There was a time, not so very long ago, when art schools and ateliers were your only options for attaining a higher art education. Typically providing a strong, foundational background for artists with varied aspirations, they were (and still are) a fantastic direction to take when seeking out a career in the creative arts.
Unfortunately, that rounded, long-term education comes at a cost, and particularly for those living outside of Europe, that cost could be prohibitively high, leading to mounting debt and insecurity at the pivotal point in a young artist's career.
Luckily for our wallets, online art schools have emerged over the past few years that offer a vast range of courses which can rival the bricks and mortar schools in scope… as long as the student is willing to develop a strong work ethic and the drive to work from home. Online education options differ dramatically, from the more traditional foundational courses that can last several months, to individual lessons tailored to fit one subject, from class-based seminars to inspirational podcasts and more.
Through this article I'm going to explore ten of the most exciting schools and courses available online right now, tackling a wide range of subjects to give you a feel for the potential open to you.
Whether you aspire to work as a concept artist or 3D modeller in the games industry, a matte painter or animator for films, or a freelance illustrator who gets to paint monsters all day long, whilst still in your pants, there's an online school for you. Hopefully, the selection will help you pick a path that best suits your personal goals and budget, supplementing existing studies or creating a plan for you to follow from beginning to end.
Schoolism has rapidly become one of the best-known online art schools. This is thanks in part to its prolific founder (Bobby Chiu being a well-known and supremely well-respected artist himself), and the diverse team of instructors it's collected. The roster includes the likes of Craig Mullins, Daisuke "Dice" Tsutsumi, Iain McCaig, Nathan Fowkes and other titans of the entertainment industry.
The courses available are as diverse as the people teaching them, covering more traditional topics such as gesture drawing (essential for aspiring animators and concept artists), oil painting techniques, anatomy and colour and lighting fundamentals, as well as character and creature design, watercolor techniques, digital painting and storyboarding. Basically, pretty much all areas of expertise that you can think of in the industry are covered here.
Schoolism operates around a one-year subscription model for $144/£102. Within that year you're able to work on a single course, but have the option to switch at any time for a minimal fee. It's a smart system that enables the student to cover several topics within that year if they have time available and are able to work efficiently. It's also possible to receive video feedback from the tutor directly, but this costs $998/£706 and positions are limited.
Registering for a class gives you access to pre-recorded lectures, which are then available to be streamed throughout the duration of the subscription (assuming you don't switch course) and there's a Facebook group available in which to share work for critique by students.
02. SmArt School
SmArt School, "A Smarter Art School", has an illustration-focused curriculum with a seriously impressive roster of teachers including Donato Giancola, Todd Lockwood, Greg Manchess and Brad Kunkle, alongside a varied selection of special guests such Lauren Panepinto and Jon Schindehette.
It was founded by Rebecca Guay, known for her work on Magic: The Gathering and other high-profile clients. She says that, "SmArt School brings some of the most recognised, celebrated artists and illustrators working today to the small-scale teaching format. In these small classes, students truly mentor interactively with these great artists in very personal, productive ways to the great benefit of their work and their possible successful future in the art world or illustration industry."
Unlike the more traditional online school structure that typically revolves around pre-recorded tutorial videos with space for critique, SmArt School's classes are taught live using GoToMeeting. Classes are taught over 13 sessions across three months, priced at $2,500/£1,767 for each course, and while the majority of them focus on illustration techniques in a more traditional teaching environment, there are also bootcamp classes for new students who haven't had comprehensive lessons in how to draw figures, or any other foundational experiences.
CGMA, or Computer Graphics Master Academy to give it its full name, is unique in the online art school space in that it offers three comprehensive curriculums, which operate in a similar manner to a more traditional art school, with a heavy emphasis on structured learning.
The three programmes available are Foundation and Design, Character Design and Environment Design, and each begins with foundational training before taking the student through every necessary step to become adept in that particular field. This is achieved by undertaking a series of individual masterclasses presented in a set order, which are taught by an impressive range of industry professionals including production designer Nate Wragg, senior concept artist Aaron Limonick and head of story Steven MacLeod. Students are presented with a certificate upon completion of their chosen program, along with individual certificates for each class attended.
Each of these masterclasses can operate as its own entity should the student be unable undertake the full programme or wish to take on additional work. They cover topics including analytical figure drawing, Perspective, character design for film and games, building a personal brand, fundamentals of design, animal drawing, and many other areas of skills that are crucial for developing a successful career in the entertainment industries. Classes last 10 weeks and are priced at $699/£495.
04. Vilppu Academy
The name Glenn Vilppu is well known among artists across the globe, in particular animators who often study his methods of gesture drawing when they begin their artistic journey.
As a veteran educator with over 50 years of teaching experience on the human form, it should come as no surprise that his school, Vilppu Academy, centres around figure drawing and anatomy. These skills are vital for artists in most fields, a deep understanding of the figure being crucial for concept artists, illustrators, modellers and animators, and Glenn's focus on communication through drawing sets it apart from the other schools listed here.
"All artists must deal with the differences in their interests and the order of importance they give to various elements," says Glenn. "I don't teach a style, I teach tools of communication and give direction to acquiring knowledge. Knowledge coupled with the development of skill and feeling is what creates the magic. There are no rules, just tools."
Vilppu Academy offers six courses with subjects ranging from drawing essentials through figure drawing, anatomy, sketching and composition. Each lasts from six to ten weeks, with prices ranging from $600 to $900 (from £425 to £637). "This classical-based programme provides artists of all levels with the fundamental tools of visual expression – understanding of movement, form, light and composition – to be applied to their particular style and genre through streaming lectures and demos, critiqued assignments and live video chats," says Glenn.
05. Learn Squared
Learn Squared was founded by veterans of the entertainment industry, and the site aims to innovate in the education space with its unique approach: rather than having a single tutor leading a class, here you're presented with two top-level professionals, one of whom teaches the other. Students receive the same tutorials and guidance you would expect on a traditional course, with the added perk of watching another artist put the knowledge into practice.
As Andrew Hawryluk explains, "The core concept we hope to get across to our students and the artistic community at large is that everybody has to start somewhere. The skills you'd learn from these other, new fields of art might benefit your main artistic endeavours in ways you would've never previously imagined." It's a fascinating angle on education, shedding light on the process of learning itself.
Each course contains eight weeks of video tutorials across a range of subjects including environment painting, 3D concept design and title designs for film. Modern art techniques are at the forefront of most of the courses, with a heavy focus on creating an effective pipeline for working in the entertainment industries. Pricing falls into three categories for all courses: $100/£71 for the basic package, accessing a single course of video lessons and community access with lifetime access, $200/£141 for the ability to download the files and engage with the apprentice journey; and $1,000/£707 for live mentorship and reviews.
Certainly one of the best-known art schools, Gnomon was founded in 1997 by 3D artist Alex Alvarez and is based in Hollywood, California. Gnomon's online courses are designed for artists seeking visual effects training direct from Hollywood, with the added convenience of learning from home, and they cover a wide variety of subjects from 3D character concept design to compositing, modelling and sculpting both traditionally and in 3D, and pretty much any other avenue of training for the entertainment industry.
The range of professionals teaching at Gnomon is similarly vast, with big names including Pascal Blanche, currently a senior art director at Ubisoft Montreal, Madeleine Scott-Spencer, digital sculptor at Weta Digital, and Craig Elliot, illustrator and visual development artist for companies such as Blizzard and Dark Horse.
Gnomon courses are taught live through its slick interface, which features webcam integration and screen sharing. Classes last 10 weeks and tuition costs between $945 and $1,319 (£669 and £933), depending on the course.
It's worth noting up-front that Gnomon's online courses are only available to residents of California and those living outside of the United States.
CGSociety is a social art hub featuring industry news, features, forums and challenges, as well as a strong body of workshops dealing with the more technical side of artistic training. These CGWorkshops cover subjects such as advanced matte painting, video game animation, rigging techniques and cloth simulation, taught by a collection of film and game industry names such as lead character technical director Wade Ryer, Blizzard's David Luong and senior Houdini artist Niels Prayer.
Courses last between four and eight weeks, and prices range from $349 to $699 (£247 to £494). They operate along the same lines as other schools: each week students are presented with a pre-recorded lesson with homework and a social space to share work and critique. There's scope for exposure on several courses with some teachers sharing their student's work online, and student work is often featured on the main page of the website.
Matt Kohr takes a slightly different approach to the other online schools listed here, as his website, Ctrl+Paint, is predominantly free. This makes it accessible for artists of all levels and the fact that most of the material is available through YouTube just adds to that philosophy. It's a fantastic place to start developing artistic skills.
Ctrl+Paint focuses on digital painting, and its lessons are placed in order so that students are taken from the basics of traditional art techniques – learning how to study, create compositions, learn anatomy and perspective – through to digital painting techniques, using colour, rendering and more. It's an incredibly thorough resource with well-explained lessons condensed to engage with the varied audience it no doubt attracts. New videos are released every Thursday and there's free access to Matt's Photoshop brushes and tools.
Premium lessons offer an in-depth look at key subjects over several episodes, with prices running from $10 to $55 (£7 to £39). The Concept Art Starter Kit, as an example, contains videos on design basics, creating boss and house designs as well as icons and general world design, and would be ideal for artists interested in working for an indie game studio.
Okay, this one isn't actually an online art school, but over the past couple of years Gumroad has become the de facto place to go for art tutorials and thus deserves a mention in this article. It was started as a space for creative types to share and sell their work, but more recently has been heavily adopted by professional concept artists, illustrators and 3D modellers as a space to sell their own tutorials.
Gumroad doesn't offer up a syllabus or comprehensive series of lessons in the manner of the other art schools discussed here, nor does it offer anything in the way of classroom support or feedback outside of email. Instead, it functions as a pathway directly into the minds of your favourite artists.
There is an enormous range of topics available through Gumroad, with an equally vast range of presentation styles. A typical Gumroad video might offer an hour or more of video footage with voiceover describing the process, bundled with the actual source files so that the student can open them up and tinker around, deconstructing the artist's process. Prices and quality can vary wildly, but are typically around $3-$20 (£2-£14). Think of Gumroad as a nice way to supplement a more complete course.
Founded by Disney artist Chris Oatley, the school has a slightly different feel to the others in that its approach deals as much with the psychology and thought process behind becoming a professional artist, as it does with the actual lesson structure.
"We believe that education should mean transformation," says Chris. " There are many places where you can pay for information, but not many places that actually offer a true, transformative art education. We say that if we're not changing lives, we're not doing our job."
Community involvement plays a large part in this experience, with the site placing a heavy emphasis on engaging with fellow students and learning to critique each other's work in order to grow as artists. Courses fall under two categories: Mentored or Self-Guided. The mentors include Chris Oatley, visual development artist Brett Bean, Nickelodeon visual development artist Sarah Marino and Marvel Studios storyboard artist Justin Copeland. These real-time courses are priced between $650 and $850 (£460 and £601). For $7-$19 per month (£5-£13), The Oatley Academy offers self-guided classes on digital painting, storytelling and forging a successful career.