Evolution of Flight: Art for Irish Times ‘Innovation’

It took two generations to reach the rocket age from Man’s first powered flight. It took me three days. Here’s how, but first settle yourself in, make sure that your seat-belt is buckled and switch on your reading light. Enjoy the flight.

The editor of the Irish Times Innovation Magazine called with a request for an image that would convey how businesses can learn from past failures. As usual, I sent in a few suggestions by email, sketched quickly with just enough information to show the thrust of what I thought would work for them. At left, I’ve cobbled them all together, so you can see at a glance the different approaches on offer.

The editor went for the flight-related idea, which was by far the strongest. It also provided particularly fertile ground for humour. We needed to know that our character had tried flights before and come off worst against gravity, so I put a plaster cast on his leading leg and named the apparatus ‘Phoenix III’. I also wanted to suggest that this was taking place in Dublin city. It’s an inaccurate portrayal but you must remember that the editorial process is almost always pressed for time. I had a look at a few references for the GPO on the electric internet and away I went. The bus had to be an approximation as I wasn’t prepared to wait for one to come by.

This is the drawing, directly made onto the stretched paper. I started, as ever, laying down colour straight over the line

[I always start by laying down a wash of burnt umber and or sap green. Whatever you use, it’s best to work on a ground that isn’t the bright white of the paper].

I made sure that I didn’t lose the line by brushing over the pencil with black at the same time darkening any of the deeply shadowed areas.

I then began blocking in the principle areas of colour. I took the character to a reasonably finished stage because I was as yet unclear how I
would describe the background. If there had been time, I would have made a small colour sketch to determine the background in such a way so as not to distract from the central character. The principal function of illustration is to convey a message, so it’s important that whatever you do doesn’t create visual clutter.

This is the finished art that I submitted to the Irish Times. You’ll notice that I moved the shadow downwards because it looked as if he was about to scrape his undercarriage on the stonework. Now that would be a business failure. I also toned back the cityscape with a little white and cyan suspended in matte acrylic medium. It gives the impression of distance and magnitude, while isolating the main character and maintaining focus on the message.

The second illustration is obviously related to the first, with the same character, now almost entirely encased in plaster, happily rocketing [to a spectacular death?]. Since it was a progression of the first idea, it also required less work in sketching out details. Once again, the same stipulation applied that the composition be set in an urban environment [my tendency being towards laziness and the abstract shapes of nature!]. Still, I enjoyed playing with the details -the little lights blinking in the dusk; tiny plumes of smoke rising from chimneys; the vague shapes of buildings; the frightened cat and the surprised face in the window. I also had our man dropping his crutch to help along the suggestions of movement and height. In all, each illustration took about eight hours to complete, although I could’ve gone on, given time. It isn’t often that what you like doing coincides with what your clients need but when it happens, you’re flying! I hope that this helps you appreciate what goes into good, meaningful and unique art for business. Hopefully, this will encourage you to test how well those drab, meaningless stock CDs fly. I’m McSherry; Fly me.

Bloomsday: Acrylics on Paper Illustration

A self-promotional illustration in acrylics on paper to celebrate Irish literary windbag James Joyce
A self-promotional illustration in acrylics on paper to celebrate Irish literary windbag James Joyce

The annual Joycefest will be celebrated next Saturday. Make sure that you have your inner organs at the ready [preferably somebody else’s]. Have another attempt at reading Ulysses and brush off your straw boater. Die hard fans: contract the clap and relocate to Trieste. Enjoy.

Marrow Envy & Other Stories


My current exhibition, and second in the Alliance Française, was launched last night by eminent historian and broadcaster, John Bowman. The show comprises 24 framed works, the greater part of which were published in newspapers and magazines such as the Irish Times, Marketing Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

The show runs until June 11th in the ground-floor Café des Amis. Grab some lunch and enjoy the marrows.

Thank you to my sponsors who helped to make this show such a success, including: The Irish Times, the Alliance Française, Celine Cazali of Océ Digital Printing Machines, Adam Lawrie of QPA Print and Lensmen & Associates.

Financial Report Illustration Project

The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan organisation have just launched their new financial report, designed by Toronto-based design studio, The Works. The studio art director’s vision for the project used illustration to convey the central theme of this year’s report which is ‘balance’.
Although The Works had a clear idea of the principal image which is one of a high-wire unicyclist, they wished to use other characters throughout the design to focus on other activities of the OTPP.

Several rounds of sketches were made to present ideas for various aspects of the report. However, after consideration by the designers and the client, the concept was kept to one character.


You can see here, the development of the central character. The sketch at left was my first rough rendering which was changed according to the designers’ comments. The final illustration kept close to this last drawing, save for the objects being juggled. A nice idea was to show the reverse of the unicyclist on the back cover:

It was fun trying to get the model to balance just that little bit longer while I set up my easel on the other side of the line. A thorough dousing with fixative spray helped him to maintain the pose. The report is now in print and online on OTPP’s web site. and the model has finally been removed from the unicycle and returned to his family.

Paris: Group Exhibition


Agents Associé, the organisation for French artists’ representatives will hold their first biennial group show in Paris’s Les Arts Décoratifs -a part of Le Louvre complex. I was greatly honoured to be selected by a panel of industry jurists to exhibit three artworks for the show, which is entitled: ‘Les Trésors Cachés de nos Artistes’. In other words; self-promotional, work otherwise unpublished or made purely for the pleasure of creation. The show runs for one week from 29th March to the 4th April and is located in the Louvre museum’s western wing, known as the Pavillon de Marsan.

Above is one of my artworks that will be on show. I’m delighted that this was one of the chosen pieces. It was created for the promotion of the Illustrators Guild of Ireland in a postcard campaign -and it also won the Best Self-promotional Illustration gong for 2006. It fits perfectly into this exhibition and gets the message across: The craft of illustration needs a superhero to join the battle against the depressing mediocrity of stock imagery; and who better than the childlike Pencil-Boy, the Hand-made Hero?

It’s also interesting to see the difference between the French and Irish attitudes to illustration -even amongst industry insiders such as illustrators and agents. There’s a much greater acceptance of illustration’s cultural significance in les payes francophones [perhaps it’s true for the rest of Europe, though I’ve little experience on which to draw]. Go to any French bookstore or hypermarché and there will be an abundance of bandes dessinées on display. There’s a thriving publishing industry of graphic novels and an appreciation for the artists who produce them -with an important festival dedicated to the art in Angoulême. I’ll come back to this topic in later posts. It’d be interesting to have an exhibition of bandes dessinées in Ireland; perhaps our own mini-Angoulême. Would that interest you? Hmm?

Meanwhile, Marie Bastille, my representative in France is currently very involved with organising the Trésors show -great credit to her. Vive Pencil-Boy!

Marketing Magazine Cover Illustration


We’re moving towards election time again. The current issue of Marketing Magazine features one of my illustrations. The feature article describes the challenge that advertising creatives face when commissioned to create campaigns for political parties.

If you click on the above image itself, you’ll see a larger version.

I want to give you an idea of the process and collaboration that ended with the illustration as it appears [a collaboration between Michael Cullen, editor of the magazine, Jamie Cullen of Dynamo and myself]. The first rough sketch is the one that we felt conveyed the message in the strongest way. Like in previous posts, there were others, but there’s neither the space or the inclination on my part to show them!

Once this was accepted, I felt that the composition could be improved and made more lively. Also, I thought our creative should have the full hatchback head rather than a little back door and that we should see the brief a little more clearly.

So I submitted sketch 2, which was duly approved and I rendered the final illustration. It was completed in acrylics on Winton oils paper. So, that’s it. Vote for me! And invest in Marketing Magazine – try their web site.

Ho ho ho… A Very [Insert franchise name here] Christmas

First, I’d just like to wish a very happy and peaceful Christmas to both my readers!

Apparently, ’tis the season to send badly designed Christmas cards to people that you don’t know very well, in the hope of generating a bit of oul’ business. For, as it was once told to me by a wizened old marketing professional -you can send all the flyers you want during the course of a year but people will only remember the Christmas card.

I agree -but only if the card is worth looking at. I just received one from the garage that sold me my second-hand car seven years ago [as I have done every year since]. Although it doesn’t take the gong for worst card design, it comes eye-wateringly close. There is no excuse for sending abysmal cards unless you’re a graphic designer in a corduroy jacket who could say with a knowing smile, ‘This card is an ironic statement’.

Seems to me that all such cards generate is indifference, or worse; enmity. If the person to whom a card is sent is not a personal friend- then the card must have some other obvious merit. It should be very funny or very arresting in some other way. You can’t get good results from a picture lifted from a royalty-free image CD or one that has a company logo plastered garishly across the cover illustration. I venture to suggest that cards’ inner messages should also be hand-written, perhaps with a wry humorous note [since there may be no personal relationship with the receiver].

And… since companies habitually decide to include Christmas in their marketing strategies; they shouldn’t leave such important design choices to busy office managers or outsource the task of design to printers [printers and design are like builders and varnish; they don’t mix]. There are plenty of great illustrators and graphic designers -who are born for such work and can advise on approach. There are also excellent cards made by some of the charities, like Oxfam or The Irish Cancer Society. So, there’s plenty of choice -all well worth the expense and which could start generating a bit of warmth in these cold-hearted times.

Perhaps as image-makers, we’re not doing enough to convince people in the general business community of the value of design?

I’d wecome your thoughts on the subject. Have you received any cards this year that provoked a wince? Clean your stomach contents from your shoes and tell me about it.

An Iggy from the IllustratorsIreland.com Awards 2006


The Illustrators Guild of Ireland had its annual awards last Friday in the United Arts Club in Dublin’s City Centre. I was delighted to be awarded the ‘Iggy’ for this illustration in the ‘Self-promotional’ category. In fact, the idea was conceived in response to a call by the IGI for images for a promotional postcard campaign but it’s still self-promotional really. There was some beautiful work on show from everybody but especially from PJ Lynch [Best Book Illustration] and David Rooney [Best Editorial and Best Overall Illustration].

‘Pencil Boy’ is a witty soubriquet bestowed upon me by photographer John Redmond [or ‘Lens Creature’] one day and it made me laugh with its crazy American comic-book language dude-like hipness. I thought a Pencil Boy would be a good image to promote a bunch of illustrators.

Anyroad, while staying at my father-in-law’s gaff in Provence during the summer, I obviously found that I needed to pass a lot of time away from the house. So it was that this was painted in the light-speckled shade of the garden. Sounds quite idyllic but the aging brittle plastic garden chair upon which I was sitting gradually collapsed, bit by bit. First the left arm, then the right, then the back and one of the legs until I was balancing on a three-legged stool. I also realised when I unpacked my kit that I had forgotten my cadmium red acrylic, so the piece is a mix of acrylic and cadmium red oil. Consequently it took ages and I wouldn’t recommend it as an approach.

You can see all the competition entries on the IGI Awards 2006 judges’ site

The Taking of Christ


I attached myself to a guided tour of the National Gallery of Ireland the other week and learned that even the masters made mistakes. Judas, who can be seen kissing Jesus in the composition, had his ear lowered. You can see the vague outline of the earlier version about 3/4″ above the existing one. This seems at odds with Hockney’s assertion that Caravaggio [amongst many others] relied on the camera obscura; unless the model he used was possessed of very high ears, of course.

Charity Auction for Zest 4 Kidz


Last Friday 8th September, at the Investor Magazine Mortgage and Insurance Broker Conference and Forum in the K Club, my painting ‘Tryst in the City Garden’, was sold at auction for €7500. All the money raised at the auction went to the Zest 4 Kidz charity, who operate educational orphanages in many war-ravaged countries. Their web site is down at the moment, but Zest 4 Kidz can be contacted through its founder Stuart Wilson. You can see some photos of the event at Ashville’s conference site: here.

Also, special thanks to the excellent John Redmond who came to the rescue by photographing the canvas in his studio.