Gemma o'neill

Gemma O'Neill 1.jpg

Gemma is an illustrator/author from the Causeway Coast, based in Belfast. When she graduated from Falmouth University in 2011 she already had her first authored and illustrated picture book deal which has been published globally and received many award nominations. She was most recently named a finalist for NI Young Artist of the Year.

We chatted to Gemma about her inspiration and her education.

What made you decide to study illustration?

I’ve always enjoyed drawing, colouring in and making things. By GCSE stage I wanted to pursue a degree within art and design. It then became very obvious that I should specialise in illustration during my A Levels. We were very much encouraged to experiment within all areas of art and design at school and I loved that, although I think my love for narrative shone through and made book illustration an obvious choice. When I look back at the time before that point now I actually think it’s really obvious that I was an illustrator! I have equal love for fine art and design and I think illustration is the perfect combination of both in terms of my personal style. 
I studied English literature too and enjoy writing my own books, so an illustration degree that had the flexibility to dip into creative writing was very important to me. The course at Falmouth University really stood out. It had a high success rate of graduate employment, a wide range of different modules and I loved that we got to write our own projects in the final year alongside trips to London, Paris and New York throughout the degree. Falmouth was a beautiful location to study too.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Nature, history, travel and architecture have always influenced my work and my Causeway Coast roots are definitely of huge inspiration in terms of mark making, colour and the natural theme within my work. Trail running, hiking and photography are very much intertwined with what I do too.
I’ve always tried to carry a sketchbook with me, but I’ve got into a much stricter habit of doing this lately. It’s always a wonderful eye opening experience. It really refreshes my portfolio in terms of subject matter, media and techniques, but also in terms of how quickly I generate work because I fill my sketchbook very much on the go a lot of the time. I find this practice really keeps me connected to the raw joy of what I do too. 
It’s also lovely to be part of a larger group of creative people, be that socially or professionally. I find art classes are really useful. It’s always lovely to see the work of others being generated in the flesh. I recently attended a life drawing with speed and movement class led by Sharon Kelly, which was wonderful. I intend to work more human characters into my portfolio, so classes like these are incredibly useful. Classes that are slightly more detached from what I do are also really inspiring too. I think these are important for keeping things fresh, as is following a wide range of artists.

Any projects you're currently working on that you'd like to share?

I’m currently finishing an illustration commission from Historic Royal Palaces for Hillsborough Castle and an illustration for a group collaboration project by Kate Slater, The Refuge Tree. The illustrations will be exhibited at London Review Bookshop for International Women’s Day and auctioned individually to raise money for Refuge, a charity working towards ending domestic abuse.
I’ve been working on several self initiated projects over the past year, which I plan to work on and develop for quite some time; one on the Causeway Coast, another on Houses of Hillsborough and the final on Buildings of Belfast. I received an award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Lottery Funds under the Support for the Individual Artist Program towards the cost of my Causeway Coast project last year, which gave me the flexibility to really explore the theme and led to me being named a finalist for NI Young Artist of the Year. Illustrations from all three projects have so far been translated into prints and been exhibited as originals at the Braid Arts Centre and the Puffin Gallery. The Buildings of Belfast illustrations are soon to be exhibited on screens across Belfast too. Not sure how much I can say about that, but it’s quite exciting!
Another ongoing project is my prints and greetings cards range, which I work on regularly. I initially sold the work through my online shop, but I’ve been enjoying markets and fairs recently too and some lovely retailers are now stocking the range.
I’m also working on a couple of authored and illustrated children’s picture books, board books and a non fiction idea at the moment. There’s always some sort of book idea on the go!

What's been one of the biggest highlights in your career?

My first book deal has to be the ultimate highlight. A few friends and I travelled to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair during our final year at university. We took dummy books which we had hand bound ourselves with sample artwork and text, our portfolios, sketchbooks and promotional material such as postcards and business cards. I’d always wanted to visit the fair, so I was just really excited to be there and the experience contributed greatly to the professional practice portion of the degree. I just didn’t think I’d go home with a book deal. That was a wonderful surprise!