Creative Lives — Sibling duo The Project Twins on how they went from being on Jobseeker’s Allowance to established artists
For Michael and James Fitzgerald, AKA The Project Twins, building a creative career has been a long journey. From humble beginnings as struggling artists on the dole, to having their website crash due to too much traffic, the Irish duo have seen their fair share of highs and lows. They speak to us about starting their career mid-recession and why personal projects are just as important as commercial work.
The Project Twins (Michael and James Fitzgerald)
Graphic Art Duo
The Guardian, The Economist, Nature Journal, The New York Times, Facebook
Michael – Art Director, Bonfire, Dublin.
James – Graphic Designer, Harcus Design, Sydney.
BA Visual Communications, Cork Institute of Technology (2000-2005)
Michael and James Fitzgerald
How would you describe The Project Twins?
We are a graphic art duo based in Cork City. We’re also twin brothers. We work across a broad range of disciplines including illustration, design, printmaking, painting and 3D work. Most days are spent working on editorial illustration. We usually work on ideas together, after that it doesn’t really matter which one of us makes the image. Our practice also includes larger commissions such as murals and public art pieces.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
It depends on what we have on that day but we usually get to the studio around 9.30am or 10am in the morning. Our day starts slowly, often replying to emails or spending too much time looking at pointless stuff online. We always have a few editorial illustrations on at any one time which takes up the bulk of our day. We try to finish up by around 6pm or 7pm. Other weeks we could be preparing for a show, so we might be working on some screen prints, or painting in the studio. We try to keep regular Monday to Friday hours unless we are away working on a larger project such as a mural or exhibition.
“The most enjoyable part of the job is working for ourselves and being able to choose the direction our work takes.”
How collaborative is your role and are there any challenges that come with working as a pair?
We don't really see it as a challenge. We usually work on everything together and have a really good working relationship. As we know each other so well we can quickly understand each other when working on ideas.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable would be paperwork and taxes. The most enjoyable part is working for ourselves and being able to choose the direction our work takes. It allows for a really nice work-life balance.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
We just finished a public art piece for a school in Cork. We covered the front of the school in almost 200 painted aluminium panels based on nautical signal flag patterns. The school is in the harbour town of Cobh (it was the final port of call for the Titanic) so we wanted the artwork to have a maritime influence. The flags function as a modular image making system and are scattered across the front wall of the building with some of them clustered together making a series of boats. It was quite a large undertaking and our biggest project to date but really nice to work on such a large scale.
Age Of The Scammer, Editorial Illustration, The Guardian
Brexit Upheaval, Editorial Illustration, The Guardian
Taking On The Banks, Editorial Illustration, Company Director Australia
Tales of Unraveling Minds, The Observer
US Environmental Policy, Editorial Illustration, Voice Magazine
Living Without Technology, Editorial Illustration, The Guardian
Round And Round, Screenprint, Personal Work, 2017
Round The Bend, Screenprint, Personal Work, 2015
What do you like about working in Cork?
Cork is a small city so it’s a really easy place to live and work in. Considering its size it has a huge amount of good bars and restaurants. Although studio space has been getting harder to come by in recent years, it’s still much more manageable than larger cities such as Dublin or London.
Are you currently working on any personal projects? If so, how do you manage your time alongside other work?
Sometimes it’s hard to balance the two but we always try and leave time for personal work. Over the past year we have been painting on large canvas tarpaulins. We don’t have any specific plans for them yet but it’s nice to chip away on them in the background between illustration work. The fact that they are hand painted and large in scale is a nice contrast to editorial illustration which usually takes up most of our days.
What tools do you use most for your work?
We both use MacBook Pros connected to an Apple display. Our illustrations are made using Illustrator, Photoshop and handmade textures. We also use cheap sketchbooks and cheap fineliner drawing pens when working on ideas. We aren’t precious about our sketchbooks, they’re just a means of getting ideas down on paper quickly. For our screenprints we use Speedball inks. The large tarpaulins we are currently working on are painted with Golden Fluid Acrylics. They’re a bit pricey but really nice to use.
“Mixing with other artists or designers is important – your peers are probably your best resource for advice.”
What inspires your work and how important do you think it is to land on a particular style?
Coming from a design background a lot of our influences would include poster designers such as Paul Rand, Saul Bass and Abram Games, to name but a few. We love the style of old soviet posters and the Polish film posters from the 1950s and 1960s. We are also big fans of the absurd humour of Erwin Wurm.
In terms of style, it’s understandable that art directors will want a certain consistency so they know what they are going to get from an illustrator. Though it’s not something you should aim for at the start, it will develop naturally over time.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped that you would recommend to someone else?
Mixing with other artists or designers is important – your peers are probably your best resource for advice. Apart from that the AOI[Association of Illustrators] are a really great resource for pricing and contracts. We go to Offset in Dublin every year which is always good for inspirational talks and meeting like-minded people.
Integration, Editorial Illustration, The New York Times
Lies In Scientific Data, Editorial Illustration, Wired Magazine
Riso Print, Made during Facebook Artist in Residence, 2015
Chinese Influence, Editorial Illustration, The Economist
How I Got Here
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
We grew up in a working class family in a small town in rural Ireland so at the time we had no connection to anyone working in design or illustration to even know what it was. Drawing was something we were good at, and when it came to going to university graphic design sounded interesting.
After graduating what were your initial jobs?
We both worked for a couple of years in small design and advertising agencies and then spent a couple of years backpacking.
Can you tell us a little about how the studio was founded?
In 2009 we both arrived back in Ireland in the midst of a recession. At the time we had to go on the dole but looking back now it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us. We weren’t too sure what we were going to do or even if we would stay in Ireland but after a while we started getting a couple of odd design jobs here and there. We worked well together and didn’t have a whole lot to lose so we decided to just go for it and set up officially in 2010. At the beginning we were working locally on different graphic design projects, but after a while we started focusing more on illustration as it was always image-making that appealed most to us. We started doing as much personal work as possible and eventually our work got noticed online which lead to a lot of commissioned work and it built from there.
“At the start self-discipline and timekeeping was really hard. We found ourselves working a lot of late nights even though we didn’t have much work on.”
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break, or has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
Our first personal project in which we illustrated an A-Z of Unusual Words really helped us in terms of image-making and how we approach a problem. We had very little work on at the time but this project got picked up by a bunch of blogs which led to our website crashing one day to due to the amount of traffic coming to it. Within a few days of this we got a really large illustration commission. Over the next few months more work started coming in and our practice really started to develop.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
At the start self-discipline and timekeeping was really hard. We found ourselves working a lot of late nights even though we didn’t have much work on. Book-keeping and taxes were also a bit of an issue for the first few years.
Tarpaulin Painting 1, Personal Work, 2019
Tarpaulin Painting 2, Personal Work, 2019
Tarpaulin Painting 3, Personal Work, 2019
What would you say are the biggest challenges associated with being freelance, and how do you deal with these?
Pricing work, contracts and time management seem to be the hardest for most freelancers. A lot of it is trial and error and learning through your mistakes. Charging properly helps to weed out a lot of time wasters and bad clients.
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as creatives?
It’s really important not to undersell yourself. Knowing that it’s also ok to say no to a project has been hugely beneficial to us. We have also turned down some really well paid jobs as they didn’t suit how we work. It’s always a balance between feeding yourself and doing the kind of work that you want to do. When we started working together we had no money and were both on social welfare at the time. There was a program that allowed you to set up your own business and keep your social welfare payments for two years. This really helped us when starting out as it gave us time to build up our work without the need for getting a part-time job.
Recent Public Art Installation, Cobh
Recent Public Art Installation, Cobh
Facebook HQ Dublin, Mural, 2016
Install Shot, Luan Gallery, 2016
Public Art Installation, Woodbrook College, Bray, 2016
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Get a twin! It halves the workload. Although it also halves the pay too. Failing that it’s the same as anything else you want to do. You have to work hard for it and be willing to invest in yourself. If you don’t, no one else will. For us it was always our personal work that got us to where we are. Try not to put short term gains over long term goals.
Any tips on working as a duo?
Find someone you can be honest with.