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Claudine O’Sullivan on drawing for Apple and the widespread threat of trendy illustration

O’Sullivan's illustrations for Apple

Last month, London-based Claudine O’Sullivan fought off fierce international competition to be crowned winner of the advertising professional category at the World Illustration Awards, off the back of a single entry commissioned by Apple. When the brief landed she wasn’t even working full-time as an illustrator, let alone represented by an agent.

O’Sullivan spoke to The Drum about what it’s like to draw for Apple, the fortuity of her career so far, and the pressure placed on illustrators in the quick-moving trendscape of art direction.

First of all, congratulations – you’re now officially a world-class illustrator. How did you find the whole experience of the World Illustration Awards?

All the entries are displayed at Somerset House and there’s a pretty big mix – it’s not London or UK heavy at all, you have entries from places such as Korea, America, etc, so for me – one of the biggest things I got from it – was to see the different variety of ideas.

Illustration can be very trendy. In London, you see a lot of stuff that’s very similar to the work done by the big names in the industry. So it felt quite refreshing to see work from around the world, and see visuals that I haven’t seen before.

I didn’t even expect to be shortlisted to be honest – I only entered one project this year because I thought: “Well, it’s the best work I’ve done this year and if that doesn’t get shortlisted then what will?”

Tell us the story behind your winning work – the colourful campaign imagery for the Apple Pencil and iPad Pro

I was very much working nine-to-five as a graphic designer then illustrating in the evening when the brief came in. It kind of came out of nowhere – I had a phone call and an email conversation, and then it was like “Want to come to LA?”

I was learning how to draw on an iPad on the plane.

I did two, incredibly detailed, hi-res pieces in total for Apple. I was working on them three or four days before, and then I filmed the campaign videos in LA. It was probably the weirdest five days of my life.

Apple Pencil - Claudine O'Sullivan from Claudine O'Sullivan on Vimeo.

How was your career going before Apple came a-calling?

I haven’t done millions of projects but I’ve done enough to keep me going.

I got a job out of my degree show [at University of the Arts London] for MTV – an interiors job designing its meeting rooms, and for about year I did a lot of work for WeTransfer designing its backgrounds. That’s probably where I got a lot of my work from, as the platform’s used by a lot of creatives.

I signed to an agency only a couple of weeks ago and it’s going well so far, but I think it was beneficial for me not to have an agent in the beginning. I’ve learned how I need to work with clients – how to politely push back, and say yes to things I’ve been afraid of, and how to not let clients trample all over who I am.

Even when it comes down to the boring stuff like fees and pricing, I now know how to do that myself.

Your hand-drawn style is idiosyncratic to say the least. How do you describe it?

I’d say it’s very colourful and energetic. I tend to draw a lot from photographs and I do lots of wildlife imagery – outside of client work I’m launching a new plant-inspired print range as part of London Design Festival's Icon Design Trail.

I tend to go to a lot of animal sanctuaries for wildlife drawing classes, which are like life drawing with animals. I mainly focus on light and shade and for some reason it ends up very colourful and often quite blue. It’s not a very ‘on purpose’ aesthetic – it’s quite natural for me.

Mr Bingo recently ranted told us about illustrating for advertising clients. How easy has it been for you to navigate this commercial world?

My degree is in graphic design, which I think has made me a bit more adaptable. When you’re working with clients and brands you need to be able to take on feedback, but also not automatically give in to every suggestion that’s made. You have to learn to politely push back on things.

Most of the clients I’ve worked with just want me to do my own thing in a way that’s unique for them. A lot of it will be nature-based because that’s what I’ve done before, but I think my most interesting work has been created when a client or an art director can see what I do and see a direction it could go in that I wouldn’t have gone down on my own.

There’s a push now for brands to work with artists and not just look for a visual. Most of the campaigns I’ve done will say somewhere: “This is Claudine, she’s the one that’s done that illustration”. It’s more of a collaboration rather than a case of you’re simply working for us.

In my experience so far I’ve been able to work with really good art directors who have had that balance of being able to see my work in a new way but not overpower me. That shows a maturity on their part – it’s quite scary to hire someone based on a portfolio they’ve seen on the internet. I think I work best when I can be really creative with something, and also when I’m a bit scared. That’s the magic combination. With bigger clients, I’ve found that’s what happens.

It sounds like you’ve had a good ride so far. But what about your peers – what have they found difficult about illustrating for advertisers?

If I see a poster on the side of the bus or something … I’ll think “That looks like that person’s work” and it’s not theirs, it’s a copy. Their original work maybe appeared on a mood board somewhere ­and someone was asked to recreate it.

The risk is that students and new creatives are so technically skilled, they can easily mimic existing styles if they’re asked to. Education’s so expensive now that people come out of art school just wanting a job. And I get that, I was the same. I think it can be very hard to have the confidence to be like, “I’m going to do my own thing and I’m going to do it a bit differently and hope someone likes it”. It’s a real confidence thing.

The focus needs to be on tutors and art directors to encourage people to do their own thing, and not look at other illustrators and existing styles for inspiration, but to look outside the creative industry to get ideas.

Maybe it’s not art directors – maybe it’s budgets, or turnarounds, maybe some brands only use in-house designers. I don’t know, but I know that from walking around London I’m seeing a lot of stuff that is just repeating itself. It’s just a bit boring.

Illustration is very trendy at the moment, and that’s not a good thing to be as an illustrator. I don’t think anyone becomes an illustrator because they want to copy work.

And finally, what’s the worst ‘working for free’ brief you’ve received?

I had a magazine contact me about doing 17 illustrations over eight weeks for free. They said I’d get exposure, but I can’t eat that.

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