When I first loaded up Art Sqool, a quirky art game on Mac and Windows PC from indie designer Julian Glander, I would’ve never guessed that it’d have a profoundly emotional impact on me. However, its lax approach to making art reminded me of one of the biggest – and most unexpected – lessons I learned as a student in real-life art school, changing my whole approach to making art.
In Art Sqool, I take on the role of Froshmin, a plucky little student making art for Professor Qwertz, an “advanced neural network” trained to judge my art based on criteria like composition and approach. As I stroll through Art Sqool’s vaporwave-esque world of soft pastels, rotund hills, and wiggly bits, the professor assigns me one of 200 drawing prompts. It’s up to me, the artist, to interpret the Professor’s assignments and create works inspired by my own life experiences and the environment, using any drawing tools I find in the world.
Overlaid on my screen is a blank canvas and a palette of colors and tools. As I explore Art Sqool’s weird world, I run across new colors or types of drawing tools that let me fill in lines, make splotchy dots, or create three-dimensional, wiggly lines. But similar to the game’s pared-down and simple aesthetic, the art pad looks more like MS Paint than Photoshop. Since I’m playing this game on PC, all my art has to be done with a mouse, hardly the most expressive art tool.
This setup doesn’t allow me to make anything detailed, instead allowing for little more than doodles. As an artist, this frustrated me; adding fine details is one of my favorite things. As I begrudgingly doodled my way through assignments, I found myself disappointed, even annoyed, with how the game seemed to reduce art to nothing but the most barebones process. I decided to put down the game for a while.
I revisited the game a few days later and questioned whether or not I was giving it a fair shake. As I played through it a second time, something interesting struck me about the grades that Professor Qwertz gave out: They seemed arbitrary.
Even after I hooked up my drawing tablet during my second playthrough to make “better looking art” — art more in line with my own style, to the degree that the game would allow it — my grades didn’t improve. This seemingly pointless grading system reminded me a lot of how critiques happened in my actual time in art school.
When I first started college, I had the assumption that students who were already skilled designers and illustrators would always be the classmates who got the best grades. Within weeks, that assumption was shattered. I routinely saw what I thought to be skilled artists get their work torn apart by my teachers, because they focused so heavily on what their art looked like. Their obsession with being technically proficient meant they often missed the point of assignments. Less-skilled, more adventurous artists were praised instead, because they discovered ways to use what talent they had, plus genuine creativity, to make art that sparked emotion or told a personal story.
It changed the way I looked at art.
Playing through Art Sqool a second time, I realized I was playing the game like one of those talented artists who got bad grades. Sure, I managed to make what I considered visually impressive drawings with the game’s simple tools, but it didn’t make Professor Qwartz any more happy with my work. Fake grades or not, my inability to get better scores encouraged me to play Art Sqool differently. Instead of trying to make my art look good for the sake of grades that didn’t matter, I decided to focus instead of making sure my art meant something to me.
One of my assignments asked me to “find a hole in the ground on the campus. Draw it, then fill it in.” I stumbled upon a sculpture the game, a donut of sorts, and began drawing that. After sketching out its shape on my artpad, I thought about how to make it more interesting. Pulling inspiration from the real world, I drew wisps of smoke coming from the inside, partially to fit the soothing lofi vibe of the music, but also inspired by The Metronome, a piece of public art in New York City I’ve always been captivated by.
Professor Qwartz gave it a B. While that grade wasn’t markedly better than any others I received, despite my new approach, it didn’t matter. I got to make something that reminded me of one of my favorite parts of Manhattan. I was happy with it, even if it didn’t look phenomenal.
For my next assignment, I had to draw “how I got here today,” so I drew a New Jersey Transit bus. These buses are how I got to art school every day. They aren’t the most beautiful things to look at, but they made a huge impact on me.
Rooted into their images is a lot of personal history: Disappointment in not being able to afford a car or a school loan to go the art school I actually wanted to go to. Resentment toward the education system that gives the already fortunate even more advantages when it comes to higher learning. All the hours waiting in the extreme heat and cold just to go to school. The only way I could ever see my college girlfriend. Throughout college, I was at the mercy of the bus schedule.
When I look at buses now, even as an adult, they remind me of those times. However, all those experiences made me a better person. Despite the struggle, I still got the education I wanted. I had great teachers I still think about to this day. I even made some lifelong friends while I was there. Getting my art degree was rough, but it was a moment in time that shaped me into the adult I am now. For better or worse, getting on that New Jersey Transit bus every day made me who I am.
My bus got a passing grade.
While the drawing itself is hardly my best work, I’m glad I got to relive some memories of art school. Those were some of my most important years where I learned a lot about how to make art, but I also learned a lot about myself. I wouldn’t have been able to take this small trip through memory lane if I had tried to get through Art Sqool the way I approached it the first time.
Without a more expansive array of artistic tools at my disposal, I have to think creatively, not technically. The totally pointless grading system allows me to be more free, without the pressure of trying to make fancier art to help me get a better score. Focusing on my technical art skills will always be important, but Art Sqool, much like the real one I went to, helped me learn that creativity and personality matter just as much.