Can You Learn to Draw at Art College?

What follows in this post is informed by my own art college experience – both as an undergraduate student and instructor – along with several years worth of hindsight. While the state of affairs I describe here persists at many art schools to this day, I'm aware that it's not universal. Younger readers, in particular, may have had quite different experiences at their respective colleges as the art education landscape changes. I hope that trend continues.

Is it possible to learn how to draw while at an art college?

To the uninitiated, this may sound like a silly question. Out of all the options for learning to draw, a proper art college would seem like a safe bet.

But it’s not that simple.

Back when I was enrolled in a full-time, four-year undergraduate program at a legitimate art college, I struggled to find quality instruction in observational drawing and painting. To my surprise, most of the faculty couldn’t draw well themselves. The few capable teachers that I did find were just as frustrated as I was because the powers-that-be – the people who ran the Drawing and Painting Department – just didn’t care about representational art. And they got to choose the curriculum.

Unfortunately, my experience isn’t an isolated one. I’ve lost count of how many other representational artists I’ve spoken with about this over the years. And almost all of them recounted similar experiences with the same forlorn expression on their faces.

“I think this would look better in four pieces,” he said. Then he tore the painting in half, twice, before handing it back to her.

I was aghast.

Here's how bad it can get: I remember vividly as one of my classmates burst into tears following a disheartening exchange with a full-time faculty member at our school. In what was perhaps a misguided move on her part, my classmate approached him for advice on a watercolor landscape that she had painted. This teacher was notoriously hostile to representational work, but even so, his response was cruel.

“I think this would look better in four pieces,” he said. Then he tore the painting in half, twice, before handing it back to her.

I was aghast.

How on earth could this happen? In this post, I’ll try to explain the recent state of representational drawing instruction at most art colleges. Then I’ll make a case for why that might be changing, and how all of this may impact you.

“Art” is a Big Word

First off, as an art teacher myself, I have to say I’m sympathetic to the plight of today’s art colleges because they have a huge responsibility: Teaching “art.”

In the 21st century, the word “art” has so many definitions and encompasses so many disciplines that trying to include them all into one institution is a herculean task. As the art world expands to include new and exciting media like 3D video and virtual reality, it’s not surprising, I suppose, that something as dusty and “old school” as drawing would take a back seat. After all, most schools – even the expensive ones – are working with limited resources, which forces them to prioritize what they teach.

But there’s more to it than that.

When compared to state-of-the-art photography facilities or computer labs, a drawing or painting studio is pretty cheap to maintain. So, it can’t simply be a matter of limited resources.

To fully understand the recent state of drawing and painting instruction at the college level, it’s important to take a look back at history.

The Rise of Modernism

Representational art wasn’t always as disrespected as it has been in recent decades. In fact, it played a central role in western society for millennia.

Dating as far back as ancient Egypt (and much further if we consider pre-historic cave paintings), most representational art was religious or ceremonial in nature. Its goal was to illustrate the stories of myth or scripture.

Illustration of any kind was dismissed as quaint and corny – a nostalgic throw-back to simpler times.

The latter half of the 19th century, however, saw a radical shift in the art world. Thanks to industrialization, society changed at a rapid pace that was at times exciting and also deeply frightening. These changes were so profound that many artists felt they needed an entirely new way of making and thinking about art. As a consequence, “Modernism” was born.

Modernism rejected representation in art. Illustration of any kind was dismissed as quaint and corny – a nostalgic throw-back to simpler times. By the 1960s, abstraction became the default mode of painting.

But abstract art was more difficult for laypeople to understand and digest than traditional representational work. In order to appreciate this kind of art, a knowledge of art theory and criticism is really necessary. Otherwise, it’s hard to find meaning and context. This state of affairs persists today, where much “post-modern” or “contemporary” artwork is inscrutable to all but a relatively small circle of informed insiders.

Art schools were not immune to this shift.

As modernism picked up steam, university-level art schools felt increasing pressure to discard traditional ideas and methods to stay relevant. Eventually, nearly all of them did.

For the past few decades, post-secondary art schools have de-emphasized the importance of teaching students to draw and paint what they see. As a result, much of the faculty at art colleges (at least when I was enrolled) were never taught to draw well themselves and couldn’t teach their own students to do so – even if they wanted to. Over the years, this led to a vicious cycle where fewer and fewer people taught or learned how to draw.

The Rise of “Credentialism”

As modernism took hold and began to disrupt university-affiliated art schools, those that were not connected to a university soon began to feel a different kind of pressure.

You see, many art colleges used to be considered “trade schools” that didn’t offer degrees. They focused on training. Artists and illustrators weren’t expected to emerge from school with a B.F.A. Instead, the goal of these trade schools was to provide solid instruction that helped students develop a skill set and a strong portfolio of work.

Following the Second World War, however, the United States experienced a broad societal shift that was initiated by a boom in young people seeking post-secondary education. The resulting glut of university-educated workers drastically changed the labor market. By the 1970s, due to competition from well-educated applicants, professions that once offered good prospects to those without a degree all but required one. With the concurrent decline in manufacturing jobs, available career options for anyone without a college degree were greatly diminished.

The demand for even more qualifications has led to a curious phenomenon known as “credentialism” or “degree inflation,” where employers look for ever-higher qualifications for the same jobs.

All of this worked together to make degrees appear more valuable. By the time I was a teenager, applying to university had become the default expectation for nearly all students that were graduating from high school.

Today, many are inclined to distrust any professional who doesn’t have at least a bachelor’s degree. In fact, a bachelor’s degree may not be enough. The demand for even more qualifications has led to a curious phenomenon known as “credentialism” or “degree inflation,” where employers look for ever-higher qualifications for the same jobs.

By the 1990s, independent art schools were feeling the heat. If they wanted to attract quality applicants (and charge them accordingly) they’d have to start offering degrees, too. As a result, most major art colleges have already transitioned exclusively to four-year bachelor’s and even master’s degree programs.

Art Training Isn’t Prioritized In Academic Degree Programs

This transition to degree programs brought profound changes to art school curricula. Many accrediting authorities – the organizations that decide what schools can grant degrees – require bachelor’s degree programs to be built around a core curriculum that is usually academic in nature. In other words, the old “trade school” model that focused on teaching practical skills is no longer sufficient. To comply with these requirements, art colleges now make significant academic demands of their students.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Core requirements exist to ensure students get a broad base of knowledge that helps them become thoughtful, articulate people. Having studied politics and history myself in university, I believe the humanities are important.

But for students looking to develop their drawing and painting skills, this kind of school work doesn’t actually help them meet their goals. The time spent writing papers detracts significantly from the time one could spend in the studio.

If observational drawing and painting skills aren’t important anyway, as the core tenets of modernism suggest, then the sacrifice of studio training is no loss.

And yet, art schools are happy to comply. Art theory and criticism now play a central role in the art world. Students seeking to participate in that dialogue need to spend plenty of time reading and learning to speak about their work in a contemporary critical context. If observational drawing and painting skills aren’t important anyway, as the core tenets of modernism suggest, then the sacrifice of studio training is no loss.

So, this is where we are. Many art colleges don’t appear to teach traditional drawing and painting skills because:

  • Such skills aren’t valued at these institutions and haven’t been for decades
  • Degree programs emphasize academics, often at the expense of practical training

Things Are Improving

So what is a would-be representational artist to do? There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic:

Credentialism May Have Peaked

Recent hiring trends suggest that getting a degree isn’t the sacred cow it used to be. Big tech companies, like Apple and Google, have recently changed their hiring policies to accept applicants without post-secondary degrees. They’ve determined that top talent doesn’t always come from colleges and universities anymore. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

While I’m no fortune teller, I anticipate this trend will continue and spread to other fields as the cost of post-secondary education spirals to absurd heights (at least in the United States). This will no doubt have an impact on art schools. After all, is that B.F.A. really worth the lifetime of crushing debt that may come with it?

In the near future, I believe the frequent answer will be “no.”

There Are Good Options Outside of Art College

Art college isn’t the only (or even the best) option for those seeking instruction in representational art. Private art studios and “ateliers” have flourished over the last 20 years because they provide thousands of hungry students what art colleges haven’t: solid, skills-based practical training in representational drawing and painting.

In fact, some of today’s most respected realist painters didn’t learn their craft at college at all, but rather under the guidance of a specific, like-minded artist or group of artists.

Many private studio schools offer programs of study that are as rigorous and demanding as most would expect college to be, with some even requiring full-time, four-year commitments. However, these schools are unencumbered by the requirements of accrediting authorities and are free to teach their students what they judge to be important. This model is more like the trade schools of old.

While students attending such schools don’t receive a degree, they do emerge with a strong skill set in representational drawing and painting, which is what they were seeking in the first place.

This type of art institution is gaining credibility. After all, if degree requirements continue to loosen, lacking a degree may not be the liability that it once was.

Art Colleges Are Coming Around

Learn to draw at art college

Representational work has enjoyed a bit of a come back in recent years. Painters like Jenny Saville, Eric Fischl, and Kehinde Wiley have cracked the upper echelons of the contemporary art market with unapologetically figurative paintings. As a result, art schools that champion figuartive work, like the New York Academy of Art, are enjoying their time in the sun, while those that have sneered at representation for decades are starting to reconsider.

Another factor that contributes to this changing opinion is the incoming faculty at art colleges. These days, due in no small part to the recent popularity of private studio schools, a larger percentage of newly hired faculty have a stronger background in traditional techniques compared to their predecessors. These teachers thus have more to offer students seeking that kind of instruction in college.

These are reasons to be hopeful for students seeking both representational art instruction and a four-year art college experience.

Over to You

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever attended an art college? If so, what was your experience? Share in the comments below.

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  1. Has anyone found any schools that teach more traditional skills? I’m a high school teacher looking to recommend one of my students some great schools to go to for visual art, but I personally had a similar experience to all of you and don’t have much to offer her.

  2. Hi I have just completed my foundation year at ulster University in belfast. I have decided not to continue into my fine art degree after seeing the curriculum. I personally want to learn to draw and paint and have realises UU does not offer that. I’m looking into Atelier art schools but am finding it hard to get a loan to support me through it.

  3. This article is so sad but also so very reminiscent of my own experiences. The only practical skill I was taught during my BA was how to make a stretcher and stretch my own canvases. There was no other practical tuition on the whole degree course. I didn’t realise at the time but now I feel totally ripped off, paying thousands of pounds for what was essentially a reading list. I was always more of a realist painter and so when my colleagues who leaned more towards abstraction were getting all of the tutor attention I felt a bit like a leper, now of course I realise that they didn’t appreciate the skill/talent to pull off some of the works I produced and they didn’t have the grounding themselves to even talk about it in a way that would benefit my progression. Universities should make it far more clear what the curriculum they offer entails then perhaps people like me who want to learn proper skills not just concepts can make a more informed choice. I hope your right and that things are changing.

  4. David, I studied at a prestigious midwestern art school in the late seventies. (I was in a BFA program, but unfortunately lost my funding after two years and had to drop out.) This school was exploring all the new trends and technologies of the time, but was still grounded in traditional representational drawing, painting and sculpture. However, I am unaware of the direction the school has taken in the last forty years. It would be sad if they had chucked the traditional representational art to embrace “art” with a brief history and few natural references.

  5. Thank you so much for your article. It’ is very important to me because I’m an art teacher in California, I’m Russian, I try to teach classical academical drawing, and I know so much about all these problems you mentioned. All the time I try to understand what’s going on – and I see that it’s different mindset already, I need to explain why people need to know how to draw if they want to draw)) And I’d say the most important point here, point that would solve the contradiction between traditional and contemporary art – and actually I don’t see the contradiction but people usually do – so, the point is that you only need to know HOW to draw – after that, you can draw everything you want – abstract, contemporary, etc. You don’t have to stay traditional. And this drawing mastery is just a tool. But an essential tool.
    I’m sorry for arrogance to add my own beliefs here, but I’m so happy to meet like-minded))

  6. I didn’t attend art school but it was always a sort of fantasy alternate reality i would imagine from time to time. Then i made friends with someone who was doing an MFA in painting at the university where i was studying and i excitedly quizzed him about his experience. He was doing representational painting and described a completely hostile and ridiculous environment. For example when students were required to exhibit their ongoing work in a kind of group critique/workshop, one girl put a blank canvas on the floor, made several cuts on her body with a razor blade, and then rolled around on the canvas until it was smeared with blood. That was it, and an explanation about the patriarchy. The teacher applauded wildly.
    Needless to say he cured me of any art school envy i had.

  7. I started a Fine Art degree in the UK years ago, but left after the life drawing course was axed, and after one of the tutors dragged an old stained mattress in for us to paint on…I decided to study on my own…!

  8. I signed up for a summer drawing class at the local community college. Coming to the experience as a highly motivated adult I was prepared for a disparity in the level of enthusiasm among my younger classmates who were just there to gain another couple of ‘easy’ units. What I wasn’t prepared for was the lack of enthusiasm from the instructor! He showed a few of his artworks on the first day to, I guess, establish his credentials and then we spent the next two months drawings objects that he placed in the middle of a room with fluorescent lighting placed 10 feet above at the ceiling. He never once placed a light that would simplify the scene as far as negative space, cast shadows, reflected light, etc were concerned. We were left to ‘imagine’ the qualities that would result in a satisfying drawing; very much more frustrating for the youngsters. I was able to process more info in thirty minutes of the instruction in a Vitruvian course…grrr…still irritates me. I’m afraid you folks bear some of the responsibility for exposing him as a lazy fraud.

    1. It’s an all-too-common situation, Rich. I’m sorry to hear it, but thanks for sharing. And I’m glad to hear you found our courses helpful 🙂

  9. Hi David.
    interesting article, as you actually come to a similar conclusion like me, when researching how the art education has developed in Germany. Not necessarily only modernism, but also the drive to do it differently than the previous generation forced the removal of art from unis. The baby boomers in Germany downright refused art promoted during the 3rd Reich – which was mainly representational. They plainly refused to paint realistically. What followed was the vicious circle of removing traditional art education from schools. Only in Leipzig, the traditional art education prevailed and is still respected (with a eastern German twist). Reason being that the GDR was occupied by the Sowiets and an open discussion about Nazi-favoured art did not happen. Painting happily ever after. Today, the only serious drawing schools are run by former Russian/east block artists who emigrated to Germany – like 3 of them in the whole of Germany. Everything else is more or less reduced to communication or graphic design, including some Illustration if you are lucky. Unfortunately, I am a little too old to switch career, which
    leaves ‘art’ as a hobby. I try to patch together my own findings from all over the internet – which takes time, but is an experience itself. though very frustrating at times 🙂
    Please keep up the interesting blogs – profound information. And excuse my typos. Had to rush the reply. Take care. Michael

    1. That’s fascinating, Michael. I honestly don’t know much about post-war political influences on art preferences in Europe, but what you say makes a lot of sense. This sounds like an interesting topic for further exploration. Many thanks.

  10. Thank you David, this has explained a lot, including my current experience of instructors at a local art group being disparaging of representational art in general. And all of them come into the category of ‘seniors’, so the attitude prevails even in the post-retirement age group. In addition, last summer, I attended a weekend painting course at which the instructor, a professional artist in her mid-forties, told the students with regret that she hadn’t been taught to draw at art school. I didn’t understand this, as I’ve always thought the ability to accurately transfer onto paper or canvas what you see is the hallmark of an artist. Now I know. Most enlightening.

    1. Hi Kate,

      I’m glad it was enlightening. I think the regret you cite from your instructor is quite common among artists of my generation. I was fortunate in that I managed to find stumbled backwards into what I needed, but it took me a couple of years at art college to fully realize that I wasn’t going to get it there. I was lucky to be able to quit and seek instruction elsewhere, but that option simply wasn’t available for most. After all, once you’re 2 years into your college education, it’s hard to walk away and start over – particularly if student loans are involved.

      Today, there are more options which make the shortcomings of art college less constricting.