We caught up with the World Illustration Award-winning Claudine O’Sullivan, the Irish illustrator drawing boldly on the commercial circuit, ahead of her exhibition “Leaves”

Claudine O’Sullivan’s work does not just appear in galleries and editorials. Her colours feature in graphics for BBC Radio 4 and Island Records; on the walls of MTV and Apple’s work-spaces. For the latter, Claudine collaborated in a worldwide campaign promoting the Apple Pencil. Swapping her traditional pencil for theirs, she reworked her digital drawings onto an iPad. Her adaptability didn’t go unrecognised, going on to win the Professional Advertising Award at the World Illustration Awards this year.

True to itself, her work bridges the creative and commercial world. Her upcoming exhibition, ‘Leaves’, showcases her plant-themed illustrative prints commissioned by plant studio Sprout London. Self-labelled as ‘traditional’, her work is comprised of countless coloured lines, usually purple and blue. Bold and clear, her subjects are mostly drawn from O’Sullivan’s love of wild animals. We caught up with Claudine to talk being creative in a commercial industry, the state of illustration in 2017 and not being inspired by artists.

Brief us on your proudest moments in your life and career so far.

That’s a really tough one! I think what I’m most proud of is that I’m now supporting myself 100% through illustration. Certain clients and opportunities have made this possible, so I’m grateful for everything that’s happened along the way. That said, it hasn’t been easy. I’m glad I’ve had to work very hard and experience a lot of rejection, as well as working a lot of other jobs and not having a lot of free time or money. It’s important to remain humble. My main focus is to be happy and keep doing what I’m doing, so I have to keep working hard, especially if I plan to stay in London.

Working with advertisers and companies, is there compromise on the commercial circuit?

It depends from client-to-client and job-to-job. I’ve been lucky to work with art directors and teams that have had the confidence to let me do what I do, without a huge amount of constraint. Comparatively, I’ve worked with art directors that have pushed my work in new ways and mediums, creating results that I wouldn’t have reached myself. There’s a magic balance – when you work with people that can see untapped potential in your work and inspire you to organically develop that. On the flipside, if a brief is too prescriptive it can stifle your creativity and knock your confidence.

Image – Claudine O’Sullivan Facebook

Blue and purple feature prominently in your work, is there a personal meaning behind the colours?

Not really! I think that’s quite a subconscious thing. Most of my work stems from observation. I focus a lot on light and shade to create form and movement. I never usually plan my colour palette in advance, I just build up a piece gradually, concentrating on the balance between light and shade. I avoid using black and have quite a naturally abstract approach to colour, so my most used colours for shade end up being blues and purples. Funnily enough my most replaced pencil tends to be white! I’m always juggling a white pencil no matter what colour palette I’m working with.


Also featuring heavily are wild animals: bears, foxes, owls. Could you elaborate on your intention behind this?

Like I said, my work is predominantly observationally inspired. I try to draw most days, even if it’s just sketching a used coffee cup or chocolate wrapper. I’ve always been an animal lover and I love the challenge of capturing a sense of character in different animals. I work from photographs when I need to, but mainly I like to sketch from life. Then I use a couple of reference photos to build up the piece, so my illustrations are never ‘perfect’ or photo-realistic. I live in London, so I have a lot of photos of foxes I’ve followed through parks. I also attend wildlife drawing classes every couple of weeks, which are a great way to observe and get a sense of different animals’ anatomy and movement.


Talk about validation from an award body. What role does it play in motivating you?

There can be a lot of opposing opinions about awards – but they’re important as a celebration of the entire industry, not just those who win. Particularly in the illustration industry, it’s easy to feel isolated working alone most of the time. A lack of confidence can be an issue. Confidence is something I definitely struggled with, but I’m getting better. Awards celebrate the whole industry and highlight the important role of illustration and design across different aspects of society. Our confidence as illustrators is the first step to getting a greater audience to respect and value our work. I think awards empower this.

I always enter – but I honestly don’t think winning is the most important thing in terms of validation – it’s about getting your work seen and having the sense that you’re contributing to the wider industry. That said, winning the World Illustration Awards advertising category this year has been a huge boost in confidence for me, as a validation not just from the client but from experts in my industry. It’s also a huge motivation to push my work further and constantly strive to improve – I’ve always been my own biggest competitor.

With the argument of smartphones killing the art of photography, do you find illustration software a threat to the world of illustration?

Potentially. The most important thing is to find a unique personal aesthetic and avoid mimicry. It’s a saturated industry, so it’s important to not look at other illustrators too much. You’re bound to be influenced, even on a subconscious level. I work across a lot of mediums – pencil and paper, painted murals and digital drawing, but my work is linked through my personal aesthetic. That’s natural, it’s how I observe and draw, I’m not really influenced by other artists.

I think creative education and art direction have a more important role to play than ever. Technology and software are rapidly progressing and graduates are more skilled than ever before, making it easy for them to create work in previously established styles. There’s a lot of examples of this cropping up. Now more than ever, we need to encourage illustrators to curate their own personal sources of inspiration and develop a truly unique visual language.

Claudine O’Sullivan’s exhibition “Leaves” opens 21st-24th September at Hotel Elephant, London.  EJ