High school students ask me if they should go to art school… with hope in their voices. Their parents ask me if I think art is a practical choice for a college major… with skepticism. And as a kid who dreamed of being a photographer – and a parent who knows that making it in the art business is tough… I’ll try to answer the question honestly.
This is something I’ve thought about quite a lot. I’m a professional photographer, and it’s a tough business. It’s incredibly competitive – and just having talent in art isn’t enough. I started out as an art student – studying photography and painting and drawing… and all the other requirements for a degree in the liberal arts. A student who graduated with a degree in art usually gets a basic education in math, science, and language as well. I don’t know of any schools that don’t require a well-rounded collection of classes. But in the end, I’m glad I decided to change my major.
I eventually earned a degree in information technology. I know – that seems like an odd choice for someone who was already building a photography business. But, it was definitely the right thing for me, rather than going through art school. See, the thing is, you don’t need a college education in order to learn to make great photographs – and there are so many ways to learn. Spending time working as a photography assistant, going on a workshop or two, shadowing a pro, and doing lots of research online… all of these are great ways to learn. But building a business? That’s an entirely different thing. If you want to be successful – to make money from your art, you need a different kind of knowledge.
The problem I’ve seen with students who finish college with a degree in art or photography, is that they feel lost once they are done with school. A business degree would help them start and run a business. A marketing degree would help them market their work. A degree in information technology (like mine) would let them build their own website, handle e-commerce, and understand the software they use for post-processing. A degree in language arts would help them write great articles so they can get published in magazines or write books. See where I’m going with this? Most art students know how to make art… but being a professional photographer is about SO much more than that.
And of course – there’s always the fact that photography is an extremely difficult world to break into. The odds of being able to make a living from it are small – so having a degree in something more “practical” is a great idea. But please don’t be discouraged! If you are determined and willing to work very hard, you can make it as a photographer. I know that’s true, because I did it myself. But remember – part of “making it” is being practical about the choices you make along the way. The ones who succeed are the ones who understand that being a professional artist takes a lot more than just artistic talent.
If you do decide to major in art, make sure the school you’ll be attending has a well-rounded program. In addition to the classes you need for your major, look for classes that teach important skills like marketing, business, writing, computers, and so on. You might also want to consider a double major, or minor in art while concentrating your studies in another field. While you are in school, look for internships and find photographers who will let you shadow them while they work. Make connections with other photographers who know more than you do. Ask a million questions… and take note of how others are running their businesses, how they make money, how they market their work, and how they become successful. Watch for and learn from their mistakes, too… it’s always better to learn from other people’s mistakes than to make your own. ;)
For those of you who dream about being professional artists… you can do it if you are willing to work for it. ;) Good luck!
And for all of you – what advice can you offer to someone who wants to be a professional artist?