Is Art School The Best Choice?

Chris Oatley, "Animal Farm: King Napoleon," 2013

Chris Oatley, “Animal Farm: King Napoleon,” 2013

For a long time I debated whether or not I wanted to go to an art school to earn my M.A. (as, for the most part, the only type of M.A. you can get outside of art schools is a M.F.A. and I’m not interested in a Fine Arts degree). While I do very much value the education I got at CSUS (I graduated with a B.A. in Studio Art in Spring of 2013), I still felt like there was so much more for me to learn. I wasn’t done with school. I’m still not done with school. So really, the question wasn’t whether or not I wanted to continue my art education, it was whether or not I wanted to spend the exorbitant amounts of money that art schools charge.

I felt irrational guilt over not going, like I was wasting my potential somehow, so I seriously started looking into schools and even set up a meeting via telephone with a representative from an Art Institute (before I heard about the controversy surrounding the various Art Institutes). The dude certainly knew how to sound encouraging, I’ll give him that. He said things like “portfolio reviews with established artists” and “our graduates get hired right out of school” and “professors who’ve worked for Pixar” (*GASP*). And naturally, I was feeling pretty excited, but I just couldn’t get past the staggering costs of attendance. Then he brought up a list of really awesome sounding classes…and I felt like a horse reaching for a carrot on a string.

Even though, in my heart, I knew I wasn’t going to go, I was still feeling pretty unhappy about my decision. Then Chris Oatley, an artist whose newsletter I’d been following for a few months, posted the following Livestream Q & A with Noah Bradley: There Are Easier Ways to Become A Professional Artist: ArtCast #60. The entire thing is worth listening to, but there is a section where they discuss traditional, brick-and-mortar art school education and whether or not it is worth the extremely high cost that was particularly valuable to me. They both said that if they could re-do their education, they wouldn’t go to art school and would instead take advantage of online opportunities and independent classes that would cost a small fraction of what art schools cost nowadays. Both of them came out of school with $25,000 to $40,000 in debt and are very successful artists and they still had trouble paying off their debts. And people are coming out of art schools today with $100,000 plus in debt. To hear all of my apprehensions regarding art schools confirmed by two industry professionals was incredibly comforting. It felt as though a weight was lifted from my shoulders.

It has been a sort of mission of mine ever since to encourage artists to really research schools and other opportunities before making any rash decisions because of misplaced feelings of guilt and responsibility, and/or parental pressure.

“Degrees don’t matter, opportunities do.” – Chris Oatley

If your portfolio is great, it doesn’t matter what schooling you have.

On that note, I leave you with some online/independent art education recommendations:

* hundreds of great YouTube tutorials

Chris OatleyThe Magic Box

I am currently taking this class (for only $18 a month for eighteen months) and I cannot recommend it enough. Mr. Oatley is encouraging, enthusiastic, and incredibly talented and his lessons are very rewarding and the assignments fun. There is a forum in which the students can communicate with each other and offer critique and it is so great to be part of such an inspiring and compassionate community of artists. Chris has another class that I’m planning on taking as well, but it’s currently full.


Schoolism is comprised of multiple different classes taught by mutiple different instructors, including its founder, Bobby Chiu. They offer classes in two formats: Critiqued Session and Self-Taught. In the critiqued classes, students turn in their assignments and the instructors give them one-on-one feedback, so it is more expensive than if you decide to sign up for the self-taught versions. I have yet to take any of the classes, but have heard nothing but great things about them.

* Bill Perkins – Concept Design Academy


With a Premium Skillshare membership (Monthly – $9.95/month and Annual – $96/year (20% savings)), you get unlimited access to all Skillshare classes. The video courses are, on average, about 30 to 90 minutes long, and cover a huge range of topics, including writing, technology, and design, among others. What I love about it is that anyone can teach a class, regardless of credentials or a lack thereof, so you have a cummunity of artists from around the world sharing their knowledge and skills (Eh, see what I did there? ;P). In fact, I’m in the middle of creating my own class on watercolor painting!

Good luck with your art education, whatever form it may take!

—  Melissa


9 responses to “Is Art School The Best Choice?

  1. I think what you are looking for isn’t per say “art school” but more towards “design” or “technical college”. The “Art Institute” is a technical school, not to be confused with San Francisco Art Institute, which offers a accredited degrees.I recommend you check out Gnomon School of Visual Effects located in Hollywood, California.

    • Yeah, and that’s wonderful if you want a Fine Arts education, but I’ve always wanted a more industry-focused education. Specifically, I was considering getting an M.A. in illustration or animation and the only schools that have more specialized programs like that are art schools.

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