I Wish I Had Known

A detail of Da Vinci’s contribution to
Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ

I’ve been in a rather introspective mood lately with the move coming up.  We’ll soon be in a new place with new opportunities and so much to explore!  I’m also turning 31 next month, which has led to the inevitable ‘feeling old’ mindset.

I can’t help but ponder on things that I wish I had done differently when I first started seriously thinking about being an artist.  I’ve spent a lot of time discovering things myself the hard way and if I can save anyone else the years of heartache that can be wasted in the limbo of the Unknown, than I consider this an accomplishment!

I wish there had been a person there to tell me these things and that is why I am going to tell them to you now.  Disclaimer: These are all from my personal experience so I’m sure not everyone will agree.

I wish I had known…


…that I didn’t need to go to college to be a successful artist.

Not to say that you cannot learn much in college. I had wonderful teachers who taught me the fundamentals of life drawing, composition, etc.  I expanded my horizons and knowledge base in areas outside of art.  I made some friends that are friends for life.  I experienced the independence of being self-moderated, which is valuable for any person growing up.

But if I could go back now and do it all over again? I would either attend a program in an atelier or I would skip college all together and attend specialized workshops at The Art Department, Illustration Master Class, etc.  These classes offer the kind of specialized training I would need to make a career, whereas college courses of the traditional focus tend to avoid the business side entirely.

In the end, college left me with student debt and degrees that look nice on paper.  Sad fact is most AD’s hiring right now aren’t going to care what degrees I have. Portfolio is King in the Land of Illustration.  Having a degree is a must if you want to teach, but if you don’t (which I currently do not have the desire to), then it is not very useful.  If you do attend college, check your curriculum carefully before you sign up!  Make sure they are teaching the kinds of courses you need to succeed as a business, not just in creating art.

…that there is more to the field of art than Fine Art Galleries.

This stems from the last bit of advice. I went to a very traditional college that focused on the creative side of art.  We learned how to draw ourselves as shapes and how to curate gallery shows, but we did not learn how to manage clients, file our taxes, or run an art business. Illustration was a dirty word. Getting paid to do art and make a living rather than do art purely for art’s sake?  That was ‘selling out’.  So many options were blacked out for me in college that I only discovered when I graduated and started talking to pros directly at conventions.

There are scenic artists and concept artists, matte painters and graphic designers, the list of creative professions goes on and on!  There are many ways to make money AND do art rather than accepting the so-called badge of ‘honor’ that is ‘the starving artist’ whose biggest ambition is to sell a piece for thousands at a gallery.

If you want to do this, go for it, but keep your options, and your mind, open.  Money does not equal selling out, it equals ‘paying the bills’.  If you think money is selling out, than do your research.  Da Vinci was painting the faces of cherubs as an apprentice before he moved on to doing portraits and commissioned pieces for the church, as was common for many of the great masters.  Living entirely off of art we do for fun is a quality of the lucky and the hard-working.  It can happen, but you have to work hard for it!  A little serendipity doesn’t hurt, either.

…that listening to negative people wastes time.

 When I first started to plan my future with the anxiety of that graduation ceremony hovering over my head, I was bombarded by voices telling me ‘you’ll never put bread on the table with art’. Growing up, I have discovered this to be true in some respects.  I am not making a living off my art alone yet, with my current work supplemented by a Day Job and online art business.  I spend a lot of time keeping my head above water right now and trying to get my work to a level which I can compete for better paying jobs.  Like any profession with a specialized skill, there is a lot of competition and you have to be willing to get your work to that polished level if you want to make it a living.

However, I have to wonder if I had spent more time on the things that called to me in life if I would have spent less time meandering about Majors in college trying to find a slot I could fit myself into?  “MAKE MONEY” they said, so I was a Business minor for awhile.  “HAVE A FALLBACK” they said, so I became an English and Studio Art double major.  I wasted so much time (and money) moving further from my goals because I let other negative people dissuade me from even investigating other options.

 If you don’t know what you want to do, don’t be afraid to ask professionals about their work!  Learning about what is expected of them can help you learn more about what your preferences might be as a professional (and save you on some college bills).  As for having a ‘fallback’? That is a personal choice everyone has to make.  A ‘fallback profession’ can be handy, but I found it ultimately to be a distraction that personally hasn’t done me much good.  Getting a part-time job, internship, or apprenticeship could be handy to help keep you afloat and to earn valuable job experience while you are pursuing art, if you don’t want to pursue dual professions.

Again, so many options were blocked for me from the start because I let other people dictate those choices.  Parents can be a particular block here.  My best advice for handling them is to try to educate them on the options that are out there.  Do your research!  There is more to the profession of Artist than the starving artist living out of a tiny apartment selling work on the sidewalk and living off hopes and dreams, which I fear is the most common mental image that people have.  Talk to people working in the business right now. Ignore the people who say ‘don’t do it’ when they are not informed enough about the industry to give you such advice.

Surround yourself with positive and inspiring people because they are the key to maintaining focus and inspiration! Find sketch groups, art societies, and other people on your wavelength to counterbalance the negativity. Negative people only waste your time and break your focus.

As for me? For as much as I wish I could have done differently, I’m thankful for the skills I’ve learned and the people I’ve met along the way.  I’ve not given up yet and I feel that this move is going to equal a bump in productivity and positivity for me.  I can’t wait to share the fruits of my new found focus.  They are germinating as we speak!

For now, wishing you all inspiration and hope!


  1. Im in the same boat. I’m frustrated by the debt going to school caused me, but I’m torn by how much better I got at my art from there. The reality is that it was my obsession with anatomy, and researching outside of school that gave my my major improvements in my art – not the school.
    The specialized courses are the best, and so awesome. I wish I did more of those. the stuff I got from the certificate courses I’ve taken have been so much more valuable to me.

    But, we just keep truckin’ dont we? 🙂

    Being able to stick to it despite all the set backs is what will win the day 🙂

    • I’ve been pondering certificate courses, myself. I’m seeing how self-study works for me, which I think is the one strong drawing point of college – you have someone directing your study so you have no excuse to go watch something else with grades on the line. It’s a lot harder to do this myself, but I do enjoy saving the money.

      Yup we keep on trucking! I’m not stopping this truck yet, just going over some speed bumps and cursing a bit.

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