Learning Visual Arts in High School on Your Own

Charcoal Drawings of Bones

Visual art has always been the most compelling force throughout my entire life that I could always turn to, no matter how tough times were.  My desire to draw as a child was insatiable, and I relished every weekly art class in elementary school.

In high school, I found myself with meager options to study visual art.  I was a decent academic student, but I was not a star athlete, the two areas that were glorified by the other students. Socially, I was awkward, shy, isolated, and always felt out of place.  Visual art was the thing I knew I was good at, the only subject I deeply enjoyed.  For all the other students, art class was a joke, the class you took when you wanted an easy A. The art teachers I had were incompetent, and consequently, the art classes were remedial and pathetic. Basically, I had to teach myself.

Charcoal Drawings of Bones

I felt alone, lost, and embarrassed by my interest in visual art. Other students were studying classical music with world renowned musicians at places like the New England Conservatory Preparatory school, and I heard constantly about students who were being sent to prestigious, national soccer tournaments.  For me, there was no equivalent in the visual arts. And this was at an excellent public school in an affluent neighborhood, I can’t imagine circumstances are any better at most other schools.

From speaking to my students, it upsets me to find out that the situation is exactly the same as it was twenty years ago for me. The vast majority of high school students who want to learn visual art are on their own.


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7 thoughts on “Learning Visual Arts in High School on Your Own

  1. I spent my high school years in a tiny town – think 1200 people – and even though they managed to offer Art in grade 11, and I took it, I actually hated it, and to this day I think it’s had a lasting impression on me because even though I desperately want to go to art school I’m afraid it’ll be just like that. The teacher was boring. There were no proper facilities. All we did was draw. There may have been a little painting, but it was mostly drawing and art history, which I hated, because we didn’t learn anything cool and the person delivering the information was about as boring as they come. It was kind of like an afterthought, the offering of the course – they didn’t even offer it every year, or for every grade – and I remember thinking, So this is what art is really like, and I started losing interest not long after that. That’s probably around the time my production level took a dive. Prior to that I was constantly creating at home, on my own. I had a lot of stuff going on at home around that time too, which didn’t help. But now I just struggle with the idea that it’s too late to think about starting an art degree (I’ll be 37 in two months) and at least some part of it is not having the joy or confidence about it that I used to.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience with me, it’s given me a lot to think about. It is definitely not too late for you! Degas was practically blind towards the end of his life and he switched to sculpture to keep going. I can assure you that wavering joy/confidence in your artwork is a constant issue for every artist, you would have to be completely deluded to feel great about your artwork every second of your life. No artist feels that way, and if they say they do, they’re totally lying. One of my colleagues used to say “Just start.” You might try that, every time I have trouble I let myself hear him in my head saying those two words.

      • Thanks for that! It’s very encouraging. One of the main reasons I follow this blog is the encouragement you give to artists at all levels of experience, and at all ages, not just kids either in their senior year of high school or approaching it, or in their first 1-2 years of their undergrad.

  2. I’m in Australia so I’m not sure if its relevant. High school was about 23 years ago for me. I loved art class too and also Technical drawing class. I think it was similar although we had a reasonable art teacher who taught us well. I went to a poshy private school where academics were all the rage and I wasn’t so academic. In the end I did get enough grades to go into teaching but I didn’t do that, I went to Bible college, secretarial school and then art school (at a lower certificate level we call TAFE) followed by doing an art degree later in my late 20s. I don’t think that art was taken seriously as an actual career even at university. I would have appreciated being taught the options an artist can take for supporting themselves, the career paths available to them and in university, the business side of art as well as things like how to approach a gallery or make up a portfolio. These things were lacking at every single level. There was far more ‘here, draw this’ and ‘that’s great, add more tone’ than anything that would help me survive as an artist. Its for that reason that 1. I have had to educate myself via the internet (hence reading your blog) and 2. I am still reasonably incompetent in these areas and not confident.

    • From what I can see they are getting better at offering that as part of BAs or BFAs (university/college degrees), at least here in Canada, although as far as I know it’s usually an elective and not something required for most of the places I’ve looked at. It should be mandatory, I think, for sure, one course on personal professional practices (building a portfolio, legal stuff, approaching galleries, career pathways, etc) and one on curatorial issues/practices. Perhaps not as in-depth as if a person was going to go into actual museum work or collections management, but just an overview of things like artist-run galleries and how galleries actually work, to help them prepare better for proposals, exhibit, etc, and to explore what becomes a career path for many artists.

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