Do I need a college degree to become an illustrator?
October 12, 2010 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to become a freelance illustrator without a college degree?

I've been an artist almost all of my life. I made a lot of bad decisions in high school and I went to a technical college to take classes in graphic design. I went for 3 years but then stopped going because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do in life. This was back in 2006. Since then, I've been floating from job to job. Barely making ends meet and living paycheck to paycheck.

I'm still paying off college I never finished and I feel like I'm stuck in a rut. Recently though, I've decided I wanted to pursue a career in illustration. I've been drawing since and I've been putting together a portfolio. I've been using knowledge I've learned in school and applying it towards my illustrations.

The only thing that makes me feel unmotivated and put aside my art is the fact that I never graduated with a college degree. Is illustration a field that a college degree is valuable in? I can't afford to go back to school, at least not now. But whenever I think about not having a college degree, it ruins my motivation. I feel like I don't have a chance at all.

Thanks for reading
posted by morning_television to Education (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I do not know a single artist who has attributed their success to their degree. In fact, I don't know a single artist who was ever even asked if they have a degree. Unlike fields where a degree Matters, an art degree is more about developing yourself as an artist under professional guidance rather than attaining a credential.
posted by griphus at 10:31 AM on October 12, 2010

You need 1. a body of work, and 2. a platform to expose the public to your work.

For 1., keep creating. For 2., a personal website is of course crucial, but I'd also suggest you join and participate in DeviantArt. I know at least a few artists who networked and got enough exposure there to launch careers.
posted by Andrhia at 10:36 AM on October 12, 2010

Illustration can be a difficult career to make work. But for most of the people I know, their college degrees were useful because of the connections they established at school and the knowledge they gained from their classes. Both of these things can be attained in other ways.

If you do good work, put in the hours to hone your skills, are proactive about the opportunities that present themselves, risk embarrassment by putting yourself and your work out there and reaching high, and have (or develop) a distinctive artistic voice that people respond to, THAT'S what's going to get you work.

I graduated from a fairly prestigious film school in NYC. I haven't been nearly as successful of a freelancer as a good friend of mine who has no degree at all.

Your work, your attitude and your commitment are all that matters.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:41 AM on October 12, 2010

I think MOST people who studied animation in the late 80s/90s were hired before finishing their courses. A degree only matters if you plan to go into teaching art.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:45 AM on October 12, 2010

Of my friends in college who wanted to be visual artists: one is now a successful freelance graphic designer, but she's an extraordinarily high energy person and an aggressive self promoter. The rest are working unskilled jobs while still hoping they might someday do art full time. It's been 4 years so that hope is growing dimmer.

Based on this evidence I think it's close to impossible to be a full-time illustrator with or without a college degree. Unfortunately, art schools routinely lie to their students about this fact.

Can you train in some other field that will use your artistic ability (Web design is an obvious possibility)? Would you be willing to do something completely different and pursue your art in your spare time?
posted by miyabo at 11:03 AM on October 12, 2010

Best answer: What's going to matter more than anything is your portfolio and your reliability. Clients will care only about:

Do they like what they see?
Will you deliver more of what they like, on time, to their specifications?
Will you do so in a way that they'll remember as pleasant and easy to work with?

It couldn't hurt to take a community-college art class or what have you, just to have a set time every week where your only obligation is to add to your portfolio. But no, a degree is a nice addition to a CV but it's also the last thing prospective clients will look at, if they even look at that.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:12 AM on October 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

Is illustration a field that a college degree is valuable in?

No, definitely not. The only way it would be remotely valuable is if you hit it off with a professor who also works in publishing and would hire you, but this usually only happens in NYC. I used to work at an agency that repped illustrators and the only thing that matters is what FAMOUS MONSTER said:

Do they like what they see?
Will you deliver more of what they like, on time, to their specifications?
Will you do so in a way that they'll remember as pleasant and easy to work with?

Keep in mind that the vast majority of illustrators hold down day jobs, because there isn't enough consistent freelance work to pay the bills.

If you want to do some research on illustrators who work commercially, start here.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 11:52 AM on October 12, 2010

This might depend on the type of illustration you want to do. If you're making pictures for kids books using pen, ink and watercolors and so on, you don't need a degree. But if you're working digitally, you'll be competing against those who've been using all the latest software with bells and whistles on a regular basis. (My kid's in art school, and no way would she be able to keep up with all this alone in her bedroom studio.)
posted by Ideefixe at 1:29 PM on October 12, 2010

Nope, they'll only be looking at your portfolio, and they'll be more interested in what experience you have working to professional deadlines than any degree. Just keep working and building up a portfolio that shows off a consistent style. How to be an illustrator by Darrel Rees and Nicholas Blechman is a good read.
posted by mushuu at 4:54 PM on November 21, 2010

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