Why I Left Art School

Watching my younger sister approach her senior year of high school and start the college search has inspired me to meditate on my college experience, and think about the advice I would have liked to hear when I was her age.

Let's start from the beginning of my educational journey: Kindergarten!

Here's a picture of me from Kindergarten, I'm the one on the right wearing the beret. It was career day at school and I strutted my stuff in an paint-stained artist's apron and palette in my hands. I'm lucky because I don't think many people knew their dream job at age 5. My lifelong passion for art has molded so many aspects of where I'm at today.

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As the years went on, my love for art and discipline for practicing drawing grew. Once high school came around I had shown my artwork at ArtHop (Fresno's monthly art show), interned for a local art teacher, and took Art 2, 3, and AP Studio Art (I skipped Art 1 because I convinced my teacher I was advanced enough even though looking back I totally was not). 

During my freshman year, I expressed my desire to pursue art in college to my parents. My parents have always been extremely supportive of me being an artist; my dad and I travelled around California touring art schools and attended National Portfolio Days. Portfolio Day was probably the best thing I could've done for my high school ego. The criticism I received from the representatives from the art schools was harsh, constructive, and completely a brand new experience for young Elowyn. I had never had people be critical of my art before, it was honestly so refreshing. Some of the critiques I was given that I still remember to this day were:

  1. "Your flesh tones are too green and zombie-esque. Work on mixing colors."
  2. "Your illustrations are floating in white negative space, add environments in your compositions."
  3. "You aren't a fine artist. This work is much more like commercial art and you should probably consider a different school than ours."

Okay. The last one hurt a little bit if we're being honest.

Despite the abrasiveness of the person who made the last comment, his words really inspired me to figure out what the heck the difference between commercial and fine art even was. He made me realize I still had a lot to learn.

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As a junior in high school, I went to a summer pre-college program at CCA. It was a blast, it was a painting/drawing intensive over the course of about 6 weeks. I had fantastic instructors, made great friends and created work that improved drastically from Week 1 to Week 6. I loved exploring the Bay Area and being kind of like a mini adult living on my own as a 16 year old.

My friend Max and I after we learned how build canvases

My friend Max and I after we learned how build canvases

Part of my final series for drawing class

Part of my final series for drawing class

Spending time exploring San Francisco

Spending time exploring San Francisco

After that summer and starting my senior year, I was dead set on going to this school. I applied to about 7 in-state and several out-of-state art schools and got rejected from 2 of those. I had a lot of options still, but I knew that the obvious choice was CCA. It was a 5 hour train ride back home and was such a fun experience during pre-college. Soon enough I was packing my bags and heading to Oakland to begin the Fall semester.

Art school is extremely expensive, most people are aware of this but it's not just tuition. Living in the Bay Area is impossibly expensive for most people not to mention poor art students. Rent, food, supplies; it adds up fast. I had a scholarship but I wouldn't say the tuition was dramatically reduced. The financial burden of living in this city caused me tremendous stress. 

As the semester rolled on I felt very frustrated with the level of work that was expected by the students. I felt coddled, like the way I used to feel before Portfolio Days. I felt like no matter the level of effort or skill I put into my projects, I got a pat on the back and no criticism. Some students don't take criticism well, and while I understand that, I felt like everyone treated each other with such fragility. There wasn't enough room to grow or to help each other improve because we were constantly walking on eggshells. I had high expectations from my professors to really push us and test our abilities, especially after having such a challenging experience at pre-college. The projects I had to do in some of my classes were quite obviously busy work and cost a lot of money and time to complete. There was no time for a job with 15 units and an expectation of hours upon hours of class work. I am a pretty fast worker, and I would still find myself in the studios working until 3 AM on work that had little to no relation to illustration. Although other disciplines do influence my work, paying as much as I was for these classes was beyond frustrating. I started becoming more and more bitter because I felt let down, like my dream to become an artist was being stifled by irrelevant requirements and being babied instead of challenged.  

Art school is a great place to use resources in one unified place. For example if you need to print a huge poster and unload a kiln in a matter of 30 minutes, art school has got your back. They make tons of money so they have lots of expensive tools at your disposal. However the convenience of having these fancy resources in one place definitely has a price. When I was in Fresno I had to get inventive in finding resources around town. But in doing so, I made relationships with other creatives which was such a valuable advantage. I felt that this sense of community I had back in Fresno was impossible to have in such a busy city as Oakland. I missed having relationships and opportunities to be an entrepreneur, not only a full time student.

I had to make the decision whether I wanted to wait it out and pay for the next semester or leave before draining even more money on tuition. I knew in my heart I was not going to be at this school for the entirety of my college career, so I decided it was better to not delay the inevitable. Of course it was difficult to explain my decision to my family and friends, but in the end it wasn't for them. I needed to choose what made the most sense for my life.

Now this post is not meant to slander the school I went to. It's not even to say "don't go to this school". Experiences will vary from person to person but I think it is really important to let young artists know that art school is not necessary to be successful in this field. To any young artists out there, my advice is don't fall for the lie that there's a formula everyone must take in order to succeed in this business. The truth is that you have to work your butt off either way and you have to choose the standards you want to be measured by.

I would talk about life back in Fresno but this blog is long as it is so we will save that for another time. I hope this resonates with at least one reader out there, thanks for making it to the end! Would love to hear your thoughts/questions on this topic either here or on my other social media!