How studying abroad in London prepared me for a career in illustration – API Blog

April 29, 2019

Today’s blog post comes to us from API & Lesley University alumni Mary Curtin! She studied abroad with us at the University of the Arts, London. Today she’s a freelance illustrator! We thought it’d be fun to sit down and chat with her about how studying abroad prepared her for a career in illustration.

If you’d like to study abroad at UAL this fall, applications for our Integrated Studies Quarter & Fall programs are due May 15th!

Mary Curtin stands in front of Stonehenge

API: Tell us about your study abroad experience.

I studied abroad from October 2010 to April 2011 at Camberwell College of Arts in London in the BA [Hons] Illustration program. It was a very challenging going from an American illustration program to a British one. Their program was much more self directed than what I was use to and more idea based. For example, in America I would attend very specific classes like “book Illustration” or “editorial illustration” and the emphasis was more on technique. In the British program was more free-flowing. We would do workshops in a particular area, like doing a book binding or letterpress printing workshop, or attend lectures by artist or about art history. The focus was more about developing your own artistic voice and creating evocative art more than the more technique focused way I was more use to.

We were also left to our own to work more. In Boston we would work on projects more in class, but in London we were expected to work at home or in studio independently.

API: How did this experience prepare you for a career in illustration?

Although I struggled with this a lot at the time, I am very glad I was exposed to it. It’s closer to how illustrators today work. Not often do they work strictly in book illustration or editorial Illustration, but rather they create their own unique illustrative voice and that is their selling point.

Studying in London really helped me loosen up creatively. I used to be very hung up on technique but after exposure to a different way of  working, I began simplifying my style. All of this has effected how I work today in that I have become very good at driving my own projects and challenging myself to learn and improve my skill set.

Both of the colleges I attended provided me with invaluable lessons. I think the most important thing I took from studying abroad if learning to be more flexible when faced with a different way of doing things. My experience in London has helped me not just with illustration, but with being more open minded in general which helps from everything from starting a new job and meeting new people not from my particular background. 

API: Where are you at now and what’s your day-to-day like as a freelancer?

There are a lot of little things to keep up with; I have a few different to-do lists that always have lots on them! The work load is actually 30% creating art and 70% everything else right now.

I had a full-time job for a long time and am just starting my career freelancing so what I’ll be doing will change over time. Right now, the “everything else” would be things like looking for work, emailing with clients, posting and promoting myself on various online platforms, finding local opportunities and networking with others. It also involves taking pictures of or scanning paintings, preparing files of digital work and uploading them to my websites or online shops and taking Skillshare classes to improve my skill set.

If I’m not working on a project for a client, I’ll create my own projects along the line of the type of work I am trying to get to expand my portfolio (ones that I can also try to monetize by using them for my Society6 shop or to sell on Etsy). It’s an all consuming job. For instance when I’m out, I’ll try to post interesting things to add some flavor to my Instagram stories. Or I am taking pictures of plants and animals for reference in future work. At night if I find some free time to watch TV, I’ll always be sketching or working on my Ipad.

Sometimes I yearn for when I could just come home from work and not have to worry about working until the next day, but looking back over the last few months I see how far I’ve already come and all the new artwork I’ve been creating and I feel good about the direction I’m headed in!

API: What was your favorite class you took at UAL or a favorite experience from your time there?

One of my favorite thing about studying at UAL was all the different workshops I was exposed to. We had a letterpress workshop, access to screen printing facilities, and I learned how to use a Risograph printer. I was really intrigued that they had a whole major focused on pattern making. Although I wasn’t able to enter into the pattern making courses, I always thought in the back of my mind that I would like to try that out. This past year I finally started experimenting with creating patterns and I absolutely love it! Who knows if I would have considered doing this in the future if I hadn’t seen the patterns the students at UAL were making.

What I valued most about being in the API program in London was all the places I got to travel to both inside and out of the city. We had great tours through the city after we arrived and took trips to the countryside on some of the weekends. Our cultural excursions out of the city were great fun and educational. I was able to travel around the country to an extent that I just would not have been able to by myself.

I absolutely loved Stratford-Upon-Avon, where William Shakespeare was born. The replica of his what his home would have looked like was so interesting. The Stonehenge and Bath trip was amazing since I have a love of history. We went to the village of Haworth, where the Brontë sisters lived; I had always wanted to see the moorland that was the setting of so many famous books so I loved that part of our trip! Seeing more of the English countryside and revisiting some of these places is on the top of my list of where I want to go in the future! It still provides me with inspirations for paintings to this day.

I didn’t have a ton of money while I was there so I would take long walks around the city admiring the architecture, walking along the Thames, wandering through the markets (Camden and Old Spitalfields were my favorites). And of course since most of the museums were free so they became something of a refuge; I spent a ton of time in the Victoria and Albert and the British museums. The Welcome collection was really intriguing and the the Natural History Museum was really fun to go to also.

After I was done with classes in the spring I took an extra few weeks before I returned home and took a memorable 10 day trip to France. I visited my cousin Valerie who was studying and living with an exchange family in Dijon. I had an amazing trip spending time with her, exploring the city and biking through the country side. I then spent a few days in Paris with a friend from my study abroad program, sight seeing around the city and visiting the Palace of Versailles. I would not have had this opportunity if it wasn’t so easy to just get on a train in London and go to Paris!

API: What was the biggest “culture shock” you experienced during your time in London? What advice do you have for students going through something similar?

I think it was just all the small mundane differences you wouldn’t think about that would really bring me up short. I was lucky enough to do a decent amount of traveling through Europe prior to studying in London so I thought I would have everything under control since I spoke English and already was use to living in a city setting. However, I started to really feel out of my depth when I got very sick the first week and had no idea how to go about getting health care. Luckily I was able to talk to my awesome study abroad advisor, Rachel, and she was able to tell me what to do.

I also had trouble receiving packages from my family because I was unaware of the customs duty that made it fairly expensive to accept packages coming from outside the EU. I was surprised by all the different accents I encountered; I thought I wouldn’t have problems with communication but there were regional accents that were so thick I sometimes had no idea what people were saying. The drinking culture was a bit of a shock too… in the evenings everyone is at a pub! It’s important, as in any city, to stay aware of your surroundings and learn what areas are safe and where to avoid at night.    

I would advise students to do as much research as they can about their study abroad country and city in advance. You should especially focus on the differences in laws, health care, transportation as well as social norms. Even with preparing as much as you can, there is no way you’ll be completely prepared to live in a foreign country.

It’s important to keep an open mind and to stay inquisitive and positive when faced with challenges. The great thing about studying with Academic Programs International is you’ll have a lot of help and support though-out the process, an advisor who knows the county well, and other students to share your experiences with!

API: Any other advice for students who are considering UAL or a career in illustration?

I would advise anyone, especially young people who have the time, to step out of their comfort zone and to try something new. Something that studying abroad really changed in me was providing me with more self-reliance and to be more accepting of failure. I felt out of my depth a lot of my time there, but that only made me grow as a person.

The parallels between studying abroad and starting a career freelancing is that it takes a big leap of faith backed up by a lot of work. There are lots of challenges and troubleshooting along the way, and you won’t succeed at every aspect. However, the important thing is to not let that keep you down and to learn from your mistakes.


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