Ask the Art Professor: How Do You Preserve Your Artistic Integrity in an Academic Setting?

Final Crit

“How do you preserve your artistic integrity under strict time limitations in an academic setting?”

This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult challenges one can face while in art school. Time management is a necessary part of life, and school is certainly no exception.  With weekly deadlines and professors breathing down your neck,  there is a tremendous amount of pressure to complete projects on time.  As a professor and professional artist, I know how critical it is to be able to think and work under pressure.  Deadlines will never end, and are a major part of working professionally after school.   Many people actually work better with deadlines. Instead of allowing themselves to waste time thinking aimlessly, deadlines force them to focus, stay on task, and use their time more efficiently.

On the other hand, another part of me understands that honest, meaningful, artistic thought can require a tremendous amount of time to fully develop and mature. The time constraints you’re given in school are not conducive at all to this kind of thinking process. Truly thoughtful engagement with your ideas doesn’t happen overnight, or even over the course of one semester.  For many artists, it can be years before they have fully understood the depth and scope of their subject matter. My current project, “Falling“, started in 2010, and now three years later, I’m still actively thinking about it.

So how does one address both concerns simultaneously while in art school? One strategy is to keep things simple.  I believe in being ambitious and challenging yourself, but I see students all the time taking on far too much within short periods of time.  They set unreasonable, complicated goals for the amount of time they’re given and end up shooting themselves in the foot. Some of the most memorable projects I’ve seen in my teaching career are works that had a strong sense of focus due to their simplicity.

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I have an assignment in my Freshman Drawing class at RISD which asks students to draw from direct observation an interior architectural space with passages of light to define the sense of space. Many students think that they need to find some kind of fancy, complex, architectural space in order to succeed with this assignment.

However, one of the most compelling pieces I’ve ever seen for this assignment was a drawing a student did of her dorm room.  A freshman dorm room at RISD is just about the most boring piece of architecture you could possibly imagine.  In the drawing, the student focused on the way the light penetrated through and under the curtain, creating a stunning effect. By keeping the architecture simple, she was able to get highly involved in the complexity of the effects of light in the curtain.

Don’t be afraid of embracing simplicity.  Simple subjects can provide the focus we need when time is limited, and have the potential to be incredibly powerful.  When you’re given an assignment, choose your topic carefully and develop a genuine interest in that subject. The combination of a simple subject and your genuine interest makes it possible to stay true to your artistic intentions within a school structure.

Skeleton Drawing Assignment

Remember, there will be plenty of time after school to tackle those gigantic topics and multiple year projects.  Lots of students act like there’s an expiration date on their ideas, when in fact it’s the complete opposite. School is a great time to stock up on an inventory of ideas that can be reintroduced later when you can devote more time for meaningful engagement.  At many points in my life, I’ve put certain subjects on temporary hold only to revisit them many years later and have them grow into major, long term projects.


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Ask the Art Prof Live is a weekly live video broadcast on my Facebook page where I provide professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015.  Ask me your questions by commenting on the live video post as the video streams, and I’ll answer right away. I’ll discuss being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more. Like my Facebook page and you’ll receive a notification when each live video begins.


Video Critique Program
I offer 30 minute video critiques on 8-20 artworks for aspiring/professional artists working on a body of artwork, and for students working on an art portfolio for college admission. Watch sample video critiques and get more info here.


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“Who should you make art for, yourself or your professor?
“7 tips for surviving art school.”
“How can I prepare myself for the reality of the future?”
“To what extent do grades define an academic career in visual art?”
“Should I drop out of art school?”

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