- A-level work can be published in industry; so if you are consistently getting A’s then should be out working instead of taking out loans for school. Most students get C’s at AAU, with a few stars getting the infrequent A-. So feel good about getting high C’s and low B’s, especially before midterm. Grades are no more or less than feedback on your work. No one will care what your GPA was in school, they will care about your portfolio. However, aim for A-level work so that you will have a professional portfolio.
- Related to No. 1: If you are offered a job while in school, take it! The goal is to get work, not necessarily to get your degree. The timing might not be right when you graduate; in fact, it probably won’t because you’ll be competing with other graduates at the same time. You can always return to school and finish your degree if you so wish, or even receive educational reimbursements from your employer if you want to continue studying while working.
- Almost everyone in school is great at something and weak in other things. I’ve realize that compared to other beginning students I have more experience rendering texture and painting digitally; I also have an intuitive knack for picking colors. But while I can copy a figure given enough time, I have trouble imagining the human body in other positions or from different points of view, or capturing gestures quickly, or simplifying and stylizing it for animation, or foreshortening it. Once I have that down, I won’t need to learn much about how to “wrap it” in shade or color. If you’ve been admitted into an MFA program, you have something to offer and something to gain from school.
- Attitude is critical. Remember the tortoise and the hare parable, “slow and steady wins the race”. There are a number of experienced students, but some of them are complacent and others are resistant to trying out new things. However, with an excellent attitude towards learning, you can rise head and shoulders above other students with time, dedication, and practice. That’s the same attitude needed to get work in industry and to be the very best at the tasks you’re assigned. The artists with that attitude are the ones who are promoted, not the ones who are envious of senior artists on the team.
- A lot of students resist learning certain techniques, styles, or subjects because they think they won’t use them later on. In my character design class we’re learning to become “style chameleons” during the first half of the semester and “building our design vocabulary”. Many students want to stay in their comfort zones and draw in their own style, but that will kill the career of a new artist in industry. Learning to draw in different styles is a survival skill. If hired by a company (say, Disney or Lucas Arts) you would have to draw in the style of the particular project you’re assigned. Everything you learn adds to you “Batman’s belt” – your set of tools available for every occasion. Never stop learning. Keep your tools sharp. For more on this, read Dresden Codak’s article on Draftsmanship: Increasing Your Visual Vocabulary.
- Is it better to generalize and be able to do many different things, or to specialize and rock at one thing? In other words: “is it better to become a swiss army knife or a scalpel?” The answer: ideally you should become a swiss army knife with a scalpel attached. Be a rock star at one task and then be able to do many different tasks for a project as well. That is the best way to get yourself established in the industry and to keep yourself employed.
Wednesday, January 26th, 2011: New Graduate Student Orientation
Orientation was a required event for all of the new graduate students. We were there to meet the president and vice president of the Academy of Art University, our admissions representatives, and heads of our respective schools. I’ve quickly learned that AAU is very focused on creating professionals ready to enter the industry by graduation. And an event like this was a perfect opportunity to network and meet any and all of the new graduate students in one place. I approached it like a trade conference.
At Reed College, I quickly realized that the most interesting kids in school went there and places like it. I could spend hours talking excitedly (or ‘geeking out’ if you prefer) with any student there. At AAU, I have the impression that the most creative and driven aspiring artists go there. Same dedication, same ambition, same intrinsic motivation to learn and grow. Just my kind of people, but with a different focus.
I’m not the type to briefly exchange names and cards with as many people as I can in the time allotted. That may work for some people, and I’ll grant, it generates a lot of contacts. But I’m more comfortable with meeting 3-4 people at an event like this, talking in depth for about 20 minutes each if I can (or in a group if they know each other), and try to form lasting connections with them. These could be my collaborators or colleagues in the future, perhaps near-future if we combine forces in school. Hopefully we’d be ambitious enough to publish our own books or found our own companies. Such things have happened in AAU and schools like it.
I don’t know why people get nervous about meeting each other at an event like this. Ok, well, maybe I do because I used to be painfully shy too. I had a very negative inner monologue right up until I was settled at Reed. And maybe it does echo into my consciousness from time to time, particularly when I’m out of my element. But in reality, people want to meet each other. They are silently screaming, ‘Talk to me, please! I don’t know anyone!’ I know because that’s what I’ve thought. So I just dive in. Ask questions. Be like a reporter and interview people. People love to talk about themselves, so I give them the excuse, and my card. I love listening to them, especially when I find we’re obsessed about the same things.
After the meet & greet, I went with two new friends up to the welcome lecture. The highlight there was the spring show reel of the work that previous Masters in Fine Art (MFA) students have created. Some of their work was quite impressive. The video ended with the promise that we would create art like that. Many of us swore we would create art at that caliber. Yet some of us feared, deep inside, that there had been a mistake. We feared we weren’t qualified and didn’t have the talent.
Fear is perfectly healthy at the beginning of a long transformation such as this. It prevents one from being arrogant, complacent, and closed to new ideas. After-all, to understand is to stand under a concept for a while. But that fear isn’t completely warranted. Yes, there are schools out there that just want funding and will take (and pass) anyone. I’ve heard the horror stories. A school like this one, however, has a good reputation for working its students hard, challenge them, and pushing them out of their comfort zones. And a school like AAU reviews admission application portfolios for a reason – to find the potential in them.
Next we split into our respective schools. Those like me in the Illustration School convened with Bill Maughan, the Director of Graduate Illustration. I was a little tongue-tied meeting him, and this is why:
A professional illustrator and fine artist, Mr. Maughan received a Bachelor of Fine Art in Illustration from the Art Center College of Design. He has provided numerous illustrations for such companies as DreamWorks, Woman’s Day, TV Guide, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, CBS, Universal Studios, Wells Fargo Bank, Chevrolet, GMC, Franklin Library, New American Library, Avon Books, Pinnacle Books, Signet Books, Tor Books, Doubleday, Harcourt Brace, Knopf, Oxford University Press, Danbury Mint, Fenwick and others. Since the early ’80s Mr. Maughan’s work, both originals and prints, has been represented by major galleries and publishers, domestically and internationally. His works of art are included in private, commercial and museum collections. Mr. Maughan’s book, The Artist’s Complete Guide to Drawing the Head, was published in 2004 by Watson/Guptill.
When he’s not teaching Academy students the fundamentals — realism-based drawing, design concepts, value, form, color and composition — he paints in his studio in the mountains of Utah.
Bill (I feel a little irreverent using his first name, but that’s the convention at school), Bill has been illustrating long before I was born; to say that he knows what he’s talking about is a grand understatement.
Bill Maughan took the time to advise us at the beginning of our careers with AAU and after. He also reviewed what the midpoint reviews and final theses will entail for each focus (or track). Mine is the Concept Art track with a focus on games.
Midpoint review will involve a few of our best examples from each of the classes we’ll be taking (or new pieces in the subjects those classes covered, they don’t need to have been presented in class – I might be better at head drawing long after finishing that class for example). This is also when I’ll pitch my final thesis project in a written proposal.
The Final thesis for Concept Art will involve a entire ‘pitch’ for a film or game. Thumbnails, three character designs (only one can be human), a turnaround, a painted background environment, and the layout design of a room from several angles.
Yeah, kinda frightening! But this is also the master who saw our portfolios and essays in our applications and believes we have potential.
So while, even as I write, my stomach is twisted in knots at what is ahead, I have faith that the school knows what it’s doing and would have turned me down if I couldn’t succeed. I just have to apply myself and work very, very hard.
When I was an undergraduate at Reed College I studied the history and literature of renaissance and mediaeval Europe on the side while earning my BA in Psychology. I realized then how the mediaeval system of turning an apprentice into a master is a near perfect analogy for the transformation of any layman into a specialist through our modern educational system.
Brief Historical Context
In the mediaeval, renaissance, and enlightenment eras (before industrialization) skill-based and intellectual professions were acquired by apprenticeship. A master took on apprentices and would teach them the craft and provide room and board in exchange for their labor. Sometimes families paid the master for their children’s apprenticeship if there was enough demand for it.
Sometimes children of nobility, gentry, or the very upper-middle class would receive tutoring or attend grammar school in language, history, arts, and the like not to become masters themselves but to become well-rounded — also in exchange for pay. William Shakespeare serves as an example of an English Renaissance middle-class education — he is believed to have attended King Edward IV Grammar School until he was 14 years old. Whereas the ideal for a gentleman’s education in Italy was described by Baldassare Castiglioni, who wrote at length about the importance of being competent in several areas in his Book of the Courtier by the age of 27. I came to understand that this is where our modern ideal of a well-rounded education in high school and undergraduate school came from.
If a boy was younger son of a very well-to-do father and didn’t stand to inherit, he might attend university and focus on one profession like medicine, religion, or law and become a “doctor”. This is where PhDs (medical doctors and doctors of philosophy) came from. Only the very wealthy could afford the time to learn a trade as specialized as medicine or law or instruct at a university.
Yet for most of the middle class education was very specifically focused on teaching crafts and services to be used in employment and in association with guilds. Once an apprentice proved himself with his skill-craft, he graduated to journeyman. Journeymen often worked for their master but collected wages, lived separately, and began their own families; or they traveled to establish their own shop (as the term “journey man” implies). Only when the journeyman was accepted by a guild and took on apprentices was he considered a master in his own right.
Apprentice: 1. One bound by legal agreement to work for another for a specific amount of time in return for instruction in a trade, art, or business. 2. One who is learning a trade or occupation, especially as a member of a labor union. 3. A beginner; a learner. The Free Dictionary
Journeyman: 1. One who has fully served an apprenticeship in a trade or craft and is a qualified worker in another’s employ. 2. An experienced and competent but undistinguished worker. The Free Dictionary
Master: 5. An employer. 9. A male teacher, schoolmaster, or tutor. 10. One who holds a master’s degree. 11. a. An artist or performer of great and exemplary skill. 12. A worker qualified to teach apprentices and carry on the craft independently. The Free Dictionary
Modern Roles in the Sciences:
Well-educated youth = undergraduate
Apprentice = employed undergraduate in the field of his major
Journeyman = MS (Master of Science) degree obtained, or unfunded/untenured/associate professor/”not established” PhD
Master = “established”/funded/tenured PhD/writer of grants
The process of becoming an expert in a modern field is more complicated and variable between professions. In the sciences, this process was illustrated by Matt Might below:
Matt Might aptly represents the layers of education towards gaining a PhD (doctorate in philosophy). Notice the pink circle surrounding the green one and juts out a little to the side? That’s the Bachelor’s degree. An undergraduate, like I was, studies a wide variety of topics but majors in one particular area. Today’s range and degree of undergraduate education is different from mediaeval tutoring only in that it has a specialization at all. The master’s degree (dark pink) is built upon this slight specialization with further focus. Finally the PhD (red), which with his unique discovery, punctures through the known threshold of knowledge — thus making him an expert in his field among experts. Each of the outer layers builds upon the last, more general knowledge. Right up until that last dent through the frontier of discovery, every layer is gained through schooling and mentorship with increasing autonomy and focus.
In my case, I had a well-rounded education in history and literature, language, the hard sciences, a touch of philosophy and the arts, a dash of physical education, and my major in Psychology (what some call a “soft science”) by the time I’d gained my BA (Bachelor of Arts). I felt like one of those fortunate few who were educated by many different tutors and fashioned into a well-rounded student. Of course, I also had to make a living, so I had a focus and needed to find a master to give me work in a lab. Much like an apprentice, I obtained employment and exchanged my labor to be in the same “shop” as a master (“established” PhD) and her journeymen to acquire skills and the good recommendation of my superiors.
I picked up on the vibe that the apprentices like me would someday go on to graduate school, gain our PhDs, and make our mark on the world. However, we were warned that many many of those with PhDs but are not “established” remain there (like journeymen never accepted into the guild, always serving a master) never to obtain the funding necessary to set up their own labs and get tenure or grants and have to assist with the studies created by those who do get the funding. Once published (starting with our dissertations), we would have to keep publishing until (and beyond) the point when we would be “established” as masters in our own rights. That’s why they say “publish or perish” in academia.
Modern Roles in the Arts
Now, I’m focusing my expertise on illustration, and the analogy is somewhat different when applied to this field. While the sciences require certain skills, they are institutions based on knowledge. They are more like the old medieval universities of law, medicine, and religion which required a great deal of schooling as well as mentorship dolloped on for good measure. If one chooses to practice medicine, therapy, or psychiatry (a combination of the two) this requires yet more skill and thus more mentorship and a longer period as a “journeyman”.
However the arts, while requiring certain knowledge, are institutions based on skill and the emphasis is more on mentorship. A student is first schooled in the masters before developing his own style and specialization.
Well-educated youth = undergraduate
Apprentice = MFA student prior to midpoint review and internships (roughly three semesters)* or a student of one or more masters.
Journeyman = MFA student prior to graduation* and/or prior employment or building a client base. Outside of the educational system, apprentice and journeymen are separated only by skill level and regard by the artistic community.
Master = MFA graduate* and/or with employment or client base and a mentor in the artistic community
*In the artistic field, an MFA isn’t a pre-requisite for employment and mastery (as an MS or PhD is in the sciences) and several experts are very successful without modern degrees. However, many argue that going through art school to gain a degree is a faster way to develop the skills and portfolio necessary to obtain mastery, work, a personal style, and “establishment” in the field. A Master’s degree can also be a pre-requisite for teaching, which is one of the main ways to mentor other and be paid to do so (and achieve “master” status).
For the Purposes of This Journal
The analogy isn’t perfect. The stages of apprentice, journeyman, and master don’t map perfectly to the modern stages of expertise. Being an MFA student doesn’t make me a mediaeval apprentice nor a journeyman exactly, and I won’t necessarily be a master by the time I have my…well, Masters in Fine Arts degree.
So instead, I will draw the line between apprentice and journeyman midway in my career as an MFA student. Right now, I’m a married adult with my own residence, and yet I don’t have quite the skill to work under the experts yet. I am placing myself in something like an apprenticeship under the masters until the School of Illustration at AAU decides at my midpoint review that I have the skills necessary to carry out my own project. Then I’ll regard myself as something like a journeyman. Not “established” or able to work entirely on my own, but with greater skill and autonomy than an apprentice. When I graduate I’ll be like a journeyman on the road applying to enter a guild, open my shop, and become a mentor. Once I’ve joined a guild like The Society of Illustrators as a full member, receive steady commissions and/or employment, and either teach or offer advice at conceptart.org and other communities, then I’ll consider myself a master.
I’ll be logging my journey here and offering an insider’s view of the process. Thank you for reading. If you have any thoughts on this analogy, or your experiences in school or developing your expertise, please feel welcome to comment here.
Website Updates Include:
- Updated portfolio with most recent work & higher quality images. This included photographing my charcoal drawing series under better lighting conditions than before and resizing them.
- Updated Categories for easier navigation. Categories relate to Concept Art, unless otherwise specified (ie: Personal & Educational Projects). This is the blue drop-down menu at the upper-right corner of the header. Portfolio is all-inclusive, whereas the categories below are divided by subject.
- Updated About page.
- Created new pages: What is Concept Art? and Why Concept Art? The later was the essay I submitted to the Academy of Art University for acceptance into the MFA: Illustration program.
- Updated Widgets – removed distracting elements of website and included more social network options through which to share art and blog entries.
- Prints Now Available for Purchase – with the aid of my site manager, selected prints are now available for order at Imagekind. If you would like to purchase a piece that is not available for print, contact me, and I will make it available if possible.
- Announced that I am available for commissions.
- As I work through my studio courses, beginning this January 31st, 2010, I’ll be adding and replacing artwork as I create them to reflect the most current level of my skill. These will probably be posted in chunks between major assignments or semesters. Commissions may also be included in my portfolio.
- I may make my .pdf portfolio available for download. Currently it’s available upon request.
- I may make my new CV available for download. Currently it’s available upon request.
- I plan to document the process of earning my MFA in illustration, as well as post tutorials along the way, here in my blog.
Any particular requests for site updates? What would you like to see here? What would make the site more useful to you, easier to navigate, or get in touch with me? Thanks for reading!
A year ago today, I was the lone research coordinator/assistant for a psychiatrist at Stanford University facing impending lay-off. I had feared economic instability my entire adult life and had thought that full-time work in the sciences and research would keep me securely employed; and here I was facing exactly what I had planned to avoid. I’d received formal notice that by the end of March I’d be grouped with the 10% of unemployed Americans.
Today, I am a new MFA candidate at the Academy of Art University School of Illustration with a primary focus on Concept Art for games. I’m happy I was laid off from research coordination!
It turned out that my lay-off was the beginning of a clusterwin, a simultaneous chain of positive events. At around the time I was informed of the life-expectancy of my job, the special edition of Mass Effect 2 arrived in the mail, complete with the art-book for the game’s pre-production. I had seen concept art before, even created some, but the illustration of the Illusive Man that made a profound impression on me:
The original title in the Mass Effect trilogy set a new standard for emotionally engaging digital actors. To push the quality bar even higher, the art team painstakingly developed sophisticated concepts and new technologies for the characters of Mass Effect 2. Personalities and back stories were woven into every detail of the designs, and several characters were born out of production paintings like this one of the Illusive Man. Capturing more than just his appearance, the painting portrays a moment that defines the spirit of the character.
– Mass Effect 2 Collectors’ Edition
This is it! I thought. This is what I want to do.
I realized that Concept Art is the synergy of everything I had done before and everything I wanted to do. It is my calling. I conferred with family in the entertainment business who then referred me to friends at Alligator Planet LLC who in turn gave me an invaluable start. I enlisted in art classes at the local community college and applied myself – earning a 4.0 GPA and building a portfolio over the course of the year. I received feedback and encouragement from my peers and instructors in school to make the leap. Joe Ragey, who taught me about storyboards and using Corel Painter to create digital art, gave me particularly valuable information about which art schools to apply for.
I investigated the schools, compared my options, conferred with admissions representatives at different schools, debated between shooting for a second BA or an MFA, assembled my [download id=”3″], held my breath, and clicked the button. It was December, and I’d submitted my application to join the Illustration School Graduate Program at the Academy of Art University in Spring 2011. A week later I heard from my admissions representative that the Director of the program had not only accepted me as a student, despite how I didn’t come from a formal background in the arts, but he also waived one of my required classes!
I can’t fully express the feeling I had at that moment, let alone the feeling I continue to have. Needless to say, I am beside myself with excitement for this opportunity, to immerse in artwork, and work towards my calling. It’s going to be very difficult and very challenging, and that’s exactly what I need from school. Here’s to a new year, and a new career!