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Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Should I Drop out of Art School?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“I have a background in art, as growing up I benefited from practice, private instruction and a pretty decent art program in grade school and high school. Going into college, I am much further along technically than most of the other students here, and I know much of what is covered in the fundamental art courses. However, I am now at a point where I don’t feel the teachers are teaching me anything. It would be one thing if I simply felt I wasn’t learning anything because I already know it all and could therefore look forward to learning in the advanced classes, but I don’t feel the teachers are actually teaching.

In one class we have spent an entire quarter going over something I could have Googled in about five minutes. In another, a drawing class, my teacher gave us nothing but videos to watch. One teacher critiques our work, but only tells us what is wrong with it and refuses to tell us how we could fix it. Many of the teachers here seem to have a complete lack of understanding of the material they are supposed to know themselves.

These teachers are supposed to guide us through college and into a career afterwards, yet they don’t seem to know anything about the industries we will be going into. I am worried I am wasting my time and money going to this school. I don’t think I should be paying thousands of dollars for something I could look up on YouTube. However, I am worried that other art schools will be no different. If I transfer somewhere else, can I expect that teachers will actually have something to teach? That I won’t just be shown YouTube videos? Should I just drop out and educate myself through the Internet?”

Art Critique: Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

You are right to feel concerned about the education you are receiving, as it is the teachers who define an art school experience. When I think back about my experience as an undergraduate student, it wasn’t the facilities, resources or the campus that were important. What I cherished were the relationships that I formed with my teachers. Before I went to art school, I had never met a true, professional, working artist in person. You can find out all you want about being an artist through books, articles, and videos, but nothing will substitute having the opportunity to form a personal relationship with an artist who maintains a vibrant, contemporary practice. Getting to know my teachers as people, and working with them during class sessions made the idea of being a visual artist in today’s world real.

I learned vitally important information about art through my art history courses, but there was always a significant distance between myself and the artists we were studying. All of the artists I studied seemed so inaccessible. I couldn’t figure out how it was possible to go from being an art student to fabricating a massive piece of public art that stood 20-feet tall in bronze.

It was when my teachers shared their own artwork in class, that I began to understand how a transition from student to professional could be made. These moments were truly pivotal and provided concrete examples that made sense to me as a student. My senior year, one of my painting teachers gave a slide lecture at the end of the semester about his work, demonstrating the range of art that he had completed over the past few decades. His talk was intensely personal. He referenced the traumatic death of his mother, talked about the personalities of people he had painted portraits of, and discussed the complex emotions that inspired his work.

Ask the Art Prof: RISD Adjunct Professor Clara Lieu

One of my drawing teachers brought in his prints, which were immaculately executed engravings depicting narrative scenes. In addition to his professional work, he also showed us drawings and prints that he had completed as an undergraduate student. This gave me some much needed perspective in terms of how I myself was doing as an art student. I knew my teachers as people, so I was comfortable asking them questions about their work. This information would never have been revealed in an art history textbook.

These relationships that I built over time with my teachers, and the countless lessons and depth of ideas that I gained from them would simply never happen on the Internet. While the Internet offers many resources for visual artists, it’s not even remotely comparable to an education experienced in person. What I learned from my teachers is deeply a part of me. To this day, I hear their voices in my head as I work on my art. I still keep in touch with many of my former teachers, and make a point of getting together with them from time to time in person. I look to my former teachers for continual guidance and advice, and those relationships have enriched my artistic life beyond measure.

If you can find a way to transfer to an art school that more appropriately matches your needs, I believe that you, too, can have a similar experience. When researching schools, look up the faculty who are teaching there, and make sure that they are actively working in their field. Visit their professional websites, see what kind of artwork they’re making, and find out where they are exhibiting and publishing their work. In this way, you’ll able to develop a better sense of the school.

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5 responses on "Leaving Art School"

  1. Like Casey mentioned, this choice is entirely up to you. If you feel it is worth your time and you have done everything in your power to make the best of it. In my experience, teacher’s sometimes are not aware they are not being effective, and I am a huge believer of speaking up and letting them know. They may not know if it is not brought to there attention!

    Art school was one of the best times in my life and was such a rich learning experience with my peers and professors, I would also recommend completing work in a studio with others. The dialogue you will have with other students is so helpful, and keeping in conversation and making in work in a common space can honestly be more helpful than in the classroom. Making a student group can also be an effective way to help make change in courses. Coming together with other students and articulating what you are wanting from your professors and courses is an invaluable experience and might just do the trick.

  2. I have to reiterate that the relationships with professors who “click” with you is huge: and for myself, some of my most impactful lessons were with private time outside the classrooms with professors I met outside of a credit class. I reached out and asked these professors for their time critiquing my work, and I found they were so willing to give me some guidance and direction!
    Don’t be bound by the schedule or teachers you have: now, this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily bad teachers – I think so much of life is being a good fit, the right match. Find that good fit for you: a teacher you haven’t met yet, a source outside your school, or maybe another school! And always be ready to learn more: give each class the benefit of the doubt! One of the classes that didn’t feel that impactful to me at the time I was enrolled later became the most important class of my college career! Sometimes lessons take time to sink in, so be aware of that as well.

  3. I would have to agree with Lauryn when she talks about being vocal and proactive about your concerns. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to approach your professors with your concerns, addressing what you would like to gain and hope for out of the classes you’re in. Some of my greatest learning experiences with professors came from conversations I initiated myself. And like Lauryn said, be genuine and kind about it, but don’t be afraid to share your interests and desires with your faculty. At the end of the day, they are there for you and should be thrilled to help you!

    However, it ultimately comes down to what you feel is right for you. Every artist and student is different in the way they approach their practice and how they learn. Do your research, but do what feels right for you.

  4. I’m really sorry you’re having this frustrating experience! I feel for you, as I actually had to drop out of school at one point, and I really had to think long and hard about whether I was going to finish my BFA for some of the same reasons you expressed. Ultimately I transferred to another more affordable school and though it wasn’t without its own set of problems, it was a really fulfilling experience so I would say this is definitely a better option than dropping out entirely, because Professor Lieu is totally right, one of the most valuable parts of art school is forging long lasting relationships with other artists. I think it’s important wherever you go to advocate hard for yourself and your education. If you’re having a problem with the way something is being taught, or content, or the teacher, be vocal and proactive about it. Sometimes the professor can point you to a more advanced person or class. And even if you’re frustrated, be nice and genuine to everyone. You never know when that person will come up again in your life, and having good relationships with teachers and students gives you an added flexibility navigating the school system and class requirements. I’d like to believe most people have a deep seated compulsion to help others in their community out.

  5. This is a difficult one to answer, because really only YOU can answer the question of whether or not art school is right for you… I do agree with Professor Lieu that an important part of the art school experience is getting to meet and be taught by professionals, but unfortunately, more often than not, that is simply a matter of luck-of-the-draw! At my art school is was really clear, even just a year in, that everyone’s learning experience was dictated in large part by whoever they happened to get as teachers and which classes they were lucky (or unlucky) enough to enroll in. By the end of four years we’d all had our share of great teachers, but also some real duds – and, honestly, if it weren’t for a couple of really excellent professors I got to meet early on I probably would have felt the same way that you feel (and on several occasions I did).

    There are ways you can be proactive about this, though… I would recommend following Professor Lieu’s advice of doing your due diligence researching each of your potential professors. BUT I would also add that you should also prioritize your findings – whether or not the instructor and their work are a good fit – even over whether or not the subject itself is a good fit! I made the mistake on several occasions of enrolling in classes because they were popular, or seemed to be in line with the type of work I do, only to find that the professor was not a good match for me at all, or had nothing to teach me that I hadn’t already learned elsewhere. Conversely, one of my favorite teachers from my entire time at art school was in a class I took largely for the credit, and in a medium I previously had no interest in.

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