Alé Mercado and the AOI Mid-Career Residency

Work created by Alé Mercado during the masterclass
World created by Alé Mercado during the masterclass

Back in November 2019 (what seems like a very long time ago) we announced our Mid-Career Residency: a unique initiative to award one illustrator with 15+ years experience the opportunity to focus and refine their craft through an intensive 4-day masterclass, in the beautiful city of Vienna. This opportunity was possible thanks to our partner Atelier Olschinski, who prized the successful candidate with a free place in their programme with the AOI covering their travel and accommodation expenses.

We received many outstanding applications, but Alé Mercado‘s stood out as the strongest and the most deserving. He was awarded the residency and originally set to participate in summer 2020. You can imagine what delayed that…!

But after so much waiting and anticipation, we’re very happy to say that the residency finally took place in August 2022. Alé tells us all about his experience prior and during the masterclass below!

Illustration by Alé Mercado

Hard Times

In October 2018 I had to resort to counselling for the first time in my life. When we started assessing, my first finding was that I had lost my love for illustration.

I couldn’t believe it. Years before I had left a “safe career” in engineering to follow my passion for drawing and visual storytelling. Somehow I had lost that very flame somewhere in the way without even noticing.

So the mission was to reconnect with myself and try and find out if illustration was still there among the things that made my heart beat. It was a long and slow process and I was full of doubts, but I had to give myself another chance.

I decided to stop using digital tools and try a much more emotional game, using the most basic medium I could think of: the graphite. That was a good call. By June 2019 I was producing loads of new work with a massive big difference: it was all personal work and it was GOOD! 

In the absence of paying clients I would commission myself to do the work I REALLY wanted to do. At first these projects were very open, but they quickly narrowed down to alternative cinema posters, graphic novels and illustrated books for grown-ups. 

That was an epiphany and my path was finally very clear: My energy had to go in making just that kind of work and (more importantly) not deviate from it.

From those personal pieces came favourable responses and some commissions from completely new clients. This time I focused more in producing good work rather than just pleasing the client, and that was a refreshing prospect.

Illustration by Alé Mercado

AOI Mid-Career Residency

It’s after these new commissions when I was still quite at the beginning of my recovery, that the AOI announced its Mid-Career Residency, aimed at illustrators with 15+ years experience. The Residency would take place in Atelier Olschinsky in Vienna. I’d followed them for a long time and admired their work, and dreamt of attending one of their amazing Masterclasses.

This residency could give my work the push it needed to realise its full potential. It’s with this idea that I submitted my application and crossed my fingers hard untill, a few weeks later, I received the news that I’d been selected for the residency! It was a really emotional time. I felt reassured about my recent changes, but also felt an important amount of pressure to show I was a worthy recipient of this opportunity. I had to make the most of it. This was a new motivation to prepare and take me to the next level.

Drawing by Alé Mercado created in Vienna


COVID-19 happened which meant the residency was put on hold. Olschinsky and the AOI both were cautiously optimistic, but the truth is that none of us knew if it was going to ever happen or not. 

I decided not to get too caught up on it and to concentrate in my new work. Again, the aim was to reach my full potential (whether the Masterclass happened or not). This gave purpose to the time the pandemic lasted, trying as many avenues as possible. I applied myself to working and growing with a renewed hunger.

The Pandemic offered another unexpected opportunity: a lot of places started offering online versions of their courses. Living in rural Ireland, I could now join every course or webinar from the comfort of my home. This opened new ways of thinking and contributed to making the work grow in depth and quality.

Fast forward to two of the busiest years I’ve ever had… I get THE email: the residency is going to go ahead!

Drawing by Alé Mercado created in Vienna


Four days from 10:00 to 19:30 with a short break for lunch. It’s a statement: we are not there to do any sightseeing. 

But, in order to receive everyone and make you feel at ease from the first moment is Verena Weiss from Atelier Olschinsky. The Masterclass is her baby and you can tell it is a labour of love. This was the first workshop since everything reopened and it was a big test for her.

When I arrived and introduced myself, it was like meeting long-time-no-see relative. We hugged celebrating that the masterclass was finally happening, a sincere hug that I will remember and treasure for a long time.

Over the next four days Verena became the guardian angel and visual documenter of the group. She was there all the time to make sure we were cared for. But I suspect, she rejoiced in seeing that her Masterclass was back and in a big way too.

Photograph by Verena Weiss

Harry Campbell

Harry Campbell’s work is as imposing as it gets and before meeting him I was trying to figure how you address someone like him. We were not ten minutes in the Masterclass and Harry was already shattering all fears. He looked as excited as we were, and talked about the Masterclass being a common space for all of us; a place where we were going to share everything, as equals. 

Everything would revolve around real-time editorial assignments first to then move to more narrative endeavours. He laid out what seemed like an ambitious plan, and after a brief introduction he took off with a presentation where we’d start seeing the building blocks of his amazing work.

All attending the masterclass were floored by the sharpness of his ideas, how he can distil very complex concepts into deceptively simple visual metaphors.

But the aspect that impressed me the most is how both curious and generous Harry is, always pouring out experience, anecdotes, advice and pure skill.

Illustration by Harry Campbell

Soon Studios

I quickly need to mention the place where the Masterclass is held. In a really cool area of Vienna (I’m told).

Soon studios is the place where street artist @DeadBeatHero does his thing; but it is also a space full of potential, this masterclass being a realisation of some of it. It invites to work, to think and to share. It’s perfect for a group of 10 people like we were, armed with iPads and plenty of analog tools. 

The studio also doubled as a space to chill out, to talk into the wee hours or to play mad late fussball. A place as versatile as the Masterclass was shaping to be.

Work by Alé Mercado created during the masterclass

The Masterclass

Every day started with a presentation by Harry on the issue we were going to explore. He would illustrate every presentation using his own work but occasionally showing us loads of inspirational work from other relevant people he admires. 

The mood was set up. We were then hit with a real-life brief on whatever kind of subject. Harry moved to the role of the editor, sometimes encouraging to follow an idea, some other times suggesting new ways of looking. We got a couple of hours to work on the concepts and then we had to present the ones we liked best, just like to an Art Director.

And it is when presenting these ideas that I think we stroke gold. Those presentations were an intimate glance into other people’s way of thinking, how they see the world (whether literally or lyrically). I marvelled at Harry’s ability to see potential on any approach and his comments lead to everyone contributing to angles on every idea that could be considered. Before long, there was such a stream of creativity it was pure magic.

Imagine four days of this. By the end of it we almost felt as if we were one brain. We were sure we could face any problem no matter how complex and find a visual solution to it.

The rest of the day would be spent finalising a particular piece. By the end of the masterclass we had so much new work, we could’ve built a small brand new portfolio with it. 

Looking back, the pace of the Masterclass was crazy. But we were all thriving in it, learning from everything we were throwing at each other. I think it would be fair to see that we all got loads from it and we all gave loads to it.

Photograph by Verena Weiss
Work by Alé Mercado created during the masterclass

Team Sunshine

The best thing about attending any kind of course is the people you get to meet. And this one excelled at that. 

We were a very mixed bag of illustrators from very different places in the globe. All of us at different points in our careers, ranging from jewellery design to graphic designers transitioning to illustration. We had a bit of everything.

I can only feel grateful that I had the opportunity of being there and to be part of this wonderful group of people. Thanks to the AOI for honouring me to be there, to Atelier Olschinsky for making something so special happen. Thanks to Soon studios for providing such an inspiring space. Thanks to Harry for his generosity of spirit (not to mention the river of creativity he is). 

And thanks to Liza, Valentina, Summer, Diana, Giulia, Corinna, Marie-Pascale, Rob and Lawrence for sharing with and teaching me so much. I only hope I gave back as much as I got.

Photograph by Verena Weiss

We really want to thank Alé Mercado for taking the time to write this wonderful article. You can check out his illustration work on his website and instagram.

With huge thanks also to Atelier Olschinski and Harry Campbell.

The Mid-Career Residency was an initiative open exclusively for our members. While we don’t have plans to run another one at present, you can check out other opportunities like the AOI Mentorship Scheme (which will be calling for applications in late autumn).

2nd September 2022

World Illustration Awards 2023 – Longlist Announced!
Be part of #WIA2023 - a global celebration of great illustration. The Longlist will now be announced by category from 16th - 25th May 2023.
Issue 42 and Back issues available!
Contacts (across 3 sectors) for 350+ UK Commissioners... BUY NOW!
Get seen by commissioners with a 20 image Folio.


Join our mailing list to get the latest news.