All about MA Illustration Year 1 at Falmouth University

An overview of Year 1 of MA Illustration (online) at Falmouth University, UK, including basic course content and my thoughts on the course as I experienced it through 2018 – 19.

In this post, I hope to give people who are thinking of taking MA Illustration at Falmouth University an overview of the things that you can expect to study in Year 1, and the sort of work that I produced. I was very pleased with my results for year 1, but did find the content very challenging indeed. This post is not sponsored in any way – I am writing it simply because I would have liked to have been able to read one like it when I was looking into MA Illustration at Falmouth. If you’d like my thoughts on whether or not you should take the course, you can find them here.

MA Illustration (online) was a new subject at Falmouth University when I started, and my cohort was the first to take the course. As such, the content may change slightly in the coming years. However, I hope my experience might be useful to you.

About Year 1


The MA course has three intakes throughout the year. Depending on your intake, the order in which you do the modules might be different to me across the two years. I was September 2018 intake, with my first year lasting from Sep 2018 – Sep 2019. I began thinking about my MA application in late 2017, and contacting references in the spring of 2018. I then completed my application through the early summer and submitted it in June 2018.


Year 1 is structured into three modules. Each contained weekly practical work, group discussions and live seminars, along with an essay/report and a portfolio to be handed in at the end of the module for evaluation. The marking criteria is very strict, and due to the subjective nature of illustration, it can be hard to know if you are hitting the marking criteria correctly. However, frequent tutorials and the community of course mates helped immensely.

Academia/Practical Work Balance

If you think an MA in illustrations means you will be drawing constantly, think again. I am certain that one of the reasons I have done well on the course is that I am confident in my academic writing and research abilities. For me, I would say that during Year 1 the average split has been 70% writing/reading academic texts/research, and 30% drawing/physically creating illustration work. I think this split might be a surprise for those expecting an illustration MA to be largely practical. However, if you want to think about illustration as a whole, gain a deeper understanding of its function in our world, and possibly pursue a PhD, PGCHE or teaching career, the academic content will be very rewarding and useful.

Module 1: Process and Practice

Marked on: Research; Context; Ideas Generation
Final Submission: Portfolio and Research Journal

Portfolio Content:
1: The Illuminated I
2: Wordless Alphabet (four outcomes)
3: Variations (four outcomes)
4: Untitled

Research Journal Content:
1. Critical reflection on research methodology; semiotics etc
2. Three case studies on illustrators
3. 4000 word Manifesto

This was my first module on the course. We were all finding our feet in the online environment, and getting used to posting our assignments for crit.

・This module had several live Q&As with guest illustrators, which were incredibly inspirational (including Stewart Easton, who I adore). There was also a very strong set of academic webinars, talking about theories of authorship encountered in the course readings.
・Community: The staff were incredibly supportive. My cohort also made a WhatsApp group where we could message each other, and found each other on social media. This helped us feel closer despite being scattered all over the world.
・The Manifesto asked us to look at our practice – where we are, and where we want to be. This is then revisited in the final module of the course in year 2. Although writing the Manifesto was incredibly hard at the time (4000 words is a lot!), it really helped me define my practice, and what I wanted to achieve as an illustrator and during the course.
・The module looked back through history to include references to classical art and ideas, which we then used to explore our module topics of authorship and identity.
・We were introduced to a wide range of illustrators operating today and through history.
・The Case Studies asked us to look at illustrators that we like. Because the choice was free, we could pick artists that really spoke to us.
・Group work and exchanging drawings with our cohort helped us get over shyness of showing work, and get to know our fellow students.

・While we did do a fair amount of weekly drawing, this was probably the most intensely academic module in Year 1, with a lot of reading on semiotics, and would be challenging to illustrators who are not especially academically inclined.
・About 90% of my time was spent writing and reading, rather than drawing (though this might be expected of an MA).

Module 2: Visual Language

Marked on: Ideas Generation; Visual Language; Practice
Final Submission: Portfolio (70%) and Journal (30%)

Portfolio Content:
1. Back to Life daily drawing sketchbooks
2. Module Brief Portfolio Work (based on 7 short-term illustrative projects set throughout the module)
3. Self-directed Visual Language Portfolio Work

Journal Content:
1. Group Research Project
2. Universal Characters
3. Rationale for response to a newspaper brief
4. Rationale for response to an industry-led brief
5. Critical reflection on 9 questions raised weekly during the module (250 words each); such as, ‘Is colour evocative of a set emotion?’

This module was a refreshing change to the previous one – we were asked to draw, draw, draw. While this was brilliant at first, it became hard to maintain as we were requested to keep a daily drawing journal, on top of our weekly drawing assignments.

・We were pushed to try different ways of working and try new materials. This was great as it created an atmosphere where ‘failure’ could be classed instead as ‘experimentation’.
・Exercises on pareidolia were very fun and encouraged us to find possible characters lurking in all corners of our daily lives. As someone who struggles with characterisation, this was a great exercise.
・This module had the highest level of drawing by far.
・As someone who feels comfortable drawing from life, the focus on life drawing and sketching techniques was very welcome.
・This module produced the highest amount of work which I could confidently add to my portfolio.
・The module format required us to create multiple iterations of the same image, including colour or style variations. Creating these variations allowed for a lot of experimentation.
・The module involved example industry briefs, where we would create work based on texts used for actual commissions. Besides being great editorial practice, one of these received feedback from the art director at The Guardian.
・This module encouraged us to leave our drawing desks and go outside to sketch in public. For introverted illustrators this might be a challenge, but ultimately I think this was a very beneficial excercise.
・A very good balance between illustration and academia – I think this module most reflected what I was hoping for from the course.

・An extreme amount of work was expected from us – more than on any other module that I have done, and I think we all felt very overworked, considering the course was meant to be part-time. This may have been due to teething troubles on the course and is hopefully a little reduced now.
・The daily drawing was exhausting, and many of us had trouble fitting it in around the other demands of the course. I would hope that in future iterations of the module this would be reduced to, for example, week-day drawing.

Module 3: Narrative and Storytelling

Marked on: Research; Analysis; Narrative
Final Submission: Essay (40%) and Portfolio (60%)

Essay Content:
1. 3000 word Critical Evaluation Essay looking at 2-3 case studies. In the case studies we were supposed to look at how different styles of narrative delivery (picture book/graphic novel etc) impacted the delivery of a narrative. The narratives needed to touch on a socially-driven issue which we had chosen to explore, and would then also be the theme for our socially-driven visual narrative.

Portfolio Content:
1. 9-Square Narrative
2. Socially-driven Visual Narrative
3. All weekly developmental work

After the madness of Visual Language, Narrative and Storytelling had a calmer pace and offered a chance to recoup. As I’m especially interested in storytelling, I personally found this a very interesting module.

The aim of this module was a little confusing as we were being marked on our ability to analyze how the type of media (graphic novel; picture book; webcomic etc) affected the delivery of a social issue we had chosen to look at. For example, I chose to look at microaggressions against immigrants. I then chose three different texts – the picture book Orlando Keeps a Dog; the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy and the webcomic Himawari Share. In these I looked at techniques like framing narrative and the use of colour to explore representation of microaggressions against ‘othered’ characters. It took me a long time and many reviews of the marking criteria to make sure that I was really understanding what was required of me.

・The choice of social issue was left up to us, meaning we could look an issue that we really care about.
・Looking at different narrative styles and formats was helpful for those of us interested in sequential visual storytelling.
・There were several opportunities to develop our own comic books and sequential narratives, which I found very interesting and challenging.
・Making a socially-driven visual narrative stretched us a lot, but the marking allowed for flexibility in our approach, meaning we could create something meaningful to us personally.
・The marking criteria of ‘Research’ encouraged us to branch out and try new ways of gathering information; such as surveys and interviews.
・This was the first module in which we were given small tutorial groups with a dedicated member of staff as a guide and point of contact. I think this helped us receive more focused feedback, and feel a little more grounded thanks to having a personal tutor to consult.

・The essay had a complicated marking conceit, meaning it took longer to really get to grips with the module and understand what was required of us (but, perhaps that was just me).
・There were fewer assignments and almost no group work, despite being assigned tutorial groups. This meant that the chance to post work for general crit from our peers was reduced, making it easier to disengage and slip into isolation.

Illustration Work

Module 1: Process and Practice

Module 2: Visual Language

Module 3: Narrative and Storytelling

In general, it was a very interesting first year. I felt stretched, and really had to work very hard. I certainly felt that the effort I put in was reflected in my results. I also feel that I gained a nice community of people in a similar situation to me through the course, and I think I improved my skills in terms of how I read images and in turn construct them.