Interviewed by Sophie Martin
an Art and Illustration student
What was your first commissioned job as an illustrator and how did you get it?
That would be hard to say. I started doing cartoons for a local newspaper for free when I was still in secondary school, and was always looking for ways to sell my art. The first actual paying job was probably an editorial cartoon for a magazine I think was called Shooting News, which I did while still in school. A compromising commission for somebody opposed to hunting for sport!
You have a very diverse number of different ways of working, what is your favourite medium to use and why?
It's a mixture of interest and necessity. The best way to make a living is to become very successful in one style and be recognized for it, but I never managed this - it's particularly difficult in a small market like Ireland - so I ended up doing whatever style a particular job demanded. That's worked out for me in the long run; if you rely on having one style you're particularly good at, you can lose out if your style goes out of fashion. I don't think I have a favourite style, although I'm partial to black line-work with brush or dip-pen and I do love getting to paint properly, although real painting jobs are few and far between. When I do, I use a mixture of acrylic and gouache. Working in Photoshop can be very quick and easy to render over repeated images and you can use elements of collage without getting sticky.
Your work is very imaginative, do you get the reference for the figures and objects in your illustrations from your imagination or do you draw from life?
I do like to use reference as much as I can, but most of the time the deadlines are too tight! I can draw most things from my head by now, unless they're specific objects, clothing styles or difficult bits of architecture I need reference for. Most of my figures are drawn from imagination.
I was intrigued by your photoshop images on your website, are they made with a graphics tablet? (as I have just got a tablet myself and am trying to get my head around how to use it in my work!)
I'm a bit old-fashioned where Photoshop work is concerned. I'd be pretty handy at retouching by now, but I find the best use for the programme is in rendering up drawings or graphic ideas that need a polished style. The cartoon style on the website is a combination of scanned ink lines coloured in with different scanned textures and backgrounds, much as you could have done with collage before computers made all of this quicker and easier. I still like to use organic textures rather than CGI rendered stuff wherever I can. I don't use a tablet yet, but I know guys who do and I'll probably get round to it at some point.
Have you found that your illustration work has changed much with the advent of new technology? Have you found it easy to adapt to changes in the industry as different styles have come in and out of fashion?
I was lucky in that I started working freelance in a studio just as Macs were coming into their own and I got an introduction then. Later, I worked in an advertising company and polished up my skills there and working on computer became part of my practise, so the technology doesn't phase me. I'm still behind in the latest rendering stuff, but I'm more inclined to want to keep up the ‘real-life' tactile skills rather than constantly try to catch up with the latest CGI craze. I can do that now that I make a living from my books - indulge the kinds of work I'm passionate about rather than fulfilling a brief. If I was still in the commercial arena, I'd be paying more attention to what was going on.
My tutor tells me that there is an Illustrators Guild of Ireland, do you use them at all to find work? And do you find that most of your work comes from within Ireland or the mainland UK and further afield as well?
There is an Association of Illustrators in Ireland although I haven't been a member in years. At this point, it would be something I'd be more likely to support, rather than be supported by. Ireland is such a scrappy place to work, it's hard to get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. Most of my commercial work came from trawling round places with my portfolio. There are no real illustration agencies in Ireland and when I was in Britain, I worked as an art director in a studio and did all the illustration needed there, so I didn't want any extra work on top of trying to get my writing career going. For the couple of years when I came back to Dublin, my work came partly from Britain, but mostly from Ireland.
Also do you find that mostly work comes to you via word of mouth or internet or do you still have to be actively sending off portfolios to potential clients?
I make my living from my books now, but before that, the work came from sending off portfolios and getting recommendations by word-of-mouth. I don't think I ever got a job over the web.
Do you have an agent? Would you recommend having one?
I got used to running things myself, but if you can get an agent - particularly if you're living in Britain or another big market - I'd recommend it. Let someone else handle the chasing for jobs and money so you can spend your time doing the work you enjoy. A good agent will sell you better than you can anyway.
Do you find it easy working with publishers or do you find that you often have to change your work to fit their ideas?
It really depends on the publisher and the job. I've done a lot of work for educational publishers and they can vary hugely in terms of creativity and professionalism. They tend to be quite conservative and rarely pay well. I have excellent relationships with the publishers of my books - the O'Brien Press and Random House to name two - but part of that is because I'm the author as well. Some of the worst jobs I've ever had have been with publishers though; I worked on a series of Power Ranger books that left me with a fervent hatred of them that lasts to this day.
I find your paintings very intriguing especially Cockerel, What has been your favourite piece or pieces of work and why?
I like pieces such as Madame Butterfly, Music Garden and The Writer, simply because I did them for no other reason that I felt the desire at the time - a rare event for a tradesman illustrator. I don't get to do much painting for its own sake and I'm trying to do more now I don't have to take on much illustration work anymore.
Have you done much editorial work? If so who for and how did you find it working with them?
I've done a fair bit of editorial work on and off over the years, but all for little-known magazines and local newspapers. It's good work if you can get it; short, potentially regular, straightforward and relatively well-paid. Some of them can be interesting too. As for the clients, they were all different types, but I rarely had problems with this kind of job.
Do you work from home or have a studio elsewhere? In your opinion which is better and why?
I work from a studio at home now and have done for most of my career, but I'm not sure which I prefer. It's handy being able to walk into the next room to work, but sometimes I'd like to have some distance between work and relaxation. Working what amounted to office hours in a studio helped divide the two and made it easier to switch off.
Being freelance do you have to be strict with yourself and structure your time well between illustrating and writing? And do you find yourself busy most of the time?
Yes and yes. Self-discipline is the toughest part of the job - it's all too easy to get distracted. As a result, I find I give myself a hard time when I'm not working and don't think I'm doing enough when I am working. Despite being convinced that I'm a slacker at heart, I have a problem taking holidays too, but I'm getting better at that… All the same, I think it's good to stay busy.
Do you still enjoy your image making even though it is your job and you have to rely on it for income?
That's the biggest choice you have to make. Chances are, you will spend your career illustrating things that you're not passionate about, rather than creating art for its own sake. Illustrators get paid, but if you want to spend your time drawing what you want to draw, this job may not be for you - particularly if you find it tough to be self-employed. I miss doing art for the sheer delight of it and I'm only starting to get that back. I have a friend who gave up commercial work and took a job so he could paint what he wanted to paint. It's a point of view I thoroughly understand.
Do you have any advice for me as an aspiring illustrator?
Keep steering yourself towards work you'll enjoy, even if it pays less at the start (advertising pays the most but can be soul-destroying, most illustrators enjoy children's books but the money's not nearly as good). Learn how to charge - work out how long a picture is likely to take you and charge by the hour. It's the hardest thing to learn, simply because you'll want to focus on the work. Don't do too many changes to the work without charging more! Illustration is a trade, like carpentry, plumbing, accountancy or law. Have a set fee per hour and stick to it as much as possible. Charge even more for long or complicated jobs if you can, particularly if you're being asked to provide ideas - these can be very difficult to put a price on.
And don't ever, ever give up. Good luck!