Creative Lives — Illustrator Joe O’Donnell on riding the freelance wave and creating “bold, clunky digital illustrations”
When Manchester-based illustrator Joe O’Donnell chose to study film production at university, he didn’t quite expect to end up in the illustration world. But after his adventure comic, Day in the Life of a Geezer was featured by It’s Nice That, his “old computer games” aesthetic quickly became highly sought after by the likes of The New York Times, Medium and ICON. Having initially made the move up north after graduation to get involved in Manchester’s skating scene, he now works part-time at NOTE skate shop in addition to taking on commissions. Joe sat down with us to chat about riding the emotional rollercoaster that is freelance life, battling self-doubt and the importance of not rushing your creative style.
The New York Times, NBC, Medium, Icon, NOTE skate shop
NOTE skate shop (present)
BA Film Production, University of Central Lancashire (2014–2017)
Joe in his studio
How would you describe what you do?
I make bold, clunky digital illustrations – usually for editorial clients. So far I have been fortunate enough to be commissioned by The New York Times, NBC and Medium amongst others.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
Luckily, I can more or less work anywhere that has space for my laptop and my sketchbook. However, the majority of my work is usually made at my desk in my living room. I like to drink a black coffee and listen to The Do!! You!!! Breakfast Show on NTS. Recently, most of my clients have been in different time zones so it’s handy to have the morning to work on a commission before they get into the office. My working hours really depend on the nature of whatever project I’m working on, and how much work there is to do. I usually find myself eager to get to work as soon as possible, so it can be hard to know when to call it a day sometimes.
‘Danny Faux’ 2019
‘Much Hotter Than July’ 2019
How collaborative is your role?
My personal projects don’t tend to be very collaborative, although this is something that I would like to change. I enjoy the process of working with art directors because it challenges me to push my work in new directions. I find that it also relieves some of the pressure when the work becomes more of a two-way process; it’s handy to be able to talk to someone, particularly if I’m struggling with a concept.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I get excited each time a new commission comes through, but my favourite as it stands is probably the T-Shirts I made to raise money for WIRES Wildlife Rescue in Australia. A good friend of mine had just set up his own screen printing business called Tangerine Screen, so it was great to help support him and to raise funds for such an important cause. Also, the nature of my work means that it rarely leaves a computer screen, so it’s nice to make something with a physical outcome as well.
‘Cancer Misinformation’ commission for NBC 2019
What do you like about working in Manchester?
I moved to Manchester shortly after university primarily because of its skateboarding scene. I love the diversity of the city, there’s a lot of different cultures here so there’s no shortage of amazing places to eat. My top picks are: Old Trafford Bakery, Falafel near Curry Mile and This & That.
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
I always like to be working on something. When I first started out I found it useful to work on bigger projects like comics and zines as a way to establish and hone in on my own style. Projects like my Day in the Life of a Geezer adventure comic [below] still get brought up and referenced by clients even after all these years.
More recently I’ve been working on smaller personal projects as a way to keep myself occupied and thinking about my process. I want to push the restrictions I’ve set myself – so I’ve been challenging myself to make images from different perspectives and using different scale grids. Working this way makes it easier to manage my personal work in between commissions, although I would like to take on another big project soon.
‘A Day in the Life of a Geezer’ 2016
‘A Day in the Life of a Geezer’ 2016
‘A Day in the Life of a Geezer’ 2016
What tools do you use most for your work?
My work is mainly made on an old MacBook with Adobe Illustrator. I tend to start with very rough sketches on graph paper and then build on Illustrator using my select palette of shapes.
What inspires your work? And how important do you think it is to land on a particular style as a creative?
People tend to pick up on old computer games as an inspiration for my work, although this wasn’t a conscious thing to begin with. When I was starting out I would never be satisfied with how my work looked, I strived for a continuity between my pieces and wanted each work to be identifiable as my own, even if the subject matter was different.
It was when I began working on graph paper that I started to find my style as it exists today. The self-imposed limitations of a grid combined with my minimal understanding of Illustrator at that point lead me down this route. I think finding a style or a voice as a creative is important, but shouldn’t be rushed – otherwise you can start to feel like you are backing yourself into a particular niche and it can be difficult to get out of it, especially once people start to recognise your work and commission you to make work in a similar vein.
“When I first started out I found it useful to work on bigger projects like comics and zines as a way to establish and hone in on my own style.”
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
Without wanting to sound like a suck-up – Lecture In Progress articles have helped me out a lot over the years. I started out with no understanding of the illustration industry but getting to read about specific illustrators’ individual paths and experiences was really beneficial to my own development.
Aside from that I’ve found myself re-reading Hegarty on Creativity quite a few times over the years. It’s short, funny and encouraging. Most of the information in there probably won’t be news to anyone, but I find it helpful to have it drilled in to my head again every once in a while.
How I Got Here
After graduating what were your initial steps?
I graduated from my film production course and moved to Manchester shortly after to work at NOTE skate shop. I’ve been working there part-time ever since. I made The Day in the Life of a Geezer adventure-comic which got featured on It’s Nice That. It put my work in front of a lot of people and [got] me my first few commissions as well. It wasn’t until a few years later that I found out about cold emailing and getting directly in touch with art directors. I found this to be a fairly successful way of getting my work seen by the people that I wanted to be working with.
How did you end up in illustration after studying film?
I’ve always been interested in working with pictures and when it came to deciding what I was going to study at university, it was a toss up between illustration and film production. I can’t quite pinpoint why I went for film production in the end – but it left me wondering how things would have worked out if I went down the traditional illustration route. I didn’t particularly enjoy my time at university and by the time I graduated I had no desire to seek out a career in film. A lot of my friends were studying illustration or making illustrative work at the time, so I decided to have a go myself – and I just haven’t stopped.
“After a run of commissions it can feel like the sky is the limit, but when they dry up it’s easy to feel like your work isn’t good enough anymore.”
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break? Or has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
I’m not sure about a lucky break but I would say my first commission for The New York Times was when I started to believe that my illustration style could actually be commercially viable and I might make a living from it. That commission was also one of my first experiences working closely with an art director and to a tight deadline. There was a lot of back and forth, emailing with sketches and discussion until we reached an outcome that we were both happy with. It was an eye-opening experience, and an enjoyable one.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge has been dealing with the ebb and flow of freelance work. After a run of commissions it can feel like the sky is the limit, but when they dry up it’s easy to feel like your work isn’t good enough anymore. It’s a horrible feeling but it doesn’t last forever. Sometimes I find the solution is to make more work, and other times it’s better to just do something else for a while. I want my work to be fun so it’s logical that I should have fun while I’m making it.
I find the biggest challenge is my own self-doubt. Having a part-time job relieves some of the financial pressure when I don’t have much work on, but it does have an effect on my own self-worth as well. I haven’t managed to completely solve this problem yet, but doing something physical tends to help me out, usually it’s either going skateboarding or riding my bike.
‘Pint Stimulator’ 2019
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
This is something I still struggle with. My part-time work is still what pays the bills, although I do hope to be able to live solely off illustration work at some point. At this stage in my career, I’m not quite ready to take the plunge into full-time freelance working. I’m very fortunate that I actually enjoy my part-time job, and it gets me out of the house and talking to people – which might not happen so much if I was drawing stick men in my living room all day.
How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
Social media has been invaluable for my work. The niggling feeling of constantly needing to be posting my work can be a bit much for sometimes. I’ve definitely posted work that I wasn’t completely happy sharing just to try and appease the voice in my head – especially at times when I haven’t had any commissions in a while. I’ve learnt that this isn’t a very healthy thing to do, so I’m trying to keep a perspective on things and not let the feed rule my life so much.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
I feel like I’m still emerging so I’ve got no authority on the matter, but I would encourage you to make the kind of work that you would like to see, share it with people and have fun!