What Are College Art Classes Like?

There's tons of advice out there to prepare you for your everyday college classes: biology, algebra, English. But college art classes are a different story.

There’s a plethora of advice out there to prepare you for your everyday college classes: biology, algebra, English. All those courses that require studying, testing, and the occasional pop quiz. When it comes to college art classes, however, it’s a different story.

Most studio art classes in college have projects instead of tests and easels instead of desks…so how can you ready yourself for this whole new experience? Whether you’ve taken art for years in high school or are stepping into your first-ever class, here are the basics of what you should know.

Studio and 2-D art classes

What are they like?

These are what you picture when you think “art class.” Typically, these courses will center around a specific topic or artistic medium (or variety of media if it’s an intro or overview class). For example, you might learn painting or ceramics and focus on a string of projects that will help you master that concept. Your final will usually be one large project or simply the last project you have time to cover. In one art class at my college, you actually need to complete a certain number of pieces by the midterm and end of the year in order to pass. It’s a lot of work, but there are few things as beautiful as having one less final exam!

My college art classes have always involved both individual and group critiques, where my professor and my peers gave constructive criticism on my work. These critiques started out downright terrifying, but after a few you get thicker skin and learn to separate yourself from your work. Everyone wants to help you improve, not tear you down!

Generally, any course that involves in-class work will take longer than an average lecture class. My classes typically last an hour and a half or longer, but I promise that we get breaks (and, on occasion, the professor lets us out early!).

Here’s what a typical day in one of my 2-D art classes looks like:

  • 1:29 pm Everybody’s in class at their chosen tables, which are kind of like huge desks with stools to perch on instead of chairs. (This setup will obviously differ by school and by classroom; sometimes you’ll need to share tables, sometimes you’ll get an awesome art desk.)
  • 1:30 pm The professor gives a brief lecture on a topic such as the principles of art, the use of charcoal, what he expects out of our next project, etc. We usually get handouts if it’s anything we’ll need to remember. Or, instead of a lecture, we might have a brief critique session, where everyone presents their work and the rest of us offer suggestions and comments. (With individual critiques, we usually do not meet as a class; instead the professor will give us a time to come by his office hours.)
  • 1:45–2:00 pm We start working on our project. Usually, there’s music playing, and all kinds of weird conversations pop up, from the best restaurants in the city to what our parents were like in the ’80s.
  • 3:00 pm Outta here! Although, to be honest, it’s rare for one of my art classes to end promptly; it depends on the professor and how much we need to get done in class.

How to prepare

Make sure you have the required materials ready for class. Also, sometimes I’ve found that having a handful of other things like scissors, tape, and a spare pencil are life when unexpected artistic emergencies arise!

Remind yourself not to compare your work with your classmates’ work. Everyone progresses at different speeds in art, and you never know how someone works!

When it’s time for critiquing one of your fellow student artists’ work, try to look for the good in a piece and make sure you word your comments kindly and tactfully. If you’re on the receiving end, feel free to clarify something if you need to, but never argue with critique directed at your piece. I have never felt the need to justify my choices. Usually, the feedback will teach me something, even when I don’t immediately need to apply it!

Graphic design classes

What are they like?

Since graphic design is my primary major, these classes are my favorites! Depending on your college’s program, early level classes may start you off with 2-D principles like gridding and involve work with pen and paper, but before long we all end up on a computer. If you’re working in 2-D, the classroom setting will probably be a lot like a studio art class, but if you’re working on computers, then you’ll probably be in the computer lab. Our lab is set up with a huge smart board in front of the desks, so our professor usually shows us examples or gives demonstrations when we learn new topics.

As for graphic design software, the usual suspects are the Adobe Creative Suite: Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Once you get into upper-level courses, you may also be working with Motion (but this depends on your college’s curriculum).

Peer critiques are also a large part of graphic design classes, and we have individual and in-person reviews. Just like in your studio art classes, your grades will usually be based on projects rather than tests, but it’s possible that you may be quizzed on basic graphic design terms or principles. Sometimes, we even get to watch cool (I swear!) design documentaries for our class period. One of my graphic design courses also required that we read at least one article about design per week, but that is another type of assignment that will depend on your professor. These classes also last about as long as studio classes, because you’ll need to do in-class work as well.

Here’s another look at a typical class period:

  • 8:29 am That’s right: this is an 8:30 am art class. We endure. Everyone arrives on time (and, sometimes, with Chick-fil-A).
  • 8:30 am The professor gives a brief explanation of our current project, shows some examples, gives a tutorial, or just provides an overview of what our week will look like.
  • 8:30 am If we’re doing peer critiques, we’ll post our printed works on the board and present them. (Usually, it’s a plus if you note what font you’re using, the reason behind your color choices, and any other important backstory that proves that you were being thoughtful.)
  • 9:00 am A short break before we dive in. (Those of us who didn’t get Chick-fil-A are wondering if we can make it there in time.)
  • 9:10 am We start working at our computers. Usually, the professor will go around and offer specific advice to us each in turn, or he’ll be available to answer questions.

How to prepare

We always had several days of tutorials before beginning work in one in a new design programs, but I would highly recommend playing with the Adobe Creative Suite beforehand (ASAP) if you want to be a graphic designer. It makes the process way smoother in class and gives you a head start when you begin your projects.

Also, look into what kind of computers are used in your school’s lab. If you’re accustomed to a PC and will be working on a Mac (and most design programs use Macs), it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the setup and any shortcodes/shortcuts that may help you. (Your professor might be able to point you to a few, or your friendly neighborhood lab assistant—which, at my school, is me!)

Art history classes

What are they like?

This class will be structured more like your “ordinary” classes. There will be memorizing, tests, and a folder filled with Quizlet decks, but in my experience these classes are more fun than your typical history courses. My intro to art history class required a trip to an art museum, and I’ve heard of art history classes that are almost entirely gallery-hopping—sometimes even studying abroad!

Definitely look into who your professor is beforehand, because it’s important to find someone whose teaching style best aligns with your learning style. If you’re a hands-on, visual learner, odds are you’ll do best with someone who has you create art in the classroom and sends you on field trips to experience art “in the wild.” If you prefer the classic lecture experience, look for someone who focuses more on exploring the detailed histories of art—artistic movements, particular artists, etc. (My art history class was a lovely blend of the two.)

Typically, art history will be held in a normal classroom or lecture hall. You’ll view slide presentations, listen to lectures, and take notes just like you would in any class… except you’re learning about art. And that makes it cooler, right?

I bet you can guess what these classes look like, but here’s yet another schedule example from one of my classes. Note: this is a once-a-week night class, so it’s super long. Classes with a standard, three-times-a-week schedule would be more spread out.

  • 6:00 pm We dive right in. The professor calls roll, and then gives us a schedule for the evening. If we’re doing presentations, the first group will come up and show us their slides. (The presentations aren’t that hard to create, and pretty fun when you enjoy public speaking!)
  • 6:20 pm Start of the lecture. Usually, the professor includes some interesting diversions in between his explanations, like discussing what kind of person an art museum would be or comparing two works of art. Then, we run through some slide presentations.
  • 7:30 pm Time for something hands-on. We usually have group projects where we create some little art form inspired by the lessons—as this is an intro to art history class, they’re graded on effort, not so much craft.
  • 8:45 pm Usually, we wrap up with an overview of what’s due over the week, and sometimes an online quiz will go up that night (due by the next class period).

How to prepare

As previously mentioned, look into who the professor is and be ready for that person’s style of teaching. Will you need a certain type of binder to take notes, or can you use your laptop? Will there be any activities that require supplies? (I’ve actually needed to use my phone in class before—and, yes, it was sanctioned!) Usually, these things will be covered on syllabus day, though, so the main thing is to not stress.

College art classes are definitely a new experience, but it’s their differences that make them so much fun—and that teach you important skills for adapting to new environments. No matter what, your art class will add some much-needed color to the rest of your schedule, and with a little luck it’ll be the highlight of your week!

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About Dia Huth

Dia has been writing for, roughly speaking, forever. Her first stories were about 162 imaginary ponies that “lived” in her backyard, but now she has graduated to penning sci-fi novels and tweeting like a madwoman. After a cross-country move her senior year of high school, she’s proud to be a part of Campbell University’s Class of 2019! Besides writing, she loves art, pilates, and foreign films.


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