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Submitted on
December 8, 2013
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Greetings Concepteez!

Apologies for missing out on the CritStop last week. I was at a weekend long concept-design workshop which didn't leave me with much time to do a post. 

I might run down some of the things we did in the workshop in a future post,  but this week I thought I would do something a little bit different.  I have been getting quite a few queries over the last few weeks about making the choice between formal training courses such as university or college over that of self-teaching and using online resources and short courses.  One of these was Nyte-Tyme who wrote: 
"I mentioned before that I am currently attending a school called ------- University. So far, my first semester of a Junior year here has been bad. Art history classes (which I think are somewhat necessary) a Physics of Light and Color class. A web design class and a video and audio class which was essentially a film class after awhile. But I've been recently looking into CGMA and have been hearing how useful it is for people not on the coast. The classes look wonderful, pricy, but great, and I think I would be far happier doing those assignments than writing an essay. 
This is not a cut and dry decision, it feels like to me. Drop the opportunity to finish out my school in another year and a half? Or roll the dice and throw myself into CGMA, paying my way through it by any means possible?"

This seems to be a common issue that many people struggle with when first starting on the journey, and even while already under way like Nyte-Tyme is.   I did respond to his message specifically but I hope that by running through some of the things I mentioned to help frame the basic issue, it might help others in this group going through something similar to think about and make their own decisions. 

There has been a blog post in the last year where a certain artist was having a bit of a rant about the horrors of Art School and how to never go. I have seen this particular post shared by hundreds of people as sage advice, and this black and white view concerns me a little bit.  Before I begin I will say up front that never in this post will I recommend one way as better over the other.  Yep, sorry, no easily digestible answers for you unfortunately! 

There is a reason for this; the world is not that black and white and neither are people or their situations. What will work for one may not work for another and making a decision like this is a choice that you will ultimately have to make yourself as you know your situation and yourself best. Rather than try and convince you of the one right way to do it, the best I can hope for is to outline some of the issues to think about that seem to come up a lot for people going to school as well as what I have personally found so far on my own two year journey of self teaching.

I will start with some basic pro and con lists for both in general, but in the end I will give you the two main things that will work for you no matter what you decide to do.

Formal Education (Tertiary level art study, University, College etc )


  • You are actually buying time, full time study dedicated to learning your craft. Not just a piece of paper at the end of 3 years. 
  • The curriculum is structured. Focus on building important fundamentals logically.
  • You work in an environment of cooperation and competition with your peers (pushing you more than you might on your own), 
  • Having a good teacher  really makes a huge difference on your work if you are lucky enough to get one. 
  • Depending on the curriculum and course you will likely get to learn a variety of things that broaden your horizons and you might not have thought about yourself.
  • Support structures are built into the system if you experience troubles or down times: counsellors, teachers, peers. 
  • Deadlines. Yes these are good, and kick your ass to do the work.
  • You have opportunities to develop networks with other students, local art initiatives, even affiliation with industries where companies come look at grad's work for potential talent. (A school with a good reputation may really grease the wheels to you getting your first job)


  • Can be really expensive!! Debt is not cool.
  • Quality of education totally depends on the institution and the teachers. if you pick wrong, you can really get a dud that is a waste of the money.
  • Bad teachers may actually hinder your progress.
  • You may not be able to focus on what interests you most.
  • Changing your mind isn't an easy task and may cost you time and money.
  • Distractions of University life means you spend a lot of time partying way too much. (could be seen as a pro by some...but it's not if done in excess :D)
  • No additional help given to grads to get work despite an expectation this will happen. 
  • Going to university and getting a piece of paper is NO GUARANTEE you will succeed as an artist 

Self teaching, online workshops and courses


  • Most likely much cheaper than a full degree at a tertiary institution, dependent on how many workshops and online courses, ateliers you do.
  • You can focus on what interests you most.
  • You can tailor your learning to what you feel you need. 
  • You can spend a larger amount of time focusing on your folio than you might get forced to do if you were at a school.
  • You can shift focus quickly, jump into short courses or try new things and approaches whenever you want 
  • No stressful deadlines (or not many)
  • Networking doesn't suffer: If you use the internet smartly, you can make contact with almost anyone and reach a wider audience than ever before.


  • There is no curriculum, no structure: You have to make it up yourself from a jumble of online resources, books, groups, videos etc.
  • Lack of efficiency & focus: If you don't know what to focus on you can just waft around trying whatever you feel like at the time, and not working on what would help you the most. 
  • You need to be ultra self-motivatedNo one will force you to do things, you won't have deadlines to meet. You can easily end up doing nothing for months on end.
  • You need to be ultra disciplined: You will need to stick to a balanced routine that works for you and that is sustainable. Being laissez-faire about doing the work consistently will mean you won't make as much progress as you could.
  • Easy to get isolated: You will need to be comfortable working on your own with little support for the most part. You can get some feeling of camaraderie from online forums with people in similar situations and even on hangouts and Skype, but it's rarely face to face. 
  • Support may be hard to find: You may find it hard to get the support you need in downtimes. This is about making sure you have a good network of people around you who truly understand the self teaching situation and can help you when you hit hard times of self doubt (and they will come) 
  • Parents may not understand: If your parents are paying for workshops or letting you stay at home, they may not understand that self teaching is a valid option for artists nowadays. They may feel you are just using self teaching as a way of slacking off, that is, if they even view art as a valid career choice to begin with! 
  • Paying your own way: If you will need to juggle a job and daily life with your study: This will be hard! Very hard. If you have a family to support, double the hardness level again. I have been doing this for 2 years myself (no family to support) and it is still very easy to burn out by trying to do too much in the small amount of time you have away from the job and paying the bills. It is also very easy to fall into the trap of living an unhealthy lifestyle, having no down time or social life. Balance is everything in self teaching. 
  • Networking can be hard work: Depending on your personality, you may not find it easy networking and hooking into the right groups without a more formal arrangement through job expos, internships and expos as may be arranged through school. It may not come naturally to all but building up a good network is very important especially when you are getting nearer to the quality of work that will start to get you applying for jobs or approaching clients for freelance work. 

So that's that. A basic list of pros and cons of each but does that really help? Well hopefully it may help you think about some of the main factors to consider.

The main point for art schools is really to Do your Research!
For the most part, a lot of the pros and cons of a formal education depends heavily on the individual institution. A good one will actually be worth the cost and debt incurred, a bad one may not be worth it at all.  You need to choose carefully and figure out which one you are looking at or may already be attending. 

Criststop3app by M0nkeyBread
The Art Center, Pasadena undergrad entertainment design page

Some ideas that may help you do this: 
  • Try and figure out what you want to do beforehand, and then figure out if what they offer is actually what you want! A fine art degree may not help you build a folio to do concept design.
  • Really look at the curriculum in detail and what is offered and find out more about what things are if you don't know by the descriptions.  
  • Look at the calibre of the teachers and what they have accomplished.
  • Talk to older students, graduates and alumni before you join or even if you're already at a school to discuss their experiences. 
  • Look at the folios of older students and recent graduates. Really look at them. Are you impressed? If they look rubbish in general it might be a warning bell. (Thanks Ellixus for suggesting this great idea) 
  • Talk to the companies you want to be hired by! Why not? Find a contact and ask them what they think of the standard of graduates of so-and-so school in the area or if they would recommend or have affiliation/internship/grad programmes with any particular schools. 
  • Bug established artists doing what you want to do or art directors for companies you want to work for. Ask them what institution they would recommend or what they might pick now. PLEASE be respectful, courteous and brief if you do this and preferably use email. Facebook and the like now gives us unprecedented access to people, but just because you can message them without thinking doesn't mean they'll appreciate being approached this way. A well thought out concise email demonstrates you put more thought into asking them and are serious, and if you're polite, you will probably get a reply. It may be brief but they will be more likely to bother to help you.
  • Always be open minded when you gather your info because people tend to develop really subjective opinions based on their experiences so give weight depending on who you are talking to and just try and look at everything in total and see if it boils down to a more general message overall or helps narrow down options.  
  • and to give credence to the unnamed artist mentioned, yes, cost and debt will have a lasting impact so should be given adequate consideration in your decision. 

The main points for self teaching are that you need to be highly motivated, highly disciplined and ready to make sacrifices on what you do with your time.
 Critstop03 laptop by M0nkeyBread

It won't be a picnic and it will feel like it may never end at times,  but with some focus and hard work, you can make some good progress quite quickly.

Still doesn't help? Well then here's the real kicker:  There are only 2 rules to,  emmm, rule them all

Regardless of what path you decide to go down, the same two rules will apply and determine how successful you will be:

what you put in, you get out. 

Even if you have primal talent oozing out of your ears, you do your research, come to terms with the cost and go to an awesome school; if you get lazy, slack off or don't do work outside of the bare minimum you will NOT be guaranteed success afterwards. It also isn't always the ones with the most innate talent that do succeed; it's the ones that work hard, are humble and don't give up that make it.  While we can't all be Jaime Jones getting picked up as a concept artist by ArenaNet right out of school even he has said:
 "Ways to improve painting? Paint from life, draw often, study masters, amputate your social life? As far as I can tell people improve in a lot of different ways, but the common thread is work ethic." 

Critstop03 JaimeJones progenitus by M0nkeyBread
Jaime Jones : progenitus

Similarly if you decide to self teach and bumble through figuring it out mostly on your own, but you work hard, are determined, stay motivated and build from good foundations up there is every chance you WILL excel and make it into the industry.  Check out Atey Ghailan's work. You may know him as Snatti or snatti89. During a chat with him a while ago he told me he is totally self taught and did it for about 2 years while doing a day job before getting his first break with a concept art job. He proves it can be done and done awesomely well!

Critstop03 AteyGhailan GalaxySaga by M0nkeyBreadCritstop03 AteyGhailan LOTC by M0nkeyBread
Atey Ghailan : Applibot

Your folio is what will get you work.

In my opinion the most hopeful thing about art and working towards the dream of eventually doing it as a career is this one simple fact: the quality of your work is what will open doors for you and determine your success, especially with illustration and entertainment design. It seems obvious but it isn't this simple in all careers so consider this as a real bonus. 

Yes, networking is useful, getting lucky is possible, a good school may help you but your folio is the single launching point to any future work you get. So everything you do from fundamental study to concept design to illustration should be in some way contributing to your body of work constantly building on itself and getting better and better.
Get used to picking your 10 best pieces, then methodically trying to out-do and replace them with better work. 

From my own experience self teaching and (still) having to work a non art related job and support myself, I would never recommend it outright to anyone if they had the choice of going to a good art school and making the most of it while there! The reason I say this is that it is very hard going and you end up making personal sacrifices along the way but it is also totally doable and the sense of satisfaction and achievement of knowing you did it all on your own will be something incredibly special when it does happen.

So there's a big block of text for you this week. I hope it was useful. 
Feel free to ask anything else you want to in the comments below and if you have your own experiences and insights to share on this topic please please do so! 

Add a Comment:
Gimchi Feb 27, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you for this post. You've given me the important things to think about since I'm still trying to choose between self-teaching and going to a university again.
M0nkeyBread Feb 27, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
My pleasure. I hope it helps you!
Gimchi Mar 1, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I have questions on money management if you don't mind. I'm looking into workshops for learning the fundamentals at a renown art school in New York..and the cost of these workshops are about $395 each. And I see that a lot of topics are broken up into separate wokshops like Figure Drawing 1, Figure Drawing 2, Drawing I, Drawing II, Painting, Advanced Painting, etc.. and also, their course for Maya is $900. This is a lot of money. I saw in one of your replies that you said you spent $1000 in the two and a half years you've been doing workshops and CGMA courses. How do you keep costs down? Do you only go to workshops to learn things you can't find online? What do you think of the idea of buying a subscription at to study the fundamentals instead of going to the workshops at the school? How important is guidance? Is it enough if I have a professional critique my work or do I literally need someone to watch the way I'm drawing and painting? lol thanks for taking the time to read this.
M0nkeyBread Mar 3, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
Heya, I'll have to be quick, but I'll try and answer your question. That comment I made was totally true. I have only been to 3 live concept design/illustration workshops (intense 2 day concept design and illustration workshops  and did one CGMA course in environment design over the last two and a half years. So the cost has been around 2000 New Zealand Dollars which includes 1 course since I wrote that comment below.
Is that ideal? No definitely not. I think more would have been much better for me, but I had to balance my finances and even though I am working full time, I couldn't afford to spend a lot on extra stuff due to other outgoings. 

So I guess while mine isn't the ideal situation, to put it in context, 2000 dollars is really quite a minimal amount when it comes to study, if you compare to the tens of thousands, (sometimes hundreds of thousands) that may be incurred with full time attendance at a University or art school.

I think my advice to you if you are quite limited on funds would be to really look at your weaknesses, your strengths, your general inclinations and interests, and based on those, pick very carefully where you put your money towards. I can say that picking the right course and the right time, can have serious and profound effects on your development, so it does pay to think about what YOU think will work for you at the time. I know the CGMA course was perfectly timed for me, and it helped bring a lot of things up for me for environment design that seemed to result in a pretty large increase in skill. This may not be the case if you pick a course that is too ahead of where you are at the moment.

I really recommend interacting in person at live workshops whenever possible if you can. The general camaraderie  meeting people and just the one one one interaction can really help spur you to better things. Again it does depend on the workshop. The ones I went to here in New Zealand are the White Cloud Worlds workshops run by Paul Tobin and other senior concept artists from Weta and are invaluable at 300 a pop. Incredible value for money.  I can't guarantee every workshop will be this way. you definitely need an instructor that cares about you as a student, about teaching, and is willing to help. It is hard to know this beforehand, but maybe some digging into past events and asking previous participants can help?

For self teachers I don't believe you need someone watching over you 24/7 to eventually be successful, but I think any guidance you can get is invaluable. At first most people actually have no idea where to focus or how to work. After a while and study one tends to realize what one was supposed to be doing all along just through trial and error and interacting with others in the same situation. 

The professional crit really comes into play when even knowing the general development cycle, you aren't actually able to pick up on areas that would really need attention to help you on your way, and the feedback is invaluable to set you right. Think of professional crit as a course correction of sorts, except theirs are more accurate than any you would do yourself.

Most importantly, if you cultivate a good work ethic, are determined and have good motivation to succeed, I believe you can totally do it on your own, courses or no. It won't be easy, In fact it will be bloody hard at times, but just remember that every step you take is one step closer to your goals and really believe that, and you'll be ok. 
Feel free to note me with other questions if you have them. I do try and help others. It may take some time for me to reply, but I do try my best to reply to everything I get asked!

Gimchi Mar 4, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you for your advice! I agree that camaraderie is really important. I'm super shy when it comes to meeting new people but networking is so vital for this concept artist business so I think I just need to go out there and try to look confident @_@ Thanks again for taking the time to reply.
I have a young daughter who is interested in art school.  Thanks for the information!
M0nkeyBread Feb 4, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
My pleasure completely! If I can help one person in some small way support their child towards a career of passion and fulfillment, if that is what they really want, then I will consider that worth the effort of writing this a thousand times over. :) 
Anmaril Feb 4, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
Thanks for writing this journal, it is helpfull and might help some on their way. I agree with you, that there is no general answer, but that was also discussed when the post you mentioned came up. But what all the posts about this topic were a simple pro and con list which everyone can use and consider.
Again thanks for sharing.
M0nkeyBread Feb 4, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
Glad to do it. I just wanted to present a more measured approach to this very common problem. Having a black and white view of the world and pushing a particular perspective to me is a symptom of a lack of maturity to some extent. Giving people tools to be able to make their own measured choices is a much more useful thing to do in my opinion. :)
Anmaril Feb 5, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
I agree :)
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