The greatest dilemma


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Carol Currie wrote, “My greatest dilemma is whether I should pursue studies at university. I am a self-taught artist and doing well on my own. My next step as an artist is to work on enough pieces to apply for galleries. Currently, I’m 25% there. I guess the ‘father’ in me says I need to have a back-up plan, and for me that would be teaching art at college or university level. I do like the idea of sharing information with colleagues as well as expanding ideas and processes. I figure that will be best done at the higher level. What do you and your readers think about colleges and universities, or should I continue on the singular path?”

Thanks for that, Carol. An aspiring creative person such as yourself begins to see that some people are cut out to be artists and others are better as arts advocates and communicators. Knowing yourself and what you really want from life is what’s important. If you’re wired for art-making you will find it difficult to go in any other direction. While I’m naturally in favor of higher education, you ought to understand the difference between artistic literacy and artistic mastery. The former can be taught and the latter must be found and developed privately. Also, the downside of higher education is the “poisonous pedagogy” that goes on these days, particularly in the art department. It has been noted by many “successful artists” that “successful artists” are those who have not been to university. Many have however received a foundation at a college, and have known when to say “enough.” Many are mainly self-taught.

Educational enrichment for its own sake — which may have nothing to do with getting a degree or providing a “back-up” — is its own reward. As Socrates said 2400 years ago, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

If you are unsure about university I suggest that you go to a remote cabin for a finite time — six months or a year — and give yourself an intense, self-directed book-education in whatever direction your fancy takes. Take your brushes, of course, and enough canvases to sink a battleship. If you find you are going nuts without using this stuff up, you might just have your answer. The experience definitely won’t hurt you.

Best regards,


PS: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” (Aristotle)

Esoterica: Currently popular examples of poisonous pedagogy include “Painting is dead.” “Cleverness is suspect.” “Angst is in.” “If you are making a decent living at art, you are probably already corrupted.” While these sorts of attitudes may have philosophic value for the examined life, they can be counterproductive to those who may wish to set their sights on being independent creators.


Loners okay
by Randine Dodson, Los Angeles, CA, USA

Oh my gosh — thank you for such a wise and simple answer to such a troublesome question. I continue to berate myself for not having an arts education background, yet I continue to make progress on my own in my painting. I have, in the past, avoided applying for membership in painting groups and associations because when it came to filling in the education background section, I had very little to include, besides some extension courses. Your answer to this question really validated me.


Back-up plan
by Carol Barber, Gainesville, FL, USA

I think the other question not addressed here, which I struggle with, is what is the best back-up plan? What gives you the most time, energy and satisfaction enabling you to paint more? And when can you let go of that back up plan? I have a M.F.A. but I am not thinking about teaching until I get further along in my personal art journey.


The passing on of knowledge
by Chris Calohan, Panama City, FL, USA

Pedagogical horrors in education don’t always go away at the college level. Far too many times I have almost had to justify my existence to my colleagues at all levels as if an art degree was something you could merely apply for — a degree that had no real relevance to the educational process. Rarely do these colleagues ever embrace the arts as being “important,” but rather for those students who cannot compete academically. However, my suggestion is to go for the educational aspect of art. It really is the best of both worlds in that you can pass on great knowledge and still be an artist.


Frustrated academics
by Sharon Voyles, Belle Rive, IL, USA

My best friend, Therese, is an art professor and her biggest lament is that she has no time to paint! Another friend, studying for her Master’s in Fine Art is at burn-out stage. Her professors want to change her style and she is talking about quitting painting altogether as she is so frustrated. I think your advice to go to a cabin with brushes, canvas, and books will provide Carol with the best education she could find! I live in the woods and I find clarity — no outside distractions — except for an occasional hoot-owl or a deer. This allows me to focus on what I am most passionate about — my art.


Go for your love
by Diane Fox, Mount Horeb, WI, USA

The best reason to go on for more education is because you love to learn in that kind of environment. The best reason to become an art instructor is because you love to teach. Do your potential students and yourself a big favor by being clear on your reasons for going on to school. Please realize there are quite a few professional teachers who are underemployed, living off their “back-up plan” while they try to land one of the few positions teaching Art at a higher education facility.


Two types of artist
by Clair Raabe, Berkshire, MA, USA

My daughter is 17 and is receiving a classical art education. I am on guard. I always wonder if this is a good thing. Being self-taught leaves the world open, knowing the rules is a good thing, but how do you learn when to break them? I’ve decided it’s a personal experience for her. In the meantime I use the “does it feel good?’ attitude. It’s a wonderful thing to be under a teacher’s guidance, then again who is this teacher? How special to be in a supportive environment and still learn to take criticism. My daughter is happy, motivated and enjoys the creative process and learning new techniques taught in school, is able to produce what she wants and stretch her creative abilities.

My son, 14, on the other hand, is the self-taught type. He does not take direction well and crumples under criticism. He is receiving studio time and space and is left alone. That is what feels good and right to him. Maybe with time he will be open to a more formal art education, but now it would destroy him. So, he makes his art and is happy, motivated and very busy.


Art residencies
by Deb Lee, Wayne, PA, USA

You have advised going to a remote cabin. Can you give advice on Art Residencies? I need to find one that would offer a stipend as I have some bills to pay, student loans, etc. I would appreciate any advice anyone can give.

(RG note) This request reminds me of the bumper-sticker I saw on an old Volkswagen bus in Alaska: “Willing to be President for food.” I invite artists to send Deb some leads to lucrative sinecures, but there’s something to be said for the residence you are currently in.


Non-art job
by Jim Rowe, Lakefield, ON, Canada


“The Swimmer”
original painting
by Jim Rowe

Carol needs a stable financial foundation, but not necessarily related to art. The thing to aim at is a job that gives you time to paint. I am on maintenance — I sit waiting for a machine to break down, I might go days doing nothing but my art work, and the company is happy because everything is working. If I am sketching and painting that means they are making money because everything is working. I once went 5 weeks, only working on my lunches and breaks because that was when the line was “down,” and because I was working on my breaks they paid me “time and a half” for my troubles. A fire fighter would have the same life style. Then there was the time they laid me off for 4 years and paid me two thirds of my wages plus benefits for the whole time. (Being in the union is a wonderful thing.) I believe that I was meant to paint, it is what I was put on earth to do, and the “forces to be” are accommodating this assignment. Get out and look around, there might be the perfect job waiting for you too.


Why did I do it?
by Laura Elmore, Everett, WA, USA

I am wondering why the hell I thought it so urgently necessary to go back to college at the age of 40. I’m not even pursuing a studio-art type degree. I’d decided that I like the style I’ve arrived at and the things I have to say as a painter, and that in pursuing a “real” art degree, those things would be irretrievably lost. So I’ve been finishing up a liberal arts degree begun eons ago in the hopes that having a degree, any degree, will make people more likely to buy my paintings rather than merely gush on about how much they like them. I made only $800 from selling my art last year — and that was mostly from prints and cards. Having a degree won’t increase that figure, will it? And what is more, there will be pressure to “get a real job” once I have a degree — and then I won’t have time to paint! I think I know what I have to do now.


Real world
by Judith D’Agostino, Tucson, AZ, USA


oil on board, 18 x 18 inches
by Judith D’Agostino

I went the university route. I taught at the university level and I am now an independent artist going back to school in my own studio! I want to make art that people enjoy and can purchase. I want to learn more techniques from artists out there in the world trying to make a living at it. Art at the college level is sheltered. It doesn’t seem real to me. Making a living making art requires a whole new set of values and strategies. At a college or university, you get a paycheck. This isn’t so when you are out in the real world where your income depends on sales. At the college level, art is about ideas, pushing the boundaries and it is fun. It seems more like playing and attempting new things more in a philosophical way as opposed to technique and mastering a style. I don’t begrudge my education but I wish I had started working on my own explorations sooner.


Types of art education
by Paul V. Azzopardi, Mosta, Malta

I habitually keep everything under review, but I think that if Carol wants to know art and artists across the ages, and to be able to knowledgeably place a painting, have an erudite opinion as to what is “important” and what not, and defend her position with academic underpinnings, then she should go and study. Studying art can give her a lot of satisfaction. The analysis of art is an art in itself.

If what she wants is to paint, perhaps great art, the best thing is to do it. I found visiting galleries and museums to be a great teacher, followed by regularly reading art magazines, such as The Artist’s Magazine and International Artist. I read the occasional art biography and read art appreciation pieces. The latter can be very sensitive and clever. Workshops and demonstrations help, too.


Finding the right connections
by Steve Hovland, San Francisco, CA, USA


“Fan in a Window, Paris”
by Steve Hovland

If you want to go to college, find one that will actually teach you something. A commercial art school may be a better choice than a university. You need demonstrations, color and composition — specific skills — not just letting you do your own thing. Going to co-ops and classes held by working artists is also a good idea. Hanging out with other artists is good for keeping your motor running. Watching other people work, each following their own muse, is a great way to learn. Every other week I spend a couple of hours in the studio of a guy who has been painting for 50 years. Great!


The complete artist
by Randal Burns

I graduated with my BFA in studio painting a few years ago. I thought hard about a masters — only two extra years. So far I am working at a library and painting on the side. I have several shows a year and really enjoy working with paint. At first I felt almost a failure since I always had it in my mind that only a MFA makes a complete artist. Your letter really gave me a lift on this matter.

(RG note) I have never heard of a customer walking into an art gallery and asking, “Do you have anything by anyone with an MFA?”


Degree in art
by JoAnn Naylor, Petaluma, CA, USA


“The Great Petaluma Mill”
original painting
by JoAnn Naylor

Thank you so much for addressing the “degree” issue! It is something that I struggle with. I am a “selfie” with a few university classes under my belt and at times have self-defeating thoughts of not going anywhere with my painting… because I have no degree! In fact I find that most of my artist friends who are successful, do not have degrees in art.



Falling for art
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AK, USA


“Cupid & Psyche”
oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches
by Warren Criswell

In the end all artists are self-taught. Schools can teach us to paint and many other things, but they can’t teach us how to be artists. It would be like being taught how to fall in love. Or how to fall off a cliff.





Workshop junkie
by Rosalind Lipscomb, Huntsville, AL, USA

In answer to Carol Currie’s dilemma, I’m surprised that you did not suggest Art Workshops. Perhaps I think along that avenue since many years ago, I became a “Workshop Junkie” and have benefitted greatly from the experiences. Before signing up, Carol should see examples of each prospective teacher’s work because that will be the style she will be taught. Also many of the classes in the US are made up of beginners to even other teachers as fellow students; therefore she will learn many things from her classmates. The Workshop ads are listed in the back pages of art magazines. As a single person, I have enjoyed being able to go alone and join other artists in workshops in locations all over the world. I wish her success.


Six sources of income
by Ken Campbell, Victoria, BC, Canada


“West Coast Shore Pine 4”
mixed media on masonite
by Ken Campbell

I am a full time painter. My years of running a modestly successful graphic design firm (design, marketing, illustration, consultation, etc) taught me that financial success may rely on, among other factors, diverse sources of income — multiple income streams. So I sat down and applied this concept to my fine art. I believe financial success as a fine artist is largely a product of time, timing and marketing (assuming of course that good art is being produced all the while). Like in my case, a fine artist probably requires income from a number of sources simultaneously to make a go of it. Therefore I believe analyzing the potential of each potential income stream and developing a strategic plan with implementation for each is important to succeed. (Hard to tell I worked in marketing, eh?)

The following are six source categories to consider:

1) Original Painting Sales
2) Commissions
3) Education
4) Publishing
5) Art Lease and Rentals
6) Grants


Opening up to others
by Elizabeth Azzolina, Cherry Hill, NJ, USA

I believe that there is value in learning the “basics” through some formal training. There are teachers who are willing to share their experiences and who believe in supporting the “spirit” within. I do agree that politics exists in the formal educational system but there are those teachers who don’t follow that path. I am very grateful for having studied with my instructors over the years. I attended colleges in the evenings for the learning experience, not to earn a degree. There is great benefit in meeting other “students” and sharing ideas with your peers. That interaction and exchange is very inspiring and motivating. A great number of the “Masters” were inspired and taught by other great artists. Yes I agree that the individual spirit must be allowed to develop on its own, but opening up to others can only enhance your own growth. There is a point when attending classes can become a habit creating a dependency for advice and support. So, the idea is to know when it is time to leave the nest and spread your wings and fly!


Boy and his dog
by David Oleski, Chester County, PA, USA


“One Granny Smith Apple”
oil on linen, 16 x 20 inches
by David Oleski

I went to art school, starting when I was young enough to not be distracted by any other options. That’s probably the only reason I was able to finish. Many times the exercises only felt like motions to go through in the name of a lesson plan. Early on I found a teacher that wasn’t afraid to get his students riled and agitated, and we would all challenge each other in constructive critiques that extended beyond the classroom, and 20 years later I still find myself engaging my contemporaries in similar debates. This same teacher helped me gain the technical disciplines I still use today. Maybe I’m not the best person to give advice on making it as an artist, because in great frustration I dropped out of painting for 15 years while I worked in construction and traveled the world. Six years ago I decided to start painting again, and never even considered having a plan B. It doesn’t seem relevant when you’ve reached a point where being a successful artist only means that you’re deep in painting every day, without any consideration of making a dime. Fast forward to today and my only income is from painting. I just bought a house on a hill, shrouded in the seclusion of the forest, overlooking its own lake, my own remote cabin. Last month I got my first dog, a lab pup named Frank. And last week I got a canoe. Last night Frank and I were on the lake at sunset, a boy and his dog. It all adds up to something.


Teaching for stability
by Alfred Muma, Powell River, BC, Canada


“Cumshewa Head”
oil painting, 54 x 96 inches
by Alfred Muma

I’ve been an artist for twenty-nine years. At the same time I have taught art in various communities. The most lucrative has been through the community colleges. But times are changing and an artist who doesn’t have a degree is no longer taken as seriously by community colleges whereas an artist who has studied and has a degree is hired more often than not. Our society trend is heading to highly specialized jobs and in order to be highly specialized one has to have a degree in a specific field. Us creative people tend not to want to fit in a mold to be labeled as this job or that. After all we aren’t jobs but people who have an addiction to creating. But it is a good idea to have a back-up plan to earn money to keep food on the table and canvas in the bin. So if you have the time and can manage it, go for a degree in art. More doors down the road will open for you. But one small piece of advice, while taking your degree, remain true to yourself and your creative expression.


Changing schools
by Caroline Stengl


original painting
by Caroline Stengl

I went to the Alberta College of Art and Design for four years, until I got so frustrated with the negative, destructive attitudes of instructors and peers that I had to quit. It felt like I was bashing my head against a wall. The studio in my mind, my imagination, was nothing but an empty room with doors shutting in my face. My art was too personal, too naive, too emotional, too honest. I couldn’t weave an impressive bullshit intellectual story around why I was making the art I did. Other students were painting penises and decapitated toys with flesh tone and stitched photographs. Other students were wrapping rocks in paper, storing vials of blood in their freezer and filling drawers with weird stuff. Other students were making flawless airbrush paintings of salt and pepper shakers and breast surgery. I was just painting what I felt and what I saw as beautiful, and each time we had a class critique, my art was verbally ripped up and another door shut in my face. So I left.

I decided to transfer to the University of Victoria (B.C. Canada) to their art education department. I thought maybe teaching would be a good direction for me, give me something to make money at while still enjoying art. UVic has a visual arts department but after my experience at ACAD I wasn’t going to try that route again. It took me a full year after leaving ACAD to have the confidence to make art again.

In UVic art education classes, the atmosphere was supportive, fun, positive, relaxing and welcoming. Students had a range of experience, from beginners to advanced artists. It was a very good place for me to be. I started to produce art again in a way that I never could in college. The work I like to make is traditional, representational, illustrative and personal. If I brought it to an art college critique today, I’d probably be ripped to shreds but in a commercial gallery I’d be making money! The work I was trying to make in college was actually very marketable. Ironic isn’t it?

I graduated with my BEd last spring. It took me a total of 9 years to complete my teaching degree, a very very long haul with a big price tag. Now I’ve been teaching for a year on a part time basis. I enjoy all my various classes and jobs but I’ve discovered that what I really want to do is be a professional artist! Teaching does pay the bills for now but it gets really frustrating at times being the person to coordinate and facilitate art making for others rather than spending my energy making art myself.

Looking back at all the energy I put into my post secondary education, I wonder if there might have been an easier or more direct route to where I am now, standing on the brink of my career as an artist. There isn’t anything I couldn’t learn from a local artist, books at the local library or just plain trial and error. Why would I spend $30,000 on a degree? I am glad that I have a BEd since it makes it easier to find jobs but what I really want is not a conventional job! What I need to do is paint, paint, paint, draw, draw, draw, and sell, sell, sell, and I guess find a way to feed myself while I’m building my business. I don’t know what advice I would give Carol but I think that if you’re not a young person just fresh out of high school, falling into the expectations of post secondary studies, give the decision of school a lot of thought because there are many alternatives to entering the “ivory towers” of an institution. There are also many benefits, since my experiences got me where I am today.







The poet

oil on linen painting
by Richard Piloco, New York, NY, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.




Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop