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Literacy Learnings
Léargais Litríochta


Illustrator name:  Steve Doogan

Title of shortlisted book:  Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and other Irish words for Nature 


1. What was your earliest memory of reading/being read to?

There was a series of books called Janet and John, for very young readers. They had a very 1950s feel to them. Lots of kids in shorts and ankle socks, with watering cans and puppies. “Janet, Janet. Come and look. See the little dog”. I don’t recall ever being read to. I think comics were my first real connection with reading - early 70s Marvel with Spiderman, the Hulk, the Avengers, all that stuff.


2. When did you first begin to illustrate for an audience?

Around 2000, I was working as an art director for an advertising agency and I twigged that I could make a better living doing storyboards for the ads. Working for myself was a huge step and very liberating - I was never very good at working under a boss. The storyboards weren’t seen publicly though, they were just a part of the process. It was when I began to illustrate for posters, packaging and editorial that I got a chance to show off a bit more, given some independence. I now get to make work that is far more in line with my own interests, using whatever style or medium I’m curious to work in. 


3. What book inspired you most as a young illustrator? Why? 

It wasn’t a book so much as an illustrator. I came across the work of Brad Holland and was amazed that such gorgeous, clever, mature painting was being used in commercial contexts. The editorial scene of the 90s was so great: Holland, Marshall Arisman, Etienne Delessert all loomed large for me. Illustration for adults, often dark and challenging. That’s very rare now.


4. What is the best thing about illustrating for a contemporary audience? 

I think there is enormous scope for breaking new ground in illustration, in claiming (or reclaiming) visual possibilities that have perhaps been overlooked. The contemporary audience is much more visually literate than they are given credit for and there is a chance now for illustrators to work in really different, exciting ways, to explore new formats, styles and media. In my experience, bold, innovative work will find an appreciative audience. There has been an alarming narrowing of the conception of illustration in the past few decades, but the opportunities are there to swim against that tide.



5.  What is the most challenging thing about illustrating for a contemporary audience?

It’s a very strange time we’re in, when people are coming to grips with the threat posed by AI to all artists. Nobody really knows yet if it will replace people. Views differ: some think it spells the end for the trained human artist, because the market will always look for the cheapest option. Others point out how ugly, or how cliched, or how hard it is to use with any precision. But the tech is still young, and who knows how it might improve? I have to be optimistic and believe that one of the fundamental reasons that people look to art is to engage (in however small a way) with another human being. We are hard-wired to be social animals, we long for connection with other people, and art satisfies that need. Art made by computers can be quite charming, but there’s no life behind the eyes.



6. What inspired you to illustrate Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and other Irish words for Nature?

I was very taken by the boldness of certain woodcuts and linocuts I was seeing, whether it was Japanese prints or outsider art. I love having the freedom to inhabit a style for a while, to make my own synthesis of a lot of influences, and Tree Dogs was the result. I had already worked on Manchan Magan’s 32 Words For Field, which featured little compact chapter heading images, so that kind of set the tone. I’ve made a lot of actual linocuts over the years, but this was all done digitally, in a simulation of linocut. It would have been impossible otherwise.



7. What have you learned from the process of illustrating this book?

To place my trust in wonderful designers like Graham Thew! He pulled everything together so beautifully, with lovely typography and a general sense of space and balance. I also realised that I should trust my own instincts more often and push for things that might not always come off, but should at least be attempted, like bold compositions and whimsical details.


8. What advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator? 

 A/ Make as much work as possible. Do personal projects where you can go as mad as you like. Experiment with different styles, media, scale, format. Draw as if nobody is watching! You will do loads of things that you hate, but that is the price of making progress. Make as many “mistakes” as possible. Accept that your amazing taste in art is going to make you feel bad about your terrible work. Accept that you will suck for a long time, until one day you don’t suck. Confidence comes from success, and the more you persist, the more success you will have. Work all through the night if you have to. Push yourself.


B/ Copy people you admire in order to learn (obviously not to pass their work off as yours). You will learn so much from simply copying - it’s what students of classical drawing do, they make copies of old masters to get under the hood and absorb the process. Eventually you will create your own unique synthesis of stuff you love.


C/ Don’t just copy current trendy work, unless you’re happy being a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. Don’t confuse online popularity with quality. And be very wary of chasing a “style”. You’re far too young to settle down with one of those.

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