Assistant Editor, Production Assistant
Applying to art school is lot like a competing at a swim meet. When I’m at a swim meet, I’m one of hundreds of swimmers competing for an elite spot on the leaderboard. The swimmers at the top receive recognition and honor, while those at the bottom are often overlooked. As I prepared my art school portfolio, I kept asking myself so many questions: “How good am I compared to everyone else?” and “How can I excel above the others?”
National Portfolio Day and a championship swim meet seem like they couldn’t be more different, but I found myself going through the same set of mental challenges for both.
Walking into the Hynes Convention Center with hundreds of artsy high school students felt just like one of my swim meets. Being on the swim team for many years, I had grown accustomed to large crowds of anxious swimmers, and so this portfolio event didn’t feel daunting at all. I felt confident in my artwork and presentation skills, and I was excitedly awaiting the feedback that would help me refine my portfolio for college admissions.
Inside the convention center, it was warm and permeated with nervous students and racing minds. While waiting in line to be reviewed by schools, I imagined I was waiting in line to swim a race, mentally preparing myself for what was to come. After all, both swimming and college applications are serious competitions.
An hour into the event, I had received two moderately useful critiques. I was feeling increasingly better about my artwork, and was ready to approach the next critique as if it were my final race in a swim meet.
I decided to visit a school whose Animation department had a national reputation. For about 60 minutes, I waited in line, talking to other students in the same line about the fierce competition and anxiety that comes with applying to art school. Swimming had taught me how to reach peak performance under pressure, so I remained cool and collected. When it was my turn for a review, I approached the table as if it was a starting block at a pool. I laid out my artwork on the table with the same confidence I would harness to get ready for a race.
“Where’s your sketchbook?” the reviewer asked, glancing at my work with an air of disapproval.
I opened my sketchbook to proudly display the intricate planning and research behind the pieces I had laid out.
“Oh, you must be confused. This is the wrong type of sketchbook. Where’s your other one?”
My mind was racing, frantically rifling through the possibilities of what the words “other sketchbook” could mean. I no longer felt like I was gliding through the water in a swim meet, rather, I felt as if I was floundering, gasping for air. How could a sketchbook be wrong?
“I don’t understand.”
“We don’t want to see planning for these pieces. In fact, we don’t really need to see these pieces at all. What we need is your real sketchbook, the one with character designs and other drawings.”
When my mind and lungs felt as if they were filled with water, my swim coaches always taught me to never let your competition see you crack. So, I kept a straight face and kept listening.
“Your success in our program and in animation as a career is indicated by the quality of work in your sketchbook. You do not appear to have the quality of work to be successful. Have you considered art history? Or maybe something outside of the field of art?”
I felt like I had been hit by a wall of water. A tidal wave. A tsunami. I told the reviewer I would consider it. Then I collected my work from the table with as much dignity as I could muster, and walked away.
My work wasn’t good enough? How could a sketchbook be “wrong?” It’s art, not math or science. There are no correct answers in art. I didn’t have the capability to be an animator because I didn’t do a specific type of work in my sketchbook? I should abandon my passion for art and pursue something else?
I had never felt anything like this. After a bad swim race, getting out of the pool and walking back to the bench is hard. But, bad swimming has concrete solutions. Change your stroke. Kick harder. Turn faster. In art, concrete solutions don’t exist.
After that review, I decided to leave National Portfolio Day. I felt like I was drowning. The initial confidence I had walking in had been sucked away in a riptide.
After the water had drained from my lungs and mind, I spent a long time contemplating how to proceed. I had never been told that I’m wasn’t cut out for art before, because I know I am. I knew that I shouldn’t let one school dictate my future, especially because I didn’t even want to go there. However, I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t just sit there and allow someone to make me feel that way.
I worked harder than I ever had before in my art. I spent significantly more time planning and executing my pieces, and I thought deeply about my concepts. I experimented fearlessly with new media and approached my work from unique perspectives. I looked for feedback from others and incorporated that feedback into each piece. I dedicated all of my free time to my art and created many strong pieces in a short period of time.
I started keeping the “right” kind of sketchbook in the eyes of that school, even though I never gave them the chance to see it. I didn’t fill this sketchbook to impress them. In fact, I wasn’t even going to apply. I did it to prove them wrong, and to prove to myself that I was good enough and that I could accomplish my dreams.
I drew small character designs and comic sketches, as well as more personal illustrative work and responded to quotes I found meaningful. I drew everywhere I went: on the train, in the park, at coffee shops, at restaurants. I drew things I saw from observation, and scenes from my imagination. When I was bored, I scrolled through my camera roll and drew photos I had taken a long time ago. Now, my sketchbook includes small mementos from where I’ve gone and the people I’ve met. I learned a great deal about illustration and spontaneity while working in a sketchbook, but I also learned a lot about myself.
At the time, that critique at National Portfolio Day felt like an anchor pulling me to the bottom of the ocean. In hindsight, that critique was by far the most important in my art career thus far. The experience gave me the motivation to work harder than ever before, and hence improved my art skills exponentially. Before that review I had always been “the art kid” at my school. Nobody had ever truly critiqued my work before, and nobody had ever told me I was bad. For this reason, I lived in a fog. I was under the false pretense that I didn’t have to work particularly hard to improve, which kept me from working my hardest in art.
In swimming, it’s obvious when you’re not working hard enough; it’s just a matter of numbers. If your race times don’t improve, you’re not working hard enough. Art is completely subjective, and thus it’s a lot easier to rest on your laurels and let your growth stagnate.
After the shock of that critique wore off, it was like the fog had cleared. Cliché, I know. I realized that I had much more to learn, and that I had to work harder than ever before to accomplish my dreams. The intense drive I developed to prove that reviewer wrong was the boost I needed to reach my fullest potential.