Sunday, January 09, 2011

Advice from the Climb up Art Mountain

At the behest of several friends I thought I would repost post this little essay on my feeling revolving around art schools and education based on my experience as not only a teacher, but also as a student myself, working my way along the path like anyone else in art school and as a pro for almost 30 years. The biggest issues I see in the difficulty many artists have on the early part of the climb up Art Mountain is really about artists not being prepared and not making the best choices, not being truthful and honest about their skills, not working hard enough or not being serious enough, and so I thought I would put down some thought which I hope you all find helpful.

I've done a lot of advisingas a teacher and fellow artist in the past few years and so what I am saying here is basically what I say and impart to the students who is asking for my advice. In the last several years I have had many high school students as well as their parents asking me my advice on both choosing ART as a career and path and about choosing a school, getting a degree, etc. I get a lot of students as a teacher in college who are in the 3rd and 4th year--and  are suddenly scared and concerned about their skill set and path, as they should be--and  about the choices they made and the ones they still have to make to achieve the best chance of success after graduation.

The whole game is changing in a big way for artists these days and globalization and technology are at the center. The whole world, culture is in this big upheaval, the digital wave along with the fallout from the financial crisis coupled with globalization change things daily and put a lot more pressure on the artist than 20-30 years ago. I think it was easier, though not always easy to get a job in art and make a living 20 years ago. Sure commercial art might---might be an easier trade than being a "fine artist,' but there were plenty of people making a living as painters. I read somewhere it has never been a good time to be an artist. There is always some kind of disaster, war, you name it. There are also more artists working now than all of history combined---thats a huge number!

The fact is things like globalization and the rise of talent pools overseas, NAFTA, the decline of our education standards and the new permanent bad economy, the huge rise in the cost of education means the student must be both more serious, focused and work harder and make better choices. Employers can be choosier, pay less, things come and go faster, technology is changing things faster and faster. Faster than we really have the ability to adjust to, sure, we deal with it because we have to, but that doesn't mean we are at peace with it or in sync.

As a result I think you have to choose a path sooner, and work on staying on that path. You can't screw around for 10 years and suddenly rush up on success. Being an artist is a serious endeavor. It's like being a doctor in some degree, like going to medical school, you do the general med, then pic the school you need for the specialty, oncology, brain surgery, etc. You must be as serious as a med student!

Art school should be serious, the choice must be an educated and informed one. Wandering around for 4 years "being an artist" at the tune of a 120K is just a bad investment and guarantees only one thing--debt.

We don't live in times where you can be simple, or soft, unfocused. Art school can and should be about exploration, but the young artist can most often be like a river, undisciplined, wild, full of energy and potential and sometimes a lot of shit, but it must be channeled in a specific way or path to reach certain point or goals and harness its energy and wealth. Too many are hobbyists! I see this all the time, and art can be a hobby, but a hobby isn't a career and a hobby isn't a serious endeavor either.

The illusion by many parents is that a degree means a job, a false belief ( and a growing one) that there is any guarantee of job security, and a  degree doesn't mean that, talent doesn't either, but real talent and skill are the best bet for the artist who wants to make a career and not be a hobbyist.

Face it--most art schools are mostly a sham, turning out thousands of artists country wide, 98% or better who never land any art gigs. You don't need a degree to get a job if you have the chops, but most artist don't have the A or B level skills to do that.

Getting your skill set to that level is the most important goal one must have if you want to make your way as a working artist. Any path that gets your abilities there is themost important goal. A good school and good teachers can really help, but just choosing a school based on a name is a wrong choice and a big mistake.

What you have to do is focus and choose the school by doing research. Look at the success and quality of the work of the student body, but also of the teachers, especially the teachers, as a school is only as good as the faculty. You wouldn't go to a gym where the trainers were fat.

Some friends in a recent discussion were mentioning of not knowing about the Art Students League when they were younger. I knew about it in high school as many of the illustrators mentioned it as a place of study. However I didn't know about PAFA either as a kid, It is the first art school in America, but I'm sure my teachers did. I knew about Parsons, SVA and Art Center, and I wanted to go there, I knew artists like Syd Mead went there.

The fact is doing research is easier now than it was in 1978, so if you are interested in going to school or to be a figurative artist, an animator, what ever, you can find out so much now on line.

When I decided to go back to school I knew what I wanted to do, to become a better painter and figurative artist, get out of comics and animation and become a full time painter--that narrowed the schools down to less than a handful, I started search for Philly based artists first, I thought were good, in the chance I could study with them or go to their school.

That's how I came across Scott Noel and of course Nelson Shanks. I tracked Scott to PAFA. I had taken classes there off and on since the 90's and by now knew of the school, so that lead me to go take the tour and convinced me to go there. I choose PAFA over Shanks school Incamminati because they don't offer a degree, if they had I might have gone there. Though I am now planning to continue to take extra classes at Incamminati over the course of the next year or so as he offers things PAFA doesn't. Another important thing--no school is perfect or offers everything, you are always going to have to augment and update your schooling, skill set and knowledge--for the rest of your life.

If you are serious about painting or drawing in the classical sense, not the modern sense where any mark made is called drawing, you will easily know about places like Grand Central Academy, the Art Student's league, they are not hard to know about, especially to the serious student who reads books on other famous artists, or blogs as so many of them attended class there at some point. Cal Arts, Sheridan, Watts, Full Sail, its easy to know about these places, and you have to see if what they offer fits you.

The onus is on YOU, to inform yourself and make the choices, by doing research and committing to art in a serious way you will then be able to chart a path. If you are merely interested, this sounds "cool", then the best thing to do is take CE courses until you find a way, a path you want to seriously embark on, paying 30K a semester to 'get your feet wet" is a waste of $$$!

I have advised many parents to do that, send the student to CE classes at PAFA, many of which are taught by the regular faculty, or to any school like that and see how they do, if they do well, then they have made the right choice, if they decide it isn't for them, well they didn't spend enough money to buy a car and walk away with nothing.

And this is just the beginning, this is something that will continue all your life on some level, it will change, you will change, the world will change. When I was 23 I got into comics and I didn't need to use or know about computers. Now the computer is part of every job!

There is still a demand for art, with all of the fantasy and gaming stuff, it seems like there can never be enough good artists for that alone. Match your desires to a demand someplace, but then work to get the skill to meet the demands and take advantage of the opportunities when they come. And you have to flush them out like a hunter and have the skill to bag em'! You also have to work hard and work smart, you really have to be a zealot, it must be your religion, I feel even stronger about this now because you will have to fight many battles and if you don't have that compulsion you will just not give art what it needs to make you a success. The fact is all of this can be joyous and fun, a great experience that will grow every day of your life. Going back to school is maybe the single best thing I have done for myself besides deciding to be a cartoonist. Well that's my 2¢ from almost 30 years as a professional artist and a life time art student.


Ed McKeogh said...

Thanks for this candid assessment, Mike. It's great to get the perspective of someone who has made a career in the Arts, and it's been fascinating watching you change gears and head into new directions. Good luck and, again, thanks!

Jessica said...

Hi there,

This is a great post. A quick hello from a former student from DCAD--Jessica Taylor. I took storyboarding/character design in 2005/2006 (can't remember). Got laid off in the big economic meltdown of doom.

Sorry I haven't been in touch! I have a new blog here...

My work is kinda crap, but I'm working on it every day. Thanks for instilling the work ethic in me.

Jessica Taylor

SNeelyArt said...

Great, well-written piece, Mike!!

J. King said...

I agree. Most formal art education today is unintelligible.

Time Waster said...

Then you have droves of freelancers at Concept art forums =) I mean if you need art there are foreigns who have loads of talent with photoshop. I heard the Japanese comic art scene is harder to break into then the American scence. I always see the list of Almuni from Joe Kubert art school the list isn't very impressive it's the same dozen or so =) Unless you count Bart sears who dropped out =) I'm self taught which is one of the best ways for exploration.

Maybe you can get draw magazine out more then once a year Mike =)

Mike Manley said...

TW, The japanese as I understand it still have an apprentice system, which we used to have here as well. most of the golden and silver age artist worked as an assistant or in a studio for a time. Those days are gone, and really it's a shame as a lot of knowledge is passed down that way.

School is no no guarantee of success and while its certainly helps to take classes and get that knowledge, that won't make you a great artist unless you are willing to do the real hard work which happens way, way beyond the school room or studio.

I am self taught too, but I needed that extra educationor experience of better painters to become a better painter, to think in different ways and work with more experienced painters, painting is much more complicated than comics. I worked like a dog, studied like a madman and still had gaps in my knowledge. I did learn much from Williamson and his collection and from my friend Villagran as well.

I hope to have a few issue of Draw! out this year and I will be doing a lot more blogging on the Draw! mag blog.

Mike Manley said...

Thanks Ed, sometimes the gears grind and there is plenty of smoke brother!

Mike Manley said...

Thanks Scott!

Mike Manley said...

James, you have to be choosey about the school and what you want and need. very specific and then push for it, push the institution and the teachers, I see so many fellow students treating college like an extension of high school. there are far more great places to study now than there have ever been in my lifetime. if you want to learn how to be a figurative artist, now is the time to do it!

Mike Manley said...

Jessica! Great to hear from you and see your work! Keep on pushing and never give in, the times are bad, sure, but i still see people getting work, the better and more flexible and well rounded you are, the more you post work, get your work out there on various boards the better--there are never enough good artists to fill the demand! Keep in touch!

John Haycraft said...

Gosh Mike, someone telling it like it is! I have been asked the question often myself and sometimes honesty on the subject can sound quite brutal. In the long run I think, we need to tell students straight up what they are in for. After 40 years in practice I have weathered the advent of the computer age (I hope) and see that traditional drawing skills and the digital world can go hand in hand.

Mike Manley said...

John, I feel my first obligation as a teacher is to be honest and truthful. I don't look at what I am saying as being negative, I feel its a positive thing and i would have welcomed it as a student myself in my first time in college. I demand it as a student now. I feelIi am telling it like it is as they say. The student must be prepared to deal with the real world outside of the womb of school. School isn't the real world--in school everything is there to facilitate the weakest student with no real skill or hope to survive the 4 years if for no other reason to the board or directors than to suck that money out. I understand it, its a business.

But the fact is it seems most schools don't prepare the student for the real world, I have had every class I have ever taught tell me this, so its literally hundreds of times I've heard this by now.

If I soft sell it to try and make them feel better then I will do the worst thing I could do as when they leave school they will almost all be brutally dashed by the reality, the one the working professional battles every day. And I would expect they might feel kinda' ripped off and lied too if I just shined them on, I would. i think the rising demand and interests I the traditional methods and the rise of all of these figurative schools is a clear sign that there is a real interest in learning these traditional skills that were shit on for most of the 20th century art schools and art critics in the mad rush to the freedom of the idea.

Jessica said...

Mike's pretty much the most honest teacher I've ever had. Without the professors who have enough balls to tell you like it is (compassionately) you'll end up a guppy in a sea of sharks after graduation.

The first design teacher I ever had in college basically told me straight up--"you need to work on your craft". And I'll never forget it. It was at a community college.

One thing that's great about honest teachers is that you get really driven to deliver slam-dunk work at each critique. Slam-dunk work is SO IMPORTANT in the real world!