The difference between art college and atelier art education and what you need to know to succeed as an artist – Veronica Winters Painting

Janice K. Johnson

In this article I’d like to talk about the difference between college-level and atelier education for visual artists. I also want to explain what parents should consider when your child decides to pursue art as a career.

art for sale-veronica winters painting

College Education


  • You may learn to defend your work and to make it more consistent. Professors like to do critiques about concepts and ideas, not the technique of painting. Some foundational courses may be really good if the art instructors show skill in their art. There are more foundational courses available when you study for your BFA but if you continue studying for your MFA degree classes you take are more advanced where you have all the freedom to do what you want with very little technical instruction. If you study for the BFA you take classes and graduate. If you study for your Master’s degree you learn to present and defend your work in front of the committee. Ideally, you develop a consistent body of work that shows others who you’re.
  • Diploma gives you a pass to teach art at the college level with a completion of Master’s degree, not a Bachelor’s one. Bachelor’s with Graphic design major is a good choice to get if you don’t plan to go for your Master’s degree and want to have a relevant, well-paying job. However, if you’d like to be a fine artist able to teach at a college level, you must get your MFA. (There are circumstances when artists with BFA degree get teaching jobs in colleges because of their value to the department or connections). Even if you get your MFA degree, getting a teaching job in college is not guaranteed because there are few job openings available. Also, intro salary will be quite low although you’ll get stability and insurance as an artist.
  • College offers really good art history classes. In-depth art history classes cover many epochs, countries and movements especially when you study for your Master’s degree. Art instructors could go really deep explaining art from various points of view including politics and history of times.
  • College education can be great, if you come across knowledgeable and supportive art instructors who can help you with development of your unique ideas, painting skills, and business strategies. If you’re able to develop this special relationship that I call a mentorship with professional artist, then a college degree will pay for itself tenfold. You must be proactive and interested in your career as an artist to connect with your mentor.


  • Give no or little technical skills how to paint realistically. May have good foundational drawing classes but oil painting is not taught well or not taught at all. In my personal experience I went through several colleges where professors didn’t know how to teach traditional painting techniques which was incredibly frustrating.
  • What you learn in terms of the skill directly depends on the professor’s abilities teaching classes. Look at his/her work to determine if it’s the right match for you.
  • Art education in college doesn’t include art marketing which is not good no matter how you look at it. Colleges give zero business skills or understanding how to get into galleries or how to write and talk about your art. Personally, I couldn’t even put an effective resume after graduation and went to a college art association conference to do it.

Tip: So when you pick your college to study art, also consider location, professors’ associations with galleries and their artistic level. When I went to college over twenty years ago, I assumed that I’d get good technical instruction with art history, art marketing and creative development. It wasn’t what I expected. If I go to study art in college today, I’ll look at art of professors to see if this is something that inspires me to create. I’ll pick an artistically rich community like New York, LA, maybe Denver or Santa Fe. This will give me proximity to go to receptions, make contacts with curators, gallery people, and learn from professional artists the ins and outs of art business.

Selling art is a lot more than just being a good painter. It’s all about networking and communicating your story well.
head study from Indian Girl by Palmer_veronica winters artist
Head study drawing from Indian Girl sculpture by Palmer, Veronica Winters

Atelier art education

What is it? Atelier is a workshop or studio of an artist. Atelier art education or academic art education means studying art with a few master artists in a tight circle of students. It’s the most direct way of learning the craft of painting, drawing, sculpture, glass-blowing, etc.

Aphrodite plaster cast


  • Such schools teach a very structured approach to classical drawing and painting that you must follow to get the results. After a-4 year program you have a very clear understanding how to draw and paint realistically.
  • Learning the anatomy by drawing and painting from life informs your painting accuracy. It’s your critical foundation to become a realist artist.
  • Art instructors have strong technical skills and most are very good, even exceptional realist artists known today.
  • When you’re in class you start by drawing plaster casts from different angles. Then you draw and paint objects, which is called still life painting. After that you spend a lot of time mastering human anatomy painting and drawing nude figure from life. You get daily drawing and painting instruction looking at a nude figure and studying proportions, anatomy, composition and so on. You also go out to do plain air sketches/ landscape painting outdoors on occasion.
  • Located in artistic communities.


  • No art history classes or any other ‘general education’ classes. The focus is classical painting and drawing only.
  • May not offer a diploma qualifying you to teach in college.
  • Give no business education either but working artists many become invaluable to understand their daily practice and how they approach art marketing and networking.
  • Some people complain that when they see works of students coming out of the ateliers, they all look the same. I think this is totally normal because this type of education is about getting your skill going first. It takes a lot more time and practice to develop artistically. The atelier school takes care of the technique and the artist takes that knowledge and applies it to his vision. If you study art in college, you’re almost guaranteed not to acquire the skill and it really depends on college to see the development of vision in students.
oil painting techniques color mixing

Great atelier schools are:

  • Nelson Shanks’ school in Philadelphia called Studio Incamminati ( web: ),
  • The Grand Central academy of art in New York with Jacob Collins the founder of the school and realist movement here in the US (web: ),
  • The Art students League of New York (web: ),
  • Anthony Ryder’s school in Santa Fe (web: ).
  • You can also get similar education studying with artists in their studios such as at Adrian Gottlieb’s studio in California. A number of prominent realist artists who studied under Jacob Collins include Michael Grimaldi, Colleen Barry, Ed Minoff, Joshua LaRock . They all teach academic painting at their studios.

Tip: Decide what your goal is and pick the school in accordance with your goal. Do you want to know how to paint realistically or you’re more interested in art theory and teaching opportunities at college level? Or say if you want to work at an art auction house like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, I think it’s a good idea to research their education system that prepares you to work at these institutions. In other words, your goal must be specific to determine the educational venue.

I also want to say that college-level art education is not enough to become an artist with unique voice. It takes a lot more time to nurture and develop this voice visually through art. That’s why any kind of school is just a school to get the basics going but becoming the artist with unique vision takes a lot more time, work and passion.
Your personality and willingness to work through challenges will determine your creative and business success.

Sir Joshua Reynolds The Ladies Waldegrave 1780_detail_scottish national gallery
Sir Joshua Reynolds The Ladies Waldegrave 1780_detail_scottish national gallery

For parents:

As parents, we want our children to receive prestigious degrees from established universities. We may think that studying art in prestigious university will help the child succeed. It may in terms of networking building relationships in the right circles but few college art departments in the US give artists structured education in realist painting and drawing (if that’s the goal). Some classes and instructors could be great but the approach to teaching art in college resembles the art education in high school. There is some ‘do what you like’ attitude and studio classes could be a hit or miss. It really depends who the professor is.

If your son or daughter wants to become an artist showing talent and desire to learn, you shouldn’t stop him or her from doing this. Instead, help your child with your positive and meaningful support. Artists become successful when they go to the right school, receive great art education, and have positive mindset.

Don’t let your negative thinking with a ‘starving artist’ mentality interfere with your child’s desire to become one. If you don’t believe in your child, he or she will internalize it studying in college for any other profession, arriving at a job he hates having a low-self-esteem.
There are a number of accomplished artists out there who are making a living with their art. It’s a disservice to derail a teenager from art to go and get a different degree. What happens is that precious time is lost, mistakes are made and the adult feels unhappy and unfulfilled. Teach your child to communicate well with people and to get out and learn art with passion. If a person is gifted, he has passion and will succeed. Give her the tools to do that, not the limiting beliefs about artists or even yourself.

Usually artists have a second gift or personality that often becomes a money-making opportunity to rely on. For example, I’m a gifted teacher and I’ve been teaching art in organizations, my studio and online for many years. I know many artists who are super entrepreneurial and this is a great combination to explore so many possibilities being an artist and a businessman. I also know artists who love to work at the museums because they enjoy administrative work.
Most importantly, if the goal is to become a really good artist knowing how to paint, academic education is a lot more fulfilling than going to college wasting precious resources such as time, money and opportunities. If you pursue atelier art education full time, you’re on your way to have a real career as an artist you want to be.
Finally if you follow certain artists and you love their work, figure out where they studied. Listen to their interviews on podcasts. Ask them about their experience directly. This will help you decide if college or academic art education is right for you.

If you find this information helpful, share it with those people who really need to understand their options studying art today.

Find me on Facebook, Instagram and my site at

Yours, Veronica Winters

veronica winters with art

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