Gemma o'neill

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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.

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?

My Causeway Coast roots are definitely of huge inspiration in terms of mark making, colour and the natural theme within my work. I love animals too, so they feature quite heavily. 
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. I’ve actually just started working from Blick Studios and I find art classes are really useful in this way too. 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. 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 recently received an award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Lottery Funds under the General Art Award Scheme towards the costs of a large illustration project on the Causeway Coast. I’m creating a body of work based on the theme, building upon my existing strengths as a mixed media illustrator. I’m hoping to push mark making, media, colour and style further than before. I always intend for my work to be truly original and in this case to also reflect the unique coastline. I’m working on location as part of the project and also generating a series of illustrations that can be translated into prints and exhibited as originals. The first three are going to be part of a group exhibition at the Puffin Gallery in Ballycastle this August. I’m also working on a couple of authored and illustrated picture books and non fiction books 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!