Peter Donnelly was mentored by a former UPA animator who had worked on classics such as Mr Magoo in the 1950s.
Now he’s doing work for Cadburys, Heineken, Guinness, Hot Rum Cow, Zizzi Restaurants, An Gum, CBBC, Sydney Opera House, The National Theatre of Prague, Heineken, Coke, The Washington Post, RTE, The New York Examiner, AIG, Bord Failte, The Childrens Healthcare of Atlanta, Safeway USA, Brown Bag Films, 20th Century Fox, Dreamworks, Don Bluth Studios (to name just a few).
The Stable: You began in feature film. Why, when and how did you make the transition to illustration?
Peter Donnelly: I trained and worked as an animator for fifteen years before I focused on illustration full-time. I got my break back in 1987 with Don Bluth Studios. He had moved his company over to Dublin and had brought with him some of the best industry artists from Disney. It was a wonderful time. He had just completed ‘An American Tail’ and hand drawn feature animation was about to enter its second golden period. I was a blank canvas and absorbed everything I was taught about drawing. It was my version of art college, I learned and then quickly moved up the ranks. I travelled the world a bit with different studios until I eventually settled back in Dublin as an art director. By then the yearning to create my own work as an illustrator was too strong and I stepped away from the business and began to build a portfolio and seek work.
TS: Are there clues to your career path visible in your work?
PD: Absolutely. I learned so much about personality, staging and composition while working in animation. One of the more obvious traits that has crossed over into my illustration is strong silhouette. When I design an illustration I’m very conscious of creating clarity in my work. What I mean by that is visual clarity…that everything reads well. There is so much emotion you can convey using the right shape. That approach can be applied to everything from a character to a landscape. These are fundamental things that you learn in animation and because they can influence a drawing so much they are still techniques that I apply to my work today.
TS: Where did your illustrative style begin? How and why has it developed?
PD: I like to believe that everything that I’ve ever drawn since I started out has directly led to the style I work in today. Every other artist I admire has had some influence on my style. Before I worked in a studio, I was mentored by a man named Harry Hess, a former UPA animator who had worked on classics such as Mr Magoo in the 1950s. He introduced me to the work of modern artists like Matisse and Picasso as well the design aesthetics of UPA films. I‘ve always been interested in that stylised approach and mid century illustration.
Over time, I was able to find my own voice with that background never too far away. I was speaking with a good friend of mine recently, a fellow illustrator called Eoin Coveney. We were in agreement that there comes a time in every illustrator’s journey when they produce that first special piece. The one that changes their career. It’s like a light switch moment. For me it was an exhibition piece I made called Rotkäppchen.
It was the most honest illustration I had created up until that point, it represented everything I loved about art, woodcut, mid century, stylised design and storytelling. It gained me a lot of exposure and a lot of work from clients. It made me realise that if I was going to be in this for the long haul I was going to produce illustration that I was passionate about.
TS: What work turns you on the most and why? Where does most of your work come from?
PD: When a creative director hires me 100% for my style is when everything works out best. I tend to turn down work that requires me to work in other styles. It would be pointless. I feel it’s important to treat what you do as a brand and develop that. I’m fortunate that my illustration style can cross over from editorial into advertising and I get a nice mix of both. I’ve received some great projects through my US agent, John Brewster, and I’m excited about recently signing up with Katie Perrott at The Illustration Room in Australia.
I sometimes work in children’s books, which I love. I prefer jobs that go to print, it’s just wonderful to actually hold a physical piece at the end. Projects come from many different areas. If its interesting work that will sell my style and the creative team have confidence in me… well then I’m in!
TS: Technology vs craftsmanship (hand craft)? Talent vs experience?
PD: I feel the most interesting work being done at the moment has an element of handcraft to it. The final result may be digital but when it contains a human touch or element, it has more personality and life for me. There is so much mundane work solely reliant on Photoshop and Illustrator that it makes me wonder what they teach students in some art schools. I had a wonderful opportunity to teach an illustration workshop in Bordeaux this year. The students at this college did not use computers for the first two years and the focus was on craftsmanship…they actually used pencils, those wooden sticks with a graphite point! I think talent and experience are important but no more important than hard work and dedication. People want success overnight. They expect the big commissions straight away. There are no shortcuts, practice your craft…it’s actually enjoyable!
TS: Ireland is a little island that’s the hat on the head of the world (Australia being the world’s big fat arse). What are the advantages and disadvantages of your work’s home being Ireland?
PD: Ireland has a long history of producing great art in many forms, from the Book of Kells right up to the success of the current animated films being made here. The illustration scene is also very vibrant at the moment. A lot of that is down to the hard work from members of Illustrators Ireland, a non profit organisation set up to promote the medium over here. In the last two years, it has produced some amazing exhibitions such as The Illustrated Beatles and The Art of Superstition which have gone and toured both here and the UK. Currently Irish based illustrators are making big waves abroad. Artists are constantly picking up international awards, which is raising the profile and the standard of work.
If I was to be critical I feel there are perhaps too many illustrators for such a small place. Ironically, I think that’s in part due to the success of Illustrators Ireland. Because of this, it is essential to branch out into other markets. Having an overseas agent is highly recommended. In the past 18 months, most of the more exciting work I’ve received has come from abroad, the UK, the US and Australia. I’ve just finished a two month commission for the Sydney Opera House through Razorfish, which was great to work on. I like to work with international agencies. It opens up a whole new world and new ideas working with creatives from a different cultural background. I find that stimulating and I like to think that I am bringing something new to them too. Clients in Ireland can be a little too conservative at times.
TS: Is illustration being used to full advantage right now? What else can it (is it able to) do?
PD: I think we are seeing the potential of illustration right this very minute. It’s been used more than ever now than in the twelve years that I’ve been working at it. It’s everywhere! I think with the current desire for organic work like hand written typography and drawing, the demand will continue. I feel it has a healthy future…or I’ll be looking for my animation job back soon 🙂