Interviewed by Regional Advisor, Colleen Jones
Illustrator Gerry Daly is originally from County Wicklow but lives in Dublin by the sea. An inspiring landscape!
Photo: Gerry Daly by Girts Bralis
I was delighted to learn more about Gerry and his work through this interview! Read on!
SCBWI: Tell us a bit about yourself and your training in illustration and art. I want to hear more about cake decoration as a medium!
Gerry: Well I’ve always been mad for books, had a comic on order at the local shop, and loved the library. Growing up we had a lot of books at home. My favourite was the Childcraft – The How and Why Library (1972 ed.), a 15-volume encyclopedia for kids. I pored over the huge variety of illustrations in those so much that many are still imprinted on my mind.
Making and creating has always been central for me. I love the surprises, getting something to work, and to see people react. I studied Fine Art at IADT and, yes, for my graduation show I made paintings to look like decorated cakes on the wall! I funnelled paint and plaster through an icing tool and they looked almost good enough to eat. My thesis was on ‘taste’, and so I explored how this manifests in our attitudes, opinions, etc. I wrote specific phrases in ‘icing’ over selected images of daily life coloured in cake pastel tones. They were good fun, and I discovered how much I love exploring that interplay between word and image. I didn’t sell one piece but that was okay. I haven’t trained specifically in illustration; that’s been a very gradual process.
SCBWI: How did you get started in graphic design/tech after college? How did that morph into a career as an illustrator creating images for a picture book?
Gerry: After college, I continued exploring using words on top of images, I made gig posters for bands, combining drawing and collage. I also made ‘house portraits’. I found people were quite happy to buy a detailed drawing of their home. I saw a lot of Dublin and also Cork while doing these.
But of course this wasn’t enough to make a living, and I heard about the ‘Music Business Course’ in Dublin’s City Arts Centre that sounded great. As well as making visuals, I loved to make music, and played guitar in a band. The course covered aspects of promotion that I was already engaged with, and crucially enabled me to learn about the still quite new Adobe design software, this was mid 90s. The course was great. I built up a portfolio that was starting to include quite a bit of illustration, and soon after that I found work as a graphic designer. I designed several book covers, a lot of material for private and public sector. That’s what I did until the recession hit and the business had to close in 2012.
I saw this as a chance to explore something new, and as I’d dabbled in making websites I soon enrolled on a Web Technologies course. It led onto me completing a masters in Web Tech, which is pretty far removed from Fine Art!
As I found full-time work again, I also started drawing a lot for a picture book idea my uncle Seán had. Slowly this took over all my spare time, and I was back mixing words with images and loving it. It’s within the context of picture books that I found this thing I love to do really started to blossom. After years of trying other things, it was like coming home.
SCBWI: How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?
Gerry: I love line, the spontaneity. I try keeping it as loose as I can, although this does take a lot of practice. I love composition, and how it can enhance movement and mood. I think these are what I’m drawn to any time I visit a gallery or pore over books with illustration or paintings. I try to ensure these fundamentals are working before I start adding colour and exploring how that interplays too.
When I first started back with illustration, my style was very loose and rough, but since then I’ve tried to balance the looser parts with clear outlines, and to focus on expression. You absorb so much visual material over the years, I think you filter through what seems to work for you, you try things out. This all helps with finding your style.
SCBWI: Can you briefly explain your creative process, mediums, and so on? What is your favourite medium?
Gerry: I use sketchbooks for brainstorming. Starting with a lot of quick pencil drawing, I try different points of view, character positions, and scaling to capture the mood and feeling of the scene. I try and gauge the most effective composition. Often a quick scribbly sketch will capture exactly what I’m looking for in a character, so I keep an eye for that, and then I’ll transfer it to the paper I’m working on with a lightbox.
Depending on the piece, I might paint it all as one, or paint the background separately with all the various elements then layered on top using Photoshop.
I don’t draw on a tablet or screen, as I just prefer the real surfaces and media. Also, I think for me working without the undo button when drawing helps me to keep focused. If something goes different than expected, well then that’s what you use, and build on that. Of course if it’s just plain bad, there’s still the rubber. But using the computer for assemblage and to digitally refine can absolutely be a timesaver, tweaking colour, sizes, positions, etc.
My favourite medium is gouache paint, so versatile and often surprising, which I like. It’s opaque and solid, or as watery as you like. It combines very well with pastels, pencil, pen, plus it’s easy to scan!
SCBWI: Who are your influences, mentors, or inspirational role models for illustration?
Gerry: Just recently a wonderful new website launched of Brian Wildsmith’s art, stunning drawing, use of colour, beautiful rough edges with detail only where it needs to be. There are so many amazing illustrators that I grew up with: Raymond Briggs, E.H. Shepard, Quentin Blake, Helen Oxenbury, John Burningham, Richard Scarry, Tomi Ungerer.
My parents are both creative, and watching them always making things has influenced me. I watched tonnes of cartoons growing up, which probably instilled a love for movement and point of view in drawing; those classic Roadrunner cartoons are still favourites. I love the detailed backgrounds in early Disney.
I’m a total fan boy when it comes to painters, from Pieter Breughel to Peter Doig, Alice Neel to Howard Hodgkin. I’ve sometimes travelled quite far to see some brushstrokes!
SCBWI: What are some of your favourite picture books?
Gerry: I still have my childhood copy of Tony’s Hard Work Day by Alan Arkin and illustrated by James Stevenson, where a little boy builds his own house, much to the surprise of family, who said he was just too small. Very inspiring for a young mind!
Mrs. Armitage Queen of the Road by Quentin Blake is hilarious. Some new favs are Mrs Mole, I’m Home by Jarvis, classic to read out loud. Nothing! by Yasmeen Ismail is like a beautiful hymn to the power of imagination. Tiny Little Fly is a hilarious poem by Michael Rosen with stunning illustration by Kevin Waldron. I saw Kevin present some of these spreads at Dublin’s Offset conference a few years ago, they looked magnificent on the huge screen.
SCBWI: Do you ever have creative slumps? What do you do then?
Gerry: For sure, but I try see that as a positive where I’ve a chance to recharge. I’d usually try and get some reading done, there are so many great children’s books to inspire and fire the imagination. I love to cycle around the Dublin coast, let my mind breathe. I might take random photos as I go, just the act of framing something can get the creative cogs moving again. I’ll visit a gallery or museum.
When new ideas do start to trickle again, I try to give them some space. You kind of know when it’s ready to jump on, and I just follow along trying to not ‘interfere’. It sounds odd, but I find this process works best if I don’t try hem it in too quickly, just keep rough sketching every new variation that comes to mind. Sometimes there’s a keeper.
If I’m really stuck and the pencil isn’t even hitting the page, my partner is great for heaps of encouragement, “c’mon where are some bunnies?” Then they come along.
SCBWI: How much time are you able to spend doing illustrations versus your other work to pay the bills?
Gerry: I left the web development to the side for a while so that I could concentrate on developing illustration, not knowing where it would take me. Since the publication of Where Are You, Puffling?, one thing has led to another. Currently I work full time illustrating, and bringing workshops to schools, libraries and bookshops. My spare time also morphs into yet more drawing, as it can be hard to just leave it. So it’s been very full on the past while, but I know I’ll need to expand into other areas again soon enough.
SCBWI: What is the most challenging aspect of being an illustrator?
Gerry: Besides not having regular pay, which requires a lot of careful forward planning, simply workwise, it does require a lot of focus. Anyone working as an artist has no problem with motivation as far as I can see. It’s clearly a passion and they’ve no problem in trying to make new things. But on a daily basis, trying to be consistently moving forward is challenging. I don’t mean producing great work everyday, but keeping in the right headspace, ready for those ideas when they come. I think the ability to focus builds over time. Overall it’s very rewarding.
Niggling self-doubts of course rear their little heads, you see something in your mind, you want to do it, and some part of your mind is saying “forget it, you can’t do that”. I tackle this with a “let’s see then, shall we?” and just give it a go. You have to start somewhere, put that doubt back wherever it came from. Then realise if you’d listened to it you wouldn’t have surprised yourself with a brand new piece that is possibly working out fine, and if it’s not, you’ve likely learned a thing or two.
SCBWI: What steps do you recommend for illustrators who are just starting out?
Gerry: I think steps will likely be in varying order depending on the person. Perhaps these are more like tips.
Keep that strong belief in what you’re doing while building a pretty thick skin. Remember any knocks that come your way, whether rejections, or pieces failing to work as expected, are part of the job, and you need to keep learning and keep moving on.
Start meeting other like-minded folk. Attend any meetups, conferences, and get-togethers that may be around. Join organizations such as SCBWI, Children’s Books Ireland, or IBBY, where you can touch base, support, and talk endlessly about picture books. There are tonnes of resources on the SCBWI website. I’m a huge fan of the podcasts. Surround yourself with all these good things.
Buy or borrow a copy of the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which is just brimming with tips and advice, listing all the relevant organisations and publishers.
Try and get your work seen. It’s fab when our loved ones go nuts over something we’ve created, but you want access to all those fresh unbiased eyes. If you don’t think you’re ready to set up a simple website, don’t worry, an Instagram account is a great start getting eyes on your work. There is a huge audience there eager for images. Follow other illustrators, but be wary of social media draining valuable drawing time or worry that your work isn’t hitting the marks that others seem to.
Don’t worry about having a style, or the more technical aspects. I think simply absorbing as much as you can from the world of children’s books past and present, along with other interests, all feeds back into your own work, and helps maintain your drive moving forward. A style will naturally come.
Persevere, keep a fresh frame of mind, keep the ideas coming. Let your imagination be king or queen for the time it needs.
Then when opportunities do come along, trying your very best will lead to great work and then onto something else. But above all I think read, read, and read. Even if you are not planning to write as well as illustrate, you are feeding that visual thinking or seeing how others are interpreting texts.
SCBWI: Do you have an agent? If yes, what impact has having an agent had on your career?
Gerry: No, so far I’ve been kept very busy without one. However I do hear good things about having an agent as a career develops.
SCBWI: I saw an interview where you said that you’re a music fan and even played in a band when you were younger. A lot of your illustrations feature people and animals playing music. How much is music a part of your life and how does it inspire your creative ideas?
Gerry: I listen to music as I work; I think using its creative energy as you create yourself can be great for keeping the momentum up. I like a huge range of styles. So it could be glorious pop or rock, followed by very off-the-charts noisy stuff, with some soothing ambient Brian Eno for dessert. Sometimes I need something without words.
When I was working on Where Are You, Puffling?, it was often traditional Irish music – Planxty, the Fureys – that would get me in the mood.
Yes, I played guitar in a band when we were teenagers to early twenties, great fun. I still love to go to concerts. I guess without really noticing it, a lot of musical instruments have seeped into my work alright. I’m not sure why, but an orchestra of cats, some singing pigs, or a mouse on xylophone just makes a funny kind of sense.
SCBWI: So many of your illustrations feature animals. Do you have any pets of your own? Where did your interest/love of animals come from? I particularly like the illustration of the dinosaur on the unicycle!
Gerry: Unfortunately no pets, we live in an apartment. While neighbours do have dogs and cats, I think we’d really need to have a garden. There were many dogs and cats when I was growing up though. I’ve always been fascinated by wild animals, the independence, the clever solutions that have evolved, the sheer variety! I’m quickly hooked when the TV has one of those new big series with stunning photography and beautiful creatures to see. That dinosaur on the unicycle lives down the road!
SCBWI: I know that your Uncle Seán came up with the original idea for the picture book that eventually became Where Are You, Puffling? What was it like working with a family member compared to working with professional writer Erika McGann when she was brought into the project by O’Brien Press?
Gerry: Working with Uncle Seán was both of us bouncing ideas off each other, trying things out on the fly. When early layouts were starting to come together he’d yell out “I love it! Now we’re sucking diesel!” When Erika came on board to retell the story, I was fully confident she knew what to do and stepped right back. The original had too many words, and needed to be distilled so it was suitable for young readers. Erika took the setting, and the theme of birds and animals helping each other, then built the tale of a little puffin chick helping others as she explores Skellig Michael. I was so thrilled when I read the final text, the brilliant interactive structure. It is so much fun to read, especially out loud! Then it was up to me to create fresh artwork.
SCBWI: How much research did you do about the Skellig Islands, puffins, and the other animals native to the islands? Did you get seasick on the boat over?
Gerry: We were very lucky with calm weather for the hour-long boat trip from Portmagee Co. Kerry, but I believe it can get quite rough. Visiting the islands is a real treat, and I can only recommend it to any one living in or visiting Ireland. Sheer cliffs, jagged peaks, terrifying ancient steps, amazing views. I made sure to visit at the height of Puffin season, there must have been thousands of them. They sure love to pose for the camera. They’re very relaxed around people, but you wouldn’t want to try touch them, they are only going to waddle off, and loosing your footing while on the Skelligs is just not worth it.
I made some sketches and took a lot of shots of the wildlife and landscape with a good zoom camera. Thanks to the calm water, we also got to sail very close around small Skellig, which is the second-largest Gannet colony in the world. There is a wonderful book by Des Lavelle called Skellig: Experience the Extraordinary that was also very helpful when learning about what creatures live underwater there.
SCBWI: I read that Erika’s text for Where Are You, Puffling? has been translated into Irish by Muireann Ní Chíobháin and will be published in March 2020 by O’Brien Press. Did you have to revise any of the illustrations to fit the translated version? (I confess my favourite image is when Puffling has her little butt to the reader and is peeking back. She’s a bit of a scamp, as my grandma would have said.)
Gerry: No, there wasn’t any need to adjust for the Irish translation. It’s so exciting to see it as Gaeilge, the words for the wildlife are just beautiful. Ha ha, thanks! Yes, little Puffling is pretty cheeky alright! I think showing her from different angles helps show more character too.
SCBWI: You mentioned that the book is also going to be available in Braille in March 2020. I’ve never seen a picture book in Braille, and I’m really curious about how it’s produced. Will it still have your illustrations and Erika’s text printed on it as well? How did the deal for a Braille edition come about?
Gerry: The wonderful folk at the NCBI (National Council for the Blind of Ireland) were in touch with O’Brien Press at last autumn’s launch of Bookshare Ireland, which is the new NCBI-run ebook library service. There the possibility of a Braille ‘Twin Vision’ edition came up. NCBI produces these books where the illustrations will still be part of the book along with the Braille. In Issue 58 of Children’s Books Ireland’s Inis magazine, there is an article about making books accessible to all. It explains that a Braille version of the text for each page is output onto a clear plastic film and pasted over the relevant areas in the book. So a sighted reader can still read the book along with a visually impaired child or visa versa. That special intimacy of reading together is still there. I think it’s a fantastic idea and I’m look forward to seeing it myself.
SCBWI: I saw online that Where Are You, Puffling? is going to be one of eight books featured as part of the National Trust Book Day Weekend in the UK and Northern Ireland between March 5 and 8, and that it will be part of a Puffling Children’s Trail across a wide selection of their sites. That’s very exciting! How did the book get chosen? How will you be involved?
Gerry: After Where Are You, Puffling? was selected for World Book Day, the UK National Trust became aware of it, and suggested this idea of creating a Puffling Children’s Trail across 50 of the places in their care throughout the UK. Children will be given clues to locate various characters from the book, learning a little about each one as they go. Finishing up with a cut-out of Puffling herself and a chance to pick up a special World Book Day edition with a free book token. It sounds great fun, although I won’t be in the UK myself as I’m kept very busy with plenty of World Book Day events across Ireland during that week. I’ve some relatives there who will be joining in the fun and posting some pics.
SCBWI: Do you plan to write as well as illustrate any picture books or other books?
Gerry: Yes, for sure. As well as developing my illustrations since Puffling was published, I have been writing a lot too. It is quite the challenge making every single word count and building that strong story that begs to be reread, but I’m finding I love it. A few months back, O’Brien Press accepted a story that I wrote, that features lots of wildlife, and I will be illustrating it too! I’m very excited about that. It’s due for publication in early 2021.
SCBWI: What other projects are you currently working on?
Gerry: Currently I am illustrating a brand new story with new characters written by Erika McGann. I’m afraid I can’t say anything else other than we’re past the dummy book stage, onto full colour artwork, it is hilarious, and coming in autumn 2020!
SCBWI: Thanks so much for giving us an in-depth look into your creative life!
Gerry: You’re most welcome!
Gerry Daly is a Dublin-based illustrator. Where Are You, Puffling?, his debut in picture books, is selected for World Book Day 2020, and also available in Irish and Braille. He enjoys bringing interactive workshops to schools and libraries. Gerry is currently working on two new books, due autumn 2020 and early 2021. You can find out more about Gerry or get in touch with him on his website (http://gerrydalyart.ie/) or through social media. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gerrydalyartTwitter: https://twitter.com/gerrydalyart Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/gerrydalyart/