Why You Don’t Need a Degree to Be an Artist

Amy Ng blogs at Pikaland, a popular stop for illustration lovers, students and artists who are looking for answers on how to find a balance between art, creativity and commerce.

Lim Heng Swee aka ilovedoodle

I like to challenge conventions and ideas alot.

And one of the topics that I can quickly get hot under the collar about is the topic of education. I think it’s a field that needs to be challenged, especially in this day and age where information runs freely and so abundantly. I’m not against the idea of learning. Far from it – I’m challenging the idea that learning needs to be in a formal environment, for a minimum of 2 to 3 years, learning about things that ultimately do not help you get to where you want to be.

You see, I get a lot of questions about pursuing a Masters degree, or even a diploma in a field that they love, i.e. art or illustration. And if you’re a student who knows what you want, and you have the means to go to a college or university, then by all means, go for it. But only IF you want to and feel very strongly about it and know what you want to get out of it. For the rest who don’t know what you want or can’t afford to go to college or university, then this article is for you. For those of you who don’t know whether to continue your education or not, then this is for you too.

I spent 5 years in a public university and graduated as a landscape architect back in 2004. I spent my life following a very predictable arc – primary school, high school, university, and then work. Only I didn’t work in the field that I graduated from. I felt that I didn’t belong, and after 6 months of intense internship where I gave it my best shot, I decided that I wasn’t suited to being a landscape architect. I hated the long hours, and the red tape that governed each project. I hated dealing with contractors and having my design torn to shreds due to shrinking budgets. And I hated AutoCAD with every fibre of my being. So much that I did my technical drawings manually (i.e. completely by hand) during my final semester when everyone else was doing theirs via computer.

So when I graduated, I turned to publishing immediately. What made me go to a publisher with nary a resume and no work history to prove my worth? Instead of focusing on what I didn’t have, I demonstrated what I could do instead. I wrote up an article and laid it out in Adobe Photoshop, to give an idea of the sort of articles I think should appear on the magazine. I got a callback for an interview and was hired on the spot as an editorial assistant. You wouldn’t believe the amount of push back I got from my peers and my parents about going for a job that required skills I didn’t learn in university! People said it would never work, and that no one would hire me – not without a Mass Communication or a journalism degree. I challenged it and proved them wrong. A few years later, I even went on to helm an architecture and design magazine as an editor; and even started a regional design magazine for a publisher. My years of education went full circle back then – my years of studying architecture and design made me very much sought after in the publishing industry.

Was my 5 years spent in university a waste of time? It’s hard to say – and I say this with the utmost affection for the time I was there. I probably might not have met my husband if I wasn’t there (he was a classmate). I’ve met wonderful teachers. But I’ve also found teachers outside the system by my own efforts. Maybe I was just lucky, considering how back then we didn’t have the choices that’s available these days. The internet was still in its infancy, and I was young and didn’t know where to look. So we followed along a very linear path – one that our peers took. And the ones that our seniors followed before that. I do wish however, that I could have cut the time I spent in university in half, although it wasn’t something that I could control. I wished that I had travelled more and explored student exchange options overseas. Maybe that’s it.

On the upside: I’m grateful for learning more about fine arts, design and the experience of working in a studio through my time in university, and for the friends I made along the way. I made sure I was in control of what I wanted to learn – I enrolled in a degree that taught me the basics of design and art, even though deep down I knew that I might not work in the field I studied in. The reasons for doing so was a little complicated – I didn’t have access to a lot of courses in public university, and I didn’t go to a private college because of financial restraints (I didn’t want to get myself or my parents in debt). I made sure that the lessons I learnt, however, can be applied to virtually anything I was interested in life.

And that’s what I want people to know.

That you’re in control of what you do. That you can choose to learn at your own pace and to create your own outcome. That you don’t need a title to define yourself – you’re better off focusing on the things you want to learn, rather than what you will call yourself at the end of a degree. That you’re no longer following a linear path – you have a wide open field at your disposal. And yes, that may be terrifying at times, but it’s also a very exciting time.

I set up the Pikaland blog in 2008 precisely because I didn’t know much about illustration. I wanted to learn more from the artists I saw online. I saw their work, and I devoured their bios and statements; and went looking for patterns in their work so that I could try to get a glimpse of why they chose to create the way they do. It was always about ideas, and not so much about their techniques.

For 7 years (it’s approaching 8 now!) I learnt on my own. I saw thousands of illustrations, read thousands of bios, artists statements and concepts; talked to hundreds of artists and learnt what I could about this unique career – one that has changed so much throughout the years. My personal accomplishments include being an illustrator, art director and educator. And I want to give back to people, and show others that it can be done. I took control of my own education, and I now I teach others how to do the same at a local college, and online as well.

And it’s the best feeling in the world – the thought that I could do whatever I wanted, if I put my heart into it.

I’ve come out the other side – still learning as I go along – and I’m happy to say this: so can you.

[Illustration by Lim Heng Swee of ilovedoodle]

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Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at thomasjamesillustration.com.
Thomas James

Posted by Thomas James on 07/24/15 under artists,business,freelance
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