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how to get into art school

So you've decided you want a career in Illustration. Maybe you've already looked into schools and thought about which one is most to your liking. Congratulations! The hardest part is over!

But now, the scary part: how do you actually get into art school?

When I got my high school degree I was 17. By then, I had known for quite a while that I wanted to be an artist and work in animation, so obtaining an education in this field had been my top priority for years. Animated movies had fascinated me since I was a little girl, and I promised myself I wouldn't stop until I had learned how to create the magic that I saw on the screen. I had seen all the movies, studied all the behind-the-scenes and background information I could find, followed every animator who had a blog on the Internet. My actual homework suffered quite a lot from all the time I spent drawing and researching animation, but my art teachers in high school helped me put a portfolio together. So, when I got my degree and applied for the animation program of two Dutch art schools, I felt more than ready.

But I didn't get in.

I was devastated. I had never even anticipated this outcome. This was my dream, the way it was supposed to be. What should I do now?

Neither one of the schools gave me an explanation why I wasn't accepted. Another degree programme wasn't an option: this was what I was meant to be doing. But sitting at home and try again next year wasn't either: I lived with my parents, who expected me to either study, or get a job.

So, the next day, I applied for a fulltime job as a waitress in a pancake restaurant, which was the worst job in the world, but I could start straight away. When I had time off, I visited museums and worked harder on my portfolio. I found out one of the art schools, the Willem de Kooning Academie in Rotterdam, had a weekly prep course every Wednesday evening for anyone who wanted to get in to art school.


It was there that I discovered my portfolio was total crap.


Not my work per seé. At the Willem de Kooning Academie, people told me I had technical skills and talent. But the problem was, I mostly applied with portraits and paintings of people. No sketches, wonky animations made in Windows Movie Maker, storyboards, not even a tiny comic. I had shown zero potential in storytelling, creativity or directing abilities. I had just shown up with a bunch of technically decent, but very boring portraits of people (including some embarrasing fanart of BBC's Sherlock).

Now, for some art schools, this might be enough to get into illustration, design or even fine art. It depends on the philosophy of the art school in particular, but also in which country you're applying. In the Netherlands, art schools tend to be more focused on concepts rather than skills. You can be a lousy drafstman, but have wacky ideas. Their vision is that your skills can be built along the way, but if you don't have exciting ideas, you will only draw pretty, boring pictures. Which was exactly what I'd shown them!

During that year I realised I liked drawing better than learning animation techniques (which in my mind at that time, sounded rather technical, but that's another story), so I figured I should switch to Illustration. The next year, I applied for the Illustration programme of three art schools with a new portfolio.

I got accepted into all three!

I was so happy, but if I had known before what I know now, I might not have needed that extra year to apply for my studies. I just didn't know what I was expected to show people, and my high school art teachers had been out of the art school application game for so long, that they gave me outdated information. I'd love to spare you the hassle of guessing what art school teachers want to see, so here's some advice if you're interested in applying:

Tips for a great illustration portfolio

  • Sketches. Sketches, sketches, sketches. Teachers loooove to see the process. Don't think about your portfolio as something final and definite. You want to get into art school to learn, after all. For every finished product, try to save some works in progress so you can show them what went on in your mind while making it.

  • Be flexible. Sadly, art schools aren't usually a fan of manga, fan art or cartoons. They want to accept students with their own voice and ideas, so try to show them a little bit of you. They don't like fixed styles either, because in order for you to grow, you need to be open minded at first about your work. The idea is that during your years in art school, your work will grow naturally through critique and feedback.

  • Focus on extra work. Sometimes art schools send you small assignments beforehand. This is to test your ability to meet a deadline and come up with an original idea in a short time. Don't worry, this does NOT need to be your masterpiece. They usually send out the same assignment every year, so they've seen thousands of takes on the same subject. It's just to eliminate the students who can't finish a project in time or can't come up with an idea of their own.

  • Show your versatility. It doesn't matter if you do comics, murals, paintings, ceramics, websites - show everything! Versatility only means you're enthusiastic and willing to try new stuff, two things which are very important to an illustrator. Don't worry about projects not 'matching' with eachother, that's not expected of you. The whole point of art school is figuring out what your thing is and what isn't.

  • Prepare for questions. Sometimes, teachers want to have a little interview with you to get to know your thought process. This is scary, but they really want to know if you've thought about your choices in the process of making an illustration. There's no real good or bad answer, but be prepared to explain your work.

tips for a great animation portfolio

Even though I failed to create a good animation portfolio (let alone a great one), in hindsight I can give you a few insights:

  • Focus on storytelling. Animators do not necessarily have to be good illustrators or tech geeks. Don't worry if things are 'ugly' or technically incorrect. Teachers are trying to see if you have a good eye for story and setting a scene, so focus on that. If you find it hard writing your own stories (like me!), give your own take on an existing story, poem or fairy tale, or take inspiration from real life.

  • Don't worry about fancy showreels or finished work yet. A lot of animators I got to know in school didn't even have moving pictures when they applied. If you don't have the tools to try animation before art school, try show them in other ways you've got feeling for storytelling. Work on storyboards, comics or even oldschool flipbooks to show you've got a passion for animation!

I could go on for hours, but I hope these tips can help you start prepare for your application. If you have more questions, please feel free to respond! And remember, you don't have to figure it all out on the first day. I thought I was pretty smart and knew exactly where I was heading. But there's so much to learn on the way!

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