Peter Donnelly is a multi-award winner illustrator, art director and educator from Dublin, Ireland. His very amusing illustrations have a classic vintage appeal. The very distinct style of his illustrations is perfect for children’s literature and advertisement. He has worked for many reputed agencies and some of his major clients include Cadburys, Guinness, Hot Rum Cow, Sydney Opera House, Coke, The Washington Post, The National Theatre of Prague, 20th Century Fox, Dreamworks, etc. Peter has given multiple talks and illustration workshops and also serves as a committee executive member of Illustrators Ireland. In this interview, Peter tells us about himself and his art:
I am an illustrator and art director born in Dublin, Ireland. I’ve been drawing professionally all my working life, originally as an animator for 15 years and then as a successful illustrator for the past 12 years. I’ve always been very passionate about art and I knew I wanted to be an artist. When I was 18 I failed to get into art college. That had a profound effect on me but nevertheless made me very determined to succeed in my own way. In retrospect it was the best thing that could have happened to me as I ended up receiving a very unconventional and unique art education.
Shortly after the art college rejection I was offered an opportunity to study under a man named Harry Hess, a former UPA animator who had worked on classics such as Mr Magoo in the 1950s. He became a mentor to me and I would spend many days at his studio in Dawson Street Dublin, where he introduced me to the work of modern artists like Matisse and Picasso as well the design aesthetics of UPA films. I’d sit back and watch him create huge pieces of cut-out paper art while he explained his thought process. Subsequently, I was offered a job with Don Bluth Studios which began a 15 year career for me in feature animation. Having the opportunity to study at close hand some of the best artists in the business gave me a great insight into what makes a drawing appealing, and why. I learned a lot about personality, staging and composition. For a couple of years I worked as an art director in another company, that’s when I began to study different styles and techniques. I eventually decided to focus on a career as an illustrator so I left my day job in animation with no regrets. Those early years had a direct influence on how I approach my illustration work today. They were invaluable.
I want to tell stories in my art. I always try to introduce a narrative into my work and then leave the door open a little for the viewer. Sometimes it comes natural, while other times I have to work hard to find that right combination. It’s important for me to try and connect with an audience on some emotional level…usually happiness. The biggest reaction I get from my work is that it makes people smile. There’s too much shit in the world today so to strike a happy chord with people is very satisfying for me.
I would describe myself a little melancholic if I’m honest. I have a dark sense of humour which is not an unusual trait being Irish. What comes out in my work is a little different to who I am. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy, but thinking about it now, maybe I get more satisfaction illustrating upbeat scenarios than even my audience does! It may be the innocence. I love illustrating for children as it allows me to focus on pure emotion in a drawing. I find it easy to get into that state of mind because I enjoy it so much. I think that’s one of the wonderful things about being creative, to be able to step back and think like a child would. It’s therapeutic.
Fifty percent of what I do is pencil work, sketching, it’s my favourite part of the job. It’s where the ideas get fleshed out and where I find the solutions to my briefs. The other half is working digitally. I worked professionally before we had Macs, so it has enabled me to consider the computer (and all it’s brilliance) only as a tool, not a decision maker. I work on every job this way… pencil first, computer second. Too many illustrators expect Photoshop to hand them a gift. It doesn’t work that way.
I think you have described it perfectly, well, the way I hope other people see it. In every work I create, be it personal or commercial, communicating the message is the most important thing. I’m very influenced by mid-century illustration. I love the design aspect to it. I love the experimentation in the styles. I love how it broke all the rules at the time, welcoming the modernist movement and shaking the old guard. It had its detractors but it stood the test of time because it is fresh and exciting and still remains that way.
Do you have a favorite project or a work of art having a great story behind?
Two of my favourite projects are an editorial piece I did for Hot Rum Cow magazine and a recyclable bag I was commissioned to illustrate for Safeway in the US. I was given the freedom and confidence by the creative team in both cases and I feel I produced some of my best work to date on those projects. For Hot Rum Cow I wanted to capture a medieval flat style devoid of perspective, similar to old tapestry work which reflected the theme ‘A History of British Cider’. For Safeway’s I was able to delve into nature, something close to my heart with an Autumn landscape illustrated in a very stylized way typical of my work. I felt both clients took a chance with my style and it paid off, Hot Rum Cow sold out completely and the Safeway bag is becoming harder to find as it’s becoming a bit of a collectors item.
I’ve been very fortunate to have received quite a few awards in recent years for some of my work from The Creative Quarterly Journal of Art and Design, American Illustration, The 3×3 Professional Illustration and The 3×3 Children’s Book showcases. More recently my work was featured in Taschen’s Illustration Now Vol 5 and just this month I was shortlisted for an Irish language book of the year award for a children’s book I illustrated.
I have some exciting projects being released early 2015. I’ve been working on a great children’s app for the Sydney Opera House through the Australian agency Razorfish, a cool map of Dublin featuring famous Dublin writer haunts and I’ve design two pairs of canvas shoes for an American company called Bucketfeet. I’m currently illustrating a children’s thesaurus for Usborne publishing in the UK. There are a couple of other projects which I need to keep under wraps or I may be kidnapped and dumped in a bog.
Inspiration-wise, besides from my passion for music, I’m always admiring the work of wonderful mid-century illustrators such as Charley Harper, Bob Peak, Alice and Martin Provensen and Jim Flora. Of today’s creators there are so many good ones… Nate Williams, Klas Fahlen, Peter Brown and friend Steve Simpson produce lovely work.
LOVE what you do… because if you do, it will show in your work. If you go in half way, your work will look half baked. Work hard, its like every other thing in life in that you’ve got to nurture it. Have patience, it takes time to develop a style and a body of work. When you look at someones work that you admire, try and figure out what makes it successful and why it works. Adapt that information rather than copying the work straight off…otherwise you will only be a second rate them. Experiment. DRAW. Finally and most importantly do not work for nothing, you’ve got a duty to educate people that what you do is your job. People need to respect that.