Plot-twist: I have always been a science student since the day I learnt about photosynthesis from my brother’s textbook, all the way until the A levels.
No kidding, the first day I stepped into art school, I was feeling apprehensive inside out and was thinking to myself if I should make a U-turn. I have never been formally trained in art, apart from compulsory lower secondary school art classes, where I was a consistent B student. So taking that first step into art school,to learn about art and design, was more than a little terrifying.
Just a little background about me: at ‘O’ levels, I took the triple sciences combination. At ‘A’ levels, I was in the science stream, studying H2 biology, chemistry and mathematics. Although I have always been a science student, it didn’t stop me from nurturing my passion for art. Instead, it drove me to seek outlets and opportunities to fulfill my creative ambitions, whether it was to design t-shirts or to animate the ketones on my chemistry notes.
So, it wasn’t a sudden, random ‘jump’ from the science stream to an art school, but it was a leap nonetheless. If you’re like me, I’m writing this article for you, to help you with the same dilemma I faced last year with offers into business schools on one hand, and a chance to pursue a Bachelors of Fine arts (BFA) at NTU’s School of Art, Design and Media (ADM) in another. I was accepted into ADM in the end, and I haven’t looked back since.
I will be specialising in Visual Communication in ADM, so you might find overlap when I talk about art and design, but I believe that they are interlinked.
The three reasons why I chose art school and why you should too
First of all, it’s not because I hate studying science or math or any other subject! In fact, science still remains fascinating to me. You don’t have to hate bananas to know that you like eating apples; you can like both of them. It has always been an inclination to me, being someone who has always lived a second life in my mind with melodramatic music playing in the background on train rides. I’ve always learnt by amplifying my experience of the world – visualizing reactions between chemicals to be like particles embracing one another, or writing poetry about the mysterious life of the pigeons I see at Raffles Place. So it seemed most natural for me to study what I was inclined towards.
Developing your eye
Secondly, I recognise that the Internet can school you, via tutorials on YouTube or other websites. But what an actual school offers is a 4-year (or how many years the course you’re looking at takes) mentorship program that teaches you to teach yourself, think critically about visual decisions (e.g. whether a certain element in a design should be red, blue or black), all under the guidance of an experienced teacher with a keen sense of aesthetic and design. Being a good artist or designer often involves more than ground-level skills – to know how to solve problems means knowing whether it should be red, blue or black, not just knowing how to change it on a software.
Last but not least, being in art school allows you to meet more like-minded peers and connect with an extensive network of alumni. Through the school, you will also get more opportunities to attend shows or conferences you might not know of otherwise. Being in the same room as great artists or designers and having your perceptions challenged consistently for 4 years is a truly invaluable experience that cannot be replicated.
My experience in school
As someone who has never been in an art school, it has definitely been very eye opening. My mind was blown in virtually every lesson. Of course, my brain has since learnt to buffer the shock and excitement, though it doesn’t lessen my fascination.
Foundation year and specialisation
It is daunting to have little background in art, but the curriculum of my course is such that we go through a year of foundation studies before specialising. This is especially important for someone like me who doesn’t have a background in art, as it has provided me room to explore what I might be good at, before I make a decision on what I would like to focus on.
I was also quite worried about grading because (1) I’m not as strong as other students in terms of technique, and (2) I would overvalue the grade. But I’ve realised that most of the teachers have emphasised on how much I’ve developed as an artist, rather than simply how good I am at my art. This puts me on an equal playing field as my friends from polytechnics or the JC art elective program.
It makes me believe that if you’re willing to be steadfast in your pursuit of knowledge and application, being in school has a lot to offer. As someone without a background in art, this pushed me beyond simply wanting to get an A – which is not the point of school (although if you learn and do good work, grades become a reflection of that). The school environment is like a trampoline – you can and should fall and make mistakes, for it helps you to reach greater heights.
Choosing your modules and electives
The plus point of being in NTU would be the electives that we can take. For example, you can be an art major, but take a minor in business, which can give you a better understanding of how to market your work and understand your rights as an artist.
Also, when you choose your modules in ADM, you can also decide which teacher you would like (though it is on a first-come-first-serve basis). Different teachers are better in different areas because of their experience, so being able to choose is helpful when you’re deciding on what area you would like to focus on.
Nature of content
It is interesting to be studying art in Singapore, actually. To have professors from the region and beyond means that you will get a good mix of Eastern and Western principles in art (yes, there is a difference). This helps you to understand art closer to home better – if you use a Western perspective on Eastern art, it probably wouldn’t make as much sense and it alters the experience.
Also, I’ve always had a notion that design and art are different fields, but I was convinced otherwise by my professor from drawing class. He strongly believed that the same design principles are applied across the various fields in art – making good compositions in film, orunderstanding visual paths in animations and graphic design.
It’s about arming yourself with an array of principles and techniques, and then knowing which to use to achieve the outcome you want. And that’s what school offers.
“But if I take a degree in art, it’ll be too difficult to find a job.”
The preconception of being an artist often is attached to the word ‘starving’. I, instead, believe in the flexibility of an art degree because of the mentality and other skills you might pick up in the process. To be honest, whether you are pursuing a degree in business, art or in other fields, not knowing how to apply that knowledge will also render it useless.
Here I’m not talking about software skills – it’s about developing the eye for visuals. It’s also about learning how to solve problems by seeking information, handling feedback with grace and also, creative confidence, something that Julie Zhuo has explained more eloquently than I can. The person who possessescreative confidence “understands and accepts that uncertainty, false starts, and mistakes are part of the creative process, but she also projects a sense of stability and progress to those around her.”
Through doing projects, we are trained to not just make things beautiful, but to solve visual problems. This applies across the different majors and so there will be an overlap in the skills picked up regardless of the major you pick. What this means is that product designers can become graphic designers, film majors can go into photography and those majoring in visual communications can still go into film.
Internships are a great way to get to know norms in workplace culture and how you can bring your creative edge to it. The school offers it for the third year, but it doesn’t stop you from looking for other internships during your summer break (May to July). This means, if you’re interested in similar fields – for example, you can look up editorial internships, brand management or marketing internships, or even internships in social media management.
Of course, this is not for the sake of being armed with a wide array of “experiences” on your resume.I’ve found a stronger direction in editorial and graphic design after going for an editorial internship, because I’ve discovered that it was a good way to merge my love for text and visuals. Internships are a good opportunity to find out how you can utilise the knowledge you’ve learnt in school and how it ties in with the rest of the world.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
I was concerned about job prospects when I was considering pursuing an art degree, and so were my parents. If you are looking at fine art, the local art scene is definitely blooming, with the number of art fairs, art markets and related events growing. You can always do research on the possible companies related to the field of your interest you can seek learning opportunities at.
If you require statistics, according to the Graduate Employment Survey 2016, the overall employment rate of ADM students is 79.3%, with a median gross salary of $2,800. Among that 79.3%, 56.9% are employed full-time. In comparison with other degrees, this may be considered to be less attractive, but one must consider the nature of the course, as a number of graduates start their own businesses or have decided to freelance.
Apart from that, I realised that internships are a great place to find a job. Many have been employed after their internships. Treat it as a serious learning opportunity, exercise the skills you’ve learnt and generally be a nice human being – you might just be offered a job.
While I would recommend art school for the above reasons, I am not implying that art school is for everyone. Art school is not designed for everyone, but rather only for the people who are interested in being in this field. So if you’re interested in accountancy or engineering, then go for it! My only intention in writing this article is to convince those who might be considering going into art school but are worried about its prospects.
Yes, passion cannot feed you or put rice on your table. You will have to learn how to market your work – which is part of presenting in school. There is so much that school can offer, apart from software techniques.
To conclude, university means that you’ll be spending a lot of time, effort and money, hopefully on something that is purposeful enough for you. Make the most out of it, and I hope that whatever you decide to go for in the end provides you with a fulfilling learning journey. All the best!