Art School or State School?

September 26, 2012

Hi Stephen,

I’ve been (quietly) following your cartoon essays for a while–I adore them and appreciate you sharing them.

I imagine you get a lot of emails from people asking about creative direction, their meaning in life, existential angst, etc. And I know you’re a cartoonist and not a licensed therapist (although hey, I never claimed to know everything about you), but I was hoping you’d be able to help me.

I’m pursuing a career in comics. I *wish* I could say that I was attending the School of Visual Arts, the Art Center College of Design, etc., but those are rather cost-prohibitive. Instead my soul is being sucked out of me at a public university.

I’m aware that where I attend school isn’t the end-all of what career I have and what level of success I reach, but I’m not learning what I want to learn. Currently in my drawing class, we’re working on still lifes that relate to the five senses, and I made mine a narrative and styled as comic panels. The next project is a collage with a predetermined found image incorporating mixed media. And they just changed the illustration class to “digital image design” because “illustration is a dying art and there are no jobs for illustrators.”

My main questions are, if I’m not enjoying this kind of art-making, will I enjoy a career in comics? How can I study comics independently without being burnt out from the workload I’m already trudging through? I don’t think you’ll be able to answer these too well because you don’t know me, but if you could give me some advice I would really appreciate it.

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to read this. Even if you never get around to answering this, your essays have been of tremendous help to me already.

Katie K.

Hey Katie,

Thanks for the letter!

How can I study comics independently without being burnt out from the workload I’m already trudging through?

One principle that really helped me in college was: “Do what you want to do.” Too often you’ll be tempted to do things because you feel like you ought to do them instead of because you want to do them. I think that in order to maximize your learning at college you should make sure that everything you do is passion-based, if possible. In my case, I stopped taking honors classes, because, even though it felt like I ought to graduate “with honors” I didn’t really care for any of the classes.

But then there are always those classes that you have to take in order to graduate. Classes that make you question why you’re in college at all.

There’s this incredible poet in my town who works as a stock boy for a grocery store. Everyday he’d go stack fruit and let his mind wander and think about poetry and God and life. Once, there was a fire that burnt part of our town. During the evacuation, I heard the poet only brought two grocery bags of things with him. One bag was filled with spare underwear, and the other was filled with multiple tomes of Thomas Aquinas’ Suma Theologica. That was the kind of guy he was. And I thought it was so cool what he was doing, and before I went to college I really considered the idea of working some easy job and drawing my comics at night– or, even better, on the job!

But I am glad I went to college.

And I didn’t go to an art college– I went to a state college with not-the-best art program.

The way I continued to study comics without burning out on all my classes is that, whenever I went to a class, no matter what it was, I’d always be asking the question, “What does this teach me about comics?” And if I didn’t find anything, it meant I wasn’t looking hard enough. Having that voice inside of you that is always asking, “What makes great comics?” is almost more important than what you study. I’ve learned how to draw comics from a sculpture class before– and the best comics class I ever took was a screenwriting class for film majors.

Sometimes this is hard to do. As soon as you think you’re smarter than your teachers, you’ve already lost the battle, because by assuming they have nothing to teach you, you undermine your own hunger to learn. It’s better to be humble and do the assignments and keep waiting and watching for something that’s relevant to cartooning to pop up. Besides, you can’t legitimately say your teachers have nothing to teach you, because you don’t know exactly what you have left to learn– maybe they’re going to teach you something that’ll be a foundation for your comics, but how will you know unless you learn it?

My next comics essay is about this actually, ha ha, so I’m kind of warmed up to talk about it.

“illustration is a dying art and there are no jobs for illustrators.”

“Comics is a dying art, and there are no jobs for cartoonists.” …is something I find myself discovering all the time. A better way to put it is that there are few jobs for cartoonists, and those who get them were in the right place at the right time and had already logged a lot of hours drawing comics.

But here’s what you have in a state college that most cartoonists hopefuls would die to get:

1) Money. I was just talking to an artist who attended one of the Art Colleges– he told me he had $70,000 dollars of debt! After 3 years as a professional cartoonist, I have yet to make that much from all the books I’ve sold! Furthermore, the guy I was talking to said he had dropped out of school early! Had he actually finished the program, he’d now be more than $100,000 dollars in debt. One of the reasons I was so thankful I went to state college is because I graduated nearly debt free. That has been a huge boon to my career.

2) Time: My friend Michael Regina wants to make comics for living, but he has to stick with his day job to support his family. In order to work on his graphic novel he cuts out a lot of sleep. It’s hard! I feel sorry for the guy sometimes, but that’s the price he’s got to pay to make comics, and he’s willing to do it, because he has to tell his stories.

During college though, you have four years to do nearly whatever you want! You can arrange your schedule whatever way you want, take whatever classes you want– it’s this amazing time to grow and pursue that career.

It takes a long time to get a job in the industry. The first couple hundred pages of comics probably won’t make you any money, it’s only after you break past a certain threshold in your skill level that people will begin to even take interest. Let’s be honest, cartooning is not like computer programming. For most computer programming majors, when they graduate, they can reasonably expect to have a job waiting for them. But that is not a reasonable expectation for you and me. One of the things I realized in college was that a 2 month long job hunt after graduation probably wouldn’t turn up any leads– so I’d better start looking for a job now. When you look at it from that perspective– you’ve got 4 years to try and find your dream job! That’s a huge amount of time! So start now!

My main questions are, if I’m not enjoying this kind of art-making, will I enjoy a career in comics?

You might not enjoy that kind of art-making– but you enjoy cartooning, right? Are you drawing comics? It seems like such a basic question– but a lot of people miss it.

In baseball, when a coach goes and looks for more players, he doesn’t put an ad in the newspaper, he goes to the minor leagues to recruit– he looks at the people who are already playing baseball. It’s the same with comics– a publisher will go and look at the people who are already making comics– that way they know what kind of product they can expect from the creator. If you’re not making lots of comics, you can’t expect a job.

If you’re having trouble getting yourself to draw comics on a regular basis, one thing you might consider is starting a webcomic with an update schedule. Or, something that I did was make comic strips for my school newspaper. And my newspaper payed me 15 bucks a strip! One semester, I actually enrolled the comic as an independent study class, and got college credit and money for the endeavor. There’s lots of great options.

A career in comics is wonderful; I love it. But let me tell you it does not make me happy or fulfill me as a person, and often when I try to derive my happiness from it, I become insecure and fearful about all kinds of things.

Don’t worry through! You are young! If ever there was a time to pursue your dream job, it’s now. Even if everything falls to pieces in the end, which, granted, would be a huge disappointment, you’ll still have plenty of time to recover, to go find a regular job, or a new career path, because you’re young, and time is on your side. And at that point, at least you’ll know you made a stab at doing what you wanted to do.

I hope that helps. Feel free to email me any other questions you might have.



PS– Could I publish this letter exchange on my website? I think other people might benefit from the great questions you posed here.


13 Responses to Art School or State School?

  1. Nicole A. on September 26, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    I can relate to this article so well. I’m currently going to a community college and majoring in Graphic Design (I want to become an animator) and it’s been the greatest decision I have ever made in my life. Back in high school I was accepted into a really great art school but couldn’t afford it so I ended up having to go to a community college. I was scared that I was going to be fall behind others because I was’t being taught “real” art because I wasn’t going to a fancy, expensive art school. My professors are incredibly inspiring, smart, and talented. Each of them truly cares about my success. I’m going to be graduating in about 3 semesters & I’m going to join an online animation school to learn about what I really want to do!

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t give into the “if you don’t go to art school, you will not be successful” thing, because if you put all you’ve got into what you enjoy, you will excel in it. At the end of the day, employers don’t care about the piece of paper you got from a fancy art school OR a community/state college, they care about what you produce and what you can do. Never stop learning, even teach yourself, and everything will end up fine in the end. :)

  2. ollwenjones on September 26, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    Don’t bemoan ‘boring’ drawing classes too much. Even if the application to comics isn’t immediately apparent, anything you can do to increase the skill of your hands to create will help you down the line. Drawing boring still life’s will increase your drawing skill and your observation skill.

    Think of it like lifting weights or doing wind-sprints to train for a sport. Sure, it’s not fun like the sport, but it will make you a better player.

  3. stephen on September 26, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Great thoughts everybody, thanks for sharing!

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  7. Chaz Sutherland on November 13, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    First off, you have my sincerest apologies for the ensuing wall of text :)

    I have a BFA in Computer Animation but typically tell people that art school is unnecessary. This stems from a negative experience while attending a popular, private art school and the cost of its tuition. However, there are some worthwhile art schools, and in spite of having inflated tuition, might be worth attending for several reasons beyond informative instruction and tutelage. After all, instruction is simply the spark of knowledge.

    Foremost is networking. Not merely because of the old adage of, “who you know…” rather that we’re all products of our environment, and surrounding yourself with brilliance is one of the best ways to improve oneself. Renowned institutions (e.g. Art Center or FZD School of Design) are beacons for highly talented and highly motivated individuals that are like-minded. This creates a competitive and nourishing climate, so immersing yourself in such a world —in my experience— is where the real learning occurs and builds on itself.

    This phenomenon is identical in most respects to working at a prestigious studio like Disney, Pixar or [insert your favorite studio] with the most obvious difference is that you’re earning a monetary wage to learn and grow rather than paying for it. I’ve personally experienced this in places that have garnered respectful and even awe-inspiring levels of talent (not speaking of me of course). More often than not, the surrounding junior-level talent skyrocketed and sometimes surpassed the veterans in relatively short order. A good art school often imitates this successful milieu.

    On the flip side, what wage is earned at a good art school is paid to you emotionally (in the form of encouragement and praise from peers), philosophically (exposure to consistent and immediate opinions for self-evaluation), inspirationally (being around kickass artists on a daily basis) and educationally (that invaluable firsthand experience of exploring assignments collectively).

    When the words, “birds of a feather” are mentioned, Stanford University comes to mind. I currently live in Silicon Valley where the merits of this school is evident everywhere I turn. Berkeley, Harvard and Yale for Business & Law. USC, NYU and AFI for film, etc… In short, success often creates a dominoes effect, so being near such individuals can … blah-blah-blah. I’m sure you get it!!

    With that said, the degree is secondary to what is truly learned. So consider schools that are specifically geared toward your interest —even if they don’t offer a degree. What you’re looking for are “birds of a feather” and where they congregate. Your portfolio/body-of-work will benefit from this, and conclusively, that’s what will make you hard to ignore.

    Once there, be existential with your pursuits and honest with whom you seek out and why. It’s of no use if you simply end up a groupie among a band of talented artists and mire yourself in the philosophy of your desires with little to no action to realize it. Thus, self-motivation is paramount so you can’t afford to reject a competitive environment. Just the opposite actually since these can feed off each other.

    Finally (and admittedly a side note) don’t forget to “pass it forward”. Don’t shun those that look up to you and seek your council. Because if you’re doing all of this correctly, these people are as important to you as those that ultimately lifted you into flight.


    • stephen on December 3, 2014 at 1:32 am

      Wow, awesome words Chaz, thank you!

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