Go To School Or Learn CG At Home?
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Feb 19th 2014

This topic came up the other day, and I figured I'd expand upon it here. With so many training DVDs and online resources (like Gnomon, CDW, Digital Tutors, etc), is there still a reason to go to a brick and mortar school if you want to be a professional CG artist? Or can you learn enough on your own at home?

First, full disclosure, I didn't go to school for 3D. 3D computer graphics was still a pretty new field at the time and there weren't many schools teaching it as a degree. So I got a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Design, mostly Photoshop, illustrator, drawing, painting, art history, color theory, that sort of stuff. I learned all of my 3D stuff at home through experimenting with the software and through online forums on CompuServe and later the web. So I'm sorta school and self taught.

Now back to the main question. In my opinion, I think of it a little like the Kahn Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/ One of the main principals it was founded on was this: We're doing education backwards. We have students in the class for lectures, and then we give them homework. The way we should be doing it is recording the lectures and have the kids watch them at home, and then homework is done in class where the teachers can answer questions. And that's how I feel about learning CG. The lecture portion of learning in general can be covered using stuff like Gnomon DVDs, but the interactive portion, the lab time, the questions, the critique, that's something that's still best taught in a class environment.

Here's a few specific advantages that going to an actual school gives...

1) Building Your Mental Visual Library: On facebook, if you like something, you hit the like button. As you like more things, facebook starts to only show you things similar to what you've liked. Which is great in one respect, you get more of what you're interested in. But the danger is that you end up having a very narrow focus of knowledge, experience and visual reference. Art history classes are good for getting a very broad understanding of a lot of different types of art. Which is important, so if you need to make something outside of your current focus, you've at least got some idea where to start. Art directors also are always referencing art movements and artists, good to know who these artists and movements are are ahead of time so you can communicate more effectively with the person in charge. And also, some topic may not be that interesting to you by themselves, but by taking small elements from this and that (say Cubism) and incorporating it into the stuff you love (say Scifi robots), it adds variety and possibly a brand new style that differentiates you from the other people who have a more narrow focus. While it's possible to force yourself to have a broad focus online, many online sites are doing their best to narrow your focus, so if you go to an actual art history class, you're forcing yourself to broaden that focus.

2) Motivation: Humans are pack animals, they generally want to interact and impress others in the pack, so when you're in a class with a bunch of other like minded people, there's motivation to actually work hard on your art. This is the computer lab experience, a whole bunch of people in a computer lab together at 2am that gives you motivation to get stuff done. That motivation may be more difficult to come by sitting at home. You can get some of this by posting your artwork in forums and such, but it's not as immediate as putting that piece of work up on the classroom wall and getting immediate feedback.

3) Answering Questions: In a school, the teacher is a professional artist whose JOB it is to answer your questions, as opposed to a professional online who may not have the time to answer your questions. Things like animation mentor can help replace this.

4) Critiques: While you can get your work critiqued online, you never know for sure who's critiquing you. Are these critiques coming from someone who is a professional? Or someone who may not know as much? The signal to noise ratio is different on the internet than it is in a school. Also, in the professional world, a lot of critiques happen face to face, so if you're only used to critiques online, you may not react as well when you are critiqued in person. A big chunk of doing well in this industry is how you react when someone tells you to your face that your work sucks and changes need to be made. And the only way to get used to that is to be critiqued in person and see how other professionals take critique in person.

5) Work In A Team: This may not apply to you as much if your plan is to be a concept artist working freelance from home, but if you're planning on working at a company with more than a couple of employees, you need to be able to work as part of a team. Many life lessons there, including how to sometimes do the non-sexy work because it needs to get done, how to ask things of other people, how to manage people and schedules, these are all important and very difficult to simulate unless you're a part of an actual team. In school projects can help simulate that environment. This is something you can also learn in other places than school, but learn it you must.

6) Equipment: Not everyone has tons of money, and for many having good equipment and access to software is expensive. Even if you have a great computer at home, do you have your own renderfarm? If not, a school probably does and going to a school gives you access to this.

7) Networking: You meet other people who themselves will get jobs, and may recommend you for a job if they liked you and your work at school. You don't necessarily need a real school for this, my first job I got because people saw my work online and offered me a job, but the more people out there you network with, the better a chance you have of landing work.

8) Work Visa: If you plan on getting work in a country other than your own, many work visas are easier to get if you have a degree in your field. Whether this is fair or not isn't the issue, it's the reality of the situation so having a degree from a real live school can be helpful. Some companies like you having a degree as well, but the vast majority don't care, they just want to see your portfolio.

Anyways, a few thoughts, hopefully this didn't come across too much like a "stay in school" PSA. You can succeed and not go to school (I have a few good friends who are very successful in this field and barely passed High School), but it's important to know the things you give up if you choose to make that decision.

Thanks to Kat and Roderick for some extra input.

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