As many of you know Jo received her graduate degree from the University of Westminster in 2006 after attending Doncaster. While I attended Kansas City Art Institute in 2008 I have not received a degree yet. Since we represent both sides of the issue we thought it would be perfect to give our perspectives on how having a degree affects the business of freelance illustration as well as experiences with attending school for the arts.
I would be lying if I said I knew I wanted to attend art school when I graduated from high school. I was pretty uncertain of the path I wanted to take as I was equally interested in philosophy and literature. Knowing that there were no schools in my hometown that I would want to attend I decided to spend some time figuring out what to do, and went to a community college in the mean time. After what ended up being a waste of one year, I was completely convinced that I need to go to school for art, and that it was the only thing I really wanted to do. The next semester I was walked into my first class at KCAI. It was a brilliant experience and I completely loved my time there, I would go back if I wasn't attached to Minneapolis in the way that I am. Instead I plan on attending a local school when I can afford it again.
I think that art school is something that has a place in the world, but that it isn't for everyone. I have seen my fair share of kids that failed out or just didn't make the cut. It can as brutal as it is wonderful. There were a couple of days that I went home crying my eyes out because of something that had happened in studio and the anxiety of having something so personal to me judged by people in such a competitive setting hurt as much as it did propel me towards growth. There are things that you learn at art school that you simply don't learn elsewhere. It requires a lot of dedication, perseverance, love and endurance. I spent many sleepless days and nights in studio, or at home prepping work to take into studio. I learned a lot of discipline that, had I attended a normal university or college, I might have missed out on otherwise. I was immersed 24/7 in art culture which I had never been before.
I loved the experiences and the knowledge I gained from art school, and if you ever ask me what I think of art school I will have no hesitation is telling you that I wouldn't trade my days there for anything in the world, and that I would spend the rest of my life in a studio or classroom again if I could (but then I'm a sucker for learning anything and everything that I can).
While my experience as a freelance illustrator could be described as infantile at best, I really enjoy what I do and I love creating personal work. I am not always sure of what I'm doing or where it is going, but I always have art to keep me centered. I've spent the last few months (since launching my website earlier this year and my first show in June) trying to do as much as I can and put myself out there. I applied to a lot of places, spoke to a lot of potential clients, was turned down a lot, and made some awesome friends in the process. When looking for new work it can often be depressing when you encounter something that really excites you and then coming to the "requirements" portion of a job description and seeing that they require a BA or BS or equivalent years experience in the field. Obviously, since I have neither, if I were to apply to the position the likelihood of my getting the job is fairly low unless my portfolio is simply mind blowing.
On top of the "requirements" portion of finding new work there is the question of competition. For any given opportunity there are hundreds or thousands of illustrators that are gunning for the same job, and many of them are going to have a more impressive CV than you, including degrees. I have worked in administrative type positions for a number of years now. I've been in many interviews and worked closely with those deciding who is going to get hired. That being said, I kind of know what people are looking for from potential workers. Setting aside portfolios and personal traits, having a degree and a good work history helps in landing a gig. People like to see that you know what you are talking about, and while having a great portfolio is always important, it may not mean that you know how to prep for print or how to get projects turned in on time. Your portfolio could be simply amazing but in the end, you don't know what you need to do because you never learned it. Degrees show that you have your ducks in a row, and thus you are a less risky investment. This isn't to say though that lots of art directors or employers won't think your work is brilliant regardless of what your CV says and be jumping at the chance to work with you.
When I was thinking about trying to start a freelance career I tried reaching out to some illustrators that I looked up to and who had established careers. I am incredibly thankful to all the artists, not just illustrators, who responded to my neurotic emails since they gave me a boost of confidence. I was beyond surprised to realize that a lot of them didn't have degrees. Maybe this is silly of me, if I had really done my research (which I didn't, I thought... "hey you are awesome, I'll talk to you") I would have found this out before asking. But they were kind enough to indulge me anyway. So while I'm not living proof that you can be successful as an illustrator without a degree, look around, you'll find tons of people who are. It just took the same passion and drive as everyone else, but maybe a little but more cleverness and work to overcome the lack of two little letters.
Like all things, if you want it badly enough you will find a way to overcome any obstacles that make their way into your path. Just like anything else, truly loving something makes you better and provides an advantage over the people who do something as a hobby. There are plenty of kids who went to school, have a degree, and are sitting on it. I know plenty of people who went to school, not just for art, that don't use their degree at all. They will tell me all day long that I shouldn't waste my time and money to go back to school. The economy and the workforce right now doesn't allow you to take advantage of it. While I know this is partially true, and I know I can make it as a freelance illustrator without a degree, I want one. It's that simple. If you want a degree, get one, if you dont, then ... hey guess what? Just do what you want NOW. And if you want one, but are can't get into school right now or have something outside of your control holding you back, then find another way. You don't have to have a degree to be successful or happy. They are in no way mutually exclusive. Just do what you love. Eventually things will work out.
I invite anyone who wants to pose questions or tell us your own perspective on the topic.