How to be an Artist Without Going to Art School

Aspiring artists these days have it pretty darn good. Sure, we can complain about a lousy economy, a highly competitive field, and the loss of several fields of illustrations (thanks in large part to the stock photography/illustration industry). But the fact is that much of the entertainment industry is doing extremely well, the field, while only accepting of high caliber work, is ripe with work, and new fields are opening up for artists to fill. So stop your whining. We’ve got it good in the 21st century.

It astonishes me how many resources artists have at their disposal these days. Yet most of my classmates never took advantage of any of them! Gah! It drives me crazy. Here are some of the great (affordable) resources available for people looking to avoid art school (with all of its good and bad qualities), or those who are in art school and not learning enough.

  1. Books

    Books are cheap, plentiful, and absolutely packed with information. I’ve learned countless things from reading books. If you’re lost on what books to buy, you can start with my list of 10 books every artist must read. The beautiful thing about books is that there are ways to read them without paying for them thanks to these wonderful things known as “libraries.” I know you’ve probably forgotten about them, but look around and see if there’s one nearby. You might be surprised how good their collection of art books is.

  2. Video Tutorials

    I’m a big fan of video tutorials. So much so, in fact, that I made my own. I attribute much of what I know about art from watching videos. They can seem like a lot of money at first, but the value you’ll get out of them is unmatched. It’s like getting to look over the shoulder of artists far better than you. Here’s a few great places to start with. There are bajillions out there, but these are high quality ones:

    Gnomon Workshop – Huge array of subject matter available. Drawing, painting, sculpting, 3d modeling—you name it, they’ve got it. Be sure to check out their color theory dvds. I learned a lot from them. Oh, and you might get lucky and find some of these in a well-stocked library.

    The Art Department – Previously offered through Massive Black, they’ve got a great selection of videos for the concept art & genre illustration folks (with a few other topics scattered about). I’ve been a long time member of, so I’ve always enjoyed supporting them.

    Glenn Vilppu – This guy is probably one of the best living figure drawing instructors. And to our great benefit, he’s put out a series of videos! I haven’t had the chance to watch them all, but what I have seen have been fantastic. This man knows his stuff. Odds are he’s a lot better than the figure instructor you would get if you went to art school. Trust me, I had my fair share of… “special” figure drawing instructors.

    As I said, there are tons of good ones out there, so feel free to share in the comment section.

  3. Online classes & workshops

    Sometimes we want classes—there’s something about one-on-one interaction and assignments that seems natural when you want to learn. And now there are sites that you can go to for online classes with some incredibly good artists. The first that comes to mind is CG Master Workshops. They offer both workshops (more in the vein of video tutorials) as well as master classes, which are 8-week courses taught by industry pros on their unique specialties. I’m planning to try one out when I get a chance.

  4. Conventions

    If you’re not going to art school then you’re missing out on some important networking potential. It’s very easy to be trapped in your room working on learning your art, completely forgetting that you need to also get out there and meet some people! The art world is fairly social and getting to know the other people working in the industry can greatly help your own career. Illuxcon, PAX, and Gen Con are a few to look at.

  5. Forums

    In the art school environment you’re constantly surrounded by your peers. People share advice, chat about artists, and hurl insults/critiques towards other’s work. But locked in your cave you can easily miss out on this. So if you’re looking for some input on your work or just want to chit-chat about art with other fairly serious artists, then check out some of the great forums out there., CGHub, and CGTalk are three of the big ones. I’ve got accounts on all three, but I’m mainly active on

  6. Blogs

    Yes, you’re reading a blog now. But believe it or not my blog is not (gasp) the only one out there that focuses on art and being an artist. Using Google Reader (to keep some semblance of sanity) I follow hundreds of blogs. Many of these are artist’s blogs that pretty much only post pretty pictures. But a few post more in-depth content. Three blogs that every artist should read:

    Gurney Journey – James Gurney is the man. He also is very good at writing about art and sharing his vast wisdom on the subject. So good, in fact, that he wrote a couple books on the subject that you should totally buy.

    Muddy Colors – This is a group blog of some of the top names in the industry. The topics range from business to technique to theory. It’s somewhat new, but it’s already proven itself as an invaluable resource for aspiring artists.

    ArtOrder – Jon Schindehette, AD over at WotC, runs ArtOrder in his spare time. It’s packed with good articles already, and also hosts regular challenges. They’re not only fun challenges, but also great tools to get exposure. Anyone wanting to work on D&D or Magic should lurk around this place.

  7. Museums & Galleries

    One nice thing about going to art school is you’re forcibly exposed to lots of art. If you’re not in that environment, you need to make an extra effort to get that exposure on your own. Find local galleries and check out the work, and make trips to museums on a regular basis to stare at the work (or even do studies of it). Non-art museums are great too. Natural history museums can be hugely inspiring places.

  8. Life Drawing

    Draw, draw, draw! Nothing beats drawing from life, and nothing will hone your skills like drawing the human figure. It’s fun, challenging, and I’d even say downright necessary. Find a local group and go regularly. Once a week is fine, but more would be better. If there aren’t any around where you live, then set up a space, hire a model, and advertise it online. Odds are there will be other artists who want to come and draw with you.

  9. Workshops

    At the end of the day, there’s nothing quite like training under amazing artists. There are tons of workshops you can travel to and get an extensive education in a short time. Some great places to check out are Watt’s Atelier, LAAFA, and the Concept Design Academy. It’s a bit of a time & money investment, but entirely worth it. I’m considering attending the Illustration Master Class next time around. It’s a week long intensive course with some of the biggest names in the industry acting as your instructors. Everyone I’ve talked to that has gone in the past has said that they’ve learned more in a week than they learned during their four years in art school.

Just because you’re not going to an art school doesn’t mean that your education is lacking! If you have the devotion and the willingness to put some money towards your education, then learning art is very, very feasible. In fact, I’d say there has never been a better time to learn.