Meet the staff: Roderick Mills, Illustration

“I love the conversation via the tutorial with students, helping students to find their own visual language through enquiry, investigation of subjects, experimentation, and play, to help students find themselves and what they want to make work about. “

Being brought up in a coalmining area ‘Art’ wasn’t really an option at school, but on the Foundation course that I studied Graphic Design & Illustration in particular I could relate to, as it had a commercial application and I could see such work on album sleeves and book covers. Funny that later I was to work with George Hardie at Brighton who produced all of those iconic album covers with NTA studios. Later through studying MA Communication Art & Design at the RCA there was broadening of the boundaries of disciplines and blurring of subjects that gave me licence as an illustrator to cross into Design, Film and Art.

Lawrence Zeegen the programme leader for GD/ILL asked me if I would be interested in teaching at Brighton during the private view of the Royal College of Art show in 2001. Behind him the lecturer Gary Powell asked if I would be interested in teaching life drawing at Brighton on the Illustration course – I replied that I hadn’t enjoyed life drawing at Kingston, to which Gary Powell replied, “Maybe teach it the way you would have liked to have been taught…”

The conversation. In my third year a tutor, Debbie Cook, had given me permission to draw the things that interested me, that gave me so much confidence to find myself visually and through subject matter that interested me.

In terms of illustration commissions, the majority of my clients are in the USA, so I can work in the evenings. I’m lucky that there are many crossovers from education into my professional work, and the other way. I’ve always cherished having an expansive creative practice. As for academic research I am active in writing, presenting and talking at conferences internationally on the area of drawing, Illustration, technology and the future directions for illustration. Experience in leading the Illustration course has placed me at a unique junction between commercial practice and research in illustration.

Balance and reward

The balance of an evolving career, from a successful commercial practice internationally, to working in moving image/animation, and to have also written on illustration – to be contributing to the critical discourse of illustration. This has led me to some amazing opportunities such as speaking at the Sorbonne Université Paris, Università di Bologna Italy and a Grand Master Lecture Tour of China in 2019. Illustration and teaching has taken me to many places, to engage with varying audiences including Festival du Nouveau Cinéma Montreal.

I have received international awards in both Illustration and film-making, was asked to serve on the Board of Directors the Association of Illustrators for 9 years including the position of Deputy Chairman. Though the best accolade within teaching has been from the staff team who referred my style of leadership to be that of an art director – this really held resonance to me, working within a team and recognising innovative approaches, and being inclusive.

The Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, part of the Norman Rockwell Museum in USA has called me one of the leading scholars of illustration, 2019.

My research deals with the recognition of Illustration as a widespread means of accessible communication in the age of the image, and how the act of making illustration can help to educate and inform. I lead the course support for CARIS Haringey charity for homeless families in London, working with colleagues and student volunteers to run workshops with children each summer. It demonstrates that the act of making illustration can in itself be a collaborative activity for others to share and learn from.

Why illustration?

Illustration as a subject finds itself at the centre of modern life, it is through images that we navigate and increasingly understand the world. With the shift towards online publishing especially in the area of newspapers editorials/news stories are image lead, and the distance between brands/clients/commissioners and the illustrator has closed, changing the whole creative process for commercial practices. As a subject Illustration is very popular with 141 undergraduate courses in the UK alone, meaning something in the region of 5,000 graduates each year – a truly accessible subject.

I love the conversation via the tutorial with students, helping students to find their own visual language through enquiry, investigation of subjects, experimentation, and play, to help students find themselves and what they want to make work about. Helping students to become ambitious for their work, and to be given the permission to make work about that which they are passionate/interested about. Brighton especially has been dynamic, shifting and adapting approaches to teaching  in response to the students on the course. This has genuinely impacted upon my own research and ideas of what an illustration practice might look like in the future.

The course provides a safe space to try things, with a staff team of professional practitioners and research active staff helping to work with you to explore what illustration can be, not simply what it is, encouraging self-reliance and resilience, with a dynamic curriculum helping to establish individual creative practices, contextualised and engaged with appropriate audiences.

Advice to students

You have three years on the course, so relax, try to embrace experimentation and ‘play’ – you might join the course as a drawer, but have the potential to be a great film director, so be open to experiences whilst on the course. Embrace the opportunities to develop your own creative community, which will become your support network upon graduation.

There are many stories that make me proud, supporting the student journey – at times to move into areas or fields not necessarily what you would expect for an illustration student – at other moments it has been having the belief in a student to elevate their expectations.

The Art school is the oldest part of the university – if you receive an offer from Illustration we see potential in you and your work, and want to share the next three years with you on a creative journey in the company of an art school

Roderick is course leader of BA(Hons) Illustration


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