Posted 03 April 2019
Written by Raj Dhunna

Illustrator Raj Dhunna’s recommendations for getting the most out of a creative degree

Going into higher arts education can be daunting, and a real challenge when it comes to making the most of everything available. But a lot of that comes down to your own approach – from the way you navigate a personal style in your work to dealing with projects going wrong and criticism. As both a creative graduate and now a tutor, illustrator Raj Dhunna has a good sense of how best to seize opportunities while studying. A while ago, we asked Raj to reflect on what he’s learnt, what he would do differently and how to use challenges to your advantage, for those currently working through their own student journey.

I graduated from my illustration BA at Birmingham City University in 2014, but my perspective on arts education changed when I began tutoring on an art foundation course at Reading college. It became my opportunity to see things from a new perspective as a tutor, reflect on where I could have improved as a student, and what I would do differently if I was to do it all over again.

Embrace failure in your work!
I was reluctant to fail as a student, and that was a fundamental misjudgement in the way I worked. Failing is sometimes the best part of it all. Bouncing back from a disheartening project gives you an excuse to try something new. Test the waters by producing work in a medium you’re not comfortable with, or with techniques you’re unfamiliar with. Doing this in an open-minded way can work wonders for your confidence, and you’ll most likely gain new skills.

Collaborate more
Collaboration can happen in your studio space, through critiques, conversations down the pub or over email. Whether you collaborate with another person physically or online, it broadens and challenges your way of thinking. Be open to suggestions and listen to constructive feedback, and provide the same for others when necessary. We’re all trying to improve at the end of it all!

“Producing work in a medium you’re not comfortable with can work wonders for your confidence.”

Find your process
When working on a brief, trying to come up with the idea straight away can produce half-formed, half-interesting ideas that will probably need developing. The fun lies in the journey to finding your solution, not jumping straight to a potential one. I have my own process when it comes to structuring my projects, which works best for me. This usually consists of studying the brief, seeking visual stimuli, sketching ideas, comparing all of these and running with a few before deciding on one route.

Don’t copy
The urge to assimilate styles you’ve seen before can be a tricky hurdle to overcome – perhaps stemming from the old GCSE habit of copying artists’ work. One way I’ve found to counteract this is to create mood boards: collecting lots of other peoples’ work, rather than just a few examples, as well as other reference pictures. That way, you can deconstruct the images and look for common threads that run throughout. Maybe they are composed in a certain way or share a similar colour palette. This then becomes your inspiration and not your source to copy, plus you’ll have reason, research and awareness to support your own work.

I’ve also found it best not to get too caught up in the idea of having a style. Have fun with the practice, explore mark-making techniques and workshops, collaborate with people working in other disciplines and you’ll naturally find a way of working that suits you.


See examples of Raj's work here and here.
This article was originally published in 2017 as part of our advice series on studying.

Written by Raj Dhunna
Mention Birmingham City University