Dearbhla Kelly is a designer, illustrator and comic-book-maker based in Dublin. After graduating from NCAD with an honours degree in Visual Communications, she has worked for The Irish Times Pre Media department from 2012-2015, doing a mix of editorial and commercial work. She has also worked on branding and promotion for Spirit of Folk, an eclectic Irish folk and music festival, since its inception five years ago.
How did you get into your line of work?
I didn’t really ever consider doing anything else! I was always drawing as a kid and was pretty determined to go to art school despite my parents’ initial misgivings (I didn’t tell them I was applying until the portfolio was already done). After college I got a graduate placement in The Irish Times and that opened up lots of opportunities for illustration, mostly because I put my hand in the air any time anyone was stuck for an image to use with an article.
Were you drawn first to illustration or graphic design?
I think my head said design and my heart said illustration! I wouldn’t want to totally give one up for the other though – I like to bring design into my illustration work and illustration into my design work if possible.
When/why did you decide to go freelance?
I haven’t actually fully taken that plunge yet – I work part time in a design studio (Language) and also intern at Red Cube comics studio with freelance work peppered in between. The difficulty with freelance is its feast-or-famine nature, there’s always the worry that things will get too quiet, which can make it difficult to turn down work.
Do you think that attending a college course is necessary for being a successful illustrator/designer?
I think it’s helpful but not absolutely necessary, there are certainly plenty of talented illustrators with no art degree out there who prove that. For me though I think one of the best things about it is being surrounded by other design students and getting to learn from your peers, it’s hard to find an atmosphere like that outside college. And while I don’t think studying design or illustration really prepares you for the practical experience of working in the industry, it does give you a much wider scope of reference going forward, you’re forced to look outside of your own interests.
Can you talk a bit about the technical aspects of your work?
I work mostly on a Macbook Pro, with a Wacom Intuos small drawing tablet. When I was working in the paper I tended to have very tight deadlines for illustrations so I’d very often just work directly in Photoshop with the tablet, but in the last couple of years I’ve tried to bring things back to pencil, pen and paper. So for something like the Spirit of Folk illustrations I would do pencil sketches until I was happy with the character design and pose, then a final ink drawing, scan and colour in photoshop.
You’ve done some comics and motion graphics as well, are these things that you’ll do more of in future?
Absolutely! Particularly comics, as I mentioned I’m doing an internship in colouring comics at Red Cube Studio and I’ve been taking on more colouring projects in the last few months. I’ve a few of my own short comics I want to work on too, more for fun really – I made a mini comic, Zeldastar Galacticat, a few months ago and I’m hoping to turn it into a web comic at some point in the near future. As for motion graphics, I always enjoy a little animation but I don’t have a lot of spare time for it at the minute!
You worked on branding and promotion for Spirit of Folk – how do you approach creating and promoting a brand like that?
Spirit of Folk is a special one for me – the organisers, Natasha Duffy and Emily Duffy, are close friends of mine and we’ve been working on that brand since the festival was being planned in my final year of college. It’s also fun because in the five years I’ve done design work for it we’ve tried to do something different each year, but keeping that fun, folksy, harvest feeling consistent. For the 2015 promotion with the ‘spirits of folk’ illustrations it was honestly kind of a light bulb moment – there’s spiritual and storytelling aspects to the festival already so it just made sense to create these mythical creatures who were looking after different aspects of the festival (music, magic, curiosity, nature and mischief). I scribbled down the five spirit ideas on a Luas on my way home one evening and presented them in the festival office that week to Natasha and Emily, who were both as excited as I was to see where this could go. Then we got to work together to come up with names and little narratives for each spirit and put them out on social media in the months coming up to the festival. We wanted to have the spirits on site somehow too so during the build week I learned to use a jigsaw and spray paints and made cutout figures of the spirits that were dotted around the site for photo opportunities.
How was your experience working for The Irish Times Pre Media department?
Never boring! I loved having such a wide mix of things to work on – editorial illustration, book design, advertising, branding, graphs and infographics, little bits of animation – and getting to work with people from every other department of the newspaper. Obviously in a daily newspaper the deadlines could be pretty tight and it could be very different work from day to day, but that suited me fine. Plus it’s always exciting to be in a cafe or on a bus and sitting next to someone reading a paper with your work on the page (not to mention my parents finally understood what I actually did for my degree).
We’re currently in the month of InkTober which seems to be so vital for many artists. Can you describe the appeal and how it became such a popular trend?
It’s always good to have a reason to draw something every day, particularly if it’s away from the computer screen, and it’s a little easier to keep up with when there’s so many people doing it along with you online! I think the fact that it’s October also adds to the popularity since a lot of people do their own Halloween related themes. My own InkTober practice has unfortunately fallen by the wayside in the last week but I was doing a witch theme in keeping with Halloween season, and will hopefully get back to it before the month is out!
What advice would you give to burgeoning artists?
Oh, probably a lot of the same things I have to remind myself of from time to time – be careful of how much you’re comparing yourself to other artists, whether it’s people your own age or people who have years of experience on you. Making art is a balance between believing enough in your own work to keep doing it and being critical enough of your own work to keep improving. It’s made harder by holding your work up to someone else’s standard, especially when you don’t know how much experience they really have, or time to spend on their work or access to facilities or whatever else – and of course you’re only seeing the curated end results in other people’s portfolios and not all the awkward sketches they threw out along the way. It can be good to have someone whose success you aspire to, but it’s also good to just compare your work to your own past work from time to time instead and see how much you’re improving.