How to become an artist can be a complicated process – from finding your area of expertise or concentration area to how to best express yourself.  Those who choose to do any form of art have endless choices when it comes to what they can study, as well as the career opportunities that come with it afterwards.

We know how important your education is, so this post is a breakdown of everything you need to know about studying art at university or college level; from where and what to study, to what happens once you’ve graduated and you’re looking for a career to pursue.

There Are Many Different Kinds of Art and Art Programmes

The word art has a broad definition.

Art, at its very basic level, is the creation of beauty in the hopes that it will be admired and appreciated.

But there are so many branches of art, from visual to digital, and your course of study can vary so much and include things like screenwriting, photography and even jewellery design.

You could end up as a sculptor, fashion designer or a goldsmith.

So whether you’re trying to find a BA degree in Fine Art, improve your general education in art, or are trying to get ahead in the world of South African art another way, you need to first understand the different types of degrees and diplomas you could attain and the differences between them when looking into art schools in South Africa.

Fine Arts Degrees

If you’re looking into a programme at a national school of arts, these are the options in South Africa: a three- or four-year Bachelor of Arts degree (BA degree), an honours degree, or a Master of Arts degree (MA degree). There are also some universities or art schools where you can get a PhD in Fine Art.

The art fields you could specialise in include:

  • Animation
  • Art History
  • Design
  • Photography.

Remember that there are several online programmes worth considering.

Art and Design Degrees

There are also other art and design programmes you can find at a college of arts, technical universities, or even online that are art based and include subjects that are related to Fine Art, but have various other subjects and require skill sets that are not necessarily related to art directly.

This is because contemporary art and design degrees and courses are curated in a way so that many students can combine the skills they have learned in the more traditional aspects of their degrees or diplomas with their entrepreneurial ambitions and create their own businesses, or help other businesses become better. Remember to check if your school also has other courses like project management if this interests you.

Some fields for fine artists interested in design to check out are:

  • Graphic design
  • Fashion design
  • Architecture
  • Interior design.
vincent van gogh painting wall
Artists like Vincent van Gogh have inspired many. Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

Why Should You Study Art?

Yes, when we think of traditional art, the image of the “starving artist” certainly comes to mind. We’ve all heard how van Gogh only ever sold one painting in his lifetime, was incredibly depressed, and was only appreciated after his death; not a great story for an aspiring artist.

But in modern times art is so much more than just putting a brush to canvas.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re studying for a fine arts degree, have your masters, or are taking short online courses, the history of art, its patronage and cultural relevance is as important now as it was during the Renaissance period.

Art is not just a direct way of responding to the current political and socioeconomic climate though, it can be far more nuanced than that. Art is such a varied and cultural phenomenon that studying art contributes to the betterment of society as well as the individual, whether you studied fashion design or simply took a short art appreciation course.

Art has also been proven to bring communities together in unique ways. Your art degree can be used to create art that will solidify your relationship with those around you either by meeting like-minded people in class, or using your talents to collaborate with other artists, create exhibits, or workshops for people who can learn from you, or even just making friends who are interested in art as a subject.

See where you can find the best art classes near you.

man painting art in studio
With an arts degree, you can have a number of careers. Photo by Ari He on Unsplash

Careers for Art Students

An arts degree can also offer a wide variety of career options. What you are able to apply for obviously depends on what you choose to study.

If you have an art degree with a speciality in a certain sphere of study, you’ll be able to find work in specialised areas like music technology or landscape architecture. Some examples of career paths you could follow are:

  • Art historian
  • Music therapist
  • Digital designer.

If you graduate from a film school then it will likely be easier for you to start your own business. You could become anything from a photographer to an animation expert.

Art history isn’t just about working in a museum or in galleries; the qualification can be used to find jobs in the creative arts or in early childhood education (if you have a teaching qualification). You could even become an art teacher at an art centre or art academy. If the university or college you're attending has a career services counsellor or support services, speak to them as well to help you decide what you'd like to do with your degree after your graduate.

Check out this guide to find the ideal career path, if you’re interested in exploring more career opportunities.

What Requirements Should You Meet for an Art Education?

Applying to a national school of arts or any type of arts school in South Africa is pretty much the same as applying to any other institution for a university or college degree. You’ll still have to collect forms from the university itself, or download them from the official website, meet all their requirements and submit your application to the relevant departments for consideration.

The only difference might be that art programmes require the submission of a portfolio of your work. Don’t let this scare you; a portfolio is a great tool to have in general as an artist anyway and it’s an important step to take in your artistic journey. It shows your technical education and skills as an artist and what can be improved, as well as which subjects you are most interested in or best suited to.

Organising your portfolio could be difficult, but there is a general guideline you could follow, which is:

  • Gather all the pieces you are proudest of or which show the most technical ability
  • Pick a good method of organisation
  • Create a narrative with each piece.

If your portfolio is strong, that will lead to an interview with an arts school; a step closer to admission to an arts school in South Africa and completing your BA degree.

Most universities also ask for a short motivational essay along with your portfolio. Remember to keep it clear and concise, as they admissions board is probably interviewing a lot of prospective students and will be looking for something special.

Perhaps ask someone who already has a bachelor's degree in art or who works in the South African art industry to give you a few tips, or look over your application.

woman in front of street art
Make sure you know what you want from your art school before you apply. Photo by Paulette Wooten on Unsplash

Best Universities to Study Art in South Africa

Attending a national arts school in South Africa, getting your BA degree, finding a career in South African art can be so worthwhile, but first you need to make sure you choose from the best colleges and universities.

Have a look at the university online, take a peek at their social media accounts and request information from the faculty so that you can really get to know the institution inside and out.

There are many different factors to consider, but if you want the best advice, speak to someone who has already completed a BA degree, is a lecturer or alumnus, or is involved in the South African art world and can recommend some good programmes or tell you what to look out for when you’re making your decision.

For a degree in Fine Art, Curatorship or Art History, look into the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town (UCT), or Wits School of Arts. For a career in Interior Design or Architecture, try the University of Pretoria, while for filmmaking, photography or drama, you should definitely consider AFDA.

Things to consider when looking into art schools in South Africa:

  • Tuition rates and fees
  • Financial aid options
  • Admission requirements
  • Degree requirements
  • If you’re eligible for a scholarship and if they offer them
  • Whether they offer a undergraduate programme and post grad course
  • What kind of artists have come from these universities/colleges?
  • Your eventual career goals.

There are many great art schools in South Africa, but if none of them tickle your fancy, you could also consider looking at art colleges and schools overseas and applying for scholarships.

If you’d like to look into a specific field of study, like studying art from a certain time period, or want a general degree in the visual arts or studio art, there are many schools that can offer you a great education both in South Africa and overseas.

If you’re interested in applying for an art school overseas, such as the University of London, or Stratford University in Virginia, then remember that you will need to have enough time to get a visa, and that there may be additional specifications in the application as international transfer students often have to follow different guidelines and submit additional documents. All of this means that your application will take longer to complete, so you need to start early.

And if all else fails and you're not sure if you want to commit to a full-time degree programme, cannot afford to go to university right now, or want to take a gap year, then try some online courses or distance learning in the meantime, even if they're short courses or only a year-long programme.

Need an Art and Design teacher?

Enjoyed this article?

5.00/5 - 1 vote(s)


Carmen is a freelance journalist and copywriter from Cape Town. She has over 10 years experience in the digital landscape and loves writing, reading and looking at pug memes on the internet.