Brush up on your portfolio and get a place on a fine art degree

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The Independent Online

Oh, so you want to be a painter?" is the general response - often tinged with a note of cynicism - that you can expect if you say you want to do a fine art degree. "But fine art teaches a lot of transferable skills, so the range of careers that students go on to is wider than most people think," says Jane Ball, course director in fine art at the University of Coventry. "It's true that some of our students wind up running their own studios and exhibiting their work, but others go on to further education and many work in schools and galleries and even in the media, personnel and people management. Fine art develops lateral and independent thinking, as well as a rare level of resourcefulness, so a breadth of employers are keen to take on graduates."

Many fine art degrees, including the one at Coventry, take a wide approach to the subject. As such, students are offered the chance to progress not just in painting but subjects such as sculpture, print making, media studies, photography and film. Also appealing to many young people is the fact that unlike other degrees, fine art doesn't tend to "teach" the subject as much as encourage and inform students to develop their own style and approach. Indeed, Coventry provides each student with a designated workspace. "This strong studio culture is an integral part of the course that not only prepares those students who do want to run their own studio, but also encourages independence in students' attitude to their work."

Because many students are concerned about what they will do after a fine art degree, many universities - again, including Coventry - integrate modules on career options and the creative industries into the course. Others, such as the University of Central England (UCE) in Birmingham, provide work placements to give students a taster of the careers on offer. "We also do a lot of international exchanges so that students get to think about art on a global level," says John Wigley, course director.

Wigley agrees that fine art students have a wide range of career options available to them. "Examples of areas that our recent graduates have moved into include teaching, architectural practice and television production," he says. "In fact, although we run an architectural course in the faculty, some architectural employers prefer to pick up our students because they like the imagination that they have and the fact that they can work both independently and as part of a group."

Like many course directors, Wigley expects applicants to have a portfolio, as well as evidence of self-motivated activity. "We need proof that they can develop their own ideas rather than operating only in prescriptive terms," he says. "I also look for a basic understanding of historical and contemporary fine art and an ability to research."

As you might expect, Wigley receives applications from some eccentric characters. "Sometimes there is a quirkiness to applicants' characters and we encourage this. In terms of having a mix of students in each cohort, it works well. We don't want all the same type of students," he says.

Ball is among those who insist that applicants also have a foundation degree in art - although this is not the case at every university. "Even if people have an art A-level, the transition year of a foundation degree makes a world of difference in terms of students arriving with confidence," she believes.

Ian Kirkwood, head of the School of Fine and Applied Art at De Montford University, adds, "The A-level art experience can be very narrow, whereas foundation degrees in art tend to be very broad and diverse which help students successfully identify their interests and skills - whether that is fine art or design or anything else. They can then choose the degree that will suit them best."

Passion is the chief attribute that Sue Tuckett, principal of Norwich School of Art & Design, looks for in applicants for their fine art degree. "We also look for good skills in initiating independent ideas and in time management. And it helps if students are interested in the critical debates that surround fine art practice. It's about students being able to articulate about their work within a broader context, which may be contemporary or historical or may relate to society in general," she explains.

Tuckett's students have also gone into a huge array of careers "ranging from art therapy to advertising". "There are serious misconceptions about the career opportunities with a fine art degree," she says. "But as with any graduate, there are skills that are developed and a depth of knowledge which make them very employable. Fine art students have the added benefit of having an approach which is innovative and problem solving, and which has a much wider application than just working as an artist."

Students should not be put off a career as an artist, however, she adds. "It can be hard work and not always easy to make ends meet, but it can also be incredibly rewarding and many people are very successful."

'FINE ART ALLOWS YOU TO EXPRESS WHAT YOU WANT'

Mary Grant, 35, studied fine art painting at Kingston University. She is currently based in London and is predominantly known for her sepia paintings and landscapes

"Becoming an artist suited me as a course and a career because I have never been that interested in producing work to someone else's brief. Fine art allows you to have the free reign to really express what you want to in your work, whereas something like graphics takes you down a route where you are highly honed into creating what your client wants you to. On the downside, fine art is more precarious because a small percentage of people who go into it as a living are able to support themselves fully through their art, but when you do it's the best thing on earth.

Having done A-levels in art, drama and English, I did a foundation degree in fine art. Doing a foundation degree is fantastic in teaching you all the areas of fine art from sculpture to media. For my undergraduate degree, I wanted to focus purely on painting, however, and that meant finding a university that had a red hot reputation. I didn't get into Brighton, which was my first choice, but Kingston was my second.

I loved the course because they took the approach of guiding me and letting me work through my own mistakes. You have to be committed, though, because fine art is 9-5 every day - not just a few hours of lectures a week like some courses.

Since I graduated, I have never stopped painting and although I make a good living from it now - mainly through exhibitions but some commissions as well - it has been a bit of a feast or famine kind of career. I've often had to sleep on people's sofas because rent was not affordable."

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