"Should I Go to Art School?"


I get asked this question all the time. In the past, the degree represented a comfortable entry to career. That’s not the case today so it makes sense for digital artists to ask the question.

The computer graphics (CG) industry isn’t the same as the medical industry or practicing law where a degree is just a requirement to get one's foot in the door. CG is a fairly new industry where its formal education isn’t a long-institutionalized thing. And while a degree is certainly valuable, it’s not necessarily a requirement for a successful career.

Value of an Art Degree

At this point in time, I measure the value of a CG degree in two ways: Professional value and personal value.

Professional valueis actually low. In my experience, I’ve never heard an employer reference my degree or discuss where I graduated from. And this is consistent with my professors’ warnings along with what I’ve observed among my co-workers over the years. Studios are much more concerned with the quality of a portfolio than with formal education. I’ve worked alongside graduates and non-graduates at the same studio. I’ve also seen valedictorian's struggle to find work. 

One of the most talented artists I’ve ever worked with has been a one-man-CG-army since he was in his teens, without a degree. All that to say, an impressive body of work overshadows a degree.

On the other hand, my formal education has proven to be a tremendous personal value for my development. While I believe that everything I learned in the classroom can be found on the internet for free, the difference is that in the classroom it was served to me on a silver platter. What I learned in 21 months at the university would take me several years to learn by sifting through YouTube videos and forum threads. There’s also the comfort of trusting what I learned in the classroom. The internet is full of poor, free-of-charge instruction by which we have no way to determine its legitimacy aside from trial and error.

I first started to learn CG when I was 14. At that time I had a massive book of basic tutorials and the internet to learn from. Most of what I learned in those first few years had to be broken and re-learned the right waywhen I went to college. In other words: Self-teaching can be free but it’s like stumbling around in the dark.

Financial Burden

Of course, formal education costs a ton of money. While the costs vary from school to school, the average animation degree costs about $160,000 ($40k x 4 years) for on-campus programs and about $56,000 ($7k x 8 semesters) for online programs. Understandably, not everyone has the means to pay for this or is willing to go into such debt. I was blessed to have parents that saved their whole marriage to gift my brother and I 4-years of college. Thankfully, as I mentioned before, an expensive degree is not a prerequisite for a successful career in the CG industry. 

Noah Bradley, a talented concept painter, made some waves with his  point-blank opinions about the cost of art school. While it’s directed more at traditional art education, it’s certainly correlates to digital art and is worth a read.

If you’re ready to spend big $

For those of you that have the financial means to pay for college, I’m going to list some solid schools that I’ve either worked with their graduates or heard positive things about from colleagues. Understand, this is not a comprehensive list but is just derived from my experience.

  • Vancouver Film School: I’ve never worked with a VFS grad but I know they have an elite network of alumni. It’s arguably the Harvard of CG education. I’ve been told they won’t accept just anybody. I knew a classmate who was denied because his entry portfolio didn’t make the cut.
  • Gnomon School of Visual Effects : Top-of-the-line CG education taught by industry professionals.
  • Full Sail University : I am an alumni of Full Sail’s on-campus computer animation program. I highly value that experience as the fast-track for my CG development. They’re famous for their accelerated program: A 4-year-bachelor’s degree in 21 months. They have classes scheduled 24 hours of the day, of which I had a couple 1am-5am labs during my time there. I found the acceleration a benefit for the passionate, like myself, who couldn’t get enough CG. It also serves to weed out the impassioned, which paints a pretty realistic picture of what the industry is like - where the passionate succeed.
  • Minneapolis College of Art & Design : I worked with several MCADians during my time at MAKE in Minneapolis. They were all extremely talented, some of which have gone on to  animate at Disney ;and one is directing his first feature-length film for MGM.
  • Savannah College of Art & Design : The “of Art and Design” schools seem to have a good reputation. Colin Levy, director of Sintel and former layout artist at Pixar, graduated from SCAD. Fun fact: He also happened to work at MAKE in Minneapolis before I was hired.
  • FZD School of Design : This has become one of the most famous concept art schools since its founding in 2009.

If you’re NOT so ready  to spend big $

As mentioned previously, the internet is at your disposal. And for the cost of a computer and internet access, you can quite literally teach yourself anything you want to know, including computer graphics. 

This approach is the least expensive with the biggest learning curve: Google There are also much less-expensive alternatives to art school that teach CG more seriously.

  • CG Cookie: [Elephant in the room] Surprise! WE are one of these alternatives. Our mission at CG Cookie includes becoming an affordable alternative to art school. With the launch of version 5.0 of our site, we launched Learning Flows that in many ways [will] mimic degree programs. At the moment, they’re still fairly new, so we admit that we’re not quite there yet, but we working hard to get there! And if you do the math, the cost of a CGC membership is a drop in the bucket compared to a formal art school.
  • iAnimate: CGC instructor, Wayne Dixon, is an iA alumni. It’s an animation-centric program founded by former Animation Mentor, Jason Ryan, and utilizes livestream teaching more than pre-recorded lessons.
  • Animation Mentor : This online animation school churns out  very successful alumni , including the Blender Institute’s own Hjalti Hjalmarsson. Note: The school’s focus is animation, not other skills like modeling, texturing, etc.
  • Pluralsight (formerly Digital Tutors) : This subscription-based site has an enormous library of CG training courses spanning nearly all creative applications.
  • 3D Motive : Another subscription-based site with solid CG training courses taught by industry professionals.

Final Thoughts

Any kind of artistic or creative career is going to be successful based on one thing: The artist’s drive.

Drive will empower an aspiring artist to power through the trial-and-error approach of a self-taught “YouTube degree”. Drive is the catalyst that transforms an $80,000 education into stand-out skill; artistry; success. Without drive, you’ll just end up with a hobby or a piece of paper.

My class at Full Sail started with 87 people. 17 of those people graduated on time, and maybe 6 of the 17 have held steady jobs in the industry.

So before you ask yourself whether or not you should enroll in art school, make sure you can answer “yes” to the question: “Am I driven to succeed as a digital artist?”

Continued Reading:

"5 Big Reasons to Skip Private Art School" (by our own Jonathan Lampel!)

"How Much Animation School Costs"

CC Image: "Classroom" by MIKI Yoshihito

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  • Leonel Vazquez (leonelmv)

    Excelent note! explaining perfect why i'm here in cgcookie and not in a art school. Well, this is an art school too where we can learn everithing with our times, playing and repating videos every time, thing that we can't do in a class. There are many reasons too prefer sites like this. In the world of technology you can learn much as you want, is the point and the magic around this.

  • reavenkhali

    It should be noted that FZD is in Singapore.

    I don't know if this was the case for you, but my GameDev track at Full Sail required 8 hours a day (4 hour lecture, 1 hour meal, 3 hour lab if I remember correctly), 5-6 days a week - and then there's projects and homework. And in one month, your classes may be from 9PM - 5PM, and then the next month your classes may be from 6PM - 2AM. You may need to anticipate not having time for employment to support yourself during that time. I had a friend who was able to keep a steady job because management allowed him to be super flexible and call his own hours - he's the only one we knew who worked.

  • Amine Dassouki (dragant)

    I actually went to a school (A satellite of Clark University) in MA for Visual Communications and graduated in 2006. That school ended up not being the best investment and unfortunately I feel like I wasted quite a bit of money and am still paying for it now. I have always wanted to do something with 3D modeling and animation but because I was not talented at drawing and making concept art along with other things that just seemed to pile up, I stopped practicing.

    I'm 32 now and really been thinking about trying to get back into it again. CGCookie has been pretty good so far, although I must say that the portion on textures was a bit too fast. Was kind of hard to keep up at times. I may look into the drawing portions of CGCookie as well, I just don't have a drawing tablet. I will keep at it and hope to come out better and eventually make it a career somehow.

  • Mark Smith (me1958424)

    Excellent presentation, thank you Kent for taking the time to do this...

  • Omar Domenech (dostovel)

    In my country, a University degree gets you nowhere, still you have to graduate because you are expected to, since, I guess, it was still important in your moms and dads generation. The real value is in relations, as in do you have the necessary connections to get you into a certain job.

    When it comes to employment within the Arts its the same, people never ever ask you for a degree, but when it comes to art, they always want you to show them what you can do, the portfolio is a must.

  • Derek Chestnut (dbchesties)

    This is a well written piece; it effectively puts troubling ideas and questions into perspective. That said, reading this article makes me happy to count myself among the citizens here at cgcookie! It would seem my efforts have landed me in good company.

  • jaredkohrt

    Wow, thanks for posting this! I'm currently applying for colleges and was wondering if it was better to keep learning CG in my spare time or if I would pursue some sort of formal education during my time at college. All this great info helped me decide to continue on my path to be a computer science major, but continue to learn here on CG cookie--I've already designed a few school projects using blender, so it certainly has helped me a ton!

  • cookiebland

    "I was not talented"

    "eventually make it a career somehow"

    This may or may not be the case, but you seem somewhat unsure of being able to make a career in the industry with your perceived level of talent as I'm judging from the connotation your words.

    So just to offer some encouragement and subjective, amateurish opinion from stuff I've read/watched online:

    As one of the people who believe talent actually exists, I think (aka guess) that talent really doesn't come into play until you're talking about SUPER-DUPER talent people on the upper echelons of art (course every year the quality in works produced antes up, so take that into account). You'll be able to get a relatively successful job (maybe even lead jobs) with no talent if you keep practicing your hours. Sort of like you might not get a Nobel Prize in literature, but you'll maybe hit a best-seller or two if you work hard enough.

    Also as we all know, people are talented at different things. Just because you might not have talent in organic sculpting, you might have a talent in hard surface sculpting. Then within an area you can break down further such as creatures/fine art/stylized/better at female than males etc. etc. So the faster you find your niche you like the better off you are. Point is experiment to what you like, maybe try to somehow relate the talents that you're good at into your work (everybody has one), and maybe create a new sub-type. Also remember that in art as opposed to hard sciences, things may be a little subjective. Other people like different things.

    To top it off, hours always > talent. If you can somehow eke out hours when your talented friend isn't, you just might be able to surpass him (depends on his talent). Ofc don't go crazy and not eat/sleep for 24 hours. You can't fulfill your dream if you're dead.

    Course I don't have a job in the industry at all yet, so it's all guessing. Take my opinions how you will.

    Also as always, remember luck plays a HUGE factor in all of life. So don't take it too hard if you did your due diligence but never make it (that's the reason why unknown talented people fail besides not putting the hours in).

    Work hard, and good luck in the future brah.

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    We certainly appreciate you learning from us! Cheers :D

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    That description is exactly what my Full Sail experience was like as well. Sometimes I miss that level of focus...lol

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    That's really cool to see this level of encouragement for a fellow community member. Good vibes all up in this place!

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    Thanks for taking the time to read!

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    We're honored to have you learning from us. Good company indeed!

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    Very glad to hear the article helped! Best of luck to you in you computer science journey.

  • rombout

    WOW $40K a year?!?!? WTF is that for degree? Thats more than certain account degrees i know of...

  • tardigrade

    Excellent blog post Kent!
    I actually live only minutes from Full Sail University.
    When I took interest recently in CG art I knew cost wise I could never consider attending there!
    I DID graduate another major "traditional" art school here in the same area years ago and learned next to nothing during that time.
    I have learned 10 times more from CG Cookie, YouTube videos, and even used books then I ever did while attending traditional art school.
    I have numerous friends who also attended art school years ago who struggle just to find work in the field while the school loan collectors call relentlessly.

  • khaosseraph

    I was curious if anyone knows anything about the Think Tank Training Center in Vancouver, Canada.

  • Tyrone Hunt (tyrone7)

    Thank you for answering this for me!

  • belaya

    Ok, what I have got from your article, is that the employer does not look into your diploma, but looks into your portfolio. So, there is not much professional value (employer is not intetrested), but a lot of personal value (self-improvement) in getting the degree.

    So eventually what your describe is an INDIRECT value of getting a degree. Your personal imporvement as an artist feeds into the quality of your portfolio. So I would say your separation of two "values" is not really justified.

    More specifically the employer is interested in WHAT you have learnt, whether it was done through a school or YouTube, but not HOW you have learnt it.

  • Ronald Vermeij (indigowarrior9)

    If anyone wants to go to (art)school or not, that is totally up to them. If you got the money and you can afford it, go have a blast at (art)school.

    Only I can help noticing the word "SCHOOL" on this blog-title, and my mind inmediatelly comes up with this video (from John Taylot Gatto) about "the true nature of "school" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeEWPbTad_Q)

    The ridiculous amount of money is just another artificial threshold and financially_based selection mechanism, to keep "the poor" out of "art-school" so that only "the elite" can join the upper echelons of art-school and practicing "pre-educated art" for the rest of us on this planet.

    "Real and genuine Art" to me personally is NOT something that can be "educated" / "brainwashed "by others, since your personal art comes from within. They can only teach you how to use materials and techniques and that is it. There are plenty of other resources, places and people that are willing to share their art-passion with you at a much lower price and/or for nothing since they love transferring their knowledge to like-wise passionate Souls.

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