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Do you need an art degree if you already have a strong portfolio?

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In this episode of Game Industry Career Guide Podcast, I answer a question from Mihai, who asks “I have a question regarding game art colleges. I’ve watched Marc Brunet and other artist’s videos and they strongly advised us not to attend any colleges as long as our portfolio is as strong as the Industry demands. Would you recommend attending a game art college if I already have a game studio quality portfolio?”

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Whether you can get a job as a game artist without a degree
  • Why an art degree doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a job… or that you’ll be a good artist
  • How to get real, candid feedback on your art skills

If you have a question you'd like to get answered on the podcast, leave a comment below or ask me anything here.

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Hello and welcome to the Game Industry Career Podcast, this is episode number 34. I’m Jason W. Bay from gameindustrycareerguide.com and this is the podcast where I answer your questions about getting a job and growing your career making video games.

Today’s question is from Mihai, who you might remember from episode 28 of the podcast. This time Mihai’s question is about getting an art degree. He wrote to ask this: “I have a question regarding game art colleges. I’ve watched Marc Brunet and other artist’s videos and they strongly advised us not to attend any colleges, as long as our portfolio is strong as the industry demands. Would you recommend attending a game art college if I all ready have a game studio quality portfolio?”

This is an excellent question that many aspiring artists wonder about, because art school can be super expensive. Why spend all of that money on an art degree if you’re all ready a strong artist, and can get a job at a game studio without it?

Degree, or No Degree?

Well, the first step in answering this question is to verify whether an artist can actually get a job making games without a degree. It only takes a little bit of research to confirm that yes, there actually are artists in the game industry who don’t have art degrees. But I went on to LinkedIn just now, and looked at the profiles for a random sampling of about a dozen game artists that I know personally. And actually, every one of them does have an art education of some sort listed on their profile.

It does vary quite a bit. To name a few, I see Tim with an associate degree in Computer Animation. Maxx has a Film education, Lisa got a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Media and Animation, and Elaine has a bachelor’s degree in Digital Arts. But I also spotted a couple of my friends who have a less traditional education including Anthony, who has a certificate in 3D Design and Multimedia, so it’s not a degree but it’s a certificate program. And Eric, who appears to have gone through a number of formal mentorship courses, including Animation Mentor, iAnimate.net, the Motivarti Mentorship program, and AnimSquad Animation. So a whole bunch of different online programs, but none of them are formal, traditional art degrees.

That’s just a random sampling of some artists that I know, but I think it’s good evidence that some sort of formal education can influence your success as an artist in games.

What’s in a Degree, Anyway?

So if that’s true — that an art education can help you get a game art job and contribute to your success at that job — why might that be the case? What is it about an education in art that’s so impactful?

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Well, first of all, having some formal art education on your resume can send a signal to hiring managers, because it signals to them that you have a certain level of drive and commitment that they’re looking for in an artist. It tells them that you have follow through; that you’re serious about your career choice; that you can be a productive member of a team; and that you’ve probably stretched your art skills in ways that self taught artists might not have tried, because art school makes you do all sorts of projects that you probably wouldn’t have tried if you were just doing it on your own.

If all of that is true, then why are talented and successful artists like Marc Brunet telling people that maybe you don’t need to go to art school after all? Well, I haven’t personally heard Marc speak about the subject, so I won’t speculate on what his reasoning might be. You can find a lot of his work just on YouTube or just search for “Marc Brunet”, and you’ll find his stuff. But I’m guessing that part of his argument is that going to art school doesn’t guarantee that you’ll become a talented artist. If you start out with talent, and you already have worked hard on your art by the time you get to an age where you might go to art school, art school can help you get to the next level. But here’s the dirty little secret about art schools: Art schools are businesses. And it’s not good business to flunk out students who aren’t talented. So even if you’re not particularly talented at art, the school might be content to just keep taking your money even if you suck at art. That’s why every year art schools award degrees to hundreds or maybe thousands of graduates who maybe aren’t actually very good. And those graduates are now stuck with big loans and a tough road ahead of them as they struggle to get jobs with subpar art skills.

Art Portfolio to the Rescue

But that’s where the art portfolio comes in. If you have a strong portfolio, then an art director or other hiring manager at a game studio can look at your portfolio, and they can see right away whether you have the talent and range that they might be looking to hire. And it doesn’t take an expensive art degree to build a strong portfolio. If you’re talented, and self motivated, and you work hard on your art every day, and you use the learning resources and art communities that are available online to critique your work, and constantly improve, there is a chance that an art degree won’t help you much — or, at least, it won’t help you enough to be worth the major time and expense that you need to put into it. But that’s the catch; you’ve got to have a strong enough portfolio.

How do you know if your portfolio is strong enough? You need to get some candid, real feedback from people who have the experience to evaluate your portfolio. One thing you can do is reach out to some artists or hiring managers that are already in the game industry, and ask them for feedback. Game artists are a tight-knit community, so it should be easy to find artists who’d like to help you out with a portfolio review. I’m sure other people helped them out, and they’d like to pay it forward.

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You could also post to one of the many online art communities and ask for feedback there. I’m not sure you’d get very candid feedback from random people on forums, but you’ll get some good tips. And you might need to read between the lines a little bit to hear what they’re really saying about your portfolio overall. Or look, you could go the direct route and just start applying to game art jobs, and see whether you get called back. If you don’t get called back, or if you get some interest but you don’t get offers, try asking the art director that you applied to why she didn’t pick you. It might be that your portfolio needs work. And if you keep asking, that director might even give you some specific and usable feedback that you can turn around and use to improve your portfolio.

One place that you probably shouldn’t go for feedback is to your friends and your family. They’re probably not going to be candid with you about your artwork. In fact, they might be the very people that have been telling you for years how awesome you are, so they can’t be trusted. You need to go to other more experienced artists who will give you the hard truth even if it might hurt; your friends and family probably aren’t going to do that.

Whatever you do, do it right away though, because this decision of whether to skip college, it’s a pretty big life decision that should not be taken lightly.

Okay, that covers some pros and cons of art school with some advice on getting feedback on your portfolio before you decide that art school isn’t necessary. Thanks to Mihai for the second awesome question that I’ve answered on this podcast from him. And thank you for hanging out with me today. Please help me spread the word by telling your friends about the podcast, and by sharing it on social media. And if you have a question of your own, you can always stop by the website and leave a comment or send me an email, and I’ll answer it on a future episode.

For more information and inspiration on getting a job and growing your career making video games, visit me at gameindustrycareerguide.com. I’m Jason W. Bay, I will see you again next week right here on the Game Industry Career Guide Podcast.

Read my new book!

Making games for a living is an incredibly rewarding career, but it’s hard to break in unless you have insider knowledge. This book levels the playing field.

READ: Start Your Video Game Career

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2 comments on “Do you need an art degree if you already have a strong portfolio?
  1. Libby Jones says:

    What are some of the best laptops for a video game designer, or some of the preffered requirements?

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