If You Want to Be an Artist…

Following the student art show this weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about art education and how we learn this marvelous thing we call art. My thoughts quickly went back to a recent conversation with a former schoolmate. But before I get to that, let me digress a bit and share a few thoughts about my personal journey toward becoming an artist.

I often lament the fact that I am self-taught.  The pastel portrait workshop I attended and the lessons I’ve followed on The Virtual Instructor website are the closest I’ve come to having any actual art instruction. I do think of myself as an art student, but one who is completely home-schooled without benefit of any formal standards. I create my curriculum based both upon my needs and my desires in art. I do a lot of what I love, and then for good measure, I throw in things that I know will be challenging.

I’m learning now, however, that being self-taught as an artist isn’t unusual, and it may actually be very beneficial. Although I’ve often wished I could attend an art school, maybe I should be very glad that I don’t have that opportunity.

In September I traveled to my old hometown for a class reunion. I looked forward to the event in hopes of seeing one classmate, in particular. Growing up, one of my best friends was Verna Zurn. She was, without doubt, the most talented artist I’ve ever known. After high school, a lot of things happened in her life and in mine and we soon lost touch. I went to this class reunion in hopes of re-connecting with Verna once again. I couldn’t wait to see her and to tell her the unbelievable turn of events, that had actually become an artist.

I will admit to being a bit surprised at her somewhat visceral reaction. “If you want to be an artist,” she said at once, “don’t go to art school. They’ll knock that right out of you.”

The words did take me aback a bit. Art school is where talented people — like Verna — learn to take their art to higher levels… isn’t it? Verna did make a career of it, working as a commercial artist. She no longer does any sort of art, unless you count knitting and crocheting. She doesn’t draw; she doesn’t paint. For her, it seems all the joy has gone out of art.

I find that sad, and I also find her words very intriguing. Yes, she went to art school. Yes she became a professional artistbut where it was once something natural to her, something that sprang forth from her soul, her art seems to have become just a job.

Of course, I know that I would never make it through a real art school. It’s merely the idea of art school that appeals to me. I envision art school as a place where students can try different things, receive constructive criticism, and receive guidance to develop their artistic passions. Most likely it’s not like that at all, and I’m glad I won’t ever find out first hand what going to an art school is really like. If you’ve been to art school, I hope you’ll share a few thoughts in the comments.

There are, of course, many artists who are self-taught or largely self-taught, a phrase I read often in artist biographies. You’ll find several gathered together here:

8 Famous Artists Who Were Self-Taught

Another artist re-iterates Verna’s advice almost word for word:

Want to Be an Artist? Here’s Why You Should Forget About Art School

From my reading this morning, I learned, too, that while in our Western culture we view art school as a mark of professionalism or validation, this is definitely not true in other cultures:

“Outside of the Western canon, the idea of being self-taught can mean something quite different. Indeed, in some regions of the world, artists who operate outside of any prescribed system are seen as more advanced than professional artists, and the rules and formalities implied by the latter category are seen to stifle creativity altogether.”

— Jon Mann —

At some level, of course, we all have a lot to learn when it comes to art, and just as there are many different paths to follow in art there are also many different pathways leading us there. Art school is only one of those pathways.

Being self-taught ensures that I can pick and choose my own direction. I can determine which roads I want to follow and decide for myself where I want to go. It might take me longer to get there. Maybe I’ll never become the artist I really want to be, but that’s all right. I enjoy having the creative freedom to explore art in my own way.

All in all, I think I’m very glad now to count myself among the ranks of self-taught artists. I will no longer feel the need to apologize for my lack of art instruction. Instead I will consider it a badge of honor and courage. Come what may, I will continue my art in my own way, and I will always be the artist I am meant to be.

I want, too, to share my love of art with others, to encourage others — both aspiring young artists and older ones like me — to give art a try. I want to help others by sharing what knowledge I’ve gained, through sharing resources, by offering ideas and suggestions for learning about the art experience.

Children Painting

As I said yesterday, art does matter. What doesn’t matter is how we go about learning it. Art school might be the right choice for some, but it’s definitely not for everyone. That shouldn’t stop us, though, from creating art and expressing what is in our heart.

Art may be given short shrift in schools these days, but we can bring art into our homes and share our love of art with children, grandchildren, friends and more! I want to think of myself now not only as an artist, but also as an art ambassador, ready to share the joy of art wherever I go.

16 Comments

  1. Thanks for this perspective. We judge ourselves so harshly, don’t we? I am certainly self-taught (and learning), and it is the process of discovery that fuels me. I suppose like anything, the more you know the more you realize you don’t know and that could certainly stunt the process.

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  2. Yes, art school can definitely knock you right out of art. My guy, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, has seen that happen over and over, especially at the grad student level. However, there is great value in being part of an art class, especially locally-taught community classes. You get the chance for personal interaction with the teacher and other students, and if you are lucky enough to have a good teacher you can learn a million helpful things in a very short time. If there are local art organizations in your area, check in with them as they usually either offer classes or can tell you where to find them. Community group classes are usually 6-8 weeks long, not very expensive, and concentrate on only one aspect of art at a time (drawing, painting, printmaking, portraiture, landscape, color theory, etc). And the value of the “live community” aspect of it all cannot be underestimated.

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    1. I definitely plan to do more art workshops and maybe classes, too, if I can find ones that aren’t too far away. (We’re about an hour away from the city, so a lot of activities are hard to work into our schedules.)

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      1. I like classes better than workshops (unless the workshops are at least a week long) because you get to deal with a particular project over time. I live in a small town of about 7000, 45 minutes from the nearest real city, and was surprised to find community art centers pretty close to me. Hope you are lucky that way too.

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      2. We have 2 regional art clubs in the area, but no “art education” centers nearby. Occasionally there is a community class on an art-related project, but nothing so far that’s really caught my interest. Right now workshops and the projects we do during our club meetings is the closest thing I’ve found to a class. I think it would be awesome to actually have a weekly class on a particular thing — like oil painting 🙂

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  3. First, thank you for visiting my blog. I went to University and received my BA in Fine Art which didn’t help much when I graduated. However, the experience of taking different classes and learning different processes and having feed-back from the instructors and late night painting classes with other students was fantastic. I don’t think you need a piece of paper to say you are an artist. If you enjoy painting, photography, film, music, etc. and devote time to getting better at it and love it, then you are an artist. Being a successful artist on the other hand is a whole different ball game. I wish you all the best and keep that creative spark alive and well.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about art. I sometimes do wish I had more “art experiences” with on-site instructors, so I hope I can find a few classes nearby this spring. Getting constructive criticism would be very helpful for me at this stage in my art journey. It’s been quite an experience to go from someone who couldn’t draw a straight line to being someone who’s now an active member in two art clubs. I’m glad I decided to pursue my interest in art.

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  4. Hi Judith, great article! As a former college art student, I can testify that it really is an individual process. For me I felt I needed the environment to challenge my skills and take my blinders (I was in a sort of creative tunnel vision and didn’t know how to break from it). I would say that while it expanded me as a person and artist, there is something deeply cathartic about a more hermetic approach to art, and that’s completely invaluable. I love that you’re doing your own thing and truthfully, so long as you can network, are always growing and don’t stop, there’s really very few reasons to pursue formal art education. We will always be art students, in or out of the studio. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for the comments, Will. Yes, indeed, the more I learn about art, the more I realize that it’s always going to be an on-going process. As you said, we will always be art students. I’m becoming more and more thankful, too, for the opportunities I have to choose my own direction. I no longer feel I need to apologize for being a “self-taught” artist.

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