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Advice About Majoring In Art

Updated on June 27, 2017
Artists are like these colored pencils; we all have our own unique personalities, and sometimes clash, but  we all come together towards common goals.
Artists are like these colored pencils; we all have our own unique personalities, and sometimes clash, but we all come together towards common goals.

Studying Art In College?

Non-art-majors sometimes think of art as a "soft" major, something that doesn't take much effort or intellectual capacity. This is undeniably false. All majors require effort, studying, work inside and outside the classroom, and mastery of key concepts or development of important skills. Art is not different in that respect.

Work? Skills? Concepts? What exactly do art majors typically learn? What do you need to be successful as an art major?

Improvement Through Criticism

An art major first and foremost learns through creating works and submitting them to others for critique. Art might be criticized in a classroom setting by classmates and will always be critiqued by the professor. Sometimes the criticism will seem rough or harsh.

However, recognizing positive aspects of critical feedback and responding well to criticism are important aspects of learning how to improve and grow.

All this criticism also helps prepare a young aspiring artist for the "real world". If you hope to make it in a field such as graphic arts, illustration, fashion design, web design, or sell your art, you will have to be ready to handle feedback and criticism from many different types of people. Clients, the general public, art gallery managers, bosses, all of them will give you feedback, so you better get used to hearing it from peers and professors.

Don't be discouraged by negative feedback, either. You are a beginner. Even if you've been drawing since you were in diapers, at the college level, there is so much to learn. And you're not going to easily ace every assignment. I had many difficult projects, even in freshmen-level classes, with very strict requirements. You probably will too. Art professors can be demanding, but they're that way to help you improve and make the most out of your natural talents and inclinations.

It's also helpful to learn how to give other artists constructive feedback. When you practice peer review, at first it can be a bit awkward. What do I say? What will people say about my work? If you have social anxiety or other social problems, peer critique can feel daunting. But, as you work through it, it becomes easier and easier over time. Over time, you begin to know exactly what a good critique entails, what comments are and are not helpful, and how to see feedback as a valuable tool, not a cruel and unusual punishment.

Art is Subjective

And that can be incredibly frustrating at times! Yeah, it's cool and post-modern to think in terms of "there's no such thing as good or bad in art, it's all about expressing oneself". However, there's no way to make a structured academic discipline with no rules. In this way, art is harder than your math and science majors; those majors always come with a strict set of guidelines. In algebra (ab) will always equal (ba). Not so with art, in fact; every aesthetic concept or belief you can name can be, and has been, challenged by artists throughout history.

Think about that. It's like how in space you no longer have a clearly defined concept of up and down. Even contradictory opinions of art can simultaneously be right and wrong. It takes some getting used to. In some ways, art is an attractive area of study because it offers intellectual freedom. However, this has the price of possessing less certainty.

Don't get me wrong, there are definite aesthetic principles that you learn about. There are rules in place governing what a good painting, drawing, sculpture, or graphic design should look like. (You will learn these, and it will be boring.) However, there is a ton of room left open within these principles and guidelines for individual personality and creative experimentation.

Most likely, you will want to approach this by starting off drawing/painting like a camera, simply recording reality as accurately as you can. Then when you've had enough practice at that, you can begin adding your own personal flair to it. It's like you're moving from recording facts like a reporter to expressing your personal style and feelings like a poet.

In my opinion, freshmen-level college art classes are actually harder than upper-level ones. That's because as a freshmen, you are told to do everything following traditional methods and you learn art like you're a reporter. It's about drawing the model or sculpting the pot according to specific directions. You're showing your professors that you are mastering specified design principles. In the later classes, you get to let your hair down and make stuff that expresses your personality more.

You have to be prepared to deal with the art world as a fickle place, where a lot of people disagree. Like most philosophical debates, the questions will likely remain unanswered. But, debates are more like discussions than fights.

In this situation you have to rely a lot on your intuition, personal experience, and personal feelings to carry you through. Also, try to be open-minded about alternative ways of thinking and different perspectives.

Expect Hard Work

College is much more demanding than high school. In high school, my art classes were 45 minutes. In college, most of my studio courses were 3 hours or longer. The expectations are higher. You are expected to do a lot of work outside the classroom in the studio independently. So, you'll often see art majors working late into the night on their projects.

You will probably have to take basic-level courses in media that you either hate or just aren't interested in. My primary interest is drawing, but most colleges have an art core curriculum that includes Sculpture, 3-D Design, Ceramics, Printmaking, Painting, Graphic Design, etc. in addition to the courses I'm specifically interested in.

You will probably also have to take a few lecture courses about art in addition to the studio classes, usually Art Appreciation and Art History. I find these classes fun and fascinating.

The point is, you probably will end up taking an art course in something you don't like, that you know you'll suck at, or something that seems hard. Don't worry about this. No one can be great at everything. And, if you're bad at something at the beginning of the class, you'll probably have improved by the end of it. All arts courses relate to each other, so your "forced labor" classes will give you information that will be valuable to the classes you were more interested in.

Work hard, expect some classes you won't like, but keep an open mind and a positive attitude. And pack some caffeine pills for those late-night studio sessions.

Supply Expenses

You'll need to budget your money carefully to pay for art supplies. These may or may not be covered by financial aid the way a textbook would be. The good news is, once you get your core required classes out of the way, you'll spend less on textbooks each semester. For written materials, most art classes use printed handouts instead of textbooks.The bad news is, you'll spend as much, if not more, on art supplies.

It might be possible to "bum" some supplies off other students or from the art room, but most professors want you to buy your own. The same goes for design on computers and computer software. While it is usually possible to complete all your computer design work using the resources given to you (in the labs), it often helps to buy your own copy of programs like Photoshop and Illustrator to work on assignments outside of the lab hours.

My bookstore at my college allowed me to use financial aid to pay for one initial art kit at the beginning of the school year, but by the end of the year many of my tools such as pastels and charcoal had been used up. For drawing classes, a kneaded eraser is a valuable tool... that you will probably keep having to buy because at a certain point they're no longer usable.

Also, when I took Graphic Design, I didn't expect that I would also have to print out my work at Kinko's, at my expense, prepare the final work with a piece of tracing paper over it as a cover, and cut the edges neatly with an X-Acto knife. Also, the professor asked us to buy a software tutorial for Illustrator that was expensive and not covered by financial aid. These unexpected expenses led me to drop the class. However, you might end up in a situation where you need a class to graduate, and all these hidden expenses come up. So, it will probably be necessary to have a job.

As for sources of art supplies, it's important to try to get the best quality. Not only do professors know if you're using the cheap paints, but they often also specify brands to use, chosen for their quality.

I personally like Hobby Lobby and other craft stores, but you can find a huge selection of items from a catalog company called Blick. Your college's book store should have the supplies you need for your classes, but they're usually the most expensive option. Looking online is often cheaper, provided you have time to wait for shipping.

Professionally Networking

Artists are generally introverts. It makes sense, doing art involves a lot of time alone with just an easel, cigarettes, and insomnia as your companions. If you go mad in isolation, don't choose art as a major. However, your solitary creative soul will have to network; speaking professionally with art dealers, gallery owners, or clients. A lot of artists are entrepreneurs, meaning that your success will be dependent solely on you.

If you're like me, saying "network!" is like saying "shove your heart through a cheese grater!". It's just awkward-feeling for most introverts to bother people, to insert yourself into their lives, just for personal gain. It's no secret that most of us are hippie types who shun the business suit. And being that way is great, but it doesn't get you paid or give you recognition.

And don't worry, if you get your fears and business-pessimism under control, working with art dealers and gallery owners can actually form great, mutually beneficial partnerships. I found Art Business to be a very helpful guide to the process of selling art and earning money as an artist.

Internships and gallery or art museum jobs will provide valuable experience for you, but those opportunities won't fall into your lap. You have to hunt for them with skill and persistence. Success as a professional artist is like success in many other entrepreneurial endeavors. You have to go out and search for the right opportunities, you have to work hard to get and keep them, you have to outshine the competition sometimes, and you have to be prepared to face rejection, sometimes quite a lot of it.

Best of luck!


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    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 5 years ago from Illinois

      Glad you found my article informative. I was noticing about the classes I'm taking at the moment; art classes tend to focus on visual problem-solving. In other majors, like chemistry, they will simply hand you a procedure to follow for a lab because only following a strict set of rules gives you the desired outcome. However, art truly develops the student's individual self-expression and personal critical thinking. Instead of saying "draw a house this way" it says instead "you could draw a house this way, this way, this way, or this way, but choose something that meets the requirements of the assignment".

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 5 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      Enjoyed this hub. I, too, am an amateur sketcher who sketch designs. Besides rudimentary art classes in elementary and high school, I was mostly self-taught. My sketchings were so good that it was suggested that I take art classes in college. However, I did not because at the time, I felt that studying art would not be profitable. So I sketched as a hobby. I learned something here. Great informative hub!

    • pinkdaisy profile image

      pinkdaisy 5 years ago from Canada

      I have taken various art classes along with some graphic design. I hope to take more in the future.

      And yes, you have to be an entrepreneur if you want to sell your work.

      Great Hub - Voted up.

    • profile image

      Emer420 5 years ago

      You are completely correct. It is a very tough path to follow through on a degree in any type of art. I loved this hub. It was very well written, informative, and interesting. :)

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 5 years ago from Illinois

      I had two art classes last semester. Graphic design was terrible for me because the professor didn't seem good at explaining why she did and didn't like things, meaning we sort of had to guess, and it seemed very subjective and she changed her mind a lot. Figure drawing was much more fun and worthwhile for me because my professor gave us specific, objective measures of quality to look for. But yes, you should try to stick with an art class that seems tough because it will probably end up helping you a lot.

    • kristyleann profile image

      Kristy LeAnn 5 years ago from Princeton, WV

      After I graduated high school I went to college and studied art (I didn't finish my degree, later on I realised that as much as I love art I didn't want to do it for a career and went into the medical field) but you're absolutely right, it isn't an "easy" major. I remember my Drawing I instructor telling us that we were no where near as good as we all thought we were lol...everyone thought she was sooo mean and honestly out of 30 students, at least 15 dropped the class but those of us that stuck with it improved our skills A LOT. People in the begining of the semester that couldn't draw a stick person left with some amazing drawings. It's definately not a line of work for people that can't handle constructive critisism.