands, all the time being chased by this huge rolling ball of death that will crush you at any time. Maybe a bit over-dramatic for an analogy, but it fits.

The longer you stay in school, the more debt you gather. So stay focused, work hard and pay attention. At some point in your life, you may want to buy a house-living in dorms and apartments with paper thin walls gets old very fast.

Software and Hardware

This is my favorite part, but I'll keep it simple...

No tool on earth is going to make you a better artist. There is no magic wand that will allow you to create amazing artwork.

Many of the very successful and acclaimed digital artist living today have backgrounds in fine art and first learned how to create their art with out ever touching a computer.

Show a range or waste away.

The computer and the software on it are only tools. The sooner you realize that, the better off you will be.

Avoid taking classes that are geared toward specific software applications in your early years or semesters at school. Software changes rapidly and what you learn this semester could be vastly different 3 to 4 years when you do graduate.

 Final Direction

Ok, now for the part you're probably looking for... You want to animate?

You want to make art for games?

You want to make visual effects for movies? Take everything from the "you want to make art for games" section and add the following:

Do not get stuck on using a specific brand of software or hardware.

Do not limit yourself; explore everything that is available to you.

Make many friends, they may get hired before you do and they maybe your way into your first job.

Stay focused as much as possible, but have fun too.

Learn from your mistakes and keep making progress. Do not rework the same image over and over, each time you do, you're less likely to learn something as compared to starting a new one.

Your teachers will be "idiots, close minded fools and full of crap" until you graduate. Then you'll understand them and praise them every day after you graduate and start working as a professional.

Remember where you came from because someone, just like you, will be asking for advice. Always try to share your knowledge with others. You can learn a great deal and improve your skill set by helping others.

Grades are great for grants and nifty award letters, but in the end it's your portfolio or demo that counts the most.

Learn to appreciate other types of art. You may not like it, but there is always something to be learned from it or something that you can apply to your own art.

Don't just be a game artist.

You're an adult now and it is expected that you act like one. Sitting in a full class yelling ‘laser tag, laser tag' while others are trying to work only makes you look like a grade school child. The entire class does not want to hear about your weekend. Just be mature, save the outburst and silliness for somewhere else.

The best schools to go to are ones that offer you want you are most interested in. If you study in a specific major or area that interests you, you will excel, and it will show when you graduate. No degree or certificate can match that.

On the other hand, having a 4 year degree can open up more opportunities for you if you decide to pursue a different career after school.

Samuel Crowe's career as an artist has spanned at least 12 years, ranging from graphic design, illustration and video games. After earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts from East Tennessee State University, Samuel was hired as a Lead Artist for Sunstorm Interactive. After Sunstorm became inactive he was hired as an Artist at Vicarious Visions and quickly moved into the role of Lead Artist. Samuel is now working on his Masters in Fine Arts.

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