Formal Art Education and Self-Directed Learning

My thoughts on formal art education and self-directed learning.

A few days ago, I came across an article espousing the benefits of auto-didacticism (the art of self-directed teaching and learning). I found myself nodding in agreement with some of their points but they were hidden behind a much longer rant about the evils of formal education. I’ve seen a lot of hate on the topic of formal education lately and while I kind of understand it, particularly with the current state of US education, I don’t think it’s a very fair assessment in most cases.

I’ll preface this by saying I’m an Australian, whose university (college) education was paid for by the government, with no expectation to pay it back until earning a reasonable living wage. I’m aware of the financial burden that people in other countries experience in trying to gain an education and have tried to be mindful of this, however as always, your situation and mileage may vary.

I studied illustration design at university, digital painting at a concept design school, and have self-directed my own learning using online resources (such as Drawabox). Each of these offered something different and had its own pros and cons to contend with.

Art/Design College

This is the most time consuming (and generally most expensive) option. 

As with all options on this list, the results and quality will vary between schools and courses. It is important to research what you’re getting into before you start any art education.

I’m often asked the question “was art school worth it?” and for me, the answer is mostly a yes. This is absolutely a question that should be weighed against your own circumstances and what you expect to get out of such a degree. In countries where university education is prohibitively expensive, the answer may well lean more towards a no.

For me, I learnt a lot of higher order design skills from my degree - things like understanding tone, composition, rhythm, colour, etc. Unfortunately, what my program (and I’ve heard much the same thing from graduates of other programs) skimped on was the fundamentals, things like form and perspective.

The first year of my three year degree consisted of the fundamentals of design, including an introduction to the Adobe Suite. There was a class on drawing and while it did touch on perspective, it did so in a very rigid way that was at direct odds with the emphasis on observational and gestural drawing.

The second year split off into the two majors - graphic design and illustration design - I chose illustration and my second year had a strong focus on traditional media, techniques, and exploration. Every two weeks, we had to produce work in a particular medium (e.g. Pencil, ink, acrylic, pastel, etc.). This included several pages of media experimentation which could be absolutely anything. In fact, I created a bicarb/vinegar volcano filled with graphite powder for pencil because I was out of ideas. As well as this experimentation, we were required to create multiple thumbnails/concepts, select two to work up into visuals (exploration with the medium but not a finished piece) and then a single final illustration. This process is the one that informed most of my university degree.

The third year’s emphasis was on marketing oneself as an illustrator, creating business paraphernalia (some of my fellow students still use theirs!), setting your own briefs/projects, and building a portfolio.

My school would have given me all the tools I needed to start an illustration career, if I had started with a solid foundation.

Did my art improve greatly at university despite that? Absolutely.

Did it turn me from absolute beginner to professional artist? Not so much.

In general though, a good art/design school will:

  • Force you to work on projects that will ultimately lead to building a portfolio.
  • Expose you to different technical and conceptual challenges and give you the tools to overcome them.
  • Allow you to experiment and make mistakes with your art.
  • Have teachers that are available, present, and able to give useful critique both on works in progress and finished pieces.
  • Encourage creative thinking and solutions to projects.
  • Teach you the business side of art and how to market yourself/your brand.

The subject matter taught at these schools is necessarily broad to be able to cover a range of skill levels and career path options and something I encountered often was middle aged or older people studying art/design to either gain a new skill or move towards self-employment. 

Despite the skill level I started at, it is possible to start with a basic foundation of drawing skills and build up to a professional level by the end, though this is reflective of the time investment. Some art schools will require a portfolio for entry whilst others do not. Usually, the portfolio requirement for these schools is more focused on the potential of the student rather than their current skill level.

Most universities will offer a level of flexibility in either part- or full-time study options, although the classes are usually offered during business hours which can make it difficult to sustain a job and study at the same time.

Concept Design Schools

These are independent schools, which are directed at the professional or experienced amateur. These tend to be focused on concept art for entertainment - movies, video games, etc. Schools such as Concept Design Academy (CDA) and Gnomon in California, FZD School of Design in Singapore, and CDW Studios in Australia fall into this category.

I studied at CDW Studios myself in addition to my final year of university. I took the Digital Painting class because I’d gotten interested in digital art the year before, but was struggling to make good use of my tools. Unfortunately, in the first few weeks I discovered that my laptop was unable to handle the version of Photoshop I was using, which made it near impossible to complete the homework.

I submitted only a few weeks’ worth of work during the 12 week course however attended every class and benefited greatly from hearing a professional critique other students’ work as well as watching the live painting demos. This class focused on compositional techniques and environmental concept art, and the skill level of the students varied widely from art professionals to hobbyists.

Despite only submitting a few assignments, I definitely feel like I got good value for money out of the class as I was able to push my final year university work to a better level of finish.

The cost and length of courses at these institutes varies greatly and in some cases, can be as or more expensive than university. As these schools are generally aimed more at professionals, portfolio requirements are common for more advanced courses (though not all schools require this) and the standard of work expected is far higher than an entry portfolio for university.

Workload is very high at these schools, with some expecting several hours per day to be spent drawing or painting. The length of these courses can be anywhere from a few weeks to several years and the curriculum is usually more focused on teaching drawing and design skills than building a portfolio.

Generally, classes are hosted outside of business hours however due to the intense workloads, may not always be suitable for people that work.

Self-Directed Learning

This is the hardest one to nail down since self-directed learning can be whatever you want it to be. There is the absolute freedom to take your learning in any direction you wish. There are also very few barriers to entry given the proliferation of free resources and complete flexibility of study schedules.

Sounds great, right? Well, it is… but there are also a few problems with directing your own learning and you may have encountered them before.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

There are people that believe you can learn absolutely anything online and formal education is totally useless, only good for producing people that think rigidly.

When considering fields other than art, that idea quickly becomes preposterous. I, for one, would not trust a surgeon that learnt their profession on YouTube, or an electrician that learnt their trade on WikiHow.

One of the things that formal education is fantastic for is introducing a person to concepts they may not have otherwise considered. There’s nothing to say that you cannot encounter those concepts organically and certainly, you may encounter other concepts that would not necessarily have been taught in a school setting. However, we should always be on the lookout for more information, gathering it up, and storing it away like you’re on an episode of Hoarders, and easy pickings should always be welcomed.

If you don’t know that mixing the complementary colour of your local colour can create lively shadows, how would you ever find out? 

This issue can be somewhat subverted by a supportive and helpful art community however these are often few and far between with certain toxic behaviours permeating many of them.


Often, people do better when there is a strict rubric and curriculum to follow and this is one of the areas in which formal education shines. In many self-directed learning resources, this is often sadly absent.

Many books and online resources will offer a quick solution to producing an end result without explaining any of the steps. Following the steps can often make the resource feel structured and well put together however whilst they sell well and are useful for making you feel good in the short term, they don’t teach many of the fundamentals beneath the surface. 

Making a study plan and seeking out resources on fundamentals, as well as creating your own personal challenges can be a good way to address this need for structure.

No Time Limits - No Pressure

One of the big positives of self-directed learning is the ability to set your own schedule and work at your own pace but it’s also one of the biggest negatives.

Humans are incredibly lazy and when there is no pressure to get something done, procrastination kicks in. Self-directed learning imposes no penalties on whether you get something done and the only thing that can force you to keep on pushing is your own goals. One of the benefits of formal education here is that it imposes penalties, whether financial or academic, upon the student that does not complete their work. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, after all. 

Motivation is fickle and it should not be relied upon to propel you towards your goals. You should aim to be disciplined, not motivated. Discipline is pushing through the failures associated with learning (in general, not just drawing!) and working consistently towards your goals. Discipline works while motivation sleeps.

Building discipline is, without a doubt, difficult. It’s like becoming your own overbearing boss that insists you finish that report by 5pm, or else. Ultimately, like anything else, it’s a habit that needs to be formed. Many resources will claim that a habit can be built in 21 days but scientific research has actually proven that this number is more like 66 days _on average. _This is affected by factors such as how difficult the task is and consistency in performing the task - although missing a single day was shown to have little effect on whether the habit formed.

How can you motivate yourself to get disciplined? Well, there’s no magic answer. The only way is to draw consistently and start small. A lot of people make grand promises that they are going to spend all weekend drawing, or engaged in some other task, however the reality is that it’s rare to fulfil these promises. 10 minutes of practice every day is far better than one broken promise of an 8 hour stint.

Personally, I have found it useful to set aside certain days of the week to work on particular things. For example, on Mondays and Wednesdays I draw - whether that is working on Drawabox lessons, drawing for fun, or doing focused studies. I haven’t set any time limits on this, I just know that I am required to put pen to paper at least once on those evenings after work.

I reserve Tuesdays and Wednesdays for coding and again, it does not matter what I do, as long as I do something that is related to coding, sometimes that means just reading about a feature of the language I’m learning.

Fridays and weekends are free choice days, I can choose if I want to work on coding or drawing or I can slack off and play video games. I have found quite often though that I do sit down and draw or code instead because I feel an obligation to the rest of my schedule and it becomes a habit.

Ultimately, all these methods of learning have their pros and cons and I feel no regrets for having engaged in each one of them. For the most part, I feel like I have gotten my money’s worth of learning out of each method. If I had to guess which method improved my skills the most, I think it would be a close call between university and my self-directed Drawabox learning.

I am not claiming that my path would suit everybody however I hope that the facts I’ve laid out may help someone out there weigh up the pros and cons.

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