Hello Gemma! It’s lovely to be interviewing you after looking through your grand collection of visual works. Tell us how it all came about and what sits behind ‘Gemma O’Neill’?
It’s something I’ve always done really. It started with early scribbles in diaries, then shapes, objects, characters, scenes and paint explosions. I remember designing animal homes and making my own book covers. Art was always my favourite subject at school. We were encouraged to work big and to experiment with as many materials as possible, but I’ve always enjoyed working intricately too. I think that’s shown in my work so far.
I was set on being an art and design teacher specializing in children’s book illustration by the end of my A-levels. I did an art and design foundation course just to be 100% sure (even though I was). It ended up being the happiest year I’ve ever had creatively. It made me want to illustrate even more. So I sort of forgot about teaching. I went on to study the Illustration degree in Falmouth. It was brilliant and it was tough, but by the end it felt like an illustration army was being unleashed on the world. I went to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair during the final year with a bit of an illustration hamper and was offered the first book deal there and then!
I’d say a pencil and ideas are what sit behind me. Without those nothing else can happen. I’m a bit of a perfectionist too and can’t stand letting the people I work with down. That plays a big part behind the work. I’m also a bit stubborn… definitely not when it comes to feedback, but in a more general way. I try not to see set backs as set backs anymore. They’re more like fuel to work harder. It can be difficult, but I love proving I can do something that someone thought I couldn’t do.
It sounds like you’ve had an amazing journey from education into employment!
Making decisions along the way to help push your talent out there is key in any career path. How did you find the trip to Bologna Children’s Book Fair during your last year at university? Were there any surprises you hadn’t expected that happened?
The trip to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair was wonderful. I’d wanted to go for a while. I first heard about it through a Martin Salisbury book. It wasn’t long until it was talked about on our degree too. We were being marked on professional practice during the final year and the fair seemed like a good starting point for this (we did other things too). I went with no expectations other than it could be good for marks. So between a few of us we went with portfolios, sketchbooks, dummy books, business cards, postcards and so on. It was an incredibly busy couple of days. I was really surprised by how many publishers agreed to see us without appointments, but more than anything I was surprised to be signed up there and then! That probably wouldn’t have happened without the lovely Helen Boyle agreeing to see us without an appointment. An (also lovely) art director got in touch a bit later having got hold of some work I left there.
That’s got to be a big inspiration to go to Bologna Book Fair for freelance illustrators following your experience!
Having had that experience, it must have given you a boost to create new works! Throughout your working day, what are the three distractions and three motives?
The biggest distraction is probably emails. They’re usually exciting or really helpful in some way, but I only check them at certain times of the day now and only reply on certain days too (unless it’s seriously urgent). The next big distraction would be living (literally) across the road from one of my favorite beaches of all time on the Causeway Coast in Ireland. I also get really distracted by my studio being at one end of my apartment. It’s a really long floor, so working and living are very much two separate things. However, I seem to carry half the mess from the studio down to the living end. It’s a major distraction/ source of frustration sometimes.
The main thing that motivates me is the level of happiness that working on children’s books brings. There aren’t many other things (if any) that come close. It’s impossible even to explain. It’s like an outer body level of happy! I’m also motivated by the fact that I have a day job. It’s relevant to my love for books, but it isn’t what I set out to do and dominates too much of my time sometimes. I’m completely motivated by working towards being a full time illustrator/ author. Then last, but not least… the third motive would definitely have to be survival.
I can hear a lot of freelance illustrators completely agreeing with your motives and distractions throughout the working day. Survival is key, so it’s great to use that as a motivator.
What’s the most inspirational quote you’ve heard, which you carry forward in your own practice?
Oh that’s a tough question. There are loads! It keeps changing as I hear more. Although “Creativity is intelligence having fun” from Albert Einstein has always stuck with me. Oh and I was bought a lovely book full of Audrey Hepburn quotes a few years ago. There are loads of great quotes in it. I really like “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I’m possible” and “Don’t fret; it will happen differently anyway.”
You can catch this lovely one on a few of her social media channels – we’re really looking forward to seeing more of Gemma’s illustrations on children’s books in the near future!