There was a time, not so very long ago, when art schools and ateliers were your only options for learning the art techniques associated with a higher-level art education. Typically providing a strong, foundational background for artists with varied aspirations, traditional schools 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 depending on where you live, that cost could be prohibitively high, leading to mounting debt and insecurity at a 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 that 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 we'll explore 10 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 3d movies, or a freelance illustrator who gets to paint monsters all day long while still in your pants, there's an online school for you. Hopefully, this selection will help you pick a path that best suits your personal goals and budget.
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 has collected. The roster includes the likes of Craig Mullins, Terryl Whitlatch, 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, watercolour 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 $29.95 per month. Within that year you're able to work on one course at a time, but can switch to another course when you want for no extra cost. 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 per year, 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 and Greg Manchess, alongside a varied selection of special guests such as Lauren Panepinto.
It was founded by Rebecca Leveille-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 14 sessions across three months, priced at $2,500 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.
03. CG Master Academy
CGMA, or Computer Graphics Master Academy to give it its full name, is unique in the online art school space in that it offers nine comprehensive curriculums, which operate in a similar manner to a more traditional art school, with a heavy emphasis on structured learning.
Programmes available include Foundation and Design, 2D Character Design/3D Character Arts and 3D Environment Arts, 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 character designer Nate Wragg, senior concept artist Aaron Limonick and Dreamworks' ex 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. You may also take masterclasses in isolation, rather than as part of the full course.
They cover topics including analytical figure drawing, Perspective, character design for film and games, building a personal brand, fundamentals of design, Houdini, grooming for VFX and many other skill areas that are crucial for developing a successful career in the entertainment industries. Classes range from six to ten weeks, and cost $599 to $998.
04. Vilppu Academy
The name Glenn Vilppu is well known among artists across the globe, particularly with 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 Vilppu. "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 seven courses with subjects ranging from drawing essentials to figure drawing, anatomy, sketching and composition. Each course lasts from six to 10 weeks, with prices ranging from $600 to $900.
"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 Vilppu.
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 that you would expect on a traditional course, with the added perk of watching another artist put the knowledge into practice. It's a fascinating angle on education, shedding light on the process of learning itself.
As Learn Squared co-founder 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."
Each course contains several hours 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.
Courses vary in length and cost $249, unless you want to go for the Professional option, where you get weekly mentorship sessions with a tutor – this is subject to availability.
Certainly one of the best-known art schools, Gnomon was founded in 1997 by 3D artist Alex Alvarez. Gnomon's online courses are designed for artists seeking visual effects training direct from Hollywood, USA, with the added convenience of learning from home.
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, senior art director at Ubisoft Montreal and Maddie Scott-Spencer, texture artist at Weta Digital.
Gnomon's online courses are taught live through its slick interface, which features webcam integration and screen sharing. Classes last 10 weeks and tuition costs $1,323.
It's worth noting 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 matte painting for production, concept art: from 2D to 3D and character creation for film/cinematics, taught by a collection of film and game industry names such as Len White, senior technical artist at Skydance Interactive.
Courses last between six and 10 weeks, and prices range from $599 to $998. 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 your artistic skills.
Ctrl+Paint focuses on digital painting, and its lessons are placed in order so that students are taken from an overview of digital painting and the basics of traditional art techniques – learning how to study, draw shapes, crosshatch – through to using advanced digital painting tools and techniques, using colour, constructing a portfolio 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 regularly and there's free access to Kohr'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. 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. Think of Gumroad as a nice way to supplement a more complete course.
10. The Oatley Academy
Founded by Disney artist Chris Oatley, this 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 Oatley. "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, Dreamworks' visual development artist Jenn Ely and Nickelodeon visual development artist Sarah Marino.
Two main ongoing courses, The Magic Box and The Storytellers’ Summit, are available via a subscription, which costs $19 a month.
This article originally appeared in ImagineFX issue 135 and has been updated. Subscribe to ImagineFX here.