Well, should you study art school or would self-study suffice? It's one of the more common questions we field both in workshops and online. It's for good reason too: metric tonnes of instructional materials are only a couple of pages away from Google and it's all clothing-optional as far as your classroom is concerned. Then again, the fact that this has barely diminished the allure of a good, brand-name art school should be a hint as to why the question is so frequently asked in the first place.
The short answer, of course, is that it's up to you. Self-study works for some, art school is key for others. We here at Gunship Revolution come from a diversity of backgrounds when it comes to education and we know for a fact that there is no standard career-tree for producing professional artists. That being said, however, there ARE fundamental skills inexorable from the art profession and those skills CAN act as guides for making your decision clearer: all you have to do is ask yourself: "where am I more likely to sharpen these skills?"
Important note in using this guide: all art schools and online art courses are patently NOT made equal. You may as well use it to judge between schools and courses. Plus, given the full spectrum of learning opportunities available everywhere today - workshops, online schools, correspondence courses, books with DVD's you eventually lose a month after the first time you quit practicing - there's always a chance that you'll be taking a hybridized approach to your arts education anyway.
Guide Question: "Will the cost be worth it?"
Learn to be practical first or proceed at your own peril: there are really no two ways about it. The knee-jerk reaction here, of course, is that self-study would be more practical these days versus going to school for it; after all, you can hear most of the same lectures on youtube for a miniscule fraction of the price and most professors can't be paused in the middle of the class or taken with you to the bathroom. And certainly, that's a fair point: if you're planning on becoming the kind of artist who actually earns a living from art, the worst thing you could do education-wise probably IS incurring crippling long-term debt for it. Being practical as a professional often means working resourcefully within limited means - whether its maximizing the use of the technology you can currently afford or budgeting project schedules around difficult home situations - and your choice of educational environment can itself be a lesson in practicality.
That being said, this does not mean that formal art education is necessarily impractical - and not even only for those who can afford it outright. It's not out of plausibility for someone to enter art school in extravagant debt and come out profitting from it - at least, that's how a lot of art school testimonials put it - but this is likely going to be contingent on how well they can provide the rest of the items on this list. In the end, consider your current resources - money, time, mobility, physical endurance, all that stuff - and imagine losing these resources forever for the sake of this school or course. If you think one choice yields a net gain far in excess of the sum of its price, go for it.
Guide Question: "Will it toughen me up for the rigors of real work?"
Choose an environment that will teach you the importance of being earnest - that is to say the importance of treating your work seriously and conscientiously. Don't simply ask for a mentor or a program that "inspires" you - here defined as being placed on an emotional keel where creativity flows freely and feels ultimately gratifying. Given the proper conditions, the underside of a potato will inspire. If you're looking to invest time and money to learning art, go for a program that gives due emphasis to elements YOU WOULDN'T NATURALLY WANT TO DEAL WITH. It probably should be obvious that the purpose of learning is learning the things you don't already know but it IS human nature to gravitate towards playing into our strengths. While this is a natural tendency, it's essential for any prospective student to choose a learning environment where that tendency can be suppressed. Some might call this "being challenged" but that's only a facet of it: some vital lessons may be challenging but others may be tedious, counterintuitive or outright boring. As anyone who's ever worked with an Art Director would tell you though, that's pretty much your work week right there.
This isn't to say, of course, that the instructor will always be right about everything. You may find that you've made a terrible choice and you're being taught meat carving and preservation instead of human anatomy. This is why your choice of learning environment is crucial though: learning to accept instruction and see a program through to the end regardless of your inspiration-levels are foundational to the life and growth of a professional artist. Plus, you never know what you might learn in Meat carving and Preservation, even if it wasn't exactly what you paid for.
3. COMMUNICATION SKILLS
Guide Question: "Will it let me interact with real people?"
Many artists seem to forget Communication Skills given how art tends to be a hermitage-based skill for many people. Illustration and digital painting does not involve a lot of speaking and thus, it's not unusual for this particular skill to be overlooked by art students when choosing a learning environment. In the professional world though, these gaps then to surface from job applications without introduction emails to hair-trigger tempers over criticism. For freelance artists, communication skills are doubly important: you can let your work speak for itself but when you're asking for an extension, a clarification, or an overdue payment, your work can only say so much.
You'd think that the internet-based route would shine brighter in this aspect but that's not exactly the case for most people: most people still prefer to communicate face-to-face and that's how most people tend to sharpen their communication and relational skills. Your learning environment should be able to lend you some genuine human interaction, allowing you to learn how to understand other people and be understood. If you choose to go with an online course, this could mean joining an artist community that meets in real life (youtube comments sections and online forums are not adviseable places to learn communication skills unfortunately.) Still, this still largely depends on you and your plans: do you intend to deal with clients and partners entirely through email or do you feel the need for face-to-face interaction even via Skype? Given how the last point was about learning to mind your own gaps, might there be an option that pushes you off of your comfort zones?
Guide Question: "Will it let me focus on developing the multiple skills needed in professional art?"
Speaking of pushing yourself out of your comfort zones, your choice of learning environment can be a means of setting how far beyond your current skill set you're planning on going. Remember: your answer to this must define your options and not the other way around: why be swayed by promises of learning illustration AND 3-D modeling AND auto repair AND fifteenth-century alchemy when all you were ever planning on paying for was learning how to draw comics? Once you're set about what it is you want to learn, that's when you can start judging the scope of course offerings among your options. If you have the money, time, and interest to take on a full academic course, by all means enter the art program that has a minor in Biology and Renaissance Politics. Another artist can be served well enough by a two month short course in digital painting and both can get away with more than you paid for if you're aware of what you're there to learn.
One thing that goes for all Professional Artists though is the need to be flexible and that should inform your choices a bit. You don't have to be great at both digital painting and manga illustration but you could be limitting yourself passing on the opportunity to pick up some new basic skills. And even within digital painting for example, you're probably better served knowing the techninques that go with fantasy and the ones that go for sci-fi. Bottom-line: avoid over-reaching when choosing your learning environment but only insofar as you're reaching farther than you've ever reached before.
5. CRITICAL THINKING
Guide Question: "Will it let me ask difficult questions from people whose answers I can trust?"
How do you learn Critical Thinking when part of the lesson is having to learn to comply with someone else's instruction? How else DO you learn Critical Thinking? As iron sharpens iron: that's an atmosphere to look for in your learning environment and you get that from two elements: mentors and peers. Given that you've established a trust and respect for these people (and the communication skills to show it), your learning environment should give you a chance to ask questions, criticize the works of others, and openly disagree on details. You'll still have to defer to your mentor as long as you're going through the program (that's the point of being mentored after all) but it should be an environment where the "whys" of art is being covered as much as the "hows." Eventually, you will have your turn to do it your way (until the time you have to work under an AD and boom, your deferring practice pays off) but why be content with "your way" as it is right now? Remember: Critical Thinking is not merely rejecting everything you don't agree with; it's practicing the faculties that lets you judge what your accept and what you reject.
Among these skills, this is the hardest to anticipate when choosing a learning environment. This may require a bit of research on your part, possibly from reviews of past students. Possible red flag: the students produce work virtually identical to the mentor's. Another possible red flag: the students work don't seem to reflect anything from the mentor at all, suggesting the mentorship had no impact. Long story short, don't join a celebrity cult pretending to be an art class.
6. INDUSTRY STANDARDS
Guide Question: "Will it give me guidance as I enter into the Industry?"
If you want to be a pro, learn from a pro. This is one more thing that you should be able to research about your prospective intructors. It doesn't always follow that the best professional artists will always be the best at teaching art but the best art teachers should be expected to be able to impart professionalism and experience aside from skill. Given the current size of the industry and the wonders of modern information technology, a good arts education should be able to cover things like "what companies look for in a folio," "why sending finished art via powerpoint is like unto an abomination worthy of perdition," and "how not to sound like an axe murderer in an introduction email." And this should go beyond fielding questions: a program known for strict deadlines and extremely specific quality standards may sound daunting but you'll likely get more out it professionally than a program that lets you take as long as you want.
7. QUALITY SKILLS AND TECHNIQUES
Guide Question: "Will I actually learn to produce good art?"
Obviously. Then again, most people already search for this at the expense of the rest and that does create competency gaps that makes it harder for everyone in the future. Also, if we're looking to be educated, its safe to say that our understanding of "good art" is still very pliable: two lessons into a good program can open your eyes to any number of grievous sins. In the end of the day, you'll be able to learn quality skills and techniques from both costly academic programs and free online courses; whether you'll be able to imbibe these lessons and to put them to good use, as we've enumerated above, will take a whole other set of skills entirely.