Advice for incoming art students

August 27, 2007 at 10:35 pm (art, culture, interesting, life, teaching)

Valerie Atkisson, an old friend from the Artist in the Marketplace program we were in about eight or nine years ago (yikes!), invited me an my blog to be a part of this new social networking website that she is involved in getting off the ground. She asked me if I had anything in particular to say about education or perhaps even some sort of “how to survive art school” sort of talk that I could convey on this site.

I have to say that I really don’t have such a thing just sort of stored up in my head and when I got her (very nice) email asking me if I did, I even wondered if such a thing could be written. Artists are all so different, and so are art students. And then when you factor in all the different majors you can study – fine arts, graphic design, illustration, cartooning, etc – well, there’s suddenly even more differences to take into account.

But as I thought about it some more (while wandering around Chinatown, easily my favorite place to become inspired), I was able to come up with a list of a few key factors that I think will serve most if not all incoming art students. This is based on my several years of teaching along with my several years of being an art student; I’m sure there’s a lot more that could be said and I’d love it if you could add to the list if you think of others. But for now…

1. Establish a routine for yourself. Artists love to bite off more than they can chew and young people love to be away from their parents’ grasp; put these together so that you have young artists and it can be a recipe for disaster. I swear there have been SVA students who have stayed out all night, gone vegan, joined an anarchist squat, and tossed their meds away all in the time it would take most college students to unpack. While these are not necessarily things I’m opposed to (well, I’m not opposed to young people staying out late, skipping animal products and involving themselves in left-wing politics; I’m neutral on meds) the idea of doing them all at once is not a good one. It leads to exhaustion, which leads to sickness, which leads to you screwing up your classes due to being genuinely really sick. College schedules are weird enough as it is – you may have class from 9am to 6pm one day and then 3pm to 7pm the next – without you drastically altering your food/sleep schedule with every new day. Get the sleep and the food you need. Don’t jump into a million activities on your first week. Suddenly being responsible for your laundry, grocery shopping, and everything is totally different than having mom and dad do that, so it takes some getting used to. Take it slow to see what you can handle. (Observers of my life would say that I should follow my advice… and they would, of course, be right!)

2. Acknowledge that your opinions regarding your creative talent may be wildly inaccurate. The vast majority of people showing up to art school think that they suck. A small, vocal minority show up thinking they are the greatest artist ever. In this case, absolutely everyone is completely wrong. I have never had a student come to class who was so bad I secretly wanted them to leave, nor have I ever had one that was so good I wanted to buy their work on the very first day. Those things just don’t happen. Art school provides for you a very easy transaction: Come in, honestly and genuinely try, do all the work that is assigned to you in a thorough manner, and become a better artist. That’s all there is to it. Some people get better by leaps and bounds and for other it is a more slow and steady pace. The only people who don’t get better are those whose minds are made up on the very first day that they don’t have to try… because either they suck so much or they’re great already. Don’t be one of those people.

3. Take your art history classes really seriously. Really! I know, it’s the class everyone hates – especially those survey classes. But the history of art is long and very dense; learning it on your own after you get out of school is really difficult. Do yourself a favor and get a good grounding in it while you’re still a student. You’ll be so happy you did once school is over and done with.

4. Take advantage of discount programs available to students. This one’s easy: Every school offers some sort of program for its students (free movie tickets! cheap Broadway tickets! discounts on art supplies!) and most offer a wide variety of programs all there for the taking. Look, you’re paying tuition already – and will be paying off that bill for many years! – may as well grab as many freebies as you can.

5. Get to know the people who work in the office of your major – the Chair, the Assistant/Secretary, and anyone else who happens to be hanging around there. Wait til about halfway into the semester (it will be more quiet and calm then) and go in and introduce yourself. I know, it’s awkward. But it can only lead to good things. You would be shocked (I know I continuously am) at how many students are completely rude to the people in the office… the same people those students will be begging for favors from come some last-minute deadline for a scholarship, residency, summer program, whatever.

6. Be open to new experiences. I studied sculpture pretty intensely for six years (four undergrad, two grad) and then, upon completion of my MFA, decided I was sick of sculpture and started painting. I really wish I had taken more painting classes while I was in school. It would have made my first five years out so much easier. Of course you should specialize in what interests you. But if you go to a school with an especially stellar printing department or if a friend has been raving about her painting teacher, be open that you might want to check it out even if you don’t think of yourself as that kind of artist. You really never know what the future holds.

7. Lastly… Play nice. Have strong opinions and voice them (that’s in part what good artists do) but also remember that you’re going to be sharing a very small art world with a lot of your classmates for the rest of your life. The majority of art students can handle even very tough critiques about their work, as long as it’s actually about the work and not some sort of personal attack. But art students, like everyone else, can descend into fits of brattiness. They can steal each others supplies, trash art works, and generally be nasty. Anyone who has ever been in art school has their horror story. But it doesn’t have to be this way – it is not a rite of passage, they way things simply are, or acceptable by any means. Don’t engage in this sort of behavior and don’t tolerate it when your friends do. Don’t be a brat. Don’t be petty. Be a brilliant and amazing artist and go for that instead.

Well, that’s my list! Hope it helps!



  1. Valerie Atkisson said,

    I especially agree with number 6. School undergrad or graduate is the time to explore and experiment. I tried not to edit my ideas. I didn’t always show them, but I tried really hard to realize them. Number 1 so true. It is a big adjustment to go to school especially if it is in a new place. Take the days one at a time. Unfortunately it is pretty easy to flunk out of school early if your priorities are not in the right place. Hang on, it gets better! Thanks Amy!

  2. Literary Bohemian said,

    I’m looking forward to applying this advice when i start my first term as an art major on Sept. 25th. Thank You!

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