10 Things you should know before going to art school


Anyone who has gone to art school can attest, it is a very unique experience that differs greatly from a normal college one. Art school runs in my veins, my Papou (Greek for Grandfather) went to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and was a professional commercial artist during his career. My mom went to Parson School of Design (New School) in the heart of New York City and is a fashion designer and fashion design and sustainability professor who previously taught at Otis College of Art and Design in the westside of Los Angeles and was the chair of the fashion department at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. My dad was also an adjunct professor at CCA in San Francisco after I graduated (from the same college) in 2014 with a B.F.A. in animation. While I only attended CCA while my mom worked there (and I loved that, btw) art school is something I appreciate not just because I graduated from one, but because I see the benefits of the education from generations before me.

Some artists will tell you that you don’t need an art school degree and some will tell you that you do. Ultimately going to college is a big decision and one that is personal. No one else can help you make it, certainly not some stranger on the internet (like me). Even with an art school loving family, there were a lot of things I wish I knew before I went to art school. Here is a blog post with a few things of those things.

Art school is expensive

Unlike other colleges in the U.S. where you can pick from public or private, all art schools are private. This means that your starting cost for any school is already higher than it would be if you went to a state school. There are public schools that do have art programs and it is up to you as the artist to decide if those schools can offer you what you need. While some public schools can offer you things that private art schools can’t (like color processing labs for photo), you might have to compromise your art education by taking more general education classes (like math or science).

Your major doesn’t determine where you end up

Initially, I wanted to major in Illustration but decided to switch to animation during my first week because I wanted to be a visual development artist in animation. I did work in feature film animation in Los Angeles as a visual development artist after graduating from CCA, before leaving to work as a freelance illustrator. My major really didn’t determine where I ended up because I stuck with drawing and the work followed.

The competition is fierce

You were probably one of the best artists at your high school, if not the best. Then you go to art school and you are in a whole pond of The Bests. The competition is absolutely ruthless sometimes. It can feel like an art version of the hunger games. It is easy to get caught up in the drama and brutality, but try to focus your energy on your art. Those art games are just a distraction from your growth as a creator.

You will have some of the most life-changing teachers

This can mean some of the best and worst teachers. There are some absolutely incredible professors whose artistic legacy will be passed onto you in class — their inspirational lessons will transform the way you see your artistic voice and the power in your creativity. It was thanks to an “interdisciplinary studio” teacher that I discovered my voice in making art about things I cared about. That voice was then honed by other professors who understood my vision and let me run with it while continuing to give me a good critique. I also had one of the worst teachers I ever experienced. If you ever have a bad teacher who harasses you — take it to their supervisor and do not tolerate the verbal abuse. There is a difference between a harsh critique and blatant harassment.

You probably won’t find your final style in art school

And count your blessings for that! That is the most wonderful thing about finding your artistic voice, it doesn’t end when you walk across that stage at graduation. It is an ever-evolving process that will continue with you for your whole life. Let the unpredictability of that be a blessing and never stop exploring the world around you and all the things you love!

Your degree doesn’t guarantee you a job (your portfolio does)

The truth is you will be graduating with hundreds of other students worldwide… and you all will be going for the same type of jobs. That isn’t even factoring in the hundreds of students who graduated years before you and are honing their portfolios going for those same jobs too. It will be Freshman year all over again with a world full of The Bests and you will have to make sure that portfolio shines because that degree doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s your work that counts. That AND you have to be pleasant to work with. Check your prima donna at the door, there are about lots of people out there who are more qualified than you to have that job (and they might be nicer to work with).

Critique is not personal

How dare I say that when art is personal?! Art is personal, but learning how to take critique is why you go to art school. It is just as important as a step as learning figure drawing. Learning how to separate useful critique from noisy critique, how to critique your own work, and how to dissect other’s art is all going to make you a better and stronger artist. It also helps you find your professional voice because the real world has more brutal uneducated feedback than any random kid in art school!

There is going to be some weird as h*ck art

Not all art is for you. It’s okay if you don’t understand some art. Figuring out what you don’t like is just as important to your creative process as figuring out what you do like.

Take care of your body

Your brain and body are your tools. You need them both to create. You need them healthy to make good art to better your own process, portfolio, and voice. Take care of your tools: exercise, sleep and eat. This will better you in the long run when you aren’t trying to relearn a normal sleep schedule or recovering from scurvy after only eating ramen for a semester (apparently a problem in the dorms at my art school a previous year).

Adapt your learning to you

Adapt all classes to your artistic vision. That is the best way to get the most out of your art school experience. If you want to draw old houses and historical moments — adapt your assignments in everything from your patterning assignments in your  “Math For Artists” course, to your essays in “Ethics 101”, and your illustration assignments in “Illustration 101” to your love of the historic. Take what you love, and modify your classes ever so slightly to fit your needs. This will help you hone that artistic voice and you will learn a lot about your interests and art process along the way!

Here are two books every artist should have.

Good luck with art school journey! Enjoy the process! It took me a while to learn how to do it, but once I did, I have many fond memories.


2 Replies to “10 Things you should know before going to art school”

  1. Maria Aurellia says:

    I thank you verry much for this, Lily.. I’m going to enter my 3rd semester in art school, and i got some “haha this is so true!” while reading your blog. And again for all of your experience that you wrote on this blog, i’ll take it as an advice.. Thanks, Lily.
    Much love,


  2. Well said and as an instructor and parent you offer sound advice. Thanks for this!

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