Gemma O'Neill and Friends

The Causeway Coast-based illustrator on exhibiting at the Ulster Hall and publishing her first book, Oh Dear, Geoffrey!

Hello Gemma. When did you start illustrating?

I've really been illustrating my entire life, when I think about it. I just didn't know that's what it was called as a child. When I was little I remember being so frustrated about not being able to read and write just yet, so instead I filled up diaries with little scribbles, to begin with, then drawings. The odd word started popping up here and there later. It's so fun to look back at to see the progression and sheer joy on the pages.

How would you describe your style?

Intricate, intricate and intricate. It does change slightly depending on the job, but the intricate side of things stays the same. Everything starts with drawing, which is actually looser, especially in the early stages. As soon as things move to colour, that all changes. Gouache paint is usually the base for everything. I'll build that up, then start adding collage or colouring pencil.


Tell us about your book, Oh Dear, Geoffrey!.

It's published by Templar Publishing, who specialise in children's books. Geoffrey appeared right at the start of the final year of my Illustration degree in Falmouth. I'd been watching a lot of natural history programmes that summer for inspiration, and a giraffe just seemed right. I'm a big fan of patterns and textures, so why not go for the ultimate?

I love the way giraffes move, they've got such an incredible rhythm. So I thought it would be nice to focus on something along those lines in the book. In no time it ended being a book about a clumsy, but lovely giraffe who struggles to make friends. In the end, Geoffrey realises there are benefits to being so tall and he ends up meeting his true friends because of it.

Have you designed for any other authors, or had any other interesting commissions?

So far my own stories have completely dominated my time, but I had a wonderful experience designing and illustrating a series of monster novelty book covers this year. I'm not sure how much I can say just yet, but it was a lot of fun.

I also got to develop work for a possible collaboration with an author earlier in the year. Then straight after that I started developing two board books with another publisher. I tend to work so much quicker when it isn't my baby, which is quite satisfying really.


You currently have an exhibition in the Ulster Hall, entitled Gemma, Geoffrey and Friends, upstairs in the the Group Space. Is it your first solo show?

The Ulster Hall is indeed my first solo show, and on home turf too. I hadn't planned on having an exhibition this year, but I heard about the space through Visual Artists Ireland and couldn't resist applying. I hate to think of an opportunity wasted.

It would be great to make more of a name for myself locally. I'm not sure a lot of the book shops here knew I was local when the book first one came out. There are spreads from the book in the exhibition, other character development and sketch book work. I'm really pleased with how it all turned out.

What's next for you as an artist?

At the moment I'm in the deepest depths of finishing my second picture book, Monty's Magnificent Mane. It's been the ultimate labour of love. I've been so determined to improve on so many levels, so it's been quite an intense experience. I can't wait to see how it turns out. It's published in August 2014.

Straight after, I might be working on some branding material for a local film company, but the cogs are already turning with new book ideas. I'm hoping to set up an online shop in the new year, as quite a few people have been asking about prints. At some stage I'd really like to look into possibly getting an agent too, so I can just focus on the thing I love most: illustrating.

Oh Dear, Geoffrey! is available from Amazon, published by Templar Publishing. Gemma, Geoffrey and Friends runs in the Ulster Hall's Group Space until January 2.