What was your key motivation in becoming an illustrator?
I was obsessed with graffiti & art when I was at school, mates in my class said I should ‘be an artist’, I went through all the hoops and found myself on a graphic design & printmaking BA in 1992. I had a collage epiphany in a paper recycling centre in Germany in ‘93 which fed 2 years of experimental collage and printmaking. Then I kind of fell off the end of the course with no direction or training on how to make a living in the art/design world, but I was making a lot of work everyone on my course seemed to love.
On the penultimate day of college I went up to the Illustration department with a suitcase of collages and had a chat with Illustrator / tutor Jo Hassell. She gave me a list of Design agencies, publishers, ad agencies and said ‘Go see them. They’d love your stuff.’ They included Penguin, Legas Delaney, Vaughan Oliver and the lads at Tomato. I made it my mission to show them my work in person, which I did, over a year or so.
My work was ‘fine arty abstract collage’ at that point, I hadn’t ever illustrated anything. I didn’t really know if I’d be able to make great collages with specific subject matter at short notice – with my relatively small archive of material, (and no internet at that time of course) but it all started there. I launched into commercial art and in a few months started calling myself an ‘Illustrator’. It took a while to learn how to successfully answer a brief though.
Your extensive collections of found imagery are used to generate your collage based Artwork, how do you overcome issues on copyright when sourcing your materials?
Collage, copyright & commercial Art is a bit of a minefield, which I’ve been navigating for years. I naively plowed straight through it at the beginning, now I’ve got a good idea of the routes to take. I create and shoot a lot of my own photos and, contrary to what people might think, I buy a lot of imagery that I use for commercial work for ‘single usage’ so it’s all kosher when it goes out. You just have to know where to look for interesting stuff. And you’d be surprised what you can actually do with what a lot of people might think is a crap image. A dearly departed creative called Ian Noble had a saying ‘do a lot with a little, not a little with a lot’. So very true.
I also directly approach photographers if there is something that I’m really keen to work with.
Your work is nostalgic in style and very ‘hands on’ in the creating process, do you think there is a resurgence in this type of work given the predominant digital age we are in?
I find editing the past therapeutic and like to reassemble my own versions of moments, imaginary or real.
I like to use the Mac as a colour copier. That’s how collage started out for me on the University colour & black and white copiers, that combined with the screen-print room.
I had a wobble once when my water bucket in my Mum and Dad’s shed froze over one night when I was silkscreen editioning. I swore that ‘I’m getting a loan and buying a Mac’. But I didn’t, I bought a little colour copier on tick and carried on with my scalpel.
I do really bless the luck in being at Art college before photoshop & the internet were readily available for creatives.
I think it was David Hockney that said ‘The problem with using high tech is you always end up using scissors’. Of course the Mac now is invaluable, but regardless of resurgences in hands on or tech I’ll always be doing the same thing, keeping the studio a messy place with cutting mats and paint pots lying around.
You sell limited edition prints and original Artworks. Do you think selling work through various platforms is an area for illustrators to consider?
For a long time clients asked if they could buy a print and I declined, I didn’t have a system set up. I eventually designed a shop for my new website, now a couple of years old. Shops & products can be cool, but they are a whole other business in their own right that you have to promote & tweak & update and queue in the post office for if it’s going to be worth it. And that’s all time out of getting and making commissioned work. So I’d say watch out for spreading your creative time too thinly. It makes more sense to try the market out with 1 or 2 great pieces of work through a specialist quality online print / art seller, than embark on your own.
What kind of visuals do you find work best for limited edition prints or originals? Does this differ from commissioned Illustration?
My print range and original works for sale were mainly born out of clients asking me for prints after a job and requests by people via email. As long as I am allowed to use an image I’ve made I might consider it for a print or original collage sale.
Client led briefs often lead to very interesting work anyway, or at least the offcuts and offshoot work which derives from it. Personal work & commissioned work feed each other & there’s no real difference for me regarding what kind of visuals I use.
Martin in his Studio
Who and what keeps you inspired?
Well, maybe a cliché I know, but my 2 young daughters are very inspirational. Their perspective, insight, witty naivety, sharpness and ‘creativity’ are very motivating. They draw and tinker and sculpt and imagine for hours. The tiniest of doodles are so very potent & interesting. They really do give me ideas and for now I’m allowed to nick them. I have nostalgia for that creative innocence that I think comes across in my work. A hope for lost naivety. Watching the girls helps me turn my collages upside down.
And ‘What’ –
A consistant source of inspiration is finding things on the floor. And that can be that of a beach, a fleamarket or a pub.
Inspiration usually comes from something found by experimenting
Martin O’Neill Artwork