Do Artists Need a Degree in Art or is it a Waste of Money?

Do artists need a degree in art to succeed?

Society has become an educational treadmill and perceived wisdom dictates that having a degree is the pathway to success, but is that true for everyone? Do artists need a degree in art to be successful?

An art degree doesn’t guarantee a job and doesn’t offer much value for money beyond a teaching career. College is great for networking and great for having fun, but for most artists, paying for a bachelor of arts degree is a waste of money.

In this post, we will explore the pros and cons of paying for an art degree. Let’s dive straight in.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

Is a Batchelor’s Degree Needed for a Successful Career?

The short answer is no, you don’t need a degree to be a professional artist. It’s more important to have an ability, the right attitude, and above all a strong work ethic.

For the most part, the art world is a meritocracy. Only the ‘elite’ can get away with ludicrous pretensions, for the rest of us, a good portfolio will open the doors, not an art education.

An employer, or client, wants to know if you can do the job, in what time frame, and for what price? End of.

It’s like any other area of life, reliability is everything. Art careers are made when you can fulfill a brief, and keep to your promises. It isn’t complicated.

Read this if you need convincing: How to Sell Your Art and Travel the World

Borneo Pygmy elephants. A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler
Pygmy Elephants, drawn after my trip to Borneo

Lots of artists have had some kind of formal education, but that doesn’t mean they all have a bachelor’s degree. Many people choose to change their career paths and follow their dreams without any formal training. It has nothing to do with their education.

Most of us know, deep in our hearts, if we have a natural ability for art or design. It’s not common to discover your abilities later in life. We know from an early age if we have any talent, or not.

That talent can take many forms. It’s not limited to making fine art, it could be in illustration, pottery, or manga! If there is a commercial calling, there is a market for you to aim for.

Do you need a master of fine arts degree and a fancy CV to be a successful artist? Hell no, you need a good portfolio and some get-up-and-go.

Are There Jobs That Require an Arts Degree?

There are some jobs that have education requirements. such as an art director, museum curator, or lecturer in art history. These positions typically require a master’s degree in fine arts, and it’ll help to have a few connections and prior work experience before you apply for them.

A bachelor of fine arts degree from a top art school could potentially be useful in certain areas, but you must bear in mind that the art world is an elitist joke. It doesn’t play by normal commercial rules, it’s a world unto itself.

You have to be a certain kind of person to join in and manipulate it. It has less to do with fine art and more to do with self-promotion. The top ‘artists’ would succeed in marketing anything they chose to do.

The obvious career path for most graduates is teaching other art students to be art teachers. It’s a self-fulfilling loop. Art colleges sure as hell don’t teach you how to earn your bread and butter. Forget the real world.

These are some of your typical job choices:

  • Be an Artist – Sell your paintings. You don’t need a graduate degree in visual arts
  • A High School Art Teacher – If that’s your aim go for it. A degree is needed
  • A Museum Curator – You’ll need a master’s degree to have a career in art museums
  • An Illustrator – You’ll need some artistic talent and a portfolio and these days, some digital skills.
  • Be a Photographer – Buy a good camera and photo editor. A degree is not needed
  • A Printmaker – An art college will give you the facilities to experiment. Hard to learn alone.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Stats, the median yearly wage for arts and design jobs, in 2021/2022 was $48,220. Sounds great until you see who earns the money.

The people in demand are Animators and visual effects artists in the video games, movie, and TV industries. Art directors are top of the list at $100,890

Then when you look down the list you see a list of design occupations:

Median Salaries for U.S. designers are: (source)

  • Graphic Designer $50,710
  • Industrial Designer – $77,030
  • Interior Designer – $60,340
  • Fashion Designer – $77,450
  • Floral Designer – $29,880

The bureau suggests that all these jobs, with the exception of floral designers, require a BA degree. Conventionally they may be correct. In reality, anyone can be a graphic, or interior designer, if they home school and have the flair.

Apparently, a floral designer only needs a high school diploma so has to accept the lowest wages and prospects, in theory. Well anyone who knows anything about the trade, will know that floristry is very profitable if you own the business.

No one can go into these design industries and expect a fat wage any time soon, if at all. These are median figures.

The one figure that made me laugh was their estimated income for craft and fine artists. They reckon it’s $49,960. How the hell do they work that out? At least they don’t say you need a degree, only advise you to get one.

They do, however, tell you How to Become a Craft or Fine Artist if you want to read what they have to say.

Perhaps I am being harsh. I can think of a few jobs that would benefit from higher education. An art therapist will need qualifications to practice and a fashion designer will gain exposure from being within the system.

Plus I’ve just discovered from the Govt that medical illustrators need a degree too. Hands up who wants to be a medical illustrator?

If art colleges had a more traditional skills-based approach to teaching art, with an equal focus on the business side of things, I would sing a different song.

Why Do Students Study For a Degree in Art?

Let’s be honest, how many 18-year-olds make wise decisions about their life? As an adult, you look back on your teens and realize how naive you were. Indeed, how many teenagers can grasp the enormity of their debt burden and what it will mean to them later on in life?

The joy of youth is living in the here and now without responsibilities. The future doesn’t mean much when you’re starting out in life.

Youngsters borrow money on a pipe-dream

  • They assume that their art tutors know what the hell they’re talking about
  • They want to party, have fun, and have a love life
  • They assume a college degree will get them a high-paying job
  • They think they will learn practical skills
  • They don’t care about paying back a loan.

Many art students are paying top dollar for their social life and for little else. They funnel through the system, being fed false expectations, and being shoved along by misguided peer pressure, only to be spat out at the other end with a useless piece of paper.

(Costs of a BA degree in the UK and a BA degree in the US.)

All that money for a degree that says you can do what? Stuff you could learn in a few art classes for next to nothing.

I get it, working alone in a studio is not appealing, so sure it feels better to be with your friends, all making art together. We all benefit from bouncing ideas around with our mates. It’s fun and exciting. That is a positive aspect of education.

But here’s the rub. That’s not what it’s like after you leave art college. Being an artist is a solitary pursuit. It’s not gregarious. It’s lonely and hard and most artists can’t cope with it, so they give up before they get anywhere.

That is the cruel truth.

Is it really? You’d better read this: Is Being an Artist Lonely?

The Alternatives to Getting an Art Degree

There are tons of online courses and tutorials that can teach you the technical skills you need to make a living as an artist. You can take evening classes, join workshops, or even join Patreon.

Let’s go through a few options:

1. Join an Art Workshop

This is the best way to get a taste of what’s possible. You can meet new like-minded adult learners and get some one-to-one tuition from someone who really knows his or her trade.

For relatively modest fees, you can access superior classes held by top art professionals. It’s live and hands-on. Once you’ve paid and committed yourself, there’ll be no more procrastinating.

Choose wisely. Don’t pick a course because the teacher has an MFA degree! It means NOTHING. Look at their portfolio. Ask yourself, do you like their work, and do you want to do something similar? That’s enough to go by.

2. Evening Classes

If you are looking for more practical tuition, where you’re taught new creative skills, evening classes are the perfect alternative. They give students the opportunity to gain knowledge in their desired artistic fields while juggling the other things in their lives.

A series of courses will give structure and the motivation you need to stay with the task and learn. It’s difficult to keep motivated without being accountable to other people, and a regular evening class will provide that for you.

3. Online Art Courses

This is a new world and today you can learn just about anything online, including art skills. You can learn from the best in the business at your own pace and at a price you can afford. There are plenty of advantages, but one big drawback.

Online art tutorials are detached and impersonal. It’s all very well being fascinated by the instructor and in awe of their talent, but as soon as you switch off the monitor, can you motivate yourself to continue working?

That’s the big test with online learning, it’s so easy to sign up, and too easy to put things off until you find a convenient time. Well, you know what? for most people, that perfect time doesn’t exist.

Somehow you must force yourself to follow along. That’s something most people fail to achieve by themselves.

If you are self-contained and can motivate yourself there are a number of websites to choose from such names as Skillshare, Domestika, Proko, and Udemy. There are many more of course.

UDEMY offers courses on just about anything and they are always having sales, so buying a cheap course is very easy. They’re not dedicated to art and craft courses but they do have an extensive range of art courses on offer. You can study any arts-related career imaginable.

It must be said, the general standard of their courses can be poor, but if you research the site properly, the cream rises to the top. You’ll find some gems and there are plenty of bargains to be found.

If you decide to join (free) and buy a course, you’ll be offered some great discount deals as an incentive to lure you in.

You pay separately for each course and they are yours to keep.

Read this: Is Udemy Worth it? Pros and Cons For Artists and Designers

SKILLSHARE is similar to Udemy in many ways, but they specialize more in the creative arts. It has the same open policy when it comes to teachers, there is little in the way of genuine quality control, but overall, I think the classes are of a slightly higher standard.

Skillshare is a membership model and the initial outlay is quite steep. They charge a yearly fee and that gives you access to every course and class on the platform.

You will notice that the best tutors are often selling the same courses on Udemy. It’s worth checking, especially if you want to retain ownership.

On Skillshare your access ends when your membership expires.

Read this: Is Skillshare Worth It? The Pros and Cons for Artists and Designers

DOMESTIKA is less well known than Skillshare and Udemy but that’s only because it started life in Spain. Domestika is huge in the Spanish-speaking world, and now that it’s based in America, the English content is growing fast.

This is a platform for creatives, not just for art tuition, but for every aspect of the art business too. It’s especially handy for courses about art marketing on social media.

bird illustration with watercolors

The production quality is superb. Every course has a professional presentation and it’s a joy to learn. They maintain a very high standard of tuition and you can be sure to find a good artist and teacher in your creative field.

Domestika is pay-on-demand, just like Udemy. You pay once and keep the course in your account for good, and the good news is they have constant discounts too. The courses are such good value.

Domestika is still dominated by Spanish-speaking tutors, but they are all auto-translated into English subtitles, and there are so many English-speaking tutors now, that you‘ll probably find what you want.

Definitely check this one out.

Read this: Is Domestika Worth It? The Pros and Cons for Artists and Designers

PROKO is tiny in comparison to the other three options, and a bit more expensive, but it is worth taking a look.

It is primarily a vehicle for the owner Stan Prokopenko, to sell his premium courses. That’s fair enough, he does the job brilliantly via his Youtube Channel, but he is far from a one-trick pony. He has some serious talent offering courses on his platform. These are fine artists sharing their creative techniques with the world and some of them are inspiring.

What Proko lacks in variety, it gains in quality. The standards are high and there is no doubt that Proko curates his talent.

There are some cheaper courses and resources, and with a couple of exceptions, the other courses are priced reasonably The main difference between Proko and the other sites, on this list, is the discounts. You don‘t get many deals worth having on Proko.

There are no membership fees or hidden costs and there’s a generous refund policy.

Read this: Are Proko Courses Worth It? A Review – Pros and Cons

4. Patreon

As far as I’m concerned, Patreon is a bargain. It gives you access to the best artists for very little money.

It works like this:

  • 1) You pledge a monthly fee to a creator,
  • 2) The creator gives you access to their content, behind different pay-walls
  • 3) You support the artist you admire and gain the level of access you require.

I did just that at $10 per month for an artist I admired, and I was very happy with what I learned. I was only on the 2nd tier. Higher tiers offered more, culminating in private tuition at the top for a few willing to pay.

It works as a business model because as a Patron, it’s hard to stop. I maintained my subscription for 6 months and I felt guilty for leaving. In reality, I learned what I came for within the first month.

You can join and leave at any time. You will be billed monthly.

5. Art Books

They still have their place. I learned a great deal from buying art books. Not just books about art techniques, but books about my favorite artists.

I realize that physical books are not what they once were and videos have obvious advantages, but there is something very immediate about leafing through a well-loved book and referencing knowledge without any distractions.

6. YouTube

Why pay anything when it’s all available for free? Who hasn’t wasted hours scrolling through Youtube? But maybe that’s the drawback.

We are the victims of their algorithm. They will feed us and distract us to stay onsite and consume their content.

It’s not in their interest to see you leave and actually do anything.

Youtube is a recipe for doing nothing unless you can control your curiosity. All the information is out there somewhere but finding it can lead you down a rabbit hole.

But needs must, and we are not all in a position to spend freely on art courses. I follow quite a few channels and they bring me a lot of pleasure.

It doesn’t bother me that most videos are teasers to buy a course, there are plenty of new techniques to discover. The only way to get a lot of viewers on Youtube is to provide useful information and you are paying the creator every time an ad appears.

Everyone wins.

Do Artists Need a Degree in Art? – Final Thoughts

It is a personal decision to pursue an arts degree. Some people will find it fulfilling while others might not be able to see the benefit. The most important thing to consider is what you want out of your life and can you achieve that with an arts degree?

In some cases, those who pursue a fine art degree will end up getting a job in their desired field, and they’re able to do what they love and get paid for it. This is the best-case scenario.

Realistically this is not the case for most art students. They’ll leave college with high hopes and get hit by the hard realities. They won’t have a degree most employers value and the cost of living will kill their ambitions.

After a year of slumming it in some semi-derelict art studio trying to make art that no one in the real world is willing to buy, is enough for most people. Then what?

In my opinion, and that’s all it is, an art degree is a waste of money. Study something else and get a degree that has job prospects. That is your insurance policy.

Study art at home or in the evenings, and you‘ll learn more.

White rhino in a landscape drawing

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“I ain’t got no fancy art degree! It didn’t stop me. I can show you how to make a living, just do what I did”

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