Art School Or Not (Singaporean Edition)

Disclaimer: This post was written to educate/entertain. It is a personal op-ed. No schools will be named, they will be grouped together according to government subsidized, private, etc. Only the subject of study and usefulness of courses provided by schools in general will be mentioned in relevance.

The author has a 3-year diploma in animation from a government subsidized school and a 1-year top-up degree in visual communication from a private local-overseas university partnership.

Therefore, “Art School” will mostly be seen in a animation/graphic design/drawing/visual communication/games design context/perspective. Fine arts, fashion, theater, music and dance is not included. Photography, cinematography and related areas are not touched upon for the same reason.

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction: “Art School Or Not”
  2. Singaporean Context Points
  3. After PSLE
  4. After ‘O’ Levels
  5. After Diploma
  6. After Degree
  7. Additional Notes
    1. Trendy Courses/Industries
    2. Specialization VS Generalization
    3. The Diploma/Degree Module Structure Problem
    4. The First Big Lie: Do What You Love/Passionate About And You Will Never Work A Day
    5. The Second Big Lie: No More Academics
    6. The Bad Side of The Creative Industry
    7. Bad Lecturers: Taking Charge of Your Own Education
    8. The Best(?) of Both Worlds
  8. Closing Thoughts

The age old question of “Art School Or Not”.

Discussed at length by many in the online art community usually pertaining to it being in the context of the United States with its very high costs, rarely any if at all government subsidy for citizens, dubious usefulness of the courses/teachers, etc.

Most usually arrive at the same conclusions of saying no to art school with the sentiments of “Unless you really need that degree for that visa as a foreigner to work in the US, don’t bother with art school.”, “If you really want to make in-real life networking then go to art school but other than that don’t expect much” and “Unless you want to teach because you need a degree to teach a certain education level then go to art school” among others.

They usually cite the facts that:

1) The creative industry usually doesn’t care about paper qualifications. Just the quality of your work/portfoilo, how good/nice of a person you are to work with, how disciplined are you on meeting deadlines, etc.

2) You can form your own art school at home with the internet and its massive wealth of knowledge, even paying for this knowledge online comes at a very small fraction of a cost of an art school diploma/degree. (You can get a full possibly even more robust education at like 10% of a cost of a degree, paying for online mentor-ships from renowned artists, etc.) You would only really be concerned with your own discipline to educate yourself and see things through for yourself. You can Google the Draftsmen Podcast for my information about that and art in general.

3) Teaching in an official institution capacity requires a level of qualification to justify teaching the level below that. So unless you want to teach in that capacity, you don’t have to go to art school for a degree.

(Again, if you need the official US degree to justify a US Visa, because you want to work there and stay there then points 1 and 2 are not the most helpful)

While these are all true, and if you are working freelance globally from Singapore then the first point is especially true, nobody in London will pay you more for a piece of illustration you have done just because you have a degree. Quality of the work, character of the individual takes precedence. And if you are looking at educating yourself artistically alongside your official education which may not be art related then the second point is true too. The third point is also true in Singapore.

From this point on, I will start talking about everything with Singaporean terms and context that curious budding creative Singaporeans reading this might be interested in, if you are not Singaporean but are interested then continue reading with Google ready for terms you don’t understand.

I will be writing for the average Singaporean and a little bit for the poorer than average Singaporean. If you are rich enough to do whatever then a lot of factors like value/profit vs cost flies out the window and you can just do whatever without financial consequences.

Photo by Kin Pastor on Pexels.com

So, let’s acknowledge some points in the Singaporean context which means:

1) Government subsidies for Singaporean Citizens taking courses from local government-backed/sponsored schools, making them more affordable.

2) Paper chasing in general because a degree means you get paid more, even recruitment agencies can justify asking the companies to pay you more per hour/month for a temporary position as a degree holder. (This paper chase is becoming irrelevant slowly as more people are not doing things their degree entails for a living and society’s thinking about paper chasing is changing)

3) Relatedly to point 2, some companies of certain industries here still look at qualifications, for example, even if someone is very good at animation somehow right out of Secondary School, companies will be looking at Diploma holders/fresh graduates from Polytechnics for their jobs as these courses tend to put the students through in-real life experience of an internship, and educate them formally on the stuff they need to know in the industry, like the pipeline workflow by making them do group projects.

Being a degree holder means even more proof of experience/education and increases hire-ability as well, despite that quite a few people I knew got a job right out of Polytechnic/Diploma, mostly the girls as all the guys go into National Service after Polytechnic usually. Most went on to getting a degree just because its Singapore.

A few were from ITE and at the time and likely still considered so, ITE’s NITEC qualification is considered below a Diploma from a Polytechnic, they were decently experienced in their craft and still wanted a Diploma because of the industry/societal expectations.

Some industry examples of this point are animation, game design, architecture (you need a diploma, degree and an extra year of studying on top of the degree to be a licensed architect in Singapore, once you are in architecture, it is very hard to get out of it without feeling like you wasted time and money on a diploma or a degree hence usually once you are in you are in), just to name a few.

4) There are private art schools that charge a lot, like degree amount of fees, for a diploma that is not recognized officially as a local diploma, their diploma does not have the same status that an official one confers, they can make you draw really really well in a year but you pay the cost of degree for a diploma that is not recognized.

These schools also charge for just the interview that you may or may not pass to get in, you need to be prepared to fork out a interview fee and lose that money if you don’t get in.

You will have to hope that your new found high skills in art can get you a freelance job by showing the quality of your work online, eschewing qualification requirements. That is if you survive the burnout of drawing so much in a year that you have no social life for that year to get that good. That diploma in question will make you technically skilled but also without an official qualification, so you will likely have to bank on the global freelancer internet market.

5) With the general conservative attitude towards the arts here, I should point out that this post isn’t going to try to make an argument that art is a living or not, because it just is, if you are good enough at something you will find a job somewhere as much as it may not be directly what you learnt or want or like somehow.

The question “Art School Or Not” is more so pointed towards you wanting to still be in a creative industry its just whether you go to art school or not, not to go back a step and convince people whether or not making art is a living. It can be and has been for years.

After PSLE

It is entirely possible to love Art so much or show promise/potential in it very early on in life, to want to go to art school as early as possible, the one art school you can after PSLE, a school which has a roughly 6 year IB program and is the only art school after PSLE you can go to, after which you have a certificate which has the level of a diploma with which you can go do a degree with.

This school still teaches basically like a secondary school, all the English, Maths, Science you are meant to know but with a more robust emphasis on the art form of your choice, the problem is that this school is considered private and that the fees are that of a private level as well, also another 6 years in the same school, if you have bad vibes with the school, teachers and your classmates then you are still stuck there for a good long while.

The other option is the ‘very-subsidized-because-its-mandated-by-law-to-at-least-educate-your-child-to-this-level’ public option of secondary school and then picking the art stream in the ‘O’ level curriculum, which depending on your secondary school art teacher may or may not help at all, if they are not good at actually teaching and can’t teach you at a level you want and just trot out the curriculum like a civil servant robot, then it can only be helped with Point 7.7 of this article.

After PSLE, you will be 12 years old, and in this day and age already have the internet at your fingertips regularly for awhile now, which may already make you think and consider your options with more knowledge and critical thinking than one would have had years ago at the same age, at around 15 years old, I personally can already decide whether the curriculum worked or not for better or for worse, whether actually correct or wrong about it at the time is unclear, but I could make that choice. So, its up to you or rather your parents and how much they have still.

After ‘O’ Levels

Lets talk about the first step usually after Secondary School/’O’ Levels, you are bright-eyed you are looking to get into the creative industry, you love art, you love to draw. I would suggest this short personal advice and expand on it later:

Go to a government subsidized art school/course and also do extra education/practice (which you will need as the local arts curriculum is not intensive enough especially on things like drawing) from the internet online courses on the side, if by the end of the diploma you don’t want to continue art you can still branch out to other things. If you really don’t like it and it killed your passion early/proved too tough for you, realize this early and quit in/by Year 1 of your three year diploma to save yourself time.

I am not well-versed in how useful ‘A’ Level Arts is in general, Junior College is usually for generalization still, Diploma/Polytechnic is for more pinpointed specialization of “I want to do this for sure so I pick this course”.

Firstly, I come from a place of privilege of being able to safely pay off the course fees of my diploma through various means of parents’ money/education fund etc. Even as I establish the first point of courses being subsidized for Singaporean citizens, and I paid it off easily, that doesn’t mean that everyone can afford it. Art courses cost the same as most other courses per semester/year so this applies for even non-art courses.

You may have to consider having to take a small loan, working a part-time job alongside an intensive creative mind draining course that can make you burn out faster and you have no time to work on your art which is not ideal. This is an area that I can only suggest to get as much financial aid as you possibly can from the institutions and to maneuver conservatively in terms of spending money for example finding as many free resources to help improve your education as possible, like YouTube videos. So as to avoid that situation of having to take a part-time job.

Secondly, having an official diploma is still important in Singaporean context, its considered the bare minimum of the entry-level workforce, if the art course isn’t working for you for any reason, save time and move on and get a diploma in something else you can tolerate. You can always do art on the side instead.

Thirdly, consume as much knowledge as you can from the internet, do not overly depend on your lecturers, really be a sponge and take up as much as you can from everywhere and develop a critical eye and thinking on what is useful or not. When you have the time, practice outside of the school curriculum. It’s possible to get into design diploma courses with no portfolio whatsoever using only your grades so you might be starting at the very low end versus people that had bad grades but used their portfolio to get in on the merit/potential of their work.

After Diploma

You are not longer as bright eyed as you were after your ‘O’ Levels, you just finished Year 3 of your Diploma, your final year project has killed you, you wanted to drop out but it was too late it’s Year 3 you have to finish the diploma and are now thinking of what to do after it, degree or not, which degree if so and where.

If you are a female or a male exempt from National Service you also have the option of working for a bit first to get some real industrial experience before going onto a degree, this even applies to non-art industries now.

If you have to do National Service, the internet is still always there for your art education needs, to learn as you do your National Service, hopefully you have the time and energy on weekends if you are ‘stay-in’ if not then don’t worry, majority of people has to pay that NS Time Energy Debt anyway. Its just what method you pay it with. If you are ‘stay-out’ then hopefully you will have the energy to use the time after your work in the camp.

So, its possible to work with just a diploma although at a level of employers being able to say “Oh, you are just an entry-level person and only a diploma holder at that, you will have a lower starting pay.” That’s something to have to consider, another thing is possibly taking your degree part-time as you work, another is going for a degree full-time.

There is the energy vs productivity/profit/value of learning of learning a degree part-time you have to consider, having to go for a degree full-time because the diploma didn’t provide you with enough experience/knowledge/acceptable pay is something you might encounter as well. (For some baseline reference, a full-time retail assistant at Uniqlo who has any recognized diploma can earn $2000/month before CPF.)

The degree I took is already phased out, I was the second last batch I believe, that time it was a one-year top up degree, I believe those don’t exist anymore, there are min. two year ones offered in its place instead. Although the degree I took was private, it was still recognized as a legitimate degree here and the recruitment agency could ask for me to be paid more for a temporary design job I did, that might be because it was a local-overseas partnership degree.

There is the cheaper shorter top-up partner-with-usually-a-United-Kingdom-university degree 2 year options or the full local university 3-4 year experience. Both are legitimate and it depends on your budget, your need for more training/knowledge/revision.

I believe that the prices are quite close now, pure degree cost wise so the concern of time of how soon you want to enter the workforce and start working off the degree debt becomes the key decision factor. Used to be that the one year degree was obviously that much cheaper and shorter than the 4 year degree but with it now two years, its closer.

I believe that mostly everyone will have to take a loan of sorts from MOE or a bank to do their degree and have to pay that debt back eventually so that’s another thing to consider.

If you know in your heart, you are skilled enough in say graphic design then you can do a short degree and move on. For something like animation, there’s to my knowledge no such thing as a proper short top up degree, you have to go through the 3-4 year experience, to really cement your skills for the industry.

If you know that you don’t want to continue in art then you will have to consider pivoting to other industries with like business degrees from private schools which has their own costs and detriments.

Do take note that degrees also require thesis/writing so be prepared for more academic requirements and research.

After Degree

This is only if you have so much money that you can chase after Masters and PHDs, your wallet is big mega huge, even those that want to teach get their degree, teach in a polytechnic then get their Masters sponsored by the school as a job scholarship deal.

If you really want to teach at a high level officially in an institution then usually a Masters is as far as you have to go. This is where it becomes more thesis and research on the subject than actual works of art being drawn and done.

This is where even if you get a Masters, you suddenly become too qualified and nobody can afford you at the level you are supposed to be paid at therefore rendering the Masters moot unless you are teaching.

Not much else to really say beyond unless you want to teach then do it but you will probably be sinking in degree debt to pay off first to even consider this route.

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

Additional Notes

Here is where I put down observations that don’t really fit in to the above chapters. They may not be entirely true, please do take these with a grain of salt, its just what I have observed over the years.

Trendy Courses/Industries

At the time of my diploma, it used to be the trendy, hire-able thing to study animation, then it was UI/UX then I believe its now Visual Effects and Coding. There’s this trend to follow accordingly to what the industry needed, like animation was when there was that boom of animation needs, UI/UX is the boom of mobile apps needing user interface and experience designers, Visual Effects is now for production uses, coding for general computer uses. Regardless, I personally feel it doesn’t really matter but if that influences your decision of what is trendy now then research and confirm then decide. However if that is what is influencing your decision making and not what you really like to study then it becomes a problem.

Specialization VS Generalization

Specialization used to be preferred but now its generalists who can do everything, what used to be my animation diploma just for animation in terms of naming convention became animation for everything in general, games design got merged into that diploma as well, it has become a thing of students being able to do everything at a decent level therefore increasing their hire-ability rather than only focusing on one or two things that the market may not require.

You can do both, be general enough in everything to be hired and be really good at that one thing that you can also be hired for, so that when there’s nothing that requires that one thing you are good at, you can still do other things.

The Diploma/Degree Module Structure Problem

Diplomas require you to pass all the modules to get the paper certificate. It is possible you are very very good at 3D Modelling and Rigging but you draw like a child so you keep failing the drawing module till you have to repeat a semester or even a year till you get that pity pass after having improved enough.

This is heavily inflexible and bad seeing that you will never ever choose to be drawing for a living, you know you are bad at it, you won’t get good enough by the end of the diploma to be hired for it, but 3D modelling and rigging you are already good at however you are being kept from that diploma because of how the course is structured, something to be ready for and consider.

If you are really bad at your thesis, it will drag down your degree as well. For creative people it will likely be your first ever thesis as well which can be a problem. Something to research for before you do your degree.

The First Big Lie: Do What You Love/Passionate About And You Will Never Work A Day

A big lie, even if its something you love and are passionate about it is possible to:

  1. Burn out from working too much, the work kills your passion, you fall out of love with it.
  2. You still have to be a working professional and not a child in a playpen, you have to adhere to deadlines, you have to adhere to working criteria, you have to likely function in a cooperate role even if you are doing something art-related. Office politics are still a thing.
  3. Therefore, you are still working, you are still hustling, you have to face it like that, its just how it is.

The Second Big Lie: No More Academics

There’s this funny thinking that persists of going into arts because there’s no math, there’s no academics, there’s no system, you just draw however, you realize that the foundation of learning perspective drawing is very systemic/mathematical, you realize you have to write thesis, you realize you have to count frames for animation, you realize you have to really learn some form of coding for 3D software to make your life easier, you realize that adhering to a project schedule is essential, you realize, you realize, you realize, countless things that require actual academic thinking.

I’m sorry, it is not avoidable, you have to get used to it.

The Bad Side of The Creative Industry

After art school there are several routes to go down depending on your field of study, here are the worst possible case scenarios to be ready for:

If you work in advertising, it is likely you will work very long hours, unpaid overtime because you are an executive so you are not entitled to overtime pay, get not enough pay for what you do unless you are a/become a bigwig in an advertising firm, be told it is your passion so you should put up with this, etc.

If you work in games design, it is likely you might get crunched to put out stuff faster, you will likely end up working at one of the only few big companies with a SEA headquarters here for a career, hard to move up the ladder, etc. And if you google ‘game developer crunch’ you will get even more horror stories about the industry.

Same with animation, either working at the game companies animating or local media companies, of which there are also only those few. You might feel the need to move onto to bigger things in other countries.

Freelancing in anything means unstable income, bad clients that don’t pay well and/or on time, you have to discipline and check yourself, etc.

If you work in graphic design for a MNC (Multi-National Company), you won’t have much creative freedom, as what they need you to design has to adhere to the company’s branding and visual brand guide, you will have marketing tacked onto your title and job responsibilities because they want you to do more/there won’t be that much design, you will likely end up doing more marketing than actual design, etc.

These are just some of the bad sides of some the creative industries that you will likely have to deal with, some shouldn’t exist, they shouldn’t be your problem or burden to bear with factors out of your control, however it still happens.

It’s like a more novel corporate job, in a corporate structure doing things that people think are fantastical, too easy (the program does everything for you) or too difficult (only people naturally talented can do this), not a real job/career, etc.

Mostly all these above are also subject to office politics you just have to deal with if you want to keep the job because degree debt or you need money, even freelancers have to deal with bad clients, so be prepared to try and find the joy and sense of achievement where you can take it.

Bad Lecturers: Taking Charge of Your Own Education

You will have bad lecturers in any course, lets just assume that right off the bat, you either have to (if you are brave enough) feedback to them and try to understand why they do what they do and decide if their reasoning is acceptable, and/or go on the internet and learn from someone better at teaching.

Both actions are you taking charge of your own education, you can blame them forever during the course and after it but in the end its you who has to put in the legwork and do what can be done by yourself more easily on your end rather than to to change a lecturer set in their ways.

The Best(?) of Both Worlds

This is the path I would likely have have taken if the internet was more robust last time and I could have learnt a lot of what I know from school from the internet of today. The path would be to take a normie paper chase route in some form of business or science or engineering and do art on the side as a hustle or as a hobby.

Have a stable well paying day job and do art on the side, while there might have been a no energy or time problem, there’s also a stable job to fall back on if art doesn’t work out and if the art career starts to profit and stabilizes and you can get paid more than your day job then its something to consider switching over to. Another thing to consider.

Closing Thoughts

Even after having written over 4,000 words in this piece, with wordpress straight up lagging as I type this, I still feel like I have left out a lot of things to be talked about, I don’t want to include theater and dance and music as those are not my own area of the arts, I think it would take someone who actually learnt those wanting to write about it for that to happen.

Animation and visual communication are the closest to what I have learnt and I dared to try to talk about other areas like graphic design and advertising which may be my own undoing or mistake but again take what I say with a grain of salt, my information could be severely outdated.

I also am unsure of inviting people to comment about their own experience as it is easy to get into naming of specific schools and then courses and then direct naming of specific lecturers/faculty which can devolve into anecdotal shaming and complaining.

Which is also why I decided not to outright name schools or mention any real specific thing about them directly, just the group they belong in, subsidized or not, costs issues, etc. if you take the time to research you will know which schools I am mentioning by connecting the dots.

I will see how the feedback to this, if any, goes and adjust accordingly. I wrote about other stuff pertaining to Singaporean art education.

The Bad Thing About Singaporean Art Schools For Illustrators

Western/UK Art School Lecturers VS Eastern/Singaporean Art School Lecturers

If you liked what you read, please consider supporting me on Patreon (monthly) or ko-fi (one time donations).

Stay safe~!
JR

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