As of the 8th of July this year, I am an official graduate of Norwich University of the Arts! Ohhyeeeahh!
It’s been one hell of an experience, with so many different paths, ups, downs, decisions and lessons along the way, so with it being a pretty damn significant three years of my life, I thought it would be worth a good extensive blog post.
Over the three years of being at NUA, I’ve known a few people to have left early, either in their first of second year. University simply wasn’t for them, the the of which they’ve been in education seemed to have been time enough and they needed the environment of work and a pay cheque. I struggled to understand this, I was loving university! Ever since I can remember, I’ve been so incredibly excited to see subjects dropped from my timetables as I started the process of narrowing down what exactly I was studying. From every subject available in primary school, to I few ‘this or that’ choices in Middle, up to the glorious world of A Levels then eventually being able to cut out all unecessaries from my time and having the opportunity to focus completely on my practice at Foundation and Degree level.
Foundation really helped me find my feet, creativity-wise. I wasn’t even aware that illustration was a viable route for me to take, I’d always been around fine art this, and fine art that, but I found I did my best work when I put it into a more commercial and less gallery-ish context. So foundation for me was a blast. I produced my best work yet and successfully passed with a distinction! So, naturally, I was super excited to take this passion for commercial illustration as well as my new found love for scientific illustration (the projects COMA and Stem Cells helped me find this) into the world of university.
But, that’s the moment my brain started to worry about what other people thought about my work.
I had only just switched from my fine art background to illustration, I had received so little feedback, so little reassurance about my work in an illustrative context that I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Basically, I panicked.
My work for the first two years was the most frustrating series of hit and miss I’d ever experienced. Without purposefully founding like a pompous fool, I was used to straight A’s and my grades were equivalent to that of C’s and B’s. My work was unoriginal and really not as good as I knew I could produce. Every now and then I would make something I actually quite liked but I’d end up polishing it up too much for the final outcome and it would lose everything good about it.
It would range from stuff like this, which I really liked…
To work like this, which I quite frankly, hated.
This whole experience of ups and downs with my work, the thing I held most dear, was incredibly disheartening. I started leaving everything to the last minute and avoided getting in any way attached to any of the projects just in case I ended up hating them too (and turns out the only way I produce really good work is to get attached to what I’m producing). The projects were simply too short and quickfire for me to get stuck into them, so I simply reamed off images without much care of due thought.
Fortunately, the main perk of university kicked in to sweeten this nasty experience; safety.
University is a safe, stable environment to fail, to falter and be confused. You have Student Finance to numb the financial worries (thank god I’m not at a US university… I really feel for you guys with your fees), a huge group of people in exactly the same boat as you and no pressure to move into the ‘professional’ world quite yet. You can fail, you can make bad choices and you can make bad work without it directly and negatively impacting your career. This is what I found best about university, this stable period of time to be a bit shit until I found my illustrative path coming into year three.
This was the big one, the major project which would last, pretty much, the entire academic year. The subject matter had to be perfect…
It was. I chose a subject close to my heart and something I was sure I wouldn’t end up getting tired of it towards the end of the year. An in depth write up of the project’s ideals and main focus can be found here, but in short it was a bestiary focusing on the less popular groups and species of animals in the world and how this effects their levels of conservation. The project, for me, fulfilled a few of my idiosyncrasies; peculiar animals, anatomical drawings and confronting the unnecessary stigma behind less attractive species.
But even with everything in my favour in terms of the subject matter, I still struggled. I over polished final works, forgot to go back to the roots of the project part way through and generally didn’t achieve what I was hoping I would. It was only towards the very end of the project and the very end of my time at university that I started to feel happy with my work.
After extensive discussions with my tutors and friends, I started to realise one of my main issues with the university setting and it was surprisingly selfish; I was not only working subconsciously towards what I believed the tutors would like, but I was also working for free… I’ve had dozens of commissions over the past few years, and naturally some of them were more fun than others. To get myself through the… slightly less fun tasks, I’d remember I was doing work, I was doing a job, and you grin and deal with it when you are working in a job. But the university work had none of this, it was entirely lacking in the carrot on the end of a stick in the form of either financial gain or moving up the ladder in an industry. It’s the empty space where these things should have been that seemed to break my creative circuit and prevent me from fully throwing myself into my work. But once I realised that this was the problem, I could start tackling it from different points. And the one thing I did that actually worked was to simply lie to my own brain.
I would constantly be pretending that the work I was producing was for a client, not for education. It sounds silly, but it really did help me build up my drive in order to complete work to a standard I knew I could. Social media helped hugely during this ‘brain trickery’ as well. My Facebook Page, Twitter, Tumblr and this blog acted as my quick and easy window to the industry and audience I was aiming for post graduation. When producing work for the final project, I’d try to have in my mind, ‘would I really want to share this online?’. If the answer was no, then the illustrations I was producing weren’t up to scratch. By focusing on this audience and this industry rather than ‘what would my tutors want’ I really started to feel my illustrative drive come back to life.
By sharing everything I did on social media platforms, creating competitions to engage my audience and generally maintaining an online presence, my confidence in my work was boosted, I received incredibly helpful feedback, and made some useful connections! As is obvious, social media and online activities play an immeasurable role in the success of any business/artist/individual and I’m so very glad I jumped onto this bandwagon nice and early. My Facebook Page has now reached over 1k followers, my Twitter is at 400, and my Tumblr blog is at 1.5k and gaining new followers every day.
With this backing up what I was telling myself about doing work for industry and my newfound love for scientific illustration, I can now clearly see why my work flourished as it did in my final year. It’s work I’ve been proud to share and show off, unlike damn-near everything else produced at university.
So I suppose that’s what I’ve gotten out of the experience… the safety to experience, fail for three years then in the last few months produce some unique, surprising and good work I’ve been happy with. University is most definitely not for some people, which is entirely understandable. It’s essentially an extension of school, with more freedoms, but with the restriction of meeting strict guidelines and requirements that may not be in place as often in industry. For example, the constant need to provide proof of development and your mental path towards any final outcomes. This was useful in showing both the tutors and myself how I work, but it definitely has an educational vibe about it. But for others, university may well be ideal. It was certainly the ideal length of time; by the end of the third year I was definitely ready to leave and go into industry.
And if you think that going into an illustration degree will teach you how to draw… no. If you cannot draw, you have to teach yourself. This is probably something you should be able to do anyway by the time you reach degree level, but in case you can’t, start practicing. Illustration degrees, mine anyway, teach how to play around with the skills you already have and push you to develop them even further. It helps you to find what your niche in the market may be and how to be happy with your work. Initially I found it frustrating that these things weren’t happening, but I was blind to the fact that it was me who had to actually do it, you can’t be taught what you niche is but you are lead in a direction which will help you find it, not anybody else.
Essentially, I found the experience a positive one. I don’t regret taking on the course at all, it’s helped me produce what I produce now. Even though it was frustrating at times, even a little depressing and rage-enducing, it was a space in time for me to play around with my skills, expand them and find out what I was good at and what I could do which would be fresh and new to the market.
You have to be willing to wade through a little bit of shitty times before you reach the end goal of an illustrative style starting point, a lot more confidence in your own work and a day to wear a really stupid hat!