[OFFSET Dublin] Irish illustrator Peter Donnelly
For the last twenty years, Irish illustrator Peter Donnelly has developed a recognisable style influenced by his interest in mid century design, folk art and vintage print.
Ahead of his turn on the OFFSET Dublin stage, we talk to him about his early work as an animation artist, living abroad and returning to his home town of Dublin to kick start his illustration career.
Hi Peter, great to have you on board for OFFSET Dublin this year! You’ve been in the industry for a number of years now. Can you tell us a bit about where you’re from, where you grew up, and how you got here? What was your entry point into the industry?
Hello! Yes I’m really excited about speaking at OFFSET. I’ve been attending most years as an audience member so it will be an entirely different dynamic for me this time. I’ve been working in the creative industry for almost thirty years now.
I’m originally from Dublin but travelled to the States and Europe in my twenties working as a feature animation artist. That period lasted fifteen years and included drawing on many box office films such as The Land Before Time, All Dogs go to Heaven, Anastasia, The Thief and the Cobbler, The Prince of Egypt and Titan AE, to name a few.
I made the jump into full-time illustration to concentrate on having more creative control over what I was making.
During that time I moved through several art departments from character design to storyboards. It was a fantastic experience and getting to draw every day was a real gift. In 2000 I returned to Dublin and took up the position as an art director in children’s television. I spent time with a successful studio called Jam Media which was run by some friends creating an animated series as well as short form films. In 2003 I made the jump into full-time illustration to concentrate on having more creative control over what I was making.
Where does the majority of your work take place? What is your studio environment like? How much of the day is spent in front of a computer?
I create most of my work at my studio which is in Dublin city centre. I share an open space with Lisa and Bren from OFFSET. It’s a great bright, positive atmosphere and it helps to bounce ideas off other creatives when required. I worked in a home studio for many years…being back in the city is better for my head…feeling that separation of home from work is healthier. I spend about 40% of my day at my drawing desk and the rest working digitally on a Mac. It’s constantly back and forth which is nice and keeps my process interesting. Being back in the city gives me more opportunities to visit galleries and exhibitions which in turn inspires me.
Can you tell us about your professional work. What kind of clients typically commission you?
My clients are quite varied, from branding jobs and editorial to children’s book publishing. My style seems to be able to cross over and work for different clients. There’s a good vibe element to my work which I suppose appeals to people so it helps to sell products. In the last two years I’ve done a lot of packaging illustration. With my style I can play around a little…making it less childlike when needed. I work with two illustration agents…one in the States and the other in Australia. In Ireland and the UK I represent myself.
You’re well known for curating some of the most successful Irish illustration shows, including PINUPS A Tribute to David Bowie last year. What do you enjoy most about putting on exhibitions?
I became interested in curating illustration shows through being a member of the IGI, the Illustrators Guild of Ireland. For a number of years I was a director in the organisation. In my efforts to promote the work of the group I staged some very large shows which captured the imagination of a wider audience. It was no new thing but my intention was to involve the wider creative community such as broadcasters and creative directors…individuals who had a platform to promote the work and possibly commission more illustration.
The first big show was The Illustrated Beatles, an exhibition which celebrated the 50th anniversary of their first recordings and involved 42 artists, each illustrating a particular song by the band. The song titles were chosen by media professionals. It was a great success and travelled to five galleries over the space of a year including two in the UK. It was followed by some other big shows such as The Art of Superstition and recently PIN UPS, a Bowie show which has just come to the end of its second run in The Dublin Bowie Festival. I love seeing illustration being appreciated as an art form and love challenging illustrators to produce their best work…there’s great satisfaction in that. The passion that people put into their work is infectious. Several of the works produced for the shows have won international awards which is terrific.
For some designers, the idea of ‘play’ and experimenting fills them with dread – the blank page, the unknown, the fear of making mistakes – how can side projects change this attitude and free up their approach? Why do you think making time do this is so important?
Some of my most enjoyable and successful commissions have been a direct result of side projects. Personal work is the key to growing as an illustrator. The freedom to experiment outside of a brief…a chance to make mistakes and discover happy accidents. Keeping a sketchbook is a big part of that.
I’m constantly creating side projects, some of the more successful pieces I sell as open and edition print runs. I don’t think I’d enjoy my work as much if everything I created was to someones else’s brief. It’s important for any artist to investigate different methods, be it materials or approaches and learn how they can improve their work by implementing new discoveries. I think the key is to stay fresh.
The initial stage of building a career can be a baron period financially. Self belief gets you through that period. Also talent is handy as well.
Freelancer illustrators often talk about the sacrifices they had to make in the early years. Have you experienced any particularly difficult periods? How did you overcome these challenges?
The obvious one is in the initial stage of building a career…it can be a baron period financially. Theres a lot of hard work involved and having passion for your art and a steely determination is essential. When I resigned from animation and the studio system I had to tighten my belt, work from a bedroom studio until I felt confident enough about my portfolio to go speak to agencies for work. I also had a partner who carried us when money was tight. Self belief gets you through that period. Also talent is handy as well.
I like to tell a story in my illustration. I find illustrations that contain some sort of narrative no matter how big or small are much more interesting and engaging.
What has been your most rewarding project in recent years and why?
One was illustrating a coffee cup for McDonalds and another was illustrating my first picture book last year. The McDonalds illustration was so enjoyable because I was so happy with the colour palette. Somethings I’ll nail the drawing and design quite quickly but struggle with the colour…this one came together so easily. That sometimes happens and I enjoy those moments immensely. The work won some awards along the way with was also very nice.
Another was a menu I illustrated for Zizzi Restaurants a while back. It was a great opportunity to create a strong narrative in the piece. I like to tell a story in my illustration and I reckon that comes from my time working in film. I find illustrations that contain some sort of narrative no matter how big or small are much more interesting and engaging.
I’ve illustrated a lot of children’s books but last year my first author/illustrator book ‘The Presidents Glasses’ was published. Having so much creative control over the book was very satisfying. My publisher gave me a lot of freedom and respect during the process so it turned out exactly as I had envisaged it.
I enjoyed taking chances with the spreads, introducing elements week by week, pushing the story visually. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Children’s Book of the Year in Ireland which was a wonderful experience. It didn’t win but that whole journey from a simple idea to the awards ceremony was a great adventure.
I’ve usually three jobs on the go at any given time. I tend to jump from one to the other. Working that way helps me see things with fresh eyes when I return to something.
At any given time, how many ideas/projects do you have in development? What are you working on right now? Can you describe a typical day?
I’ve usually three jobs on the go at any given time. I tend to jump from one to the other, Working that way helps me see things with fresh eyes when I return to something. I’m currently illustrating the second picture book that I’ve written as well as a book for a Norwegian publisher. I’ve also just finished some editorial for an Australian magazine.
Success is an interesting concept, but everyone has their own definition – be it financial stability, creative fulfilment, happiness, reward. What does success look like to you?
That’s a tough question to answer. It could change depending on where you are at in your career. For me now, happiness and health is my definition of success. I choose the work I take on more carefully these days…jobs that I’ll really enjoy illustrating and hopefully produce better work as a result. I think if you put your heart and soul into those kind of jobs then people tend to react positively to them. That can be rewarding in itself.
List your 5 biggest passions in life:
Art, Music, History, Buddhism, and Love.
We often ask our interviewees if they have some advice to pass on to young creatives out there. Can you share something you have learned?
Always sit on a job a little longer if you can. Never send work to a client late in the evening…you’ll always improve it after a good night’s sleep. Research everything before you begin drawing. Draw the things you enjoy!