Why I didn’t go to grad school but kept (and continue) learning a lot
I’m sitting in a Starbucks, waiting for my car to be inspected and a staff member walks by, looks down at my iPad and says in a loud whisper, “GORGEOUS, JUST GORGEOUS.”
“Thank you very much.” I say with a polite smile and go back to drawing. I haven’t figured out this chin just yet and am flipping the canvas back and forth to figure out what’s off.
Ten minutes go by when one of the men sitting next to me speaks up, interrupting my audiobook—
“I keep looking over and seeing this beautiful thing. It’s so distracting, I love it.”
“My daughter would be like, ‘Oh my God!’” the other man says.
“Thank you so much.” I reply with a polite smile and get back to it. These fucking flowers need to look effortless but require more thought then I have given.
It’s always nice to get a compliment. It’s also awkward. I don’t mind it. I also am not going to hold up these complimentors from going on with their day.
Since jumping into working only for myself I have been really lucky focus solely on what I’d like to do. I have a very good sense now of what I can handle and what I can’t, what I want to do and what I’d rather pass on to the person better able to tackle it.
As I’ve been out here figuring out how to build a website, do my taxes, understand the difference between marketing and advertising, and everything else required to operate a successful business I have also taken the time to continue my creative education. After accruing about $100k in undergraduate student loans (as the years go by I realize how lucky I am that it wasn’t more), I knew that graduate school was not going to work for me. Generally speaking, an MFA is great if you want to teach. Maybe it’s a boost on your resume but in the age we live in, you can go far without it. Graduate school is a great way to meet people and via those connections _hopefully_ get a good job where you can negotiate a higher salary because of that degree.
In the world I am building however, where I draw things and people purchase them off the internet, a degree is just more debt.
In lieu of grad school I did the following things
Continued to Be Curious
This is very literally the most important aspect of a creative career. We learn how to turn curiosity into a tangible art object. For me, I read A LOT (as previously mentioned) but also draw in a sketchbook and journal. I collect things that inspire me and have experiences that open my world view. I talk to people and ask questions. I entertain theoretical ideas including things that are scary or weird. I look out the window and day dream. I watch films, tv, and documentaries—pausing to write things down or look at certain frames that are compositionally or stylistically interesting. I use maybe 5% of the things I experience but that curiosity is what propels me through life and gets me making things.
Obsessively Study Technique
Depending on what I want to do (digital drawing as opposed to traditional usually—I’m not a 3D person), I study the ever-living shit out of people that draw subjects I’m interested in. In business school I think they call this “studying your competition”. This is not “copying your competition”. Instead this is looking at what works and what doesn’t. How does that artist execute their work? What tools do they use? When I decided to transition to digital drawing from traditional I had no idea what I was doing but I understood what was possible. My best teachers where artists who shared high speed process videos. There was one video in particular on Instagram that I watched maybe a 1,000 times. I realized how to adjust color, how to switch brushes, and use the eyedropper by selecting the alt key. I figured out how to use the lasso and gradient tool. I watched that video and then poked around my own basic set up until I could perform the tasks slowly but consistently.
Then I practiced what I learned 10,000 times. No one wants to hear that. When I tell people that you have to draw the same shitty thing at least 50 times to even begin to understand how you are fucking it up, they spin out at 4 drawings—tops. I’ve watched this happen over and over. There’s nothing wrong with giving up on something you don’t want to do. That’s how you discover you don’t want to do it. The difference between the artist and the layman is the artist kept going until practice makes talent. I tell people I’m too stubborn to give up.
Getting Paid to Experiment
I’ve taken on jobs just to put my skills to work. I’ve also made things and sold them to see if people would ever want it. That process has been eye opening and gave me market research for future projects. I don’t just sell things that I think people want. I create things that both interest me and explore ideas that other people connect with as well. It’s putting curiosity to work for me and teaches that “perfect” sometimes just means “done”.
There is a certain point where I kinda knew what I was doing but needed to be able to raise my hand and ask a clarifying question. Google wasn’t hacking it. This lead me to shell out my own money for two years at AdobeMAX taking a three day workshops in programs I really wanted to use in tandem with three days of lectures and Adobe software showcases. It’s also a nice way to network! I met people from all over the world and realized that I had self-taught myself more than their creative desk jobs had allowed them to explore. I also realized how many different creative desk jobs existed. It was pricy but compared to graduate school… I saved an insane amount of money. The first year in San Diego I didn’t have to purchase a hotel room, instead taking over my youngest brother’s tiny studio apartment. He was in NYC that week anyway so could command use of his car and even drove up to LA to explore. On conference days, I would get up early, get down to the San Diego Convention Center, stay all day running around from workshop to networking lunch to lecture, then crawl home and watch Black Mirror while sketching.
ICON is another fantastic conference. It’s WAY CHEAPER than AdobeMAX and connected me with other illustrators instead of the majority graphic designers and web designers at AdobeMAX (who are great but tend not draw). I wanted to discuss line weight, pen feel, and obsess over what tech was best for digital drawing (It’s the iPad. The iPad they just released in 2018 specifically is fucking insane.)
Why am I yammering on about this? Because I’m really tired of what my mother would call “whining like a cat on the fence”. I hear so often from people “I could never do that” or “That’s SO AMAZING, I suck at drawing”. Getting a compliment that allows the person giving praise to simultaneously degrade themselves is a strange habit in our culture. With Instagram and other platforms it has gotten worse. Somehow we have collectively decided that success means you figured all your shit out and “got good” at 18, becoming an established professional after completing some kind of art school.
This is absurd.
Having been a “recent college graduate” and met many after that, it is clear that there is still so much more to learn after school. It only gets you so far. It’s what you do with it that matters. Being an artist is a live long journey that looks different from one person to the next. I’ve met artists who took off in their teens, 20s, 30, 40s, 50s, 60s, and yes—even their 70s. The thing we all have in common is that we wanted to create and never stopped doing it. “Want” is maybe the wrong word, we “desired beyond a reasonable urge” to make and would do anything to do it and get better at it. Carving out time to draw before dawn, live sketching on the bus, driving across country to learn from an industry leader—we do what it takes.
When I look at art I get this charge of excitement, desire, even longing. I fawn over it and adore the person who made it. When I make something, I don’t get any of those feelings.
The process of creation for me is one of problem solving. When it comes together there is a charge like no other. The world around me is so chaotic and the beginning of a drawing resembles that chaos. It’s all potential and feels so precarious. When it comes together there is a sense of resolution that is beyond words. I chase that high.