How art school did not make an artist out of me.
At the age of 14 I started my education as an artist. As a child I knew I wanted to become a commercial artist and I didn’t know any better than to become an artist by means of education. If you want to become a carpenter, you go to a school that teaches woodworking and if you want to become an artist you go to art school. Sounds logical to me. At least it did when I was 14.
The local technical middle school in my home town was the only one in the country providing a course in sign & house painting. When I walked past the painters premises I could see a huge airbrushed piece done years ago by a student depicting a warrior woman riding a giant wombat. I was mesmerized by it and I fantasized about making paintings like that when I would be in my third year. Eventually I did three years in the commercial painting course to prepare for the next step: 4 years of education at the St. Lucas college of Arts.
I applied for St. Lucas and much to my surprise I did not get accepted. For a short while my whole life fell into pieces because this would mean I could not become an artist.
But not all hope was gone because the school also provided a course in the Graphic Arts, so I asked if I could enroll for one year. I applied for St. Lucas for the second time and also for the college for Graphic Techniques in Eindhoven, a more technical study than St. Lucas which had a more creative emphasis. I was accepted at both schools but chose the technical study in Eindhoven.
I had 4 great years in Eindhoven but I did not feel comfortable with my skills to find a job at an advertising studio and although I learned a lot of technical stuff in Eindhoven, I thought that I lacked a proper creative base so I applied for yet another 4 years for the Academy of Fine Arts in Maastricht to study Illustration and become an illustrator.
As you see I had my fair portion of creative education. I climbed up from a lower level technical school to the higher level Academy of Fine Arts and I could have even opted for a post-academic study. But when I graduated from the Academy I was already 26 years old. Rembrandt painted his famous self-portrait with his face in shadows when he was 26 and Pablo Picasso started to experiment with Cubism when he was 26 so I had some catching-up to do I thought.
Education tells you everything about what you have done. But it tells you nothing about what you are going to do.
When I started at the Academy of Fine Arts in Maastricht I already had six years of preparation while all the other students started from scratch. For instance, my knowledge of Photoshop exceeded that of the teacher’s. My ego got a boost from that for sure!
The Academy of Fine Arts in Maastricht focussed on the conceptual part of making art. Suddenly my technical knowledge had lost its value and I soon came to realize that getting to graduation would not come naturally. With every new assignment I was given I needed to plough through all this knowledge and I came very close at having to leave the Academy because I was failing a class. With sheer luck I managed to earn my place back, but the remaining three years proved to be a bigger challenge that I had faced before.
Eighteen years have passed since I graduated from the Academy of Fine arts and I feel that it is time to assess the role of education in my career as a commercial artist.
Being educated as an artist doesn’t guarantee anything. It doesn’t guarantee a solid career in the arts nor does it function as a roadmap to good work. Education tells you everything about what you have done. But it tells you nothing about what you are going to do.
Don’t get me wrong, studying at an Art academy is great! You are surrounded with same-minded people and you will meet teachers who will inspire you. Plus, school is a place where you can fail without it having serious consequences. Failing a class might seem a nightmare scenario when you’re studying art right now, but believe me it is not. One teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts used to tell his students: ‘Art? Art is what you make after you graduate here!’ He was right. School should be a safe place where you can fail without this having large consequences. I only realized he was right years after I graduated and now I wish I could go back and make bad art every day.
Some of the best artists I know did not go to art school. They went to life school.
To be fair, a lot of things have changed since I graduated in 2003. Digital tools are so much more mainstream now than they were when I started, and schools have adapted their courses in order to provide the usage of digital means in the arts. Also, schools pay more attention to entrepreneurship and the management side of having a career in the arts. The world is changing and so does education in the arts. But what doesn’t change is the fact that a work of art starts out in the mind as a small spark that grows bigger and bigger. It can grow in a couple of minutes, hours or it may even take years to develop. What makes one an artist is the fact that an artist actually executes an idea and doesn’t keep it imprisoned in their head.
Education does not help you with getting good ideas. It can help you with the translation of an idea into its final form but the idea as a base for your work is a connection between associations, experiences and opinions or simply things you have seen, heard or read somewhere. You can become the best in translating and idea to a final form, if the base material itself is crap, the end product will be crap.
Education was a large part of my life and although it gave me tons of practical knowledge, it did not make an artist out of me.