SCBWI Ireland is delighted to present an interview with our Fall Featured Member, illustrator and writer Adrienne Geoghegan.
Adrienne is well-known in the Irish illustration world because of her picture-book boot camps and illustration courses that she teaches every year. What you may not know is that Adrienne wears many different hats as an illustrator, writer, designer, teacher, presenter, coach, and poster of divine photos of her scouting trips to Italy, where she will be running an illustration retreat in Italy in 2018.
I asked Adrienne some questions so we could learn more about her and her work.
SCBWI: What is the correct way to pronounce your last name? I have heard it pronounced as “gay-gen”.
Adrienne: That is correct! It is the surname of my first husband. I established my work under that name, and I’m stuck with it until I invent a complete new identity!
SCBWI: How did you get started as an illustrator? What drew you to this career and did you face any obstacles?
Adrienne: There were many obstacles. I decided I wanted to make pictures for a living well before I knew what an Illustrator was. I drew on the blank columns of old newspapers and magazines, because that was all I had. Art supplies were a luxury saved for Christmas. My childhood was a far cry from ‘The Walton’s’ or ‘Little House on the Prairie’, both of which I grew up on. I often fantasised about being one of the kids in a life such as that! I’m sure a lot of kids in 1970s Ireland did. Today we laugh at it all, in a Monty Python sort of way. We are a close bunch of siblings.
So, briefly, our dear mother died very suddenly when I was 17 and in leaving cert year. Our dad was unwell in hospital. Long story. But I left home immediately after my younger siblings went to live with relatives. My older sister was still a teen but left home to travel the world. The previous year, my mother accompanied me to a Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) open day, and said I could apply to study Visual Communications.
When she died, my world changed rapidly, and I found myself in a bed-sit on Gardner Street with a box of Caran D’Ache pencils and a bag of clothes. I bought them after having eyed them up for a year. They cost a week’s food, plus some. I made art and tried selling the originals, with no luck! Anyway, college was postponed for the guts of ten years. I married young; divorced later. Then I started to get illustration work with Irish publishers, but not very inspired stuff, mostly educational books with rigid briefs. Things have changed since then, thankfully.
At age 27, I applied for and got into Kingston University near London and was accepted onto the BA Honours degree course to study Illustration. To say I was thrilled is an understatement. However, I had no work, no grant, and no accommodation in London. Still, I decided to accept the place and worry later. I took a series of cleaning jobs, very early morning and late evenings; BT offices, Automobile Association offices, etc. Then, luckily, my landlady gave me a job cleaning the communal areas and toilets of our tumble-down dwelling in lieu of part of the rent. In the second year of my degree, I started to get illustration work after being shortlisted for the Macmillan Prize for children’s picture books, and subsequently signed to a children’s books literary agent.
From then I juggled commissions with college work, but still kept on some weekend cleaning jobs. In my final year on Christmas Day, I got news that my father had passed away. I took that hard, and my way of coping was head down and work for my degree show like a madwoman. I eventually graduated (first class with honours!) and got lots of editorial work in London. However, I got homesick and decided to return to Dublin and look for a studio. The following year, I bought a house in Stoneybatter, before the mad house prices set in. I still live in this house. I continued my career, and am so happy I made that choice.
SCBWI: Your early life really influenced your career and your determination to become a successful illustrator. Has your style changed since you started?
Adrienne: Yes, it has indeed. When I look at older work I’m not that thrilled! However, I still like my old etchings and some of my collages.
SCBWI: Can you briefly explain your creative process, mediums, and so on? What is your favourite medium?
Adrienne: I am a hands-on woman! I adore paint of all kinds, I’m a pencil and pen nerd, I never embraced the digital world as I need to ‘handle’ the materials. Up close. There is no comparison, for me, anyhow. Not to disparage digital art, but it takes away the ‘flaws’, and I love flaws. With digital art, you can undo what you've done umpteen times. At its worst, digital art all smooth, slick, and completely polished, almost like an airbrushed model. It looks digitised no matter how many impressive digital brushes or showy technology is used. At its best, it works really well for a range of surface design and some advertising and picture books, particularly where simplicity and clean lines are one of the artist’s main goals. Or where the artist can draw really well and uses the computer imaginatively to complete their vision.
When I draw or paint on paper, I can see the way my medium reacts to it. I am off-screen and in my own world. I enjoy experimenting physically to create new colours. The tangibility of the materials allows for more possibilities. I am not creating ‘layers’ on the screen, but rather a more physical act of applying glazes, undercoats, and gradations with paint, crayons, pencils, pens, and paper, etc. I use my laptop only for email, lesson planning, and research. Even my first-draft picture-book texts go into a note book first!
SCBWI: What would be a typical day of creating illustrations or writing for you?
Adrienne: I take my dog, Tammy, to the Phoenix Park nearly every day for a one-hour, or more, walk. It sets me up for the day. She is a right character, and the word ‘squirrel’ really sets her off. Then back home with a cuppa, I sit at my drawing board in my attic studio with my Spotify playlist on my speakers with calming, soothing music. For writing, I need utter silence. Sometimes I listen to Joe Duffy for amusement and to see what everyone is complaining about. Depending on my project (picture book, commission, collage work, etc.) I’ll collect what supplies I need and begin to doodle.
Currently I’m creating a rough storyboard for a new picture-book idea. My picture-book students in my Boot Camp classes are doing the same. I have the text almost there, so the next stage after my storyboard is to create colour roughs. I get out of the studio a few times a week, often daily, and go to a nearby cafe with my work for an hour or two to get a fresh perspective. I am lucky to live in Stoneybatter where there are plenty of coffee-shop choices.
SCBWI: You do a lot of other jobs such as teaching and presenting. How much time do you actually get to spend creating your own work in a typical week or month? How do you balance the various hats you wear to earn a living and also have creative satisfaction?
Adrienne: This is my biggest challenge. I run my own illustration school Visual Art Boot Camp, and next year will be its 10th anniversary. However, I’m getting better (only slightly) at managing my time. I try to spend at least 40 percent of my week creatively, and the remaining time is planning Boot Camp, administration, parenting, dog walking, and, more recently, an Illustration Retreat for June 2018 in Tuscany.
SCBWI: You work in a variety of media. How do you think illustration is evolving with the development of digital formats? Are you able to combine physical and digital and what do you think of doing that?
Adrienne: ‘Traditional’ illustration, by that I mean the technique to which it was made, rather than style, has two main qualities that digital work does not possess: rarity and longevity. A digital file can easily be duplicated. There is no way to convince me that there is only one in existence. Physical media, because it is so obviously hand-made makes it rare, and to most people, more valuable…by the laws of supply and demand.
SCBWI: Who are your influences, mentors, or inspirational role models for illustration?
Adrienne: There are too many to mention, but my mother was my first. She had unyielding faith in me. At Kingston, I had a brilliant tutor, Leo Duff. She was dedicated, insightful, and also had faith in me! Of course, I also find inspiration in my daily life—from old books, movies, dogs, children, exhibitions, my students, you name it.
SCBWI: What are some of your favourite illustrated books?
Adrienne: Again too many to mention, but I’ll try: A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna; Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault; and because it made my son laugh hysterically when he was a baby, Little Rabbit Foo Foo, by Michael Rosen and Arthur Robins.
(Now I’ve got that Foo Foo rhyme in my head! Thanks. )
SCBWI: What do you think makes a successful picture book? Unsuccessful picture book?
Adrienne: A special magic ingredient, that if I knew I’d sell it for one million per quarter pound. In all seriousness, for me, it’s how I feel immediately after I close the book. Will I remember it later and will it make me feel ANYTHING at all.
SCBWI: How do you come up with new ideas? Do you have a typical process or does it evolve with the ideas?
Adrienne: For each idea, there is, has been, and perhaps always will, be a different process or evolution. The ones that nag me for attention usually win.
SCBWI: Do you ever have creative slumps? What do you do then?
Adrienne: Always, but often self-imposed sabotage. It has usually got to do with a life crisis getting in the way. Recently, there has been a fair share of those. I get far from my computer, stuff my handbag with my notebooks and pencils, and head for the nearest café. Chocolate helps.
SCBWI: What is the best or most fun aspect of being an illustrator?
Adrienne: Freedom from the 9 to 5 life that I hear people complaining about, coming up with hair-brained ideas, and being excused because you are an ‘artist’…
SCBWI: What is the worst or most difficult aspect of being an illustrator?
Adrienne: Financial instability, never switching off as in a ‘normal’ job, plus I have no pension plan!
SCBWI: What steps do you recommend for illustrators who are just starting out?
Adrienne: Get off your screen and get out and draw, meet people, read books, and tell everyone you meet that you are an illustrator. Say it with confidence and conviction, in other words, ‘fake it till you make it’. Take a part-time, low-stress job and work at your art every day.
SCBWI: You write as well as illustrate. Which comes first for you when creating a book?
Adrienne: Both in equal amounts, believe it or not. I usually write the story to 60-70 percent before I allow myself to draw a single character or scene. However, that is not a prescription on how it’s done. Everyone has a different way, and each way is valid.
SCBWI: Do you always develop your own projects or do you also accept commissions?
Adrienne: Both, but I prefer to illustrate my own.
SCBWI: Why did you decide to teach illustration and picture book courses? How did you get started doing that and how do you find it now compared to when you first began teaching?
Adrienne: I began teaching a year after graduating, after John Short of DIT called me and asked if I’d like to do a stint. He said that he went to the Royal College of Art (RCA) with Leo Duff, my former tutor in Kingston, and she apparently told him to call me. I was hesitant, as apart from anything else I was inundated with work, but I accepted the challenge and did it part time for ten years, and again in 2013 part time for three more years. Then I worked for Independent Colleges from 2008 to 2009, and launched Visual Art Boot Camps in 2008 as my own independent school. I love running these courses because everyone on my course wants to be there, and a lot of my business is through word of mouth and repeat students.
SCBWI: What projects have you completed recently? What projects are you planning or working on now?
Adrienne: See above storyboard for the developing book idea plus I’m doing work for an international collage festival, Collagistas, which will be hosted in Dublin in 2018, and I’m working on a new batch of postcards for the Jack and Jill foundations Incognito charity auction.
I recently worked with refugee children in Ballaghaderreen, and I was so honoured to be asked to do this. I really enjoyed the children, and their creativity and energy was infinite! They are sponges for knowledge and had picked up the English language in a few months!
SCBWI: You’ve been location scouting in Italy. Can you tell us more about the development of that retreat and when it will be offered?
Adrienne: Yes, I have always wanted to bring a new fun aspect to the courses, and a retreat in Tuscany has been on my mind for years. I finally did my research, and Montecatini was shortlisted along with a family-run hotel there. I went on an exploration trip there in September and fell in love with both the location and the hotel and its wonderful food and hospitality. After that I planned a complete itinerary with the hotel owner Maria and I am pleased to say that the brochures are now going to print! It is now opened for booking, but places are limited to a max of 18.
For details or to register: Tuscany Illustration Retreat 2018
Thank-you so much, Adrienne, for your candour and for a fascinating in-depth peek into your life and art!
Adrienne Geoghegan is a freelance illustrator, writer, teacher, and facilitator based in Dublin, Ireland. In 2006, she was shortlisted for the Bisto award for her picture book illustrations in Fancy That. Adrienne is an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Illustrators Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland, IVARO, and is also a Golden Colors Artist Educator.
Visit her website: http://www.adriennegeoghegan.com/
Chat to her on Twitter: @artbootcamps