Learn to make a masterpiece without leaving your studio

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If you want to study art online, one thing's for certain: not only should you want to improve your artistic skills, but you must have a real degree of comfort with computers.

And don't be fooled: These are not casual correspondence-style courses. All of the online art classes currently available are offered through degree-granting institutions and taught by regular faculty, and they tend to be relatively intense.

Computer technology now offers the major benefit of in-person art classes - the sharing of ideas and techniques - combined with the convenience of working at home.

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"The actual making of the work is still done in a traditional way," says Tom Hyatt, vice president for technology at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. "Putting work on the Web lets everyone in the class see it," Mr. Hyatt adds. "The technology allows for a genuine critique."

Most online art-instruction courses are in the area of graphic design, often involving computer applications, such as Web design and the use of specific software for advertising illustration. The courses do not teach the basic operation of the software; instead, students may be directed to tutorials that will allow them to gain familiarity with PhotoShop, Illustrator, or other relevant programs. Many of the design classes are taken by career-changers, or people already in the field who want to learn new skills.

However, there are online classes in traditional fine-art media, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and printmaking, at many of the same institutions.

Online instructors write a prepared lesson that is posted on the "Web classroom." At the Art Institute Online, run by the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, one may either read the lesson or, by clicking on the menu, hear it read by a professional narrator (rather than the instructor). Faculty often receive extensive training in how to communicate briefly, as well as how to encourage group participation and maintain direction when teaching students who show up for class only as e-mail messages.

The online classroom participation consists of offering an evaluation, or critique, of other students' work and a discussion of one's own, as well as responding to questions posed by the instructor.

The quality of classroom participation and the artwork itself are the basis of any grades or credit offered.

Most distance-learning programs are designed to be "asynchronous," not taking place at any one time.

"The instructor bears the burden of juggling conversations, answering questions from this person, asking a question of that person," Hyatt says. Some online courses do have "real time" class periods once a week.

When it comes to supplementing e-mail conversations, approaches vary. The Art Institute Online does not permit students and faculty to communicate by telephone. At the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, on the other hand, faculty and students do communicate by phone, but Rebecca Alm, the senior developer of the distance-learning initiative there, says it is valuable for everyone involved to "get to know each other through the work and not based on how they look or sound."

A number of schools with online programs offer a free sample of a class, where visitors to the website can view artwork, instructor's comments, and students' responses.

The cost of an online course at an art school or college is likely to be the same as for a traditional studio class, although the material can often be covered in fewer weeks online.

At the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, both the online and traditional studio courses are $505 per credit. Similarly, at Parsons School of Design, online and traditional studio classes cost $660 per credit, while noncredit or certificate students pay a set price of between $350 and $600.

Online courses for artists aren't limited to traditional studio subjects. Art Marketing Workshops (www.artmarketingworkshops.com) provides a series of four-week classes on selling artwork, while Parsons offers a five-week course entitled "Presenting Your Artwork to Galleries."

A sample of online art programs:

The Art Institute Online 420 Boulevard of the Allies Pittsburgh, PA 15219 (877) 872-8869 or (412) 291-5100

http://www.aionline.edu

Maryland Institute College of Art

1300 West Mt. Royal Avenue

Baltimore, MD 21217

(410) 225-2255

http://www.mica.edu

Minneapolis College of Art and Design

2501 Stevens Avenue South

Minneapolis, MN 55404

(800) 874-MCAD

http://www.mcad.edu

Open Learning Agency

4355 Mathissi Place

Burnaby, British Columbia V5G 4S8

Canada

(604) 431-3000

(800) 663-1663 (within Canada)

http://www.ola.ca

Parsons School of Design

New School University

66 West 12th Street

New York, NY 10011-8878

(212) 229-5600

http://www.parsons.edu

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