The Q&A: Cat O'Neil

By Peggy Roalf   Monday April 24, 2017

Q: Originally from York, England what are some of your favorite things about living and working in Lyon, France?
A: Oh all the usual things, it’s cheaper than London and the weather is nicer! But really my favourite thing about living in France is learning French in order to work with French clients. It has been simultaneously more difficult than I expected but also more satisfying. The first time I worked with a client exclusively in French was a total joy because I was able to combine my art practice with my interest in travelling and language.

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? What is the balance between art you create on paper [or other analog medium] versus in the computer?
A: I work in sketchbooks when I’m mapping out ideas. For me it’s kind of like thinking out loud, and I like that no one else has to see the work at this stage so I’m free to try out anything. A sketchbook doesn’t have to be a beautiful work of art in itself; it’s a tool, there to help you develop your ideas. I’m sure my sketchbooks don’t make a lot of sense to other people, full of notes and bizarre thumbnail sketches that are totally illegible to everyone else!

I do try to make time to go out and do observational drawing; to me that is different from when I’m developing concepts in a sketchbook. For example, I could use it just to develop my understanding of perspective without really thinking of its purpose but knowing I will probably rely on these skills at a later date.

Most of my work starts as an ink drawing and ends up being coloured digitally. But it’s important to me to develop both my usage of traditional and digital techniques as they support each other. Sometimes I do personal projects (like my exhibition Pieces Of You), which focuses purely on watercolour painting and inks, and avoids the computer all together. My mind set feels quite different when I make work like this because there’s no undo button, so you have to really concentrate on what you’re doing.

Q: What is the most important item in your studio?

A: Computer and Wacom—they’re certainly the tools I’m most comfortable with. I want to invest in a Cintiq soon, so that will probably become the most important tool!

Q: How do you know when the art is finished?

A: You just know. Except when you don’t. I’m as guilty as anyone for spending hours toggling hue/saturation settings trying to figure out what is the best combination of colours. Usually I finish my work with a pretty decent amount of time to spare, so I can leave it for a bit and come back to it with fresh eyes and see if I think it needs any more work. In general though, you just feel like it looks ‘right’!

Q: What was your favorite book as a child? What is the best book you’ve recently read

A:I’d love to be able to say I read all sorts of literary classics as child, but the truth is I loved trashy serialised teenage novels. That’s probably why I tend to binge watch TV series these days. 

My book reading at the moment is a little complicated as I’m reading books in both English and French, and I read slightly different types of books in each language. So in English, I recently read The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (though this is a translation as it’s originally in German), which I thought was brilliant. In French I’m currently reading Un Avion Sans Elle by Michel Bussi, which is a thriller… but so far my favourite book to read in French is Club Des Chats by Yoon-Sun Park. It’s a graphic novel about cats!

Q: If you had to choose one medium to work in for an entire year, eliminating all others, what medium would you choose?

A: Ink. Though I realised I said my most important tools were my computer and Wacom—this is why I can’t choose between traditional and digital mediums! 

Q: What elements of daily life exert the most influence on your work practice?

A: This is a really hard question to answer because the truth is I never really stop thinking about work. Being outside and interacting with people is important for me because you can get ideas from things you see or the things people say. But I also love stories and all kinds of visual storytelling so I do watch a lot of films and read as much as I can make time for. I also work as a teacher part time, and I think that process of adaptability and problem solving crosses into both professions (though perhaps more tangentially).  

Q: What was the [Thunderbolt] painting or drawing or film or otherwise that most affected your approach to art?

A: Probably learning about Surrealism in my first year of art school. Before that my drawings had all been very literal, so it really changed my way of thinking about art. Drawing became this incredibly exciting thing because you could create something that couldn’t exist in reality. To this day I think I take a lot of influence from the use of visual metaphors from artists like Magritte and Khalo. 

Q: Who was the [Thunderbolt] teacher or mentor or visiting artist who most influenced you early in your training or career?

A: Personally I don’t think there is any such thing as a single perfect teacher. Each teacher brings something new to you, which is why it’s important to have a team of great teachers in any academic setting. Annabelle Stone was my first ever art teacher, and she was incredibly encouraging even though I’m sure my drawings looked terrible! That’s what you need when you’re a kid. Graham Rogerson taught me to be confident in my own work, and really nurtured my interest in art when I was in high school. They both really set the ball in motion from that point.

At art school, Jonny Gibbs was everyone’s spirit guide, almost like an illustration spirit incarnate. He taught us the importance of finding our own voice rather than focusing too much on what was fashionable in illustration. Jim McBride taught us not to take ourselves too seriously and to have fun with our work. Jill Calder was probably the most influential teacher in regards to my professional practice; she’s been one of the most supportive tutors I’ve ever met, particularly after I graduated. 
Q: What would be your last supper?

A:A big traditional Chinese meal (my mother’s family are from Hong Kong so it would probably be dishes more from the south of China).

Cat O’Neil is an award winning freelance illustrator from the UK whose clients include WIRED, Financial Times, Women’s Weekly, Time Out (HK), Arts Council England, Cedar Design Agency, XXI, British Medical Journal, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Perth Festival of the Arts, Scottish Fisheries Museum and more.

Cat graduated from Edinburgh College of Art with a First Class Honours in Illustration. She continued to work as a part time Illustration and Life Drawing tutor at ECA, Edinburgh Contemporary Crafts and Edinburgh University Art's Society until 2013. She was Artist in Residence at Edinburgh College of Art (2013) and Lingnan University (2014). She currently lives and works in Lyon, France. 
Instagram: catoneil.illustration



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