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Advice About Majoring In Art

Updated on May 20, 2012
Artists are like these colored pencils; we all have our own unique personalities and sometimes clash with each other, but ultimately we all come together towards common goals.
Artists are like these colored pencils; we all have our own unique personalities and sometimes clash with each other, but ultimately we all come together towards common goals.

Studying Art In College? Be Prepared!

A lot of non-art-majors think of art as a "soft" major, that is, soemthing that doesn't take as much effort or intellectual capacity as other majors. This is undeniably a false accusation. All majors require effort, studying, work inside and outside the classroom, and the mastery of key concepts or development of important skills, and art is no different.

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

Development Through Feedback

An art major first and foremost learns through creating works and submitting them to others for critique. Art might be criticised in a classroom setting by classmates and will always be critiqued by the professor. Sometimes the criticism will seem rough or harsh. However, accepting this with humility and a desire for self-improvement is crucial to your success. It is very important to the learning process that you understand what is and is not helpful criticism/advice, and that you take the good criticism to heart when you try to work towards a better achievement of your goals.

All this criticism also helps prepare a young aspiring artist for the "real world". Every art student usually hopes that their work will one day be seen in a gallery, museum, or some other place in plain public view. They have to be prepared to handle criticism, even if it is sometimes wrong or abusive criticism, without losing their cool. They also need to be prepared to explain their art's deeper meaning to others, whether or not these other people even know anything about art, which can be a pretty frustrating experience. Thus, character is important, you have to be the kind of person who is patient enough to handle criticism, strong enough to withstand harsh or ignorant comments without losing your temper, and who has the verbal ability to explain your art.

This concept applies to artists in commercial settings too, such as graphic designers. They have to make art to please the customer. If the customer isn't happy for whatever reason, or they get in an argument with a client about a design, they have to be able to maturely handle that situation. They must be able to remain calm under pressure and diffuse anger or tension in others and themselves.

So although a beginning art student might loathe peer review, especially when they think their classmates "don't get it", it's important to the development of a potentially successful or skilled artist to be able to maturely handle criticism and learn and adapt in response to it. Don't be discouraged by negative feedback, either. Remember when you're just starting out that, well, you're just starting out. You know the saying, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

It's also helpful to learn how to give other artists constructive feedback. When you learn to do this, you are learning the vocabulary and developing the analytical eye necessary to delve into the deeper analysis of art. This is an amazing and cool thing. Taking art appreciation or art history courses also helps you look at art with new understanding. Also, in real world situations, you will have to judge your own art a lot; evaluating what you did right and what you did wrong at each turn to improve as you go along. To accomplish this goal, you should try to learn to intelligently criticize the work of other artists. When you can see what works and what doesn't when it comes to the work of others, you will be able to see those things in your own work and decide how to improve.

Criticism also helps you become part of the community of artists. Artists do not always get along, nor do we all agree even on the very definition of art, let alone what makes something good or bad. However, discussing these questions together creates a bond and a sense of community between artists and you can have some very nice discussions in your studio art classes during group critiques. Attendance on critique days should be seen as crucial. It's not about grades as much as it's about cultivating your aesthetic understanding and ability to grow from ctiricism.

There Are No Right or Wrong Answes

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. There are rules and principles in math and in the "hard" sciences that are without exception, at least, without exceptions as far as the human mind can currently perceive or machines can currently observe in the universe. Not so with art; every aesthetic concept or belief you can name can be and has been challenged by artists throughout history.

Think about that. It's like the difference between being on Earth and floating in space, 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 more 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. 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, moving from journalism (recording the facts) to poetry (expressing your feelings in metaphor).

You have to be prepared to deal with the art world as a fickle place where a lot of people disagree, sometimes passionately, and the thing is that, like most philosophical debates, the questions will likely remain unanswered and debates are more like discussions than fights where one person is right and the other is clearly wrong.

In this situation you have to rely a lot on your intuition and personal feelings to carry you through.

Art is Harder Work Than You Probably Think

Especially in college, when it becomes much more demanding than high school. In high school, my art classes were 45 minutes, and now most of the studio courses are 3 hours. The expectations are higher. You are expected to do a lot of work outside the classroom in the studio independently, that's why 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. For example, 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. But 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 to you initially. 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 chances are you'll have imporved by the end of it. And all arts courses relate to each other and feed into one another, so your "forced labor" classes will probably end up giving you information that will be valuable to the classes you were more interested in.

You'll also need to budget your money carefully to pay for art supplies, which 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. 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, 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 for example, 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 our work at Kinko's at our expense and 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. I personally like Hobby Lobby, but you can find the biggest selection of items, I think from a catalog company called Dick Blick. (This is especially good if you live in the Midwest area because they're based in Galesburg, IL.) Your college's book store should also have the supplies you need for your classes, but it might be possible to find a better selection or lower prices at other stores or online if you shop around.

You Will Have to Professionally Network

Artists are generally introverts. It makes sense, doing art involves a lot of time alone with just an easel, cigarettes, and imsomnia 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 with potential dealers, gallery owners, or clients in order to be successful in the so-called "real world". 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 morally repugnant to most introverts to bother people, to insert yourself awkwardly 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 to be a very helpful guide to the process of selling art and earning money as an artist. (What I plan on doing is becoming a comic book artist, but the information is still helpful.)

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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    • kristyleann profile image

      Kristy LeAnn Morgan 5 years ago from Oceana, 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.

    • 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.

    • 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. :)

    • pinkdaisy profile image

      pinkdaisy 4 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.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 4 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!

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 4 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".

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