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Is Art School Necessary for Creative Success? Insights from Professional Artists

There is not one sole way to be an artist. The pathway to building a career isn’t set in stone and certainly isn’t possible by following a series of steps. Everyone’s journey is different, which makes us wonder what the benefits and drawbacks are of pursuing an art degree or being a self-taught artist. The only way to get an answer is by hearing from successful artists that have taken different paths, tried it all, and found out the best ways to succeed.

For this blog, I interviewed Fei Lu and Jessie Chang.

Artist Fei Lu at her exhibition

Fei Lu earned a Bachelor of Arts in Illustration from Art Centre College of Design and worked as an illustrator, graphic designer, and art director before pursuing her passion for art education and founding Winged Canvas.

Artist Jessie Chang creating digital art

Jessie Chang began her education in Game Arts and Illustration. Although she chose to drop out and learn her own way instead, Jessie works as an art instructor, illustrator, character artist, and content creator. You may recognize her as the main personality on the Winged Canvas YouTube Channel

Here are their answers to the question: “Does an artist need a degree to be successful?”

Jump ahead:

What are the Benefits of Attending Art School?

Fei: A benefit of art school is the structured curriculum, and the people you meet along the way. A curriculum helps guide you if you’re unsure of where to start. A college/university also helps you make new connections and provides you with an official document or degree at the end to prove your completion.

Jessie: I believe school has the advantage of professional guidance and critique, so you can properly get that kind of advice in a generally safe environment with like minded people.

What are the Drawbacks of Attending Art School?

Fei: An art degree is expensive and a huge time commitment. Students might also not enjoy the set curriculum or find it useful for their practice.

Jessie: Every art teacher has their biases - you will work under the umbrella that the teacher believes is “good work,” and with something as subjective as art, that can be dangerous. Obviously, some professionals have more set-in-stone rules -- anatomy and proportions are more important with industry artists -- but being stuck under an umbrella can be detrimental if you’re working within fine arts or if you prefer more experimental work.

What are the Benefits of Being a Self-Taught Artist?

Fei: Self taught artists are free to learn how and when they want. They’re also free to pursue their own interests without pressure.

Jessie: An advantage of being self taught is freedom of growth and experimentation. No one is there to tell you right from wrong, so you grow in a way that is uniquely you. You can learn more about your likes and dislikes when it comes to artwork and gain a more personal outlook on your work.

What are the Drawbacks of Being a Self Taught Artist?

Fei: Independent learning doesn’t have a set structure, so it can be hard to focus and stay motivated. There’s also no degree or diploma as proof of your study.

Jessie: As artists, we tend to take our work very personally, and school is able to teach us to take critique at face value. When you’re stuck in your own head, it can be harder to take that “no” for an answer.

How Can People Build Community in the Arts?

Community is essential as an artist. It helps you receive constructive feedback and offers opportunities that you might not even know exist. Here are some tips to build community inside and outside of school.

Fei: Today, it’s easier than ever to build community! Whether it’s a Discord server, subreddit, or Facebook group, the online possibilities to find support and join an Art Community are endless. Many online creators have Patreon Memberships that give you special perks like critiques and exclusive chats. At school you would have your classmates, school groups, and associations. As a professional, you can join paid associations, networking events, and business groups. If you join a group, remember to give before expecting to receive, so comment with a positive note or offer help to someone else first!

Jessie: Another advantage of art school is that sense of community. You’re automatically placed within a confined space filled with other people like you. Outside of school, social media is the most popular modern-age way of building connections and communities. Find artists that inspire you or find artists within established fandoms that inspire you and find that sense of belonging within their circles. Do you need to draw your way in? Yes (haha), but it is how it is. I’ve also heard that finding local life drawing classes helps build connections too.

In Your Experience, What Careers Expect a Degree?

Art is one area where requirements are different in each job. Some jobs may require degrees while others won’t. Be sure to do research on your dream jobs before making any decisions.

Fei: Careers in big companies and publicly funded institutions (like schools and museums) are more likely to have stricter hiring guidelines. Start ups, small companies and many modern studios don't really care about a piece of paper as much as your portfolio of work and your reputation, work ethic, and past experience. If you decide to freelance, which many artists prefer for the freedom and flexibility of project-based work, a degree is not needed. When we hire at Winged Canvas, I personally prioritize the candidate's creative portfolio and work ethic as well as work experience before their schooling.

Jessie: While industry arts (video game art, animation, storyboarding, visual development, etc.) don’t always require degrees or diplomas, it absolutely helps. It’s actually very difficult to break into those kinds of industries without them. The same can be said for design-based careers, like graphic design, typography, and UI/UX design. Some fine arts tend to not require degrees, such as freelance, pottery, or tattooing. If you’re hoping to get into any kind of curatorial work or museum preservation, those require degrees. Government led teaching requires a teacher's college diploma and an English degree, though a degree in the arts should also be in hand if you plan to teach any form of art. Independent studios may not require the same credentials.

What Are Some Tips to Succeed as an Artist?

Whether you get an art degree or are self-taught, here's some great advice to help you break into the art world!

Fei’s Top Tips:

  1. Get as much experience as possible. Volunteer and intern at companies you admire to gain valuable work and industry experience.

  2. Take classes from professionals who inspire you, and find mentors to give you personalized coaching, guidance and career advice.

  3. Join some online communities for support and to find like-minded people to network with and share goals to stay motivated and accountable.

  4. Participate in art shows, contests and competitions as a way of motivating yourself and exhibiting your artwork. Winning an award looks great on your CV!

Jessie’s Top Tips:

  1. Learn to professionally peacock. Without a degree, you need to learn to show off and have confidence while doing so. However, if you walk into a room with a massive ego, no one will want to work with you either. Learn to show off in a humble way – don’t be afraid to show your work, kindly accept compliments and take critique in stride.

  2. Apply to tons of places, submit to a bunch of contests, and be ready to fail a bunch of times before succeeding.

  3. Learn to handle social media. Especially with freelance illustration, tattooing, pottery, and other various self-led arts, making a name for yourself online can help you reach a wider network when looking for freelance or contract positions. It can also help you reach more customers, both in person or through public commissions.

  4. Have a portfolio site ready and manage your social media pages so that they show off your more casual work as well as your professional work. Some artists have multiple accounts to keep themselves organized.

Winged Canvas Staff celebrating their 100k YouTube milestone
Jessie, Fei, and other Winged Canvas staff celebrating their 100K YouTube milestone.

How Do I Become a Self-Taught Artist?

"Being self-taught doesn't just mean watching YouTube tutorials. It's about exploring different opportunities and trying a mix of everything. The key (and often hardest part) is finding great art mentors who will help guide you along your journey with integrity and grit.

Visit galleries and attend exhibitions that inspire you. Join forums, enter contests, and actively participate in creative communities to help you stay motivated and accountable.

You may not need a university level art degree, but you can choose to take art classes locally or online with professional artists. Draw every day, never stop learning, and pick the brains of experts who can give you feedback on exactly how to improve."

- Fei Lu, founder of Winged Canvas

So, Do I Need an Art Degree to Become a Successful Artist?

The answer is – it’s completely up to you! There are benefits and drawbacks whether you pursue a degree or learn on your own terms. The goal is to find a happy medium – one where you can network and learn valuable tools while having the freedom to explore your ideas without fear. Let your learning style, financial capacity, and individual goals guide you, instead of feeling pressured to pursue an avenue that might not be right for you.

Additional Resources for Aspiring Artists

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Virtual Art Classes

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Art Mentorship

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Teacher Resources

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Access the Best Art Education From Anywhere!

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