Formal Art Education vs. Self-Taught Practice

When it comes to art education, you may learn best in a traditional environment, or you may feel that it stifles original thought and creativity.

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by A. Richard Langley

Across styles, techniques, and mediums, artists of all skill levels and ages need education to learn and to cultivate their talent. Whether you gain it in a formal setting or you’re a self-taught, education is essential to being content with the work you create.

Generally, the best time to receive an art education is right out of high school, when you may not have real-world responsibilities, and opportunities and time seem endless.

If you’re a self-taught artist, you may not want—or need—a traditional art education to make your mark. You learn by experiencing life—and art—firsthand and determining your own learning plan. Unlike those who receive a formal education in their late teens and early 20s, you pursue your creative calling later in life for myriad personal and professional reasons.

Here, we cover the educational paths for both formally educated and self-taught artists, and how the elements in those paths affect the learning, creative, and marketing choices of both groups.

Gordana Tomic posing with one of her works

Art Education Right Out of High School

Continuing your education immediately after high school is a big step. Before you take it, you need to be mature, focused, and mentally prepared to hit the books—and the canvas.

Next, thoughtfully research and choose the right institution for you. It must address your creative and professional goals—and you must understand the benefits and issues of classroom learning.

Famous artists who completed a formal education include Andy Warhol and David Hockney. Others, including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Jasper Johns, started young but never finished.

Find and Select a College or Art School

Go beyond basic online research and marketing materials. Find and talk with other students—past and present—to learn about instructors, courses, and the school. Make sure the institution has a positive environment—classroom and campus.

Numerous institutions offer premier art programs. Among them are universities and colleges (including Ivy League schools such as Brown, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania) and leading art schools (e.g., Rhode Island School of Design, The Cooper Union, Savannah College of Art and Design, and California Institute of the Arts).

Pros and Cons of a Formal Education

Be sure a classroom environment is right for you. If you want to control your creative and study choices, you may not be comfortable learning in a structured environment.

Key benefits of a formal art education include the following elements:

  • Thrive in a structured learning environment. You will have an organized and focused curriculum and direct access to experts and professionals.
  • Expand your creative range. You may have the opportunity to explore other media, styles, and techniques.
  • Develop communication skills. You will have the opportunity to develop your speaking skills by exchanging feedback with faculty and classmates.
  • Receive a degree or certificate. Academic recognition shows you’re focused and serious about art. The credential carries weight if you want to teach or work in an arts organization.
  • Establish lasting and mutually beneficial relationships. Many classmates and faculty staff will become mentors, friends, and artistic peers.

Below are major downsides of a classroom education.

  • Study in a restrictive setting. This environment may not be the best environment for you, especially if you like to create and learn on your own.
  • Encounter instructors who aren’t working artists. Instructors may lack current experience creating and marketing their art. You may also not get to meet any real working artists.
  • Experience a culture of conformity. There is a great temptation to create pieces in the style and techniques the teacher likes or to emulate the works of others.
  • Face high cost and low return. Attending art school—especially
    out-of-state—can be cost prohibitive. Check in-state institutions and apply for scholarships. A fine arts degree is one of the lowest paying college majors.
  • Suffer lost time. Four (or more) years spent not creating your own art and engaging with the community.

Study and Live Abroad

You can broaden your cultural outlook and fuel your creative growth by studying and living abroad. If you have the money and time, do it when you’re young, before you face a full-time job and real-life issues.
Moving from your hometown to live and learn in another city for a short time can also get you out of your comfort zone—and challenge you to create art that reflects this new experience.

Art Education for Self-Taught and Career-Changer Artists

As a self-taught artist or one who changed careers to pursue art, you have no formal art education. However, you possess significant life experiences—personal, creative, and social—and can relate to everyday people who enjoy art.

Useful Article: Self-Taught Artists Series – Artist “By Accident”

Some with a formal art education may call your work Naïve art, but your approach is unique. Disciplined and focused, you work well alone. You plan and learn only what is necessary to the art you want to create. Creatively, you resist following trends and traditions, and continually experiment to perfect your unfiltered view and vision.

Notable self-taught artists include Henri Rousseau, Grandma Moses, Thornton Dial, and Unskilled Worker.

Market Your Work—and Yourself

As a self-taught or a career-changer artist, you control all facets of your creative output and marketing tactics. The demand for your work depends on cultivating an engaging persona—in person and online.

Perform Market Research

The first step in selling your work, before starting the creative process, is to conduct market research. This foundational prep work can help plan and build the right website for you.

Self-taught artistFrank M. Alba during the opening reception at Agora Gallery with a guest.

Performing the research actions below will arm you with information and facts to identify and reach your target audience.

    • Know the competition. Check out the competition’s work online and in person.
    • Know the audience. Learning key items (e.g., age, income, residence area) about who’s buying your competition’s work can help you discover your target audience.
    • Learn purchase patterns. These include purchase types and volumes, purchase prices, dates, and locations.
    • Set the right price. Set an attractive—and profitable—price that your competitors can’t match or beat.

Connect with the Community

For all artists, circulating at events like gallery shows and art fairs keeps you current on artists and buyers and helps to develop connections. Every experience with the community builds your network, audience, and brand.

Useful Article: 6 Things You Can Do To Promote Your Art 

Build Online Presence

After performing market research, you can create a cost-effective (possibly free) site with the right look and feel for your work and your audience. Popular resources include GoDaddy,Wix.com, Weebly, and WordPress.com. They have an array of templates you can easily customize and maintain to tell your story and show your work (completed and in-progress).

To sell your work, you also need to use your personal website to develop a presence on high-traffic platforms (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, and Etsy). Pages on both your site and social media accounts must have fresh and searchable content. Engaging extras include audio and visuals, blogging, or customer feedback.

Useful Article: 5 Steps to Promoting Your Art on Facebook

Acquire Art World Experience

A proven way to acquire art world experience is through an internship. What you will learn about the business operations of a gallery, and the creative process and marketing tactics of an artist can help inform and influence you and your work.

Be aware that you may not receive a salary during an internship, so whether you’re a self-taught or an older artist, you need to have other sources of income.

Secure an Internship with a Gallery or an Artist

Check job-listing boards at art institutions and speak with teachers and students. Other sources are art galleries, career websites (e.g., ART JOBS and New York Foundation for the Arts), and online and print art publications.

Always practice and take notes when you find a source of inspiration

You can also check for an internship at a gallery that shows an artist whose work moves you. Before speaking with a representative, thoroughly research the gallery’s history, collection, and mission. If there isn’t an opening, ask if any of their artists need one. Be pleasantly persistent, and always send the representative a hand-written thank you note.

If you don’t get a lead from the gallery, visit the artist’s website. See if, and when, they offer internships. Unless it specifically states the artist doesn’t offer internships, follow instructions on how to contact them. Briefly explain your art education and experience, your knowledge of their art and career, and your reasons for wanting to learn from them.

Again, no matter the outcome, send a hand-written thank you note.

Continuing/Ongoing Education for Artists

It’s essential for all artists to stay current on trends and happenings in—and learn from—the community. You can attend art fairs, visit art galleries, participate in art workshops, and cultivate your online presence. These experiences can help improve your image and marketability.

You can also pursue targeted education. Many institutions offer both degree and continuing education programs—online or in the classroom. With an accredited CE program, you can receive continuing education units (CEUs).

Education is an ongoing, lifelong experience. You can learn any subject when you want online, in the classroom, or go old school and visit a library.

There is no best way to receive an education on, or learn how to create, art. You may learn best in a traditional environment, or you may feel that it stifles original thought and creativity.

As a promotional gallery, we take pride in the diverse group of artists from across the globe represented by us. Want to give your art more time, and leave the marketing and promotional hassles to someone else? Visit our Gallery Representation And Artist Promotion page for more information.

Education alone, however, won’t guarantee commercial or artistic success. Along with talent and determination, you must smartly market yourself and your work. How well you execute what you learn can help you create quality, consistent work that reflects your unique style and artistic vision.

This post is also available in: Spanish

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