Programme: Illustration - BA (Hons)

Year: 2006

A gut feeling led freelance illustrator Michael Kirkham to study at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). Michael shares his memories of the printmaking workshop and credits the exceptional tutors and technicians for helping him develop his visual language.

Tell us about your time at ECA

I picked Edinburgh College of Art based on a gut feeling; I didn’t know the city or anything about the institution. However, when I came for a visit, talked with the Programme Director and saw the city, I knew my instinct had been right.

The teaching and technical staff at ECA provided me with the exact mix of support and challenge that I needed to develop my own visual language. I felt valued and trusted. Many of those tutors are now good friends of mine. 

ECA's location and views are very special - almost unbelievable. I’m sure they must have had a significant effect on my development.

Cover for the illustrated book This is Frank Lloyd Wright (2016)
Image courtesy of Michael Kirkham
Cover for the illustrated book This is Frank Lloyd Wright (2016)

"When I wasn’t in the studio [or] print workshop...I would be in the library, digging in all of its sections to find its treasures. It was expansive then, and the library’s resources are mind-boggling now that ECA has become a part of the University of Edinburgh."

Michael Kirkham, freelance illustrator

I spent a lot of time socialising with students from Film & TV, Fashion, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture - the whole range. Looking back, I can see that was a very significant part of my experience at art school. Being exposed to so many drastically different areas of creativity expanded my own sense of it.

During my studies, I spent 3 months on an exchange to Dublin which was a great experience, both educationally and socially. It was also an opportunity to be out on my own, finding out what was most important to me. I came back older, more focused and more ambitious.

The print workshop is a jewel. It’s in a new location now but run by the same exceptional technicians and with even more equipment. I spent many happy and productive evenings there with ink flying, squeegees squeaking and Classic FM on in the background.

When I wasn’t in the studio, print workshop or smoking room (it was the very end of the old days!) I would be in the library, digging in all of its sections to find its treasures. It was expansive then, and the library’s resources are mind-boggling now that ECA has become a part of the University of Edinburgh.

Cover of The New York Times magazine, holiday special
Image courtesy of Michael Kirkham
Cover of The New York Times magazine, 2014 holiday special by Michael Kirkham
The Telegraph Review Cover by Michael Kirkham
Image courtesy of Michael Kirkham
The Telegraph Review Cover by Michael Kirkham

Tell us about your experiences since leaving ECA

Leaving education is tricky because that’s the moment it finally hits you: you are really, genuinely, absolutely, no kidding around, solely and entirely responsible for yourself and what happens to you. It’s a terrifying realisation. The point you leave is when you have the least confidence but need it the most. ‘Fake it until you make it’ might be trite but was very useful advice when I was ringing around to try to arrange my first portfolio meetings.

It took me quite a few years to learn the job in the real world. I made lots of mistakes and lots of pieces of work that I now struggle to look at. What is heartening, though, is that people kept giving me chances to try again.

I now make my living from freelance illustration and get all kinds of interesting work from clients like The New Yorker, Google and the Royal Academy. I occasionally still teach at ECA. It gives me great pleasure to keep a connection there…and to be able to keep on using the library!

After a spell in London, I now live in Edinburgh with my partner (who I met at ECA) and our two children. We work a few minutes from home in a studio that we converted from old mews stables.

Alumni wisdom

I would recommend looking way beyond what the current trends are. Look back in time, across subjects, disciplines, cultures and traditions. Read, travel, talk to people, take a dance class… The broader your interests, the more sensitive and innovative (not to mention fun and satisfying) your endeavours will be.


Are you interested in studying Illustration - BA (Hons) at Edinburgh College of Art?