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Best practice on Illustrator and Audience: The Paradox

Guest posts

Category: Art and design

19 April 2024

Elys Dolan in front of a display of her illustrations

Lecturer Elys Dolan, who teaches on the renowned MA Children's Book Illustration course, reflects on engaging students in studio-based practice.

ARU’s MA in Children’s Book Illustration is a studio-based taught course. My module, named Illustrator and Audience: The Paradox, asks that students undertake a self-directed project to create a visual sequence which communicates to a targeted age group of children.

This blog aims to provide some insight into the successful teaching methods used on this module following exceptionally positive feedback from our students. Many of the most successful approaches stem from the teaching methods used in the arts, but there are aspects that I believe are transferable and I hope they can be of use to my academic colleagues.

What did the students like?

After reviewing the student feedback, three aspects emerged as being highly valued by them:

  • organisation and clear communication
  • the workshops and activities
  • the range of tutors and their enthusiasm.

Below I will describe the methods we used to ensure the above are so effective.

A strong studio culture

Studio culture is a social and collaborative approach to learning and teaching that we see across art schools. It asks that students are given a dedicated space suitable for creative practice where they can work on their individual projects but in each other’s company. A learning community arises from allowing students to inhabit a physical space and have a sense of ownership, belonging and responsibility over that space and the community that shares it. We use studio space to conduct formal teaching and deliver formative feedback, but it also creates an environment where students and staff can have informal and incidental communication.

This approach to teaching is the basis for the sense of good communication and organisation. Even with all essential information available on Canvas, there are many instances where students need further clarification or support. When staff and students work together within in a space for extended periods of time, we are available to our students, providing many opportunities to clarify and have discussions. Students who might not feel confident speaking up in a Q&A have the chance to speak to tutors informally. It also gives staff the space and opportunity to provide responsive and tailored answers and ensure a student has understood. In addition, as the cohort works in the same space, they are able to easily ask each other for assistance and work collaboratively to understand what’s expected of them.

Working together in a collaborative space provides more opportunities for staff to get to know students and understand them as individuals. This serves to create an atmosphere of support and care. It allows for responsive teaching and provides opportunities to show genuine enthusiasm and interest in each student’s project. This shows students that their work is valued, and they are secure in the knowledge that help is easily obtainable if required.

Striking a balance between structured activities and independent working

One of the challenges we face on this module is the need to deliver considerable information while, at the same time, allowing the students the freedom to develop their identity as an illustrator and learn to work in the independent manner of a professional illustrator. Often this self-directed exploration can be more beneficial to the development of practice than the more structured activities, but I have observed that for students to be free to experiment and take risks during self-directed practice they need to feel secure and guided by their module. The purpose and direction that a workshop delivers can provide this.

It is important to balance the two appropriately through the structure of the module as a whole and the way a teaching day is structured. The average taught day begins with some formal teaching, such as a talk about an illustrator’s practice or on a key concept such as characterisation, narrative colour, etc. If it is a key concept, a workshop brief is set for them to complete during the teaching day that requires students to understand and demonstrate the concept discussed. If it is not a workshop day, optional briefs relevant to their individual projects are available to the students to serve as a framework. They are all expected to work in the studio together unless they need to use other facilities. Tutors then lead individual or group tutorials where the students receive formative feedback on their individual projects.

Outside of taught sessions students are expected to work on their projects independently, with taught sessions helping to facilitate this as an essential space to experience studio culture and receive the relevant teaching. The students have structure in their days and key concepts are addressed, but there is still space for independent working and individual feedback.

The range of tutors and their expertise

The permanent staff and associate lecturers that teach on this module are, along with being academics, experienced illustrators with many of them currently practicing within children’s publishing. They have up-to-date industry knowledge, which the students appreciate. I ensure, as much as is possible with timetabling, that each student sees a range of tutors for varied feedback. This reflects working within the publishing industry, where one would inevitably receive feedback from various people and then decide how to process and implement it. Different tutors with varied skills and experiences can provide a wide range of suggested avenues for developing a project, which is successful in supporting the varied projects and approaches that our students are pursuing. This aids the students in developing an individual approach to practice and avoids the creations of a generic house style across the course.

I believe this overview of the approach to teaching on Illustration and Audience: the Paradox demonstrates how effective studio-based methods can be and inspires others to experiment with how they can be used in different contexts.

By Elys Dolan
Elys is an internationally published, award-winning children’s book author and illustrator. She teaches on the renowned MA in Children’s Book Illustration at ARU, and is conducting research into humour in picturebooks.


The views expressed here are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of Anglia Ruskin University. If you've got any concerns please contact us.