How to be a Good Art Student

Final Crit

At the end of the semester at RISD, I always find myself ruminating and reflecting upon how the semester went, and I spend quite a big of time brainstorming what I want to tweak and change for the upcoming semester.  Rarely do I go a semester without changing something about my courses, which keeps me on my toes and actively thinking about how to improve. I always love giving a new homework assignment, I’ve had some fail miserably while others have been pleasant surprises. I think the second my courses are static, they run the risk of becoming dangerously stagnant.

Tonight however, I’m thinking about the other side of the fence. What can a college art student do to improve their experience and progress in the classroom?  Like yesterday’s post, “What I’ve learned so far“, I could write a book about this, but here are some snippets that might be useful for current students.

1) Show up on time.
Seems obvious? Well it’s not for many people as I see every semester. One of the best TAs I’ve ever had in my teaching career was late to her first critique as a RISD freshman.  After the crit she came up to me and said “I will never be late again,” and it’s been true since that day four years ago.

2) Get to know your teachers.
You will be very pleasantly surprised to get to know your professors as people, not just as teachers. Also, professors are expected to have an active professional practice outside of their teaching that is frequently really interesting. Ask them about their projects, about past students and classes, many of us have some great anecdotes. Take initiative to get to know them and the rewards will be many. 

Skeleton Drawing Assignment

3) Make bad work.
Progress is never linear, in fact most of the time things get much worse before they get better. I almost “like” it when I hit rock bottom because I know it can’t get any worse, and essentially anything I try can only get better. Accept the fact that bad work is going to happen.

4) Have no fear.
Fear is paralyzing, and it frequently is the main hurdle that prevents students from taking the risks that they need to take to make progress.  If I could be a student again, what would I do differently?  I would have been less afraid and taken more risks.  The sense of regret that I felt about this was quite palpable for many years.  There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’ll never know because you never tried it.

5) See every assignment as an opportunity.
If you treat your homework like homework, that’s what it will be. If you treat your homework as a chance to push yourself, to create something new, ambitious, and distinctive, that’s what it will be.

6) Your past is a curse and a blessing.
As a professor, I have a deep respect for my students’ previous backgrounds.  At the same time, I’ve also seen many students cling to their past in a way that prevents them from moving forward. Maintain a loose and flexible relationship with your past. Tap into the past so that it positively impacts your current work.

Foamcore Staircase Assignment

7) Avoid whining and excuses.
Resist the temptation, it’s really not fun to listen to and does not reflect well on you.  There’s something enormously impressive about students who make a monstrous task look effortless.  I’ve always hated pop singers who act like singing is this incredibly arduous task that they suffer so much for, when really the most amazing singers of our time are the ones who make it look easy. (think Aretha Franklin) Most professors are tired of hearing the same old excuses. (although I do admit to be mildly entertained by some of the more exotic excuses.  “I couldn’t come to class because I ran the Boston marathon and was tired the next day”. ) You don’t have to teach for very long before you’ve heard them all.

8) Make your art for yourself. 
If you’re making your art to please your professor, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I’ve overheard many students asking “What does Clara want to see?” My husband who also went to RISD said that the second he realized this, it completely liberated him from all of these self-imposed restraints and suddenly the work just got a lot better.

9) Set both short term goals and long term goals.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all that you want to accomplish in a single semester.  I find that if you set weekly goals for yourself in terms of concrete, visible actions that you can take it makes everything seem more manageable.   You won’t lose patience with your long term goals because you’ll feel productive and active all the time.

10) Take care of yourself. 
Every semester I see students who equate how little they slept or ate with how good their work turns out; getting to brag to everyone that you pulled an all-nighter is a “trophy”. Sleep deprivation has nothing to do with success, in fact it’s the opposite: stumbling into the studio, starting your work at 12:00am will get you nowhere. Yes, it is possible even in my class (if you’ve been my student, you’ll know what I’m talking about) to do both of these things and still do very well in the course. I have concrete evidence every semester that this is indeed a viable possibility.

11) Have humility.
Don’t lose yourself in your ego.  If you’ve achieved success in the past, it’s too easy to rest on your laurels, convinced that you don’t need to know more.  You are only limiting yourself and your capacity to grow by refusing to listen. Listening will get you very far.

If you enjoyed this post, you might consider purchasing my book, “Learn, Create, and Teach: A Guide to Building a Creative Life,” which expands further on the themes in this post. The book is $9 on Amazon.


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7 thoughts on “How to be a Good Art Student

  1. I wish I had realized some of this stuff before now. I’ll be graduating from the SVA Illustration dept. in about a month and some of the things on this list have only just hit me in the last year. Thank you for writing this, because it’s always nice to be reminded of these things when you get too caught up in your head/feel lost.

  2. This is really helpful. I am in the middle of going through art school right now, and kind of geting a little down about everything. Thanks for putting things into words I had the concept of, but didn’t quite understand. 🙂

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