What Options Do Artists Have For Studying Their Craft?

by Joelle Steele

Not every successful artist has a degree in art. Some never studied art at all. Some are self-taught. Some become rich and famous, regardless of their art education, and others manage to achieve a nice self-supporting or part-time art career. And some may find a place in their life for art as a hobbyist, even if their skills are at a professional level.

I have a degree in language arts — a double major in English and Linguistics. A far cry from a formal art education. But I have taken some college-level art classes, earned a vocational certificate in interior design, took nine years of private art instruction, received a ton of knowledge from friends and relatives who were artists, had a few years of on-the-job design training, attended numerous art workshops, spent a lot of time experimenting and learning on my own, and accumulated many years of professional experience. For me, the learning never stops. There have been a few times when I wished I had pursued a formal art education, but that's not because I think it is the right way or the only way to fulfill an art career.

Everyone has to follow their own path when it comes to their art education. And, how we learn anything is based on our own approach to knowledge, learning, and careers. Some people require a formal classroom setting in which to thrive, some prefer individual instruction, and yet others prefer to go the route of the self-taught. Is there a perceivable difference between the artists who study art formally and those who don't? Is there an advantage to an art education? Does the study of art suppress or enhance one's own unique creative impulses? Let's look at some possible ways to study art and how studying — or not studying — could potentially impact on an artist's career.


For those who learn best in a structured environment, finding the right art school or college is going to be very important. They will need to find the school or college that has the kinds of classes and instructors that will support their artistic goals. For example, if they envision themselves as designers, they will need to find an institution that specializes in graphic design or interior design. If they are leaning towards the fine arts — painting, photography, sculpture, etc. — they will need a place that provides the appropriate form of instruction that meets their individual learning needs. Those who attend an art school will get an intense curriculum that immerses them in their art, while those who attend a four-year college will additionally benefit from the broader studies outside of the art major.

What are the advantages of formal instruction? Any institution of higher learning is going to provide you with the tools and resources, the support, and the time to make art, and that includes some experimenting with art, immersing yourself in it. In some schools students learn not only their craft, but others as well, and may additionally learn about art history. These are all valuable in understanding where the student will fit into the art world as an artist. Then there are the people that a student meets, including instructors and other beginner artists. Many of those people will become mentors, friends, and artistic peers, and many artists often find that those relationships ultimately become the basis for establishing and maintaining their art careers. Also, just the fact of having a degree or some type of certificate is an excellent indicator of one's proven ability to stick to something and finish it, and it is also proof of the knowledge acquired in that course of study. So a formal education has definite advantages.

But there are also some potential problems with formal art instruction. It can be confining at times. Students must often conform to the artistic criteria set by others. This can delay an artist's development of their own style. It can be even worse if a student is easily influenced by those around them to the point that they are emulating others rather than finding their own unique direction, or if the student is routinely harshly criticized and feels inadequate and inconsequential, sometimes to the point of giving up their pursuit of art entirely. Schools are also known for being very insulating. You are in the halls of academia, whether you are at an art school or a university. Your instructors may not even be working artists, and you may not be able to meet any real working artists. Your learning may, in that way, be skewed in the direction of mediocrity and there may be no training towards making art as a career. A common lament among newly graduated artists is that of being led to believe they are "golden" and that the art world is eager to embrace them, and then finding out that they are just another unemployed person struggling to make ends meet.


Becoming self-taught isn't for everybody. You have to be the instructor and the student as you must plan and follow your own educational path without the oversight of another person for direction, questions, and feedback. But since some artistic types feel stifled in a structured learning environment or may not have the financial resources for formal training, self-instruction can be a worthy alternative. Self-taught artists usually know exactly what they want to learn, and they prefer to pursue that knowledge which is specific only to their needs and nothing else. In this way, they are on the fast track, cutting out anything they deem unimportant. Self-taught individuals are usually highly motivated and extremely diligent students; they just prefer to go it alone and form their own opinions as they study.

But creating one's own study agenda can limit the student without the student even knowing it. To be good at self-instruction necessitates having an ear constantly open to what's new and what's happening in the art world and the world at large. Knowledge is power, and every little bit helps. Another problem for the self-taught is that studying alone can be quite isolating, depending on the personality of the artist. The self-taught tend to be far more independent than other artists, and this carries the potential to adversely impact on their career success if they are also loners who do not have good social skills. No matter what kind of artist a person becomes, they may work alone when they make their art, but they will eventually have to find a way to connect with and interact with others who can help them promote and sell their work.


This can be an education in and of itself, and it can also be a supplement to self-instruction. Individual or private instruction can be great for those who know what they want to learn but require some guidance along the way. It is certainly a valid although sometimes limiting approach to studying art. While the student may learn well in this study format, they may be unduly influenced by the knowledge and viewpoints of their instructor. This can be problematic if they only have one instructor. However, this dilemma can be avoided if they instead take a wide variety of workshops and training from different instructors. And, like the self-taught, they too must develop the social skills and connections that will help them succeed in their artistic pursuits.


Yes, there are artists who simply do not study with anyone or in any institution. No one has to study art to make art. Many a primitive or experimentalist starts making art, often as a child, and produces a body of work throughout their adult life. Sometimes that work reflects changes and growth as a person and as an artist; sometimes it reflects only a dogged adherence to the same old thing, a trap that any artist of any educational background can fall into. Many untrained artists never visit a museum or art gallery or crack a book. They just make art. Period.


Some artists claim that studying art suppresses their own unique creative impulses. Others claim that studying art drives them to create only derivative works. These same statements are as often made in the reverse, that not studying art closes your mind to all the potential creative pursuits and that not studying art dooms the artist to mediocrity. Neither is entirely true, and certainly not for every artist. These are just the musings and opinions of people who are talking about their own art education or lack thereof. Inner inspiration, experience, vision, and the ability to grow and learn as an individual, as a human being, are far more likely to shape one's creativity rather than whether or not they studied formally or are self-taught.

I have known more artists than I can remember. My grandfather was an artist, classically trained in Italy. My mother had four close friends, two trained as artists and two highly skilled, self-taught hobbyists. And my mother could draw quite well herself. Her side of the family tree is filled with famous Swedish-Finn artists, writers, and musicians. Her distant cousin, the late Tapio Wirkkala, brought Finland to the forefront in the design world in the early 1950s. Several of my friends are artists: three painters, two graphic designers, one animator, and one ceramist. And, over the years, I have had a variety of co-workers, neighbors, and acquaintances who were artists of all kinds, working full- or part-time or talented hobbyists. Artists are everywhere.

While many artists make a very decent living at their craft, some have found international success and acclaim in their art careers. Take a look at just of few of these artists' educational backgrounds to see how they learned and mastered their craft: Andy Warhol attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology where he studied design and illustration. Alexander Calder had a degree in mechanical engineering but was later inspired to study art at the Art Students' League in New York. Salvador Dalí studied drawing as a boy and later attended the Academia de San Fernando School of Fine Arts in Madrid but never finished. Claude Monet was enrolled in the Le Havre Municipal Drawing School at age 11 and later took lessons from various well-known artists. Mary Cassatt studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia at age 15, left without a degree, moved to Paris, became a registered copyist at the Louvre, and studied privately under instructors from the L'École des Beaux-Arts. Paul Klee graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Wassily Kandinsky taught law and economics before taking up art at age 30 when he enrolled at the private art school of Anton Ažbe and later at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. David Hockney attended the Regional College of Art in Bradford and then graduated from the Painting College of the Royal College of Art in London. "Grandma Moses" (Anna Mary Robertson) had no art training, took up painting at age 70, made a 30-year career of art, and received an honorary doctorate from Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. Pablo Picasso was trained first by his father (an artist and art professor), enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona, then attended the Royal Academy of San Fernando School of Fine Arts in Madrid but quit shortly after he enrolled. Pierre-Auguste Renoir was apprenticed as a boy to paint fine china and other decorative pieces until he was 21 and enrolled at L'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Berthe Morisot, who shared her family tree with the rococo painter Fragonard, was a registered copyist at the Louvre and was trained in painting by Camille Corot. Auguste Rodin attended Petite École where he studied drawing and painting, but was rejected three times for entry into the Grand École. Camille Corot did poorly in school, but took some art instruction from two painters as a young adult. Vincent Van Gogh showed no interest in art as a child, briefly studied at The Hague School, studied privately under a cousin-artist, studied less than a year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and was otherwise entirely self-taught. Henri Rousseau had a law degree, started painting in his 40s, and was a self-taught primitive painter.


Where and how or whether or not an artist studies their craft is an individual choice. The real studying should be in making that choice the best one possible for that particular artist. That and taking a few key business courses or reading some basic business texts to prepare a strong foundation for their career. In all other ways, every artist has the potential to be anything from ordinary to extraordinary. Their education alone is not the definitive factor in the degree of their success.

This article last updated: 12/04/2014.