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Katherine McDonald is an Armagh-born, Belfast-based freelance Illustrator and Designer. Currently a Blick Shared Studios Graduate Entrepreneur In Residence, she has set up a startup illustration business. Katherine was handpicked as Computer Arts’ Best New Talent 2015, featured in issue #243, as well as being hand-selected as one of People of Print’s top 50 Graduate Print Award Nominations 2015.  

We chatted with Katherine to find out more about how to go about setting up as an independent illustrator after university!

Was there a particular moment when you knew that illustration was right for you and if so, what was it?

There were certain projects at university that involved more "hands-on" making and Katherine started to love this more manual side of designing - such as painting and mark-making -  increasingly.  Her project "Sow Grow Munch" was the one in which all her elements of illustration started to work together perfectly and was a key point on her illustration journey.  For Katherine, the journey of specialising in illustration has been very much an organic, natural process.  Her graduate entrepreneur residency at Blick Shared Studios gave her the opportunity to have a space to establish her business and it has been great for her to work alongside other designers such as Alex Synge in a co-working environment.

What are some of the challenges an illustrator from Belfast has to face as opposed to someone in London?

Katherine was born and brought up in Armagh and moved to Belfast for university.  Being an illustrator within Northern Ireland is great but has its challenges. One of the brilliant things is that everyone is friendly and tends to know one another, but the network itself is very small in comparison to other regions.  In order to set up business here, an illustrator needs to be forward thinking when seeking out jobs and commissions.  One of Katherine's tips is to look beyond  Northern Ireland to seek out potential work and customers.  Social media can be hugely beneficial when putting your work out there internationally.

As a relatively recent graduate, what advice would you give to students that are looking to become independent illustrators?

Some of Katherine's tips are to get going at university. "Don't even think about it - get your work out there! Don't be scared, be confident, get on social media and start an online shop.  Learn from others and use the feedback from your co-workers, clients and customers as a good process to learn from.  Network and go to events."  A couple of the events Katherine highlighted as being of benefit to her were Belfast Design Week and Ulster Festival of Art & Design.  She also mentioned going to galleries and museums and in general to network, build relationships and also, socialise! 

What has been your most popular project to date and why do you think this is?

More recently, Katherine has gone "back to basics" and started experimenting with more traditional illustration skills such as hands-on painting and using materials like gouache.  Her move away from more digital work has been an interesting one and one she is currently exploring.  Her themes have also become much more personal and influenced by Armagh and the Northern Irish countryside. Having more personal elements within her projects have struck a chord with people. Her "Bee & Flowers" project and her nature-inspired work has been particularly popular.  These are inspired by spring and some of the everyday processes of life such as walking a dog in the daytime.  Her illustration styling has been in the "naive" or childlike format but suits the theme of nature very well due to its softer use of paintwork.