What are the top illustration schools in the West for 2021?

Top 10 West Coast Illustration Schools - 2021 College Rankings
1ArtCenter College of DesignCalifornia
2California College of the ArtsCalifornia
3Otis College of Art and DesignCalifornia
4San Jose State UniversityCalifornia
5Laguna College of Art and DesignCalifornia
6California State University, FullertonCalifornia
7Academy of Art UniversityCalifornia
8California State University, Long BeachCalifornia
9Pacific Northwest College of ArtOregon
10California State University, NorthridgeCalifornia

Our 2021 rankings of the Top 10 illustration schools in the west. For an explanation of ranking criteria, click here.

1. ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, California
ArtCenter College of Design

Founded in 1930, ArtCenter College of Design sits on a hillside campus that consists of 165 wooded acres and a sprawling modernist steel-and-glass structure. The school also has campuses in downtown Pasadena and Los Angeles, and satellite studios in Petersen Automotive Museum (Miracle Mile, Los Angeles) and Berlin, Germany.

Serving approximately 2,335 students, ArtCenter offers 11 undergraduate and seven graduate degree programs in a variety of Applied Arts, Industrial Design, and Visual disciplines. The Industrial Design Program offers a joint MS/MBA in partnership with the Drucker School of Management. Programs for aspiring illustrators include a BFA in Illustration and an Interdisciplinary MFA.

The BFA curriculum “encompasses a wide range of core studies and collaborations with other disciplines that equips students with strong practical skills, as well as substantial business knowledge,” says the school. “After mastering foundations skills such as figure drawing, painting and perspective, students choose from five main areas of specialization: Illustration Design, Illustration/Fine Art, Entertainment Arts, Motion Design and Surface Design.”

Course highlights include Children’s Book Illustration, Composition and Drawing, Digital Illustration, Drawing Projects, Head and Hands Materials of Art and Design, Illustration Design Lab, Illustration Storytelling, and Sketching for Illustration. Students will also take Business and Professional Practices, Notorious or Application Studio, and several Portfolio Design Lab courses.

Graduates of the program have been hired by ArtCenter industry partners such as Apple, Blizzard, DreamWorks, Google, Mattel, Walt Disney, and more.

Notable Illustration alumni include Drew Struzan, Movie Poster Illustrator for Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, the Muppets, Star Wars and others; Mark “Crash” McCreery Creature Designer/Concept Designer for Batman Returns, Jurassic Park, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; Phil Hettema, Experiential Designer for The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man, Jurassic Park: The Ride, and Hello Kitty Park; and Rockstar Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park.

2. California College of the Arts, San Francisco and Oakland, California
California College of the Arts

California College of the Arts (CCA) is a private nonprofit institution founded in 1907 by German-born cabinetmaker and art teacher Frederick Heinrich Wilhelm Meyer. The school opened as the California Guild of Arts and Crafts with just three teachers and 43 students. Today, some 100 full-time and 400 part-time faculty members serve 1,850 students from more than 40 states and nearly 50 countries.

Degree options at CCA include 22 undergraduate and 11 graduate programs. This includes a BFA in Illustration and MFA programs in Comics, Fine Arts, and more. A BFA in an Individualized Major is also available.

The BFA in Illustration is taught by “Award-Winning Illustrators” and “digital innovators using the latest technology,” says the school. The curriculum is interdisciplinary, which allows students to explore courses outside the program such as Animation, Creative Writing, Fine-Art Painting, Graphic Design, and Printmaking. The program also provides the opportunity for students to develop as entrepreneurs through courses such as Portfolio, Professional Practice, and Thesis.

Other course highlights include 2D, 3D & 4D, Illustration Studios 1-3, Illustration Tools: Digital Illustration, Illustration Tools: Painting for Illustrators, Literary & Performing Arts Studies, Media History: History of Illustration, and Visual Studies. 

Thanks to the Illustration Program’s “position within a top art and design college” students have “access to cutting-edge software and digital tools, print and painting studios, shops, labs, and a community of thinkers and makers eager to collaborate.”

Graduates of the CCA’s Illustration Program are prepared to pursue positions at magazines, for the entertainment industry, and for books, comics, packaging, posters, products, websites, and more.

3. Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, California
Otis College of Art and Design

Otis College of Art and Design (OTIS) was established in 1918 by General Harrison Gray Otis—founder and publisher of the Los Angeles Times. The school, which serves approximately 1,100 full-time students, is a private nonprofit institution and national leader in art and design education. “Alumni and faculty are Fulbright, MacArthur, and Guggenheim grant recipients, Oscar awardees, legendary costume designers, leaders of contemporary art movements, entrepreneurs, and design stars at Apple, Abercrombie & Fitch, Pixar, DreamWorks, Mattel, Nike, and Disney,” says the school.

OTIS offers 11 BFA degree programs including Architecture/Landscape/Interiors, Digital Media (Animation, Game and Entertainment Design, and Motion Design), Fashion Design, Communication Arts (Graphic Design, and Illustration), Fine Arts (Painting, Photography, and Sculpture/New Genres), Product Design, and Toy Design. The school also awards an MFA degree in Fine Arts, Graphic Design, Public Practice, and Writing, and a variety of Minors and Certificate Programs are available.

Specific programs for aspiring illustrators are offered through the Communication Arts Department. Options include a BFA and a Minor in Illustration. Program highlights include conventions, field trips, student exhibitions, and visiting artists. Students can expect to take foundation courses such as Connections Through Color and Design, Drawing Studio, Form and Space, Introduction to Visual Culture, and Writing in the Digital Age.

Illustration course highlights include Advanced Illustrative Applications, Alternative Materials and Procedures for Illustrators, Entrepreneur 101, Illustration Communication Studio I-IV, and Typography for Illustrators. Students will also take Entrepreneur 101, Practicum I-III, Senior Project/Seminar, and Senior Thesis/Research Paper. A Capstone course is the signature course and culminating expression of the Liberal Arts Program.

Graduates of the Illustration Program at OTIS have been hired at Conde Nast Publications, Disney Consumer Products, Hallmark, Interscope Records, Los Angeles Magazine, Mattel, Ogilvy Worldwide, Sony Music, Twentieth Century Fox, WB Network, Young & Rubicam, and more.  

4. San Jose State University, San Jose, California
San Jose State University

Established in 1857, San Jose State University (SJSU) is known as “Silicon Valley’s Public University.” The school employs nearly 3,600 employees, making it “an essential partner in the economic, cultural and social development of Silicon Valley and California,” says the school.

More than 250 areas of study at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels are offered in eight colleges. Programs for aspiring illustrators are offered in the College of Humanities and the Arts, Department of Design. Options include a BA in Design Studies Specializing in Animation/Illustration, a BFA in Animation/Illustration (Professional Degree), and an MFA in Digital Media Art.

The BA in Design is a Liberal Arts degree that provides “basic preparation for entry-level jobs in the entertainment industry.” Optionally, students “can later apply to a graduate program in Animation/Illustration or similar fields of study.”

The curriculum for the BFA in Animation/Illustration combines traditional and innovative educational strategies, including color design, conventional and digital painting, theory, and perspective. Students will also study the principles of traditional and 3D animation, character design, modeling, physics of motion, storyboarding, and visual development. Upper-division classes offer the opportunity for students to specialize in an area of their choice. Students also have additional learning and networking opportunities through the Department’s speaker engagements.

The BFA program has developed tight bonds with industry partners over the last 25 years, giving students the chance to hear from speakers from big name corporations like Bento Box, Blizzard, Blue Sky Studios, Cartoon Network, Disney, DreamWorks, Hallmark, Industrial Light & Magic, Nickelodeon, Pixar, SONY Pictures Animation, Warner Bros., and many others.

The MFA in Digital Media Art is offered in collaboration with the CADRE Institute which “reflects the innovative atmosphere in Silicon Valley,” says the school. Academic programs here emphasize artistic experimentation within a context of historical, cultural, and theoretical study. The program is intended for students with interest in contemporary research. CADRE's diverse community of faculty and graduate students produce artworks involving visualization, simulation, hypertextuality, information, mapping, telepresence, networks, and interactive systems.

Technical facilities include a wide range of computing resources. Students work across the boundaries of computer visualization, animation, digital video, multimedia, electronic sculpture, sound and virtual reality. CADRE supports its own networking environment and offers excellent opportunities to produce internet-based artworks.

Graduates of the Illustration Programs at SJSU have worked on films such as A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo Monsters, Inc. and Shrek. Graduates have also been hired at more than 135 animation studios, game design companies, film studios, and academic institutions. Just a few include 20th Century Fox, Animation Mentor, Blue Sky Studios, Blizzard Entertainment, Cartoon Network, Cogswell Institute, Disney Interactive, Electronic Arts, Lucasfilm Animation, NBCUniversal Studios, Nickelodeon, Pixar, Sony/Columbia, The Art Institute of Las Vegas, Disney Animation, and Zynga.

5. Laguna College of Art and Design, Laguna Beach, California
Laguna College of Art and Design

Established in 1961, Laguna Beach College of Art and Design (LCAD) began as Laguna Beach School of Art (LBSA). Inspired by “pioneering cultural ventures” of the early 1900s such as the Laguna Playhouse and the Laguna Beach Art Association, this not-for-profit institution serves more than 700 full-time students today, and it is considered one of the leading colleges of art and design in the U.S.

LCAD offers around 30 degree programs, minors, and specialized minors in areas such as Animation, Experimental Animation, Game Design, Illustration, and Painting. Options for aspiring illustrators include BFAs in Drawing + Painting with an Illustration Emphasis, Graphic Design + Digital Media with an Illustration Emphasis, and Illustration in Entertainment Design. An Illustration Minor is also available.

The Minor consists of 15 credit hours and includes courses such as Computer Imaging, Graphic Illustration, and Illustrative Painting. The Drawing + Painting BFA helps students develop branding, exhibition, and entrepreneurial skills. Students will also “develop as mural artists and learn how to present their work and contributions to city planners, urban developers, and private owners who bring artistic works to large, public audiences on shared visual spaces.”

Course highlights include Applied Art Reproduction, Artistic Anatomy, Digital Photography for Fine Artists, Experimental Drawing, Figure in Environments, Illustration, Illustrative Painting, Mural Painting, Pictorial Design for Illustration, and Rendering.

The Drawing + Painting BFA Program prepares students to work in traditional and mixed-media art, “while honing imaginative, narrative, and design-based aesthetics for commercial and non-commercial pursuits,” says the school.

Classes for the BFA in Graphic Design + Digital Media with an Illustration Emphasis (GD+DM) are project-based and include titles such as Communication Design, Design Drawing, Digital Videography, Fundamentals of Illustration, Rendering, and User Interface Design. Students in the program will have the opportunity to complete a professional portfolio and complete real-world projects with industry partners such as Obsidian Entertainment, OC Art Studios, and Xist Publishing.

Graduates are prepared for careers in 3D, Advertising, Illustration, Motion Graphics, Package Design, Photography and Video, Social Media, User Experience and Interfaces, and Virtual Reality.

Students in the Illustration in Entertainment Design BFA program will learn how to combine art and technology to create live shows, museum exhibitions, themed events, themed restaurants and parks, TV and film productions, and more. The curriculum provides “real-life, hands-on instruction with concept design, model and prop-making, and 3-D digital tools,” says the school. Course highlights include Artistic Environment Design for Entertainment, Art of Costume, Fundamentals of Maya, Pictorial Design for Illustration, and Visual Storytelling for Entertainment.

Graduates of the Illustration programs at LCAS work at a variety of major companies and studios including Blizzard Entertainment, DreamWorks Animation, Fox Television, Google, Marvel Entertainment, Microsoft Studios, Obsidian Entertainment, Warner Bros., and many others.

6. California State University Fullerton, Fullerton, California
California State University Fullerton

In 1957, California State University Fullerton (Cal State Fullerton or CSU Fullerton) became the 12th state college in California to be authorized by the Legislature. The school serves nearly 41,500 students enrolled in 110 undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate programs. Programs are offered in eight colleges, including the College of the Arts, which houses the Visual Arts Department—home of the Illustration Program. Program options include BFA, MA, and MFA Degrees in Art with a Concentration in Illustration.

The BFA program is designed for students interested in developing skills in a focused area or to prepare them for graduate study. Course highlights for the Illustration Concentration include 3D Computer Animation, Cartooning and Caricature, Digital Narrative Illustration, Elements of Sequential Art, Lettering and Typography, Life Drawing, Special Studies in Illustration, and Visual Development and Background Painting. All students will have the opportunity to complete an internship.

The focus of the MA program “is to deepen the students understanding of craft and visual problem solving skills demonstrated in a portfolio that prepares graduate students to reenter the workforce,” says the school. Students will study “contemporary and historic issues in illustration with an emphasis on story concepts, design, color theory, perspective, theatrical composition and lighting, stylization, further development of the drawing and painting process, visual problem solving, and portfolio presentation.”

The program consists of nine units of required studio courses and at least 12 units in Illustration. Students may also take an additional three to six units in Illustration or other electives. All students will complete a project to exhibit in one of the Department of Arts graduate galleries. Graduates will have the skills needed to reenter the workforce, or enter a program leading to the terminal degree.

The MFA is a “rigorous” studio program that requires 60 units to graduate. Students in the program must take 24 units in the Studio Area of the Illustration Concentration, at least 12 units of electives, and independent study. Students must pass the semiannual comprehensive portfolio review and a studio project is part of the program. The project “constitutes a professional one-person art exhibit. It is installed in one of the department’s graduate galleries and announced for public view by the student as the final phase of the MFA program requirements.”

Graduates of the Illustration programs at CSUF have found employment at major entertainment and publishing companies, such as the Cartoon Network, DreamWorks SKG, Lucas Films Ltd. and Walt Disney Company.

7. Academy of Art University, San Francisco, California
Academy of Art University

Established in 1929, Academy of Art University is a family-owned institution that serves more than 7,200 students from 112 countries, making it one of the largest private, accredited art and design schools in the nation. Program offerings range from acting, animation and architecture to visual development, web design, and writing for film and television. Degrees are offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and many programs are available entirely online.

The School of Illustration offers five programs for aspiring illustrators. Options include a Certificate and AA, BFA, MA and MFA degrees in Illustration. The degree programs are available entirely online, and some courses for the Certificate in Illustration are offered online.

The AA in Illustration focuses developing skills in the areas of anatomy, figure drawing, rendering, and traditional media including charcoal and paint. The Digital Media component for the program focuses on imagery using both vector and bitmap tools. The BFA program consists of eight semesters of coursework covering the areas such as drawing, composition and color, presentation skills, professional development, tools and techniques, and visual problem solving.

Course highlights include Advanced Perspective for Illustration, Analysis of Form, Blogging: Content Creation & Promotion, Editorial Illustration for Apps and Publication, Film & Games, Digital Media 2: Illustrative Imaging, Elements of Digital Painting, Illustration for Consumer Products & Licensing, Interactive and Vector Art, Interactive Illustration, Portfolio Preparation and Self Promotion, Social Media Strategies, and Web Design. Students in the program will also complete a number of collaborative projects, an internship, and a study abroad experience.

The MA and MFA programs prepare students for intermediate to advanced positions in a range of industries. They are also prepared for success as entrepreneurs or freelancers. Sample courses include Head Drawing for Illustrators, Perspective for Characters & Environment, Professional Practices for Illustrators, Skill Enhancement: Advanced Digital Painting, Skill Enhancement: Interactive & Vector Art, and The Rendered Figure. Graduate students will attend a Graduate Seminar in Europe, complete a thesis, and participate in a study abroad experience.

Students in all programs benefit from guest speakers, workshops, and events that the school says help students “create an insider network” that connects them with industry professionals. They have the opportunity to work with WRiTE BRAiN BOOKS, which has been a partner to Academy of Art University for more than half a decade, and to collaborate with “artists, designers, and innovators outside of the classroom.” Internship opportunities are also available.

Graduates of the program are prepared to pursue a career as a Children’s Book Illustrator, Comic Book Artist, Concept Artist, Advertising or Editorial Illustrator, Graphic Novelist, Interactive Illustrator, Storyboard Artist, and many others. Graduates have been hired by Chronicle Books, Marvel, Random House, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Wired, and more.

8. California State University Long Beach, Long Beach, California
California State University Long Beach

California State University-Long Beach (CSULB) opened on September 28, 1949 in a small converted apartment building under the name Los Angeles-Orange Country State College. The school had 160 students and 13 full-time faculty. Today CSULB employs more than 4,000 professionals serving over 38,000 students.

One of the 23 campuses of the California State University System, CSULB offers more than 300 programs in eight colleges. One of the school’s most popular colleges is the College of the Arts. Made up of six separate academic units, the College houses the School of Art (SoA), which offers a BFA in Art with an Illustration/Animation Option and an MFA in Studio with an Animation/Illustration Track. Certificate in Biomedical Illustration is also available.  

Students in the BFA program may choose the Animation or Illustration Track, but they may take courses in both tracks and work with students in both tracks in the digital lab. Course highlights for the program include Advanced Illustration, Advanced Life Painting, Costumed Figure Drawing, Experimental Animation, Special Studies in Illustration, Storyboarding for Film and Television, and Visual Development.

Workshops presented by faculty and visiting artists are part of the program as well as courses taught by resident illustration faculty comprised of experienced professional artists currently working in the fields of illustration and animation. Internship and study abroad opportunities are also highlighted.

MFA Program “is designed to foster both interdisciplinary and discipline-specific dialogue by engaging students in a set of core department-wide requirements, interdisciplinary opportunities, and discipline- specific courses and curricular “tracks,”” says the school. “Within the MFA degree in Studio Art students develop a personalized program of study within established curricular parameters, and with the consultation and approval of the student’s faculty committee.”

“Students develop a more personalized program of study within curricular tracks reflecting the School of Art’s varied programs in Ceramics, Drawing and Painting, Fiber, Illustration/Animation, Metal, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture/4D, Graphic Design, and Wood.” All students will participate in the final MFA Exhibition.

The Certificate in Biomedical Illustration is sponsored by the Art and Biological Sciences Departments. The program is available to students who are presently enrolled in a degree program in the Biological Sciences or in Art at CSULB. Students in the program will take courses such as Anatomy for Artists, Biomedical Illustration, Biomedical Rendering, Computer Animation, Foundation Computer Art, Illustration 2, and Special Studies Illustration. The Certificate Program requires 30 units of study.

Graduates of the Illustration Programs at CSULB are prepared for professional positions as an artist or designer, and for teaching studio art within a selected specialization. Alumni “work in a variety of fields such as film and entertainment (gaming, animation and live action film), advertising, textiles, biomedical illustration, the gift market, educational illustration, architectural illustration, print publications (newspapers, magazines, graphic novels and books) and more.”

Many alumni have also “distinguished themselves in visual journalism, in storyboarding for film and television, and in all aspects of editorial art as well as gallery exhibition.”

9. Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, Oregon
Pacific Northwest College of Art

Founded in 1909, Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) is a Fine Arts and Design college that offers 12 undergraduate majors in art and design, eight graduate degrees, one Post-Baccalaureate program, and eight minors. Serving 650 students, the school has “Four Core Themes” including Critical Inquiry, Professional Practice, Studio Practice, and World View. Program areas covered include Animated Arts, Graphic Design, Intermedia, and Illustration, to name a few.

The Illustration Program is one of the top undergraduate options at PNCA. A BFA is available as well as a Community Education Certificate. PNCA also offers an MFA program. The BFA in Illustration “combines development of technical skill in traditional studio media and new and emerging technologies,” says the school, along with “conceptual inquiry to empower {students} to create visual messages capable of engaging clients and changing culture.”

Course highlights include 3D Design, Advanced Illustration Studio, Cultural Marketplace, Design & Image, Drawing for Illustration, Exploring Visual Culture, Painting for Illustration, Time Arts, Visual Elements 2-D, Visual Elements: Digital Tools, Visual Elements: Digital Tools, Word & Image, Visual Technique, and Writing in Context. A Thesis is also required.

Other program highlights include mentorship programs, professional practices instruction, portfolio preparation, and internship opportunities. Internships for seniors and recent graduates have taken place at companies such as Dark Horse Comics, Microsoft, Nike, Nintendo, and Wieden+Kennedy.

PNCA students also have the opportunity to show their work at the school’s annual end-of-year showcase hosted by the Illustration Department at a downtown Portland gallery.

10. California State University Northridge, Northridge, California
California State University-Northridge

Founded in 1958, California State University-Northridge (CSUN) is one of the 23 campuses of the California State University System. Situated on a 356-acre campus in the heart of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, CSUN is a community of 38,310 students and more than 4,000 faculty and staff. Nine colleges provide bachelor's degree programs in 133 disciplines, 84 master's degree options, and doctorates in educational leadership and physical therapy.

The Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication houses the Department of Art, which offers BA, MA, and MFA degrees in Visual Arts with a Concentration Illustration.

Illustration students will “study illustration as both an art form and as a profession,” says the school. “Topics cover historical and contemporary illustration and its evolving styles and technologies.” Professional preparation topics include business and trade practices, goal setting, portfolio and website development, researching employment opportunities, and self-promotion. Students “learn methods for creating new ideas and for the effective visual communication of those ideas. Projects emphasize a wide range of technical skills in fine art and digital media, conceptual problem-solving abilities, composition and design, self-expression and the development of a personal artistic vision.”

Other program highlights include interaction with visiting artists, study abroad experiences, and the opportunity to exhibit illustrations at various showcases. In addition, all Curb College Department of Art students have the opportunity to participate in industry and studio events, organized studio tours, and ongoing collaborative educational partnering with DreamWorks studios and Seoul Institute of the Arts.

Students also participate in industry events and internships with Disney, Film Roman, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros., and many other studios.