Adrienne Geoghegan is a familiar name on the illustration scene. She’s not only an accomplished artist but has passed along her knowledge to countless students through her much-loved iLLUSTORi Academy (formerly illustration boot camps) Adrienne is best known for her idiosyncratic collages, assemblages, shadow boxes, and children’s picture books.
Her work was shortlisted for the McMillan Prize for illustration at the RCA exhibition and the Bisto Award in Ireland. She has published children’s picture books, editorial illustration, and advertising illustration. For a time she lived in London, illustrating for many prestigious publishers, including The Guardian and the Economist, before returning to her native Dublin. Here is where she’s created a real name for herself as well as curating a hub of talent through her popular training programmes.
How did you get into the world of illustration?
I’ve been in the industry for 30 years now. As a kid I drew and coloured, cut and pasted, created stuff with found objects before it was ‘a thing’ and I found myself consumed by all the possibilities with my limited material resources. It was a time when a 20 pack of markers and a cheap sketch pad was the most awe-inspiring gift in the world. So, that and reading. And one inspired the other. This was the one thing that I never ever tired of. The plan was for me to study at NCAD or DIT, but tragedy struck our family and early on in the 6th year of secondary school, at 17, my mother died. It was sudden and completely unexpected. She had a massive heart attack and was only in her 40s. The shock was unspeakable. We were four kids; the youngest was 5 years old. Our Dad was critically ill in hospital at the time and therefore unable to care for us; so, long story short, college was ruled out for me and I had to leave home, learn to type and get an office job. I also had to find a flat to live in as the younger ones were being cared for indeterminately, by my dear aunt and uncle. They were just married and expecting their first child.
I was really unhappy in my job as a secretary in an upholstery company. I never felt so full of sadness and despair each day as I trudged to work. However, it did spur me to take action. I started with researching how I could possibly study illustration, with neither funds nor a support system. Irish art colleges didn’t really cover illustration except within a graphic design course. I wanted pure, 100% undiluted, illustration. We were just coming out of the worst recession ever, and it was now or never.
I was unlike a lot of kids who took the usual route; starting with a foundation year in order to discover what art form they really took to. I knew what I liked. I was passionate about illustration, especially the sort that bordered on fine art. I admired those who took chances and experimented. Granted, I was very specific; I wanted an Illustration degree course in a reputable college that also respected experimental work with a fine art slant.
This research took place in Eason’s and The Central Library. I added Kingston to the top of my shortlist. Some weeks later I was called for an interview, via a letter that I repeatedly kissed. I was aware of the slim chances of being offered a place without a foundation year, so I spent a frenetic eight weeks creating the best illustrative portfolio I possibly could. It was self-initiated with neither tuition nor guidance. I just did what I considered my best work. I borrowed some money and took a same-day flight to London for the interview. I was petrified. Was my work good enough? Did I look the part? Did I come across OK? I waited for a couple of long, nerve-racking weeks for news. Finally, I got so restless to know if I had a place or not, that I had to take action!
The shared payphone phone in my hall was invariably was out of order. I felt my life was on hold and I had no plan B. With much apprehension, I decided to call the admissions office at Kingston, from the local post office. MY NAME WAS ON THE LIST! I was offered a place and told a letter of offer was on the way! I almost passed out with excitement. I had to ask her to double-check. I remember my heart swell and thinking of my mother.
Off to London
In a matter of weeks, I had to pack my bags, book a one-way flight, complete my first college assignment, review a novel in 3,000 words, and get a job as I had zero finance. That summer I landed in London with one suitcase and an abundance of enthusiasm. Initially, I stayed in Paddington with my youngest sister. I eventually secured a cheap rental in Twickenham and made a deal with the landlady. ‘Can I pay you half the monthly rent in cleaning the common areas of the accommodation,’ she agreed. Then I got two more cleaning jobs in the offices of the AA and BT, both in Kingston upon Thames town centre. The struggle was real! My BT job started at 6 am and ended at 9 am. Then I’d rush to class. My AA Job was 6 pm to 9 pm. I was always a few minutes late for lectures or had to leave early for work. During my second year, I entered a student competition, encouraged by staff and one of our assignments was to meet the deadline. The brief was to write and illustrate a picture book. It got shortlisted for the MacMillan Prize at the RCA. My then-agent Eunice McMullen signed me and I could finally leave my cleaning jobs for ‘real’ Illustration work. I had to pinch myself! Once again, I believed that my mother was looking out for me.
Sadness and shock
In college, it was frowned upon to take on any work, even Illustration work, as it interfered with college assignment deadlines, but I had to eat I had to pay my rent! Most of the students were funded by grants and money from home. They did not need to work. The lecturers never knew why I was so tired. I was afraid to say I had three jobs! In my final year, on Christmas Day, my Dad died in Dublin. I was in shock. I flew home on St Stephen’s Day with my sister, and he was buried on his 65th Birthday which fell on New Year’s Eve. I went straight back to college in early January and forced myself to continue; to make the deadlines, to finish my dissertation and to create my final work for the degree show. I will never forget those times. My best friend in my year was a Norwegian girl, Elisabeth Moseng. She had split up with her long-time boyfriend over that Christmas, so we were both in a dreadful state. However, we supported each other and got through it all. I stalled grieving for as long as I could. When I finally did, I found I was grieving all over again for my mother. It opened up old wounds, but then just when I need it, things took a very positive turn for me.
I graduated with a first and spent that long hot summer doing the rounds in London, especially editorial work. I made a lot of money in a short space of time and before my graduation ceremony in February of the following year, I was firmly established with a constant stream of work. I still wonder how this happened so easily, All without a phone, a website, email or any social media presence. It was all face to face meetings, building one on one relationship within the various publishing houses, newspapers and fashion magazines. I was flat out with work but missed home. My studio in south London had no phone or heating but it was in a beautiful building with high ceilings and fabulous light. I shared it with another artist. The couriers came and collected my work every day. The deadlines were tight. Nothing was ever scanned or saved! My originals went off on the back of a motorcycle never to be seen again! Unbelievable!
After a while, I became even more homesick. I decided to take my chances and move back to Dublin. Within a month I found a great shared studio on Great Strand Street, off Lower Liffey St: The Fifty Fifty Art Studio, it had a great bunch of artists of all disciplines, huge windows, a coin payphone, a gas heater and above all, camaraderie and support. I made lifelong friends there. We ate lunch every day upstairs in the Winding Stair book shop on the quays. I continued to work for the London clients and eventually invested in an A3 scanner. I also started working for The Irish Times, The Independent, Business & Finance, a plethora of Irish magazines and publishers plus many advertising agencies. One such agency animated my Dogs Don’t Wear Glasses picture book for Jacobs TV ad that ran for three years and brought in a great income stream. Along with this, I had constant steady clients in London, plus picture book and educational work from my agent. I bought a house in Stoneybatter a year after returning home, and I’m still in that house almost 23 years later. I love the area. It just keeps getting better. I converted my attic to a studio about 15 years ago and it’s just my sanctuary. The light is amazing.
During these years I managed to get married and divorced twice and have a son. He is now a fantastic 17-year-old teenager with all that comes with being a teenager; the good the bad and the ugly!! My personal life is a long chapter, best left out of my career story!
That’s some journey. What’s the industry like to work in now? What do you love about the form?
When people ask what it’s like to work as an Illustrator I find it hard to answer succinctly as it’s so wide-ranging; at least in my life, it is. I get itchy feet quite regularly, and I must admit I have a huge entrepreneurial streak in me, and my career has certainly reflected this! It is ever-changing. I’ve been, and continue to be an illustrator, a fine artist, a collagist, a writer, a mentor, a picture bookmaker, a previous maker and seller of wall art and limited edition prints, a workshop facilitator, a previous third-level college lecturer, a curator, and a visual art boot camp tutor in my own school and I’m still hatching plans!
These days my favourite types of projects are personal ones. Self-initiated or gallery group themed shows. The last one was an Illustrators Ireland show, curated by illustrator Brian Gallagher ‘Urban Rural’ in the United Arts Club in October. The one before that was an international curated collage exhibition Collagistas ‘Big Planet Small World’ in the Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, curated by Una Gildea. That was a fabulous exhibition with events run by Una all through the week.
Do you have anything exciting that you’re working on now?
I just finished co co-writing a young adult fiction book with internationally renowned Brazilian author Heloisa Prieto. We are in touch through Skype and WhatsApp. The wonderful part is that it will be in the form of an illustrated journal. I get to recreate the art of the protagonists. It is a cross-cultural family love story. So this is really an exciting project for me and I’m so honoured to be co-writing with such a well-respected literary genius. It is published by Estrela Cultural and will be launched in Dublin later in summer 2021 with a view to finding an English language publisher. I have also just finished illustrating two picture books for a South Korean publisher, to be published in 2021. Apart from that I am developing two new picture book proposals, mentoring, running courses and setting up a print shop.
We can’t wait to see it. What do you think publishers look for in an artist?
Publishers need to see that not only do you have the ability to draw, but that you can also skillfully conceptualise, communicate your ideas clearly, take constructive criticism if necessary, and be prepared to make changes, to understand colour, understand scale and layout, be sensitive to type and fonts, and always deliver on time. Be adventurous, be unique, and stand out. Go the extra mile. Take your own reference shots if necessary. Don’t follow what’s already out there in stale, stagnant abundance, but rather create what isn’t – surprise and delight always!
OK let’s get back to illustration!
My inspiration comes from the three Es – EVERYTHING, EVERYBODY, and EVERYWHERE. My ears and my eyes are never closed except for when I’m asleep, and even then I dream dreams that often make their way back into some of my more ‘idiosyncratic’ work.
Has technology changed the industry, do you reckon?
Technology wasn’t a part of my education. I figure that if I wanted to be behind a screen all day I’d go back to working in an office. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when I felt left behind when digital illustration took over. Nevertheless, I stood my ground. I knew that if I had have embraced it, I might never get ‘messy’ again, abandon my paints and pencils, my brushes and paper, my boxes of printed ephemera, my scissors and my glue. That could never happen. It would be like taking the carving tools from a woodcarver or the bow from a violinist. It’s part of who I am and what I do.
I was recently chatting on this very topic to a friend, one of Ireland’s foremost illustrators, in the industry over 30 years. He surmised, that if he were to start his career today, he’d get very little work as there’s currently an oversaturation of digital illustration. Very few new illustrators can paint or mix colour off-screen. The lure of the screen and Adobe is real! Publishers are catching up and realising the true value of tangible, original, ‘analogue’ illustration, and you can see this trend in places like the Bologna Book Fair in Italy and the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, as well as some of the higher-end publications out there.
For someone starting out today, I’d say you need to get off your phone and stop being overly reliant on secondary source material. Take your own reference photos, collect old books and magazines for inspiration and source material, keep a sketchbook, read books, visit art galleries and exhibitions, read industry magazines, study art or illustration and keep on upskilling. If at all possible try to meet clients face to face – that way they will remember you. Send off printed promo material in the post to your top favourite 20 dream companies who hire Illustrators. Stay true to who you are
Can you tell me a little about your courses?
Unlike a lot of courses, my students do not have to ‘conform to the norm’ in terms of a lengthy application process. They are now all online. I keep it simple and our end result is a testament to this easy and open approach. Students receive guidance and encouragement from both me and their colleagues. Most of them come to me through word of mouth or repeats. They are not all from fine art backgrounds, but they do all have two things in common – raw talent and energy.
My alumni have gone on to write and publish books, Illustrate for a living, win multiple awards and gain professional membership in Illustrators Ireland and the AOI London. Some have become household names.