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Learn to make a masterpiece without leaving your studio

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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.

"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.

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