10 Things I Wish I Learned in Art School

While driving back from a job with an old classmate yesterday we were reminiscing about our college days and our expectations vs. reality. Our conversation inspired to write a list of things that I wish I learned while in art school. Take my list with a grain of salt.

A short background gist on myself: I started college as a Biological Science/Applied Mathematics major. That didn’t work out so I dropped out of school between sophomore and junior year. Then I went back and finished with a degree in Studio Art.


1. You Have to Spend Years to Earn the Right to be Called Special

I’m just going to quote Zack Arias here:

Can you go to a town hall meeting in a boring atmosphere with crap light and make something special? Can you shot something that isn’t a firefighter silhouetted against the flames and make that image remarkable? Or better yet, rememberable*?  There’s a heat wave hitting your town. The kids have opened up a fire hydrant and are playing in the water in the street. Can you make a photo that hasn’t been made in that situation 10,000 times already? Can you deliver something unexpected?

…When you’re new to photography and you see a war photo in focus it’s a pretty amazing image to you. You know that it must have been difficult to get that photo. Just that difficult is enough to impress you. But at the high-end that isn’t enough. You’re a war photographer. It’s expected of you to focus and expose properly. That’s elementary stuff. Now do that plus something special. Something amazing. – Zack Arias in “Photography Q&A

It’s easy to be considered good or special while you’re in school. The bubble that you’re competing with is so small compared to reality where you compete with the rest of the world. So many images are being made everything and each of them are subconsciously influencing one another. It takes years and years of practice to come to a point where you can make something completely remarkable.


2. It’s Okay to “Sell Out” …As Long As It Makes You Sustainable

During school commercial work and the idea of making money off your art was generally frowned upon. The notion comes from the idea that you’re being driven money rather than by something organic and simultaneously challenges and speaks to past and present forms of art. I think it’s great that my school pushed intentional and honest reasons for creating work, but they didn’t tell me that not everyone understands fine art and not everyone will want to. And until you get to the point in which solely your art can keep you sustainable, sell out! Sell out so that you can survive an extra day to work towards getting to where you want.


3. You Have to Build Relationships

Once school is out all of a sudden it gets progressively harder to keep up with friends (and I don’t mean with that Facebook nonsense) and meet new people. Everyone has their own schedules and agendas. Here’s how my friends and I attempt to hangout together:

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 5.04.13 PMWhile you’re on the grind of trying to establish a creative life you really have to pause and make time for the relationship in your life. This also applies to people you want to reach out and connect with. Huge productions require a large team of people. To get good people on your projects they have to want to be there for you and that requires having a good, honest relationship. Find a balance to make time for people and always be authentic and genuine when meeting others.


4. Until You Can Outsource …Be a Jack of All Trades

We’ve all heard the phrase Jack of all trades, master of none. I think that saying is complete bull because it implies limiting the amount of learning. Being a jack of all trades is awesome for the following reasons:

  • – Knowing a little bit about a lot of things will keep your mind open to different ideas and perspectives.
  • – Knowledge is an investment that never depreciate.
  • – It makes problem solving and critical thinking easier. Problems and fires don’t discriminate depending on your level of education.
  • – In the beginning stages of your career, it saves you a lot of money.

As you start to go up, specialize, and have the luxury of accessible resources you can start to outsource and delegate tasks/trades that aren’t as appealing of you. Having prior knowledge in that trade is still very beneficial because that experience will allow you to provide better direction to the resource you’re working with and help you to see from their perspective.

For example:

I’ve have experience doing graphic design, web design, social media branding for both myself, friends, and clients. This past work covered a lot of things like: building blogs/Facebook Pages/Twitter/YouTube/every-other-social-media-platform, logo, mailers, flyers, t-shirts, etc. I now will never touch any of those fields simply because I’m not an expert in those fields nor do have any plans to be one. However since I have experience with them I have a better understanding of what my current and future clients needs such as usage and I know how to re-composing my photographs for specific uses.

This also works vice versa. Since I don’t have much time or the needed skill level to do my own re-branding I outsource the job to my good friend Benson Chou over at The Imaginary Zebra. I give him a breakdown of direction I’d want to go and then him run his magic. Working in various trades has helped me hone my eyes to identify other outstanding creatives and it has lead me to Benson. He is definitely someone to keep an eye on.


5. You Will Spend Most of Your Time Doing Non-Related Tasks for Your Art

Remember in #4 how I mentioned being a jack of all trades? See “How Photographers’ Actually Spend Their Time” Chart below:


6. Obstacles Will Get Progressively Harder and Harder

You know how they say things get easier with time? Wrong! Things get progressively more difficult or more complex. Luckily if you really love what you do you will power through each obstacle and keep going. 

For example: I’ve always thought the hardest part about being a creative would be how to find money to sustain.

ML-obstaclesAll of a sudden finding an income source doesn’t seem that bad.


7. How to Seek Information and Resources …Without the Internet

I’m a big proponent of diving into the inter-webs via Google searching the death out of everything [Stop Being a Baby! You Don’t Need a Mentor!] however, there are times when the information/resource you’re looking for doesn’t exist online or doesn’t exist for free. In school everything was easy. If you had a question you’d bug the professor and voila an answer! After school asking an expert or professional for advice might not be as readily accessible (if you’re reading this and still in school –hang out with your professors they have these things called office hours. Shoutouts to Rudy Vega @ UCI.)

The thing with finding information on the internet is that you really don’t know whether or not it’s 100% valid or under what conditions does it hold true. The best way to find information is to find multiple sources that support each other, create a mini experiment to experience first hand results, and a lot of out of the box thinking.


8. Your Portfolio from School is Probably Crap

Take this point with a grain of salt because everything you make in school if not now will be crap! That’s right crap, crap, crap! In school I would pour days weeks of work, blood (literally blood a table saw silt my stomach one while I was trying to cut a large piece of plexiglass) and so much money into my assignments. I’d to think they were amazing, but the reality of it is they probably weren’t and looking back I’m probably holding them in high regards because of emotional attachment. School assignments are a great source of practice and initial portfolio building, but you should really throw it away once your out of school. Those projects were called for because a professor made you do it and given a typical school schedule there were probably rushed moments of unfocused dedication to the art. On top of that the portfolio of you and your classmates will look very similar right out of school.

To end this point: throw your old portfolio out the door and go out make new work that is unique to you.


9.  Mind, Body, and Soul Come First

No one told me what hours spent in front of a computer, carry heavier gear up a mountain, or lack of doing absolutely nothing for the sake of doing nothing with your friends would do to you. Pursuing a high competitive creative life is hard. And in the end it’s all about finding a balance. I learned this the hard way with chronic back pains and mental fatigue [Redesigning For a Healthier and Creative Lifestyle.]


10. Commencement Does Not Exist IRL

You do not graduate from in real life. You must constantly be studying, learning, and adapting.

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