Q & A with National Poetry Competition artist Cat O’Neil

Cat O’Neil’s National Poetry Competition artwork for 2019

Each year, The Poetry Society commissions new artwork for the National Poetry Competition, which features on our entry forms and posters, before finally becoming the cover of our annual National Poetry Competition Winners’ Anthology. Recent artists to take up the challenge of translating poetry into picture include Isabel Rock, Jonathan Edwards and Eugenia Loli. For the 2019 competition we asked winner of the V&A Illustration Prize Cat O’Neil, whose editorial illustrations have featured in publications such as the New York Times and Wired Magazine, to come up with an image that best represents poetry for her. We chatted to her about what goes in to putting together an illustration like this.

A lot of your artwork as an editorial artist has meant coming up with visual portrayals of abstract concepts. How did you find the experience of applying this process to poetry?

As an illustrator I’m in a funny position of creating artwork that conveys an idea, so it has to be accessible enough so that people understand it without being cliché. How can I convey something about the mind, for example, without literally drawing a picture of someone thinking, or a silhouette of a head? It’s important to me that my work is cerebral, that it doesn’t go straight to the immediate and obvious visual metaphors, but then the challenge is that I need to make sure it still connects with an audience. It’s not too obscure.

It’s not quite the same as being a fine artist where I’m not necessarily under any obligation to make my work understandable to a wide audience. But I think when you are making artwork, or writing poetry, you want to express something of yourself but also find an audience for that expression. To connect with a viewer or reader is a special thing. I don’t think it’s the aim for all artists and poets, but for me I enjoy the balance of making something that means a lot to me but will also be interesting to those who engage with it.

You’ve shared some of your initial sketch ideas for this year’s National Poetry Competition artwork on Instagram – was there an idea linking them?

Most of my commissioned work is directed by whatever brief/article I’m given, so having more free rein meant that this project was much more like working on personal work. I keep sketchbooks with various ideas of images I would like to make at some point, if I have the time, so for this project I dipped back into that to see what was there. Personal work for me tends to be more instinctive, but I still go through a process of developing sketches because it’s the best way to refine an idea and realise the best version of it. Like redrafting writing, or editing oneself.

What’s the story behind the final illustration for this year?

I get asked by students where I find inspiration, but the truth is that being a creative person means you find inspiration everywhere in your life. You are guided by your own curiosity, and that is a habit nurtured over time. It’s learning a way of thinking, and I think anyone can encourage in themselves a more creative outlook on life. Here’s a fun little exercise; when someone tells you a story, any story (it could be about their trip abroad or just what happened when they went to the shops to get some tea bags), do you picture it in your head as they tell it? I was surprised to find that not everyone does! I automatically start imagining what everything could have looked like. But even if you don’t do that naturally, you can nurture that habit. The more you start imagining things, the more easily it comes. Though it does mean you get into trouble for daydreaming all the time.

I don’t like the romanticised notion of an artist being separate from reality, but I do think that all creative people have cultivated in themselves a way of seeing the world so that the ordinary can be made something more. So in this image, the painter is painting a mural on a wall, but the way they see the world influences their life and so the painting merges out from the wall, surrounding the figure and interacting with their life in a very real way.

Do you think there might be similarities between writing a poem and creating a piece of art like the National Poetry Competition commission?

There are certainly a lot of crossovers with writing; illustration is visual storytelling. You could be expressing the snapshot of a moment or feeling, or a literal epic. But even within one artistic discipline, people will have different approaches to their work. Some people will create hundreds of poems or sketches and pick the best as a final thing, some people will work on fewer pieces but refine and develop each one till they’re done. I draw a lot of rough sketches because I need to see how something will work on the page rather than just in my head. Then, I pick whichever are the strongest, and develop those into final artwork. Some of my sketches are rubbish, but I need to get them out of my head before I can focus on the good stuff!

Any poets that strike chord with you as a visual artist?

When I was still at art school I came across Jacob Polley’s work, and I absolutely loved the poem ‘Dandelions’. I worked on a project with a dancer who was taking poems and interpreting them into dances, and I created artwork to be projected over the top of them. That was a fun project. Creative practices are all about interpretation in one form or another. Interpretation and translation; how can I convey what I see, or feel, or think.

I also recently got married this year, and at our wedding we asked my now sister-in-law to read ‘The Year We Married Birds’ by Liz Berry. Fortunately I got to marry a man rather than a bird, but it was a lovely poem to hear (I love the imagery in it), and it wasn’t so saccharine – which is what you normally find in suggestions of poems to read at weddings.

Could you talk us through the various stages of creating artwork for a commission?

I have a fairly standard process when it comes to commissioned work; I get the brief/article and I read it, picking out which parts are important and which parts are visually interesting. I have to read and analyse a lot of text for my work, and particularly with editorial I have to understand a wide range of subjects (I know far more about finance and the Stock Exchange than I ever thought would be necessary). A challenging subject would be something quite dry which I have to make interesting. Again, this is usually something to do with finance.

Next, I’ll draw thumbnail sketches, very small little sketches just to get an initial impression of how an idea could work in the dimensions I’ve been given; usually I am told exactly how much space I have to fill for a piece. Once I have a good selection of thumbnails, I’ll work those up to rough sketches which are black and white pencil drawings. I usually do 3 sketches for every final piece of artwork, and it’s important that each is a different idea rather than being a different composition of the same idea. I send these to my art director and they will either pick which one they want, or ask me to make some changes (or do a whole new set of roughs). I have a sad little graveyard folder on my computer of roughs that I really like that didn’t get selected to become final artwork. Maybe one day I’ll exhibit them all and call it The Graveyard. Anyway. Once a sketch is selected I make the final artwork, usually much bigger and much more refined than the sketch, and also in full colour. Sometimes I get asked to make changes once it’s finished. The process is quite different to making a piece of fine art because it is in effect, a collaboration. I am working with an art director, and if they’re good they can push me to make the best piece of work I can. They might suggest a change which really benefits a piece, and I can’t see it at first because I’ve been looking at the work for too long. But sometimes we disagree, so there is a negotiation process too. I have to be very adaptable, always on time and generally easy to work with. It’s a balance between being an artist and a designer. But I love working this way, because I’m approached with articles and topics that I wouldn’t have thought to work with and I’m constantly learning and being challenged in unexpected ways.

I do have to consider where the piece will end up, whether it’s an editorial or poster for example. I have to be aware of whether an image will have text over it, or need to grab attention. Book covers need to be more bold and often simple to grab attention, whereas book internal illustrations can be more subtle and delicate (generally).

You can see Cat O’Neil’s initial sketches here

What work do you do by hand, and when does it get digital?

I draw everything by hand in pencil first, then I ink up the drawings with either brush pens or mapping nibs (a dip pen). Then I scan the drawings and colour everything digitally using Photoshop and a Cintiq graphics tablet.

Your colouring always has these amazingly tactile textures – how have you arrived at this style and are you influenced by any particular artists?

Although I colour everything digitally, it’s important to me that everything has a certain organic feel to it. I don’t really like flat panels of colour in my work, though it works well for other illustrators. I can’t really point my finger to any one individual artist who influenced me in this way, but a lot of the work I like is actually made traditionally (paintings or printmaking) so they naturally have those textures and variation. Arguably, part of the reason my work has ended up being quite different to other illustrators is that I’m careful not to look at other contemporary illustrators work too much. I don’t want to be influenced either consciously or subconsciously in a way that would mean my work just ends up looking like anyone else’s. I suppose one example is that I love Brian Stauffer’s work, it’s so clever and bold, but it really doesn’t look that much like what I produce. So most of the artists I look at are either dead or their work looks very different to mine, but I just like one particular aspect of it (like the way they use colour). The drawback of this is that my work probably isn’t what is currently fashionable in illustration (there’s a lot of bold, flat, vector based work at the moment. Minimal colour palettes, limited line work, but very bright and smooth forms). I don’t do a lot of advertising work, and I’m often told that my work is on the more ‘arty’ end of the illustration spectrum. But you have to be true to what you want to make, because I’m certainly not choosing to be an illustrator because it’s a lucrative career option!

You’ve written a graphic novel, Returning Home (2013). How much do you feel graphic novels have shaped your work and how important is a sense of narrative in your illustrations?

I love graphic novels. We moved house recently and it really irritated the movers because we have a stupid amount of hardbacks. My husband (James Albon) is a graphic novelist and illustrator, so he attends a lot of graphic novel festivals and usually comes back with a fresh batch. I love the balance between text and image in the stories, but I love visual storytelling in general so I also watch a lot of films. I have a soft spot for Returning Home as it was one of my first big projects with a solo show, and it was only two years after I graduated from art school. I was still figuring out what direction I wanted to go in with my work, so it was a bit of an experiment. I’m not sure I quite have the stamina for a full graphic novel (I think Returning Home, which was intended to be the first part of a series, was less than 80 pages whereas James has just finished drafting his next book which will be closer to 350!) But making a book is certainly something I want to return to this coming year. I suppose with most of my work the focus is on visual metaphor, and conveying an idea in one image. Graphic novels are more focused on sequential narrative, so telling a story of a series of images. It’s a slightly different skill set, you have to be excellent at pacing, showing a scene in an interesting way and be good at showing character. Character is the hardest thing I think, because most of my figures are really just a vehicle for conveying an idea. But in narrative work the character has to be unique and interesting, not at all generic. James will fill hundreds of sketchbooks drawing people he sees in cafes, pubs, on the street, anywhere really. Those drawings will then inform his characters in his graphic novels. Whereas I tend to just sit and watch and wonder how many people he’s pissing off in the process.

Enter the 2019 National Poetry Competition

30 October 2019