What I Learnt From Not Going to Art School

I’ve been a professional artist for seven years now, and I never went to art school.

Before I did my first solo exhibition in 2013, I was a struggling aspiring artist in New York who hadn’t drawn or painted for over ten years, trying to figure out how to become an artist, and not having a clue. A part of me wished I had started on this artist path sooner, that I had gone to art school, and I felt very discouraged that I didn’t even know what I wanted to create.

If you’re now where I was eight years ago, you might be wondering the same things: how to get started on your creative dream, how to know what it is that you want to bring to life, how to develop your skills and ideas…, and you might be thinking that going to art school will resolve all those struggles. While I certainly can’t advice you on what you should do, because there are many factors to consider when it comes to going to art school, I can share with you my experiences as a professional artist who never went to art school, what I’ve learnt and discovered about the creative process along the way, and why even though I’ve considered art school a few times during my artist career, I’ve always decided it’s not the right move for me.

If you’re seriously considering going to art school, it’s best to speak with graduates from various art degree programs, so you can figure out whether this is essential for your artistic development, and if so, which kind of program would be right for you. Bear in mind that each person will have their own unique experiences with their program, and even if they had a good or bad experience, it doesn’t mean it will be the same for you. And of course, at the end of the day, it’s a decision that only you can make for yourself, as it will affect your artist journey and career moving forward.

I will say, though, in my opinion, there are some reasons that aren’t compelling enough for you to go to art school:
– You feel stuck in a creative rut
– You can’t seem to figure out your life direction in the arts
– You have a project idea and you’re afraid of taking action on it.

We all have our blindspots, and when we run into such problems and barriers in our creative endeavors, it’s normal to want to choose the most “obvious” solution that we think will make up for our lack of ideas, skills or guts.

Again this blog article is written from my experiences, learnings and discoveries on my creative journey, so use what I’ve shared to help you figure out your own way, and feel free to write to me and share what you’ve learnt and discovered for yourself.

Why I never went to art school in the first place

When I was 8 it was my childhood ambition to become an artist, but I was discouraged by a grown-up who told me artists don’t make money, and I should be something else instead. I’ve always been a people-pleaser, especially when it came to authority figures, so I listened to those words, completely forgot about my artist dream, and I stopped drawing (besides school art assignments and the occasional doodle in my school textbooks when I was bored in class).

I did attend a liberal arts college for another creative endeavor

My creativity continued to emerge through writing stories from 11, and as I developed a love for singing in my teens, my writing transitioned into songwriting at age 16, and my dream for the next ten years was to be a singer-songwriter. Fast forward more years, I got my first BA in Psychology in Singapore, after which I started a career in acting, then I had a retail job, and then in 2008 I got accepted into to a Songwriting and Music Business degree program in one of the music capitals of the world, Nashville, Tennessee.

Surrounded by these more talented singers and songwriters, most of whom had the same dream I did, the part of me that always felt “not good enough” kicked in. I doubted myself (which I do all the time anyway), and my dream went from “singer-songwriter” to just “songwriter”, and when I decided I wasn’t very aligned to writing commercial songs as a career, I went back to being completely lost and wondering once again: “What am I supposed to do with my life?”

“PenguinGirl Down the Rabbit Hole” (2020)
Watercolor, ink and color pencil on watercolor paper, 11.7 x 8.3 in.

What I discovered from my songwriting degree experience

While I never went to art school per se, I think attending this liberal arts college for three years had given me enough of a sense of what would probably have happened to me if I had gone to art school — I was definitely going to be surrounded by more talented artists, which would have triggered my usual issues of feeling “not good enough” and self-doubt, and then I’d most likely derail myself from my artist dream.

I also learnt that you don’t have to wait to get a degree in the arts before you can start your creative practice. The most successful students in my college who are still pursuing their dreams as singers and songwriters today were the ones who had already started taking action on that even while they were still in school.

Thus I realized that (depending on the college you’re at) the experience wasn’t so much about learning how to be what you aspire, but rather having easier access to professional connections in your industry, and meeting like-minded peers who could potentially be your collaborators on your projects.

Overall the key thing I saw was that if you really want to be a singer-songwriter or an artist, school doesn’t determine whether you will take action on your dream. What sets the real songwriters and the real artists apart are those who are already making stuff and putting it out there. When I was in Nashville, I met a singer-songwriter who hadn’t gone to school for music or songwriting or a music-business related degree, who was working an administrative day job, and she had raised the money from her local community twice to record two albums of her original songs. A couple of years ago, I heard one of her songs on the hit drama series Grey’s Anatomy.

So if you want to be an artist or writer or singer or musician, it all comes back to the action you take on the projects that you want to create and express that part of yourself, rather than your degree qualifications.

To go to art school, or not?

But of course while I was in Nashville, I didn’t have the clarity about this then. So I was no longer certain about my singer-songwriter dream, and one year to graduation, I explored other classes with my extra credits, such as creative writing, poetry writing, art history… and in my final semester, I enrolled in “Introduction to Drawing”. During an assignment which took me 30 hours to complete, I had a flashback to when I was 8 and wanted to be an artist. It was so surreal, and it was also an epiphany as I realized this was who I was meant to be all along – a visual artist.

Thus I considered staying on at my college to pick up a second major in art, but something about it just didn’t feel right for me. Even though this drawing class was one of the best classes I took at this college (also because I had an awesome teacher in Professor Mary Pat who was a practicing artist herself), I had this feeling that if I became an art major, I would somehow get boxed into what I thought I was supposed to do as an artist, and having spent years in school being told what to do (thanks to Singapore’s education system), I decided to take a year off after graduation and figure out this whole artist thing.

But having no direction was also a challenge

So I moved to New York for a year, and I tried to figure out how to be an artist. I didn’t know where to begin, what materials I wanted to use, and each time I sat in front of a blank paper or canvas, my mind was equally blank. I had no idea what I wanted to express, and when I did finally put something down, I wasn’t very impressed. By this point I felt even more in despair about art school, because if I didn’t even know what I wanted to express as art, how would I ever make it through art school?

I thought perhaps I could take an art class to learn some skills, so I went to the School of Visual Arts website, and one that caught my attention was taught by a renowned comics illustrator who taught his system of how to draw people quickly and without a reference photo. At the time I thought as an artist I should learn how to draw people, and because I felt I was 20 years behind in my artistic development, I wanted to learn as quickly as I could. So I spent 12 weeks in this class, figuring out how to draw people with his system, and I wasn’t very excited by it.

(I still sometimes apply what I’ve learnt from this class to draw people in difficult postures, but I ended up not drawing people much anyway. Except for PenguinGirl, though she’s a penguin-human hybrid with a higher percentage toward the penguin side).

The PenguinGirl (2016)
Watercolor, ink and color pencil on watercolor paper, 8.3 x 11.7 in.

When I returned to Singapore in June 2012, I felt even more lost because I thought I would have become a singer-songwriter by now, and gotten married and settled down in the U.S. But instead I wasn’t even sure about this art career I had tried to start, and I was in an on-again-off-again (now long distance) relationship that wasn’t going anywhere.

Blindspots and internal barriers

A few months later I did a 3-day intensive transformational program, and discovered the one huge barrier that was holding me back from my artist dream.

It goes back to my 8-year-old self being told I couldn’t be an artist by an authority figure in my life, thus I constantly felt that when I did pursue something creative, I was being disobedient and misbehaving. And when I did what I thought I was supposed to do, like get a degree in something “useful” like Psychology, part of me wanted to do it but another part of me resisted because something about it never felt right. So I was always caught in an internal conflict between pursuing my dreams and getting disapproval, or choosing the practical option and feeling ill-at-ease with myself – for 22 years of my life!

And even though I believed that was my reality, after I cleared things up with the said authority figure, I realized my ongoing internal conflict was nothing more than something I can constructed in my mind. In fact, I had always been free to decide how I wanted to live my life.

30 brand new paintings in two months for my first solo exhibition

After that I worked with a life coach and organized my first solo exhibition, a project that represented the fulfillment of my childhood artist dream. This included making 30 new paintings, because I disliked most of what I had tried to create before, and I wanted a new start of creating from an authentic place of self-expression, as opposed to my constant need to please other people.

Fresh out of the 3-day transformational program, I was still on a high from the eye-opening insights into myself, and the initial ideas for the paintings came to me easily. However, I was lacking in my technical know-how when it came to painting in acrylics, and within a few days I fell into despair about ever reaching my goal. Fortunately my coach told me rather filmy, “Do whatever it takes to make those paintings.”

“Love Enough to Fly” (2012)
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 12 x 12 in.So I googled around, and ended up using a combination of techniques that I was proficient enough in to create 30 mixed media paintings on canvas. It was also in the process of overcoming my lack of technical know-how that the Dreamer Penguins were born. (Read the full story here about how the Dreamer Penguins came about).

“Love Enough to Fly” (2012)
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 12 x 12 in.

After 2 months I had a first solo exhibition, and more!

During the week of the exhibition, 17 of these 30 paintings were sold. I also received a contract to illustrate a series of three children’s books, fulfilling an artist dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator.

I had become a professional artist just after 2 months of working on my solo exhibition, thus dispelling any remaining belief in me that I wasn’t a “real” artist until I received formal art education.

Part of the display for my first solo exhibition in 2013

In fact, the idea that I needed to pursue a degree and get the “right” academic qualifications in my chosen area of expertise was nothing more than a framework I had picked up from the society and the education system that I grew up with.

But until I proved that idea wrong with the success of my first solo exhibition, I had been unconsciously bound by this belief, which held me back even from taking action to write a book, or record an album of my songs, or go full-time into an acting career.

Self-learning and self-discovery

Now I was certain about being an artist, the next stage was figuring out what kind of artist I was. In the first three years I made more paintings, illustrated more children’s books, was hired to paint on another artist’s mural project, and organized my first group exhibition. I met many local artists, each of whom seemed to have a clear primary role: graphic designer, commercial illustrator, fine artist, children’s book illustrator, portraits artist, concept artist, animator… but none of these truly fit with me or the work I felt I wanted to create.

At the same time I was also playing catch up in terms of developing my technicals and ideas, and I had to figure out a way to learn what I needed to quickly, since I didn’t want to go to art school.

One thing I picked up from other illustrators was that they practiced constantly how to draw different things and to draw them well. Initially I allocated time daily and picked an animal to draw from reference photos online. Someone advised me to master drawing all 17 species of penguins, and to practice drawing penguin anatomy. I started the process of that practice, and I was not at all excited by it. But it was the attempt to go through with it that allowed me to discover I had no interest in making true-to-life semi-realistic drawings, and I felt I was wasting my time with such practice.

Instead what I did was to go back to the basics of drawing. I went to the local library and borrowed as many books as I could on the fundamentals of drawing, and I took the time to read them all. This process was far more effective in leveling up my technical abilities, because now I understood the principles behind drawing. That’s also when I learnt that the fastest way to learn anything is to first develop an understanding of the basic principles, rather than going into the specifics of how to draw a certain object or animal.

The second thing I discovered is having a project to work on gave me a direction for my technical development. For me, it always has to be a project that I really care about, resonates with me, and is important for me to complete. Once I have a project outcome in mind, it becomes easier to figure out exactly what I need to learn and practice in order to execute the project. In this way, self-learning becomes intentional, because I can zero in on the skills I need to develop, while at the same time bringing my ideas to life.

Project: 100 Dream Trees No. 6: “The Sofia Dream Tree” (2019), Sofia, Bulgaria

Why do you want to go to art school?

All in all, I say it comes back to your intention as an artist, what it is that you want to create, and would going to art school help fulfill that purpose? Or is your goal something you can figure out and work towards without having to get that art school qualification? Plus with so many art classes available online and free video tutorials offered by other artists on YouTube, is it really necessary for you to go to art school just to learn the skills you need to fulfill your project?

At the end of the day, the quality of your work will speak greater volumes than the education qualifications you’ve accumulated.

So don’t let your having no formal art education be a reason that stops you from fulfilling the projects you have in mind, and accomplishing your artistic goals over time. As an artist your art will always be unique to you, which also means your journey towards making the art you dream about will be unique to you, and art school is not the only path you can take to get there.

Just focus on the work you want to create, find ways to bring it to life with whatever skills you have at the moment, and figure out ways to develop your skills as necessary.

Share your thoughts on this in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *