Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Answers for Kristen

Kristen M. asked:
I was wondering what advice you could give on pursuing a greater education past earning a BFA. I'm attending an [undergraduate degree program now], and I plan on completing it, but I'm not certain where to go next! Would you mind terribly reviewing what you think the benefits of either pursuing an MFA or not pursuing one is? If you do support MFA's do you have any suggestions for representational schools?

Also, when you paint, do you find it better to paint large or small? I see a benefit in both, but generally I like to draw small and transfer it onto a larger canvas. 

Hi, Kristen,
Where an advanced degree would serve you directly is in certain specialized illustration fields, such as medical illustration, where you really need to go through the program of one of the handful of specialized accredited university programs. It also helps if you want to get a job working on the staff of a museum or a top-notch gallery. And the degree is very helpful if you want to teach art or art history at the university level, where you need the degree credentials to pass beyond the gatekeepers. 

But an advanced degree is generally not necessary for a practicing artist wanting to get illustration, gallery, or design commissions. Art buyers don’t care about your degree; they care about your portfolio.

You might wish to commit to such an advanced degree program if you have the time and money and if you are sure that the study program will really improve your art. Whether there is such a study program that will help you toward your goal is something I can’t answer for you, but some art schools do have some excellent advanced study programs for realist painters. If I were you, I would interview previous graduates and professors pretty closely and take a careful look at their work and see if that’s the kind of thing you want to be doing.

There are many other ways to get practical experience. I believe the best way to learn to paint is by painting as much from nature as possible, with a critical and open mind, and a sense of daring. If you supplement that by periodically visiting museums, reading books, watching videos, going to workshops, and hanging out with other artists who are also intense about learning, you can’t miss.

Although there certainly are a few exceptions, most advanced degrees in the visual art field in university settings are preoccupied with art theory and art history. Here again, you would be wise to closely interview the members of the faculty and read their writing to see if their style of thinking and writing is what you want to emulate. Personally, I feel the best way to learn history and theory is to dig for primary sources on your own and to trust your own independent thinking, unfettered by the constraints of contemporary academic dogma.

Working large or small is a matter of convenience in the field. I love to work small, as did Frederic Church and William Trost Richards, and that lets me paint any time and in any setting. Size is a marketing factor in a gallery. Bigger pieces usually (but not always) have larger price tags. In illustration, the size of the original doesn't matter. It's all about how tight your module is.


Unknown said...


If you are still interested in pursing an MFA, I would highly recommend Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, as University to check out. They are one of the few state funded universities that emphasizes the importance of representational art.

I am currently a graduate student in the painting program here, and I am mainly focusing on plein air painting, which is encouraged by the faculty. They are also attempting to start a medical illustration degree, although it would be only a BFA, but you could take a number of those courses.

Finally, it's a full tuition wavier if you get accepted in the program for 3 years.

I did a lot of research for MFA programs, and felt that this place would be a great fit for anyone wanting time to focus on representational art.

Hopefully this maybe of some use. Have a good one.

Aaron P

Unknown said...

Spot on James!
You are so right about the quality of your portfolio and not the degree...I've been a successful illustrator for 26 years with an Associate Degree. My greatest education started AFTER I graduated from college! Keep up the good work on your blog. I check it every day..!

Erik Davis-Heim said...

If you're interested in figuring out the nuts and bolts of painting its probably better to do that on your own or at an atelier. A lot of grad programs for artists are geared toward helping you figure out your voice and set of interests. The expectation in a lot of these programs is that you either come in with the skillsets you'll need to make your work, or you'll figure them out on your own.

Janet Oliver said...

James, I wish I'd had such good advice when I was considering whether to go for an MFA, because I wouldn't have done it. You are absolutely correct that most university MFA programs are concerned mainly with theory (reading it and critiquing it) rather than actually making work. I'm teaching myself more about painting and drawing now than I was ever taught in college.

Richard said...

I am on my second Masters Degree. My first was a MAE and was to get a teaching job. My second degree, a MFA, was for me. My thoughts on a Masters Degree a lot of the information that I received was similar information that I received in my BFA (which is computer animation)and there was a lot more information that I knew just by reading. But what the Masters degree did for me was gave me the opportunity to focus on what I wanted to focus on. And it gave me professional feedback telling me to change my ways. A lot of the information I received was more direction than knowledge. With the MFA I think that it speeds up your self development by simply having someone there to give you the feedback that you need.

Nathaniel Gold said...

I got a MFA and it was the best experience of my life it won't necessarily make you a better painter most of those skills you can learn on your own but it is an intellectual experience. Through the writing and research based assignments I really discovered the subject matter that I wanted to paint. The MFA program that I attended (FIT MFA in Illustration) helped me develop the way I think about what I paint not the way I paint it.

Keith Parker said...

Excellent answers for an important question. Asking those questions is probably a very good indication that Kristen is headed in the right direction. I know I had to ask similar questions in the past, and quite frankly still do. Never stop asking; never stop seeking to improve and learn. Thanks for your advice James! And to all the Kristens out there: Best of luck!

Andy said...

"contemporary academic dogma. "

That sounds like a euphemism :)