Tips for beginning a career in the art industry for sixth formers - should you or shouldn't you go to art college?

Tonight I am going to a careers evening geared towards sixth formers at Norwich School in Norfolk as part of a creative panel and I wanted to gather my thoughts and those of friends and contacts in the design world who are working in a variety of creative industries; there are plenty of other considerations but the primary one at this age is should or shouldn't you go to art college?

I'll begin with some of my own thoughts and intersperse them with some gems from friends!

You might enjoy this short video by Alan Watts too - which could inspire you to dream, thank you to Helen Wilde of Ovo Bloom for the suggestion: " I’ve never forgotten how it made me feel, I love embroidery. Like I absolutely LOVE it, that video made me and is still making me want to be the best at it, become a master of the craft that I love ". 

You have one life. 

As Sally Howe says "Do what you love. Work hard. Find your niche. Believe in yourself." I'd just like to add that money is important, but that if you have a passion and start there that can follow if you have the right attitude. Also it's important to accept that sometimes you might need to be adaptable and take a job, part time or full time for a while as you build your passion and there's nothing wrong with that. Just keep going. As Jane Lindsay of Snapdragon says " .. what you choose at 17 is probably not what you will be doing at 30 and that that is brilliant."

Creative careers are wonderful and an essential contribution to the world. You get to manifest something, create a physical thing and have an effect on a person with something as small as a joyful greeting card or have an effect on an environment and make peoples physical, everyday lives improve. Whether you want to be a painter, illustrator, ceramicist or an architect or graphic designer or get into advertising - you can go either go to art college or try to learn on the job. In most cases art college is the answer but nowadays there is that issue of debt. So it's down to your circumstances, tenacity and thinking for solutions if money is an issue. But that doesn't mean you can't begin experimenting and working towards your goal now.

Would it be practical for you to become an apprentice or take another route? A very successful friend of mine who is Chief Creative officer of Rockstar Chris Catchpole  wrote an article a few years ago on a controversial idea he had for  paid internships in ad agencies  - his point being that he has seen so many new degree students apply for jobs with little if any relevant skills for today's advertising world and that they could learn more with him in 4 weeks than in 4 years in a course taught by people who have no up to date knowledge of how things are done now. Read his article and the strong responses here.

To be an architect and interior designer ( involved in the construction of interiors rather than the decorative soft furnishings aspect ) you really do need a vocational, practical degree. If you know what you want to do then you will be able to explore what you actually need to do to start working in that area. Think carefully too about whether you are the sort of person who wants to work for someone else or run your own business. Can you imagine working alone happily or will you prefer to be working in a busy studio do you think? Don't worry too much because at some point in your life you can try both. 

Do you have a clear idea of what you want to do? You don't have to imagine your whole life at this point but do think about it. Make a list of every artistic career you can think of and go through the list really imagining yourself doing each thing - immediately some will seem wrong to you, others may make you curious, others  - perhaps just one or two will make you excited and that's how you want to feel.. maybe a bit scared ( that's good ) but excited to find out how.

Explore and get passionate about your dreams. Do you sit in buildings noticing how the light falls, where the facilities are - what's on the walls, how it could be so much better organised? Maybe interior design and architecture are for you. Do you love fashion and find yourself changing and tweaking your outfits to personalise them  - learn to sew, see if you like it. Do you love drawing - keep a sketchbook - draw from life and your imagination. The more you do the former the easier the latter will be. Do you love stationery and paper products? Surface pattern or graphic design could be for you. There are courses on line for many skills, there's adult education whereever you live to learn in person - great for practical skills ( check for age exclusions ), try things. If you can get a parent to be your guarantor you can set up an Etsy shop which costs little, apart from a small listing fee and a little commission if you sell something. You have to be over 13 and get a feel for what sells if you're a creative entrepreneur. 

The thing is these days there are huge opportunities to create your own work now - as a young person. To become visible - show your work, even sell things via social media and blogging. Connecting with people who are already in the industry. If you have an online presence be sure you know how to use it and what you are using it for. Bear in mind that future employers can easily find you and look into the past so if you want to let off steam keep a private account for that ;) 

Another view from artist friend Kath Konopka Moncrief " I think art school is so much broader now...with technology moving so quickly, even fine artists are creating using digital tools...that now a “graphic art” is “new media” and encompasses not just design and color and drawing, but video and apps and retouching and 3-d, all of which require talent and art school and can make for very exciting careers!" 

Doing a foundation course in which you get to actually try a few different disciplines before you go to art college to specialise is a really good idea. Try to find one that gives you access to as many skills as possible - unless you are really sure what area you want to work in. I enjoyed mine in Cambridge but we had to choose from three disciplines in the first term and specialise in one for the next two terms and that wasn't long enough for me. I decided but I could have done all three quite happily!  There are courses that allow you to experiment much more. So investigate. You'll be doing intensive work in one area at art college so be sure you are wholehearted. That said you can leave or change course ( which I did ) while you are there.

Here are a few words of wisdom from other creatives who got in touch with me; as you will see there are contrasting opinions and paths and it's important to realise this; the beauty is - this is YOUR life and you want to find YOUR path to the bring out all your own abilities:

"I really fancied an art career, but decided on Biology, because I liked that too. I taught Biology for 10 years, which I loved, and hubby and I paid off our mortgage. After my daughter was born, I gave up teaching and went back to arty stuff! I now earn enough to pay the bills (as we don't have a mortgage anymore!). It is very boring, but I am really glad I did the money earning thing first, to give me more freedom now. I get to spend far more time with my children,and take days off whenever I fancy. " Kate Garrett 

"you don't have to have a GCSE in Art to work in a creative environment " -

"My advice would be not to worry if you don't have a big dream/plan/goal, take small steps in a direction you enjoy and eventually something will emerge. At 16 I never knew I could do what I do now as a job, it kind of just happened! There are so many jobs in the creative industries... everything you see has been designed by someone." - Alison Hullyer

"Definitely ‘have confidence in your own style’ - there’s no right or wrong, art is very subjective so stay passionate about what you do, and don’t compare yourself to others. " Michelle - Wink Design

"I still feel Art college has a place...where else do you get the opportunity to explore and develop skills....and time ! However, I would also suggest doing some sort of ‘business’ course too...if you want to be freelance ...It’s one thing to be able produce good work it’s quite another to make a living from it! " Michelle Leeder, artist.

" it's the jobs you do because you have to, like working in pubs and restaurants and shops and working for the council, that teach you the skills in getting along with people that you'll need later when presenting ideas for getting commissions or ..trying to sell your work in exhibitions.'s never too late - time out from making or creating is still time spent looking and developing your taste and appreciation. Do something little and often towards your goal. It's ok not to have goals. All of you is valuable and unique, not just the arty bit. Play and try things out, randomly in other art forms in different scales. Make mistakes! It's taken me over 30 years to give myself permission to do something even though I know it's not going to work! If something works first time you don't learn as much as you do if it fails, even though you hate that it's failed. Ask for help! Ask to go and learn from someone directly. Running an art business you will be lucky if you spend 20% of your time on what you make. Spend time in silence without distraction. Do the hard thing rather than the easy thing." Karen Slade - Company of Artisans

"I think Art College is still incredibly important for the start of an artistic career of any kind. It gives you an insight into different art and design areas - 3D, photography, textiles, fine art etc. You get chance to experiment and to get a feel for your own style. I also loved the art history and we also studied film - gave me such a broad base to work from and opened my eyes to the possibilities of different artistic careers. Definitely agree with taking a look at the business side of an art career if you are starting out on your own or looking at freelance work.' - Heidi Clawson - Giddy Kipper

"I’d say art school is vital BUT tell them to ask questions about the course and exactly what it covers. I used to have summer interns in the studio from several well respected art schools and I was shocked at the poor level of technical skills they had - my understanding was that because they had so many in a year (up to 200) the students had been left to teach themselves about the programmes. This means that the studios have to basically start again with training and of course, puts the students at a huge disadvantage. I felt sorry for them, having got into massive debt without being taught basic skills. But generally people do need to have gone through formal training - we had lots of people apply who really wanted to design or had done fine art degrees and it wasn’t enough. I come from a family almost entirely employed in the arts - parents generation were all classical musicians, sister is a costume designer, I ran a design studio - so I’d say of course it’s more than possible if you really want to do it, but you have to truly love it to be worth the probable lower income and more chaotic lifestyle than your regularly employed peers. But I wouldn’t swap it for the world!" Hil Bevan 

"I would say that besides the formal Art School it is always good to find a private Art teacher/mentor that helps us follow our own evolution. That helps to step a bit aside from the hundreds of artists that we are in the world. And follow your own path too. I would say that being an artist requires to be a bit indepedent, and that means that you have to learn how manage time and money income. So Courageous souls I guess..." Silvina from

"I feel when you and I were at art school" (Trina and I both left art college in the early 90s) "there were so many of us who drifting there and drifted through (in a beautiful way though!) I’d read too many teen novels about girls going to art school in London. I never focused on what I’d do at the end of the course and our professional practice section consisted of three (useless) sheets of paper. I got a full grant and never thought about the cost of studying. Between 2001 and 2012 when teaching mostly Professional Practice in art school the biggest difference seemed to be how many students had part-time jobs, lived at home, wanted to learn technical skills (photoshop etc) thinking about after their degree...because they would have to pay for their learning they were mostly more business-like. I totally understand this but felt it meant some of the joy of being emerged in a course was gone. If I were going to study now I’d be worried about debt and possibly choose a more “secure” career path. I worry that art schools will become just for the wealthier students (or the very confident)....trying to say...I’d encourage prospective students to choose something they are really passionate about even if a very competitive field as far more likely to find success and happiness than in a compromised career choose. And most importantly a good art school education will provide many transferable skills and develop critical thinking that will be useful in whatever they go on to do"

"The best advice I ever received was to make my sketchbooks look so fat and inviting you couldn't help but have a look. I did A level art, A level Ceramics and A level Art History. I went to Loughborough for foundation and Sheffield for my degree in Silversmithing and Jewellery. I'm now a Jewellery buyer for a retail company." Janet Bayfield

"Art college is important because it gives someone structure and time and deadlines to focus on creating their work and explore and develop their voice. It also lets one see how others work and you learn skills (esp computer ones), and you make wonderful contacts that could lead to things..." Lana Le - aka Wooly Pear

"art college...I have experience in working before college and after college and I’d have to say that if you do a lot of work on your own, aren’t afraid to experiment and do research, you may not need college. But for some of us, we need that guidance to get started. Because it’s a great environment to be curious and ask questions." Mitzie Testani

"Don't be afraid to admit to yourself when you are not happy. I was all set for a degree in art to then lead into teaching. After a term I was miserable. It was not what I wanted at all. I dropped out of uni and ended up working in a shop for a few years. I was so scared about changing what I thought was supposed to be my career path but in my early twenties, I started my own creative business, by the age of 30 that business was paying the bills for my family and employing a staff member. You never know where life will lead you next!" Lisa Swift Altered

"Choose your own path and don’t be swayed by parents, tutors, friends etc. Listen to what they have to say, sure, but on balance only you know what is truly right for you.
Maybe live a bit and experience life, travel too if you can as all this adds richness, depth and integrity to your creativity" - Deryn Relph

There are other things to think about beginning your art career : pricing, copying, how to make a profit, practice, licensing. All important subjects. I will come back to write more another time. Otherwise this is going to end up being a book of a post.

If I were young again this is what I would do:  I'd do everything I could to do an art degree in my field - I'd work hard, spend less time in the student bar, get a Saturday job at the very least (I did do that) and I would open an online shop on Etsy aiming at selling my work while at college, adding to my income and keeping any debt to a minimum. Learn about costs of creating products and building in enough profit to make it worthwhile.  I'd join instagram and probably Behance and Tumblr. The other thing about being visible online is that people spot you and opportunities arise. You don't have to take them but make a note, be grateful and make contacts. Social media really can be your friend in building your career. Just don't get obsessed with it. Or comparisons.

Please do comment if you have advice for young people wanting to start a creative career or any questions yourself; thank you!