There has long been a divide over the “best way” to learn. It’s natural, we want to defend our own choices and that means talking about why we didn’t go a different way which inevitably leads to someone on that different path defending their choice and now everyone is angry. But whatever choices you make about where you want to learn the consistency is that it’s not going to take you all the way. That’s because another person, be it a professor, author of a teaching book, podcaster or tutorial creator, can only show us the ways they have found to work and (hopefully) encourage further study. They can’t guide your personal development for the years and decades an artist will be developing their work and they won’t be an expert at absolutely everything so even if you have a sustained apprenticeship kind of situation they are not an exhaustive source. So it’s on us as students to build off of that foundation, seek out new sources of information and continue learning after we have completed the lessons.
So lets say you’ve come out the other side of whatever path you chose for your fundamentals and you now have a solid grasp on at least one approach to them. How can you continue to develop?
One approach is to continue seeking out new teachers in more complex subjects. You can start in on that with many formal programs which will offer specialized courses but they don’t have a monopoly. In my area there are a number of community centers which offer workshops on specialized techniques like encaustic and throwing on the wheel or concepts like storytelling and concept art. Individual artists will also often offer classes and workshops or have podcasts set up online where you can watch them work and get insight into different approaches.
If teachers aren’t your thing then consider peers. A group of artists at roughly the same stage can push each other to improve, bounce ideas off of one another and keep everyone working. They don’t all have to be visual artists either, I still have my writer friends critique my work and give me theirs for review. Even if someone doesn’t have any training in a field they can still give valuable feedback from the point of view of your audience.
On the subject of people outside your field, you can develop by looking for interest beyond the art world. A lot of new artists will hit a plateau after they have developed their fundamentals simply because they aren’t sure what to do once they don’t have specific assignments anymore. But if you start looking outside of art for subjects that fascinate you suddenly you have something you want to share and explore. Artistic technique is important but so is having something to share through your work. This is a great way to develop a strong and unique portfolio as well.
And finally develop you work by, well, working. Take small commission jobs and let the clients requirements push you in directions you weren’t expecting. If you did really well with strict assignments while learning this is a good way to preserve that atmosphere while branching out into your own style. /r/artstore is fairly good for that, they have a lot of smaller jobs wander through but there are a number of websites that also facilitate commissions. One huge benefit to doing this is it skips over the awkward “am I ready to start charging” phase that cripples a lot of new artists. The downside is you will probably get hosed by a few clients, it happens no matter where you are in your career though more frequently when you’re new. Read up on contracts and the industry if you want to go this route.
These are of course only the ways that I have used to develop after leaving school, I won’t pretend to have found them all. If none of these work then keep looking for your own way to develop after you’ve exhausted your lessons.