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How I Learned I Could Be A Professional Artist

"How did you decide to become an illustrator?"

This is a question I am asked often enough that I decided to write a more in-depth blog post about it!

Like most artists, I have been drawing, painting and generally being a creative human being since I could hold a crayon, push paint around with my fingers, and mush playdough into shapes. One of my earliest memories of creating art is of an evening when my Mom was watching an episode of The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. She had the Ross paint kit set up nicely with all the recommended colors, brushes, and a canvas. I had a stick and a white wall that seemed like a nice, primed canvas in need of some happy little clouds....

My elementary and primary school years were spent in a small farming town in a rural area of New York. Now, I'm not saying that there aren't some local attempts to bring the arts and culture and diversity to the community (First Fridays do exist, along with some festivals and galleries), but overall there is definitely a big lack of those things compared to more urban areas. I'm also not saying that it's an unsupportive environment, because I was fortunate enough to have the support of many teachers and family and folks in the community. But what I am saying is that never once did the thought ever cross my mind that being a professional artist was a career option. It wasn't something that was ever mentioned or taken seriously.

I love the high school I attended! I loved the teachers and the environment. In addition to the "core subjects", they offer a variety of sports, a couple musical outlets, and there were a few art classes as well. Every year they put on some really good musicals too. But I can't say that I ever felt pushed in those art classes, or particularly interested. Which is weird to say, because you'd think that it would have been my favorite subject in school. I don't even know if I had a favorite subject. I LOVED drawing and painting and pursued the skills on my own time, as a hobby, or as doodles in class or study hall. But it never occurred to me to study and develop my artistic skills seriously. (To my mother's credit, it did occur to her, but it feels a bit different as a teenager when Mom wants you to sit down and draw a bowl of fruit as practice.)

Right before the end of my junior year of high school, I received a brochure in the mail for a summer program at Moore College of Art & Design, an all-women art college (First and only one in the country!) in Philadelphia. I was instantly curious and captivated and a switch immediately turned on in my mind! Things clicked into place and started making sense. Before this moment in time, I didn't even know art schools existed. Not colleges, and certainly not high schools! Did you know that art-focused high schools exist, along with other career-focused high schools? These sorts of things are not exactly readily available in rural areas.

I received this brochure only a few days before the deadline to apply to the program. In order to apply, you needed a portfolio and a couple letters of recommendation and a few thousand dollars. Simple, right? (Read: sarcasm) I showed my mom this brochure with excitement and also some uncertainty. It was a big task and a lot to ask for. But luckily for me, I have a very supportive Mom who almost always tops my excitement and confidence about such things! She saw the potential and the possibilities well before anyone else started to shed their skepticism. Somehow, we managed to gather all the things we needed and before I knew it, it was summer-time and I was about to embark on a four week adventure in the heart of Philadelphia at Moore College of Art & Design in their pre-college program for high school girls: the Summer Art & Design Institute (SADI).

There were a few different "majors" you could choose from for the program. Fashion Design, Animation, Fine Arts, and maybe something else... maybe photography? I picked Fine Arts. It was four weeks of a lot of fun and a lot of work! In some ways I thought it was more difficult than college, because at least as a college student you have more liberties and can sculpt your schedule a bit more to your liking. Every day it was class from breakfast to just before dinner time, with a break for lunch. There was a different class each day of the week. Every weekend there were tours and activities throughout the city. Other hours of the day were mostly dedicated to studio time, getting homework done, etc. It was an exciting, but intensely focused, college experience crammed into four weeks that would reward you with an actual elective credit at the end if you passed. Now, even though I greatly enjoyed that experience overall, I must tell you that I learned two things. First, that I did not really like the fine arts major. Sure, I had some fun in some classes but overall, it was just not my jam. The second "major" thing I learned requires a little bit more explaining...

Some of my closest buddies in SADI chose the Animation program. I wasn't super crazy about what they were doing in class, but I seemed to have more in common with them and better interactions with that program's teachers than I did the ones teaching my classes. One of the animation teachers was a funny, tweed (Is it tweed?) jacket-wearing cartoonist named Rich Harrington. Rich Harrington helped change my life direction in one conversation in one hallway. I was hanging out with my animation buddies in their classroom and complained about how I was just not really feelin' the Fine Arts program and about how I thought maybe I should have chosen Animation. Rich, who is such an encouraging teacher, took the time to ask me about what kinds of things I did like, and from listening to me, he had an idea. He brought me to the college campus' "illustration hallway" to show me the college student work of that major from the previous semesters.

I instantly connected with the artwork displayed on those walls! They were filled with pin-ups, pop culture references, mock-book covers, comics, realistic portraiture, and incredibly detailed still lifes. I saw wonderful skill and fun and creativity on those walls and subject matter I could get excited about. And I saw purpose! I saw all the possibilities of what art is used for on a daily basis in all our lives. Fine Arts is wonderful too, and filled with all sorts of creative concepts and skill, but it just wasn't for me. I went from thinking "well, this was a really great experience but I think I might just go to a state college and get a degree in psychology or something" to thinking "THIS is what I want to do with my life! This is what I CAN do with my life!"

The program ended along with summer vacation and my senior year of high school began. This is the year when all your teachers and counselors and friends and family ask you "what are you going to do with your life" and "which colleges are you going to apply to?" They make you schedule meetings with the student counselors to go over these things and to sign up to take SAT exams. I sat down and told them that I was going to apply to art colleges and major in Illustration! They suggested to me that I think of some alternative options and directed me towards state college applications. This is probably very sound advice: back up plans are good, options can be good... but it didn't seem like they were taking me seriously or that they thought my plan was worthwhile. So I took the SAT exam (Which a state college representative actually told me was "diarrhea of the pen") and applied to a couple state colleges.

I also went to National Portfolio Review Day. If you don't know what this is, it is basically the entry exam for art universities. It is stressful and can be embarrassing and judgmental and if you are reading this thinking that you would like to attend an art college then please, look it up RIGHT NOW and start marking the locations and the dates (make sure you get them right!) and start preparing your portfolio according to the recommended standards. I made the mistake of not doing this as early as I should have (I also didn't have the good fortune of reading a blog post like this one to know it was a thing prior to actively applying to colleges). We accidentally arrived a day early and had to find a place to stay overnight and prayed that nobody would notice we had worn the same clothes the day before. At least I prayed for that, because I had a good impression to make! So, I didn't feel off to a great start.

National Portfolio Review Day: Prospective students from all over the place gather to one of the national review locations. Mine was held at Rochester Institute of Technology. Representatives from schools across the country set up in various rooms and the students wait in long lines to show their portfolios to the schools of their choosing. I had a few schools on my list, including Rochester and the Art Institute and Moore College of Art & Design. I saved Moore for last because I was most excited about it and I wanted to secure my spot at some of the other schools that already had long lines forming when I arrived.

In a nutshell, it was just about a disaster. Some representatives wouldn't look beyond a few pages of the portfolio I brought; they determined very quickly that I was not good enough for their institutions. Rochester gave me some advice for what I needed to do to improve my portfolio, but that ended in the same result as the other schools: rejection. Though, I knew from that particular review that I would never want to attend Rochester for Illustration because the representative suggested I look into Medical Illustration since it is "more stable and lucrative". No, thank you! Not with that attitude! The whole experience was nerve-wracking and embarrassing. These reviews are not private. The other students waiting in line watch as the reviews go on and you can tell who had good reviews and who did not. I learned very quickly that many of these students had a lot more education and practice than I had with drawing and portfolio building.

I was feeling particularly down and my excitement and confidence was flattened by the time I waited in line for Moore College of Art & Design. And there was Rich Harrington: the Moore representative for Illustration! He was honest with me about my portfolio. He didn't tell me it was good and he didn't spend time looking through all of it. But he did something that NONE of the other reviewers did: he looked through my sketchbook (Which I had with me just in case) and asked me what I WANTED to do, not what my portfolio currently showed, but what I would WANT my portfolio to be. He asked me about my motivation and desire to learn. And he gave me a chance.

Weeks later, after my essay and application were submitted and my written essay exam passed, I was accepted to the Illustration BFA program at Moore College of Art & Design with scholarships! It was the art school that started it all and was my first choice anyway, so I was beyond thrilled. I can go into my experience there in another blog post, but after four years I had graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Illustration and a blue award ribbon next to my senior thesis hanging up in the galleries of the Senior Show! Take that, reviewers!

And this is how I learned about art colleges and art careers

& how I discovered that I wanted to be a professional artist & illustrator!

Whew! Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post about how I discovered art school and started my path to becoming a professional artist & illustrator. I know it was a long read, but I hope that it is helpful to curious minds!

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