September 2018 marks ten years since I decided to leave my career in the media in London and move home to Ireland to pursue my dream of being a freelance illustrator.
It has been an oscillating path, full of ups and downs, peak and troughs, disasters and delights. It's certainly never been boring. And it couldn't have happened without the support of those around me, most particularly my incredibly patient wife, Orla.
So as it's a special anniversary for me, I'm going to be a little (very) self-indulgent and list some of the great things that happened. Then I'll get on my trusty soap box and (briefly) describe why I got to do these things. But before I do, know that these are the highlights - they were peaks, poking out from a thick soup of panic, anxiety, relentless ambition and more panic. It's not an easy road, but it is so rewarding. The soup was worth it.
So, here is my self-indulgent list (yay me)
Whelan's changed my career because they gave me carte blanche to create any kind of art I wanted as long as it was cool. One piece, The Bogs, got my first professional recognition with inclusion in the Society of Illustrators 56 book and exhibition. Doors opened.
The O'Brien Press took a punt on me and published my debut novel, A Cage of Roots. Then took more punts and published two more. So now I have a trilogy, and a prize-winning one at that. Life-long dream fulfilled.
A famous Irish actor who shall remain unnamed commissioned me to make posters for his favourite films. Made me realise I love making posters for films. I made some more for myself, including one for Pan's Labyrinth that to this day is still the most popular thing I've done. I sent some to Arrow Video, who have since commissioned 76 pieces from me and counting (amazing client). The Pan's became the cover art for a special edition in Germany & Austria. I got to work with Warner Bros (twice - on IT & Mowgli) & Universal (more on that in a sec). All on the back of one private commission and some fan art.
Another punt, this time from the agency Shannon Associates. They became my agents even though I wasn't a 'slam dunk' (a quote - it meant I wasn't immediately marketable (true), but they had faith and took a chance). I asked if they could get me book cover work. They did, and I've gotten to make covers for all of the biggest publishers in the world, for famous authors like Michael Grant, Rick Riordan and more. They basically changed my career, and I'm forever grateful.
Back to the movie posters, because this is my favourite one. Mike Woods of Under The Floorboards had a license from Universal and asked if I'd like to do a poster for Back to the Future. I'm an 80s kid, so it was a firm 'yes'. He submitted my rough for approval and it all went a bit crazy. We ended up on Skype calls to Universal with them telling us that 'Steve' (Spielberg) and 'Bob' (Zemeckis) loved the design and they wanted it to be their official 30th Anniversary poster, to be used at London Film & Comic Con to raise money for The Michael J Fox Foundation. I got a personal letter from Bob Gale (who wrote and produced the three films). I even got in the local paper with a government minister. Will always owe Mike a debt of gratitude for that.
More punting on me... A couple of years ago a very old friend was doing a Kickstarter for his band's new album. One of the things they were hoping to raise money for was a music video. I had never animated before, but I asked them if they'd consider me for the job, and, thankfully, they agreed. Knowing that I couldn't animate. That's faith. The old mate was Simon Cullen, the band was the incredible Ships, and thanks to them I got to add 'animation' to my job description.
Ok I'm wrapping up the boasting now. Just one more. The good people of Light House Cinema recently commissioned me to do artwork for their Brad Bird Season. I'm a big Brad Bird fan (especially The Iron Giant) so I jumped at the chance. I made this:
...and then they invited me to a special preview screening of The Incredibles 2, where this happened:
There's been so much more. Good and bad. But, honestly, pretty much mostly good. Too many things to list here without boring the pants off you (if I haven't already).
Oh and this is all obviously just professional stuff. I also got married, moved to my favourite part of the world (Co.Clare) and had two amazing daughters. That's the important stuff, so I left it out.
And now, the soapbox...
The reason I got to do these things was I didn't give up. I just flat-out refused to stop making art my job. I could not have done this without Orla and the rest of my family being so supportive (even when it was harder for her than me. She may argue it still is...)
I also put a huge emphasis on personal work. I never considered working on my own projects a waste of time. They are the opposite of that. Nothing opens doors more than personal work. So if you are an aspiring commercial artist - make sure you draw what you love, make time for the stuff you are passionate about and I promise opportunities will arise, your work will improve and you will get where you want to go. And when it comes to books - just write the f***ing thing. Start writing - the first draft doesn't have to be good. An idea will only be an idea until you actually start putting words down. Oh and (cheese warning) believe in yourself. Self-doubt is in all of us, particularly creative people. Just push the doubt aside and remind yourself that you have what it takes to succeed. All the time.
Exercise and mediate. These help with that last bit. Watch films, read books, go to galleries - embrace culture in all it's forms. It fills up the well that you need to draw from. An afternoon at the cinema is work. Don't feel bad about it.
And lastly, you're always learning. Enjoy that part.
So, I sincerely apologise for the self-aggrandising nature of this post. But, you don't get a ten year anniversary every day, right? And I hope at least the last bit makes it beneficial for someone, other than me and my ego. For me, I can't wait to see what the next ten years brings. I won't give up, that's for sure.
Some thanks (not in order of merit)
Jamie East - my old boss at Sky Sports and HMPJ/Channel 4. Spotted my talent and encouraged it, allowing me to draw when I should have been working. Hired me twice, didn't fire me when I partied too much, and let me quit with his blessing.
Damo Farrell - gave me much of my early work, saw potential in my sketchbooks, taught me how to make a story.
Simon, Justin, Gail, Jodie and the team at Shannon Associates. Game-changing for me. And put up with me hounding about payments.
Michael, Ivan, Emma, Susan, Kunak, Ruth, Geraldine and all at The O'Brien Press. Took a chance, and helped me realise a dream I've had since I was a nipper. Emma Byrne has to get a special mention as she asked me to pitch a story. Susan Houlden too for being an amazing editor and whipping the books into shape.
Fran, Kevin and all the producers at Arrow Video for being my most regular clients with consistently fun jobs.
All the clients I've had over the last ten years. Sorry I can't list individually, but know that I enjoyed working with you and appreciated the work!
My folks and my brothers for backing me all the way. In-laws and friends too.
And Orla, Holly & Chloe. My girls.