Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 21, 2023

Illustrator Saturday – Airin O’Callaghan

Airin O’Callaghan completed her bachelor’s degree in Fine Art Photography at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and completed her first MFA degree in fine art specializing in cyanotypes, an old photographic printing process. Her work was nominated for The Netherlands’ prestigious illustration award, the Fiep Westendorp Stimuleringsprijs.

She worked for the national newspaper De Volkskrant, as a photographer, photo editor and art director, producing imagery of all kinds. She developed cyanotype workshops to children at the museum for contemporary art in Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum).

Airin enrolled in the online MFA Illustration program at the Academy of Art University, to strengthen her illustration skills. She traveled to Macau Chins and  she taught at The School of The Nations children ranging from age 4 to 18 years old: History of Photography, Photography as a Visual Language, and Photography as a Medium of Expression.

She continued her MFA in Illustration on campus in San Francisco. After a great first semester as a student at The Academy of Art University, she taught three different photography classes and worked as a part-time professor while studying illustration at AAU.

Two years ago Airin decided to focus 100% on developing as a professional artist. Years of combining photography and drawing development of her cyanotype technique has resulted in the continuing and finding my own unique illustration style.

She I lives in Berkeley now specializes in creating playful and engaging illustrations for children’s books. Her work is a mix of traditional and digital media with contemporary color palettes. She is represented by Astound Publishing.

Here is Airin showing her process for her latest book, Some Bodies:

This is the first sketch for the cover. It’s very rough. Just to give the idea and composition away.

Here is a first worked out sketch that I sent to my art director for review.

As you can see it needed quite some revisions.

 

This is the final approved cover sketch after incorporating the changes.

I pick my color palette.

Finished Cover

INTERVIEW With AIRIN:

 

Why were your parents living in Boston. Did they move to the US for their jobs?

My parents were living in Boston because my father was doing a PHD at the time.

What make your family move from Spain to the Netherlands?

My first mother sadly passed away when I was a baby, my father remarried a few years later and my second mother was from Belgium. He got a job in the Netherlands, which was one hour away from where my second mother was from.

Since you were only 7-year-old, do you remember any of your time in Spain?

Yes, a lot. Mostly the summers in the country side in a small town called Castell-ter-Col. Which means Castle of the Sun.

How did you decide to attend the University in Amsterdam?

I wish I could give you a more graceful answer, but I was 18 years old and not very conscious of how important it is to follow your heart and gut, and so I made the decision to attend the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, not because they had illustration classes, but because it was the most prestigious art Institution in the small country (The Netherlands). They had a difficult entry exam/ audition and I thought if I passed I would be “special” for doing so. Only after I passed and when I was in my first year I actually paid attention to the kind of classes they offered after my bachelors and Photography was the thing that came closest to illustration in that particular school at the time.

What inspired you to get your bachelor’s degree in Fine Art Photography at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam?

I partly answered this question above. Even though it was somewhat a coincidence/ mistake to chose photography, I did enjoy taking photographs a lot and I was always carrying a photo camera. Until this day I have a fascination with light and how light hits every object.

Did you continue to earn a MFA degree in fine art specializing in cyanotypes, an old photographic printing process at the University of Amsterdam as soon as your finished your BA?

Yes, I continued to get an MFA and during that MFA is when I started to combine photography with drawing. I essentially wanted to draw with light in a more literal way.

Can you share what cyanotype is for us?

A cyanotype is world’s oldest photographic printing technique. The cyanotype emulsion helped develop the light sensitive negatives that we later knew as film. It’s an emulsion consisting two chemicals that together become sensitive to light. When you coat a paper with that emulsion, you let it dry in a darm room, then, whatever shadow you cast on that paper and expose to the sun it will become white and what was exposed becomes dark dark deep cyan blue. It is beautiful. It still intrigues me. The first book done with cyanotypes was an encyclopedia of ocean flora by Ana Atkins.

 

Were you interested in editorial illustrating when you went to work at the national newspaper De Volkskrantllustrating?

Yes and also photography. I ended up doing all sorts of imagery. Whatever they needed. If you have ever worked at a newspaper you know what a crazy jungle it can be. It was during my internship at The Volkskrant that I, through trial and error, learned what my limits were and what I was good at. I think it was the start of me accepting who I was and trusting that if I gave in to what came natural to me things would turn out okay for me. Ongoing learning process!

 

Were you attending University of Amsterdam during this time when you submitted your work to Fiep Westendorp Stimuleringsprijs, Holland’s most prestigious illustration
award?

Yes, or I had just graduated a couple months before that. Because I submitted my graduation work.

 

What did you submit to get nominated for the award?

My graduation work consisted of 7 large original cyanotypes. 18×24” if I believe.

What inspired you to travel to Macau Chins to teach children history of Photography, Photography as a Visual Language, and Photography as a Medium of Expression at the School of The Nations in China?

After somewhat burning out at the The Volkskrant and breaking up my first relationship you could say I was somewhat lost. I was 23 and looking for experiences that would make me grow. My dad had a colleague who’s daughter had been working in Macau for over 10 years and I wrote her asking if I could come volunteer.

My graduation project at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco consisted of 7 images inspired on the book ‘Madeline’. I produced them all with cyanotypes. Then colored parts of them in with Procreate on my iPad. My agent at the time said that this work was beautiful but not commercial enough to promote on their website, so I had to change my style in order to get illustration work.

Here are some of the cyanotype images from my thesis and from my own archive: 

Did you have to learn Chinese?

No, because it was an international school and everybody spoke English.

How did you decide to move to San Francisco to continue your MFA?

Well, Macau was only a three month position. I knew I wanted to study illustration after my internship at The Volkskrant. All arrows just pointed into that direction.
I had actually enrolled before going to Macau but I knew that Macau was a once in a lifetime experience and I didn’t want to let that slip through my fingers. So, I did my first semester at the Academy of Art university off campus while I was teaching in Macau. As far as why I picked the Academy of Art. Since I was born in Boston I always have had an
American passport. I could teach and study at the same time, which international students on a visa cannot. I had also visited California for the first time and just really loved the illustration department. At the there was no school in The Netherlands where you could in depth learn about
the fundamentals of drawing and major in Children’s Book’s illustration.

Did you know anyone in San Francisco when you arrived in the USA?

Not really. I had some family living in Reno. Which now in the meantime I have gotten to know very well.

How and when did you get started doing Murals?

I love this question, because it was a turning point for me. I had actually been teaching photography at The Academy of Art University while studying illustration at the same time. But what I was noticing was that even though I loved both, I really couldn’t go wide and deep at the same time. After two years my brain really asked me to choose one if I wanted to get good at drawing or grow as a professor. I was scared to lose my job as a teacher for financial reasons. But in the end I said to myself “Airin, don’t let fear make this decision. Jump for once and go in to become the artist that you want to be and commit to it.”. Doing murals was the solution to the financial problem. I needed a side gig that would still be related to drawing and would help me grow as an artist instead of pulling me into a different direction. During my last year of my MFA
in Children’s Books Illustration I had done about 5 murals and I had a lot of momentum and clients lined up. So, when I graduated I wasn’t totally terrified of being empty handed as far as having a job. Little did I know that Covid was around the corner and would completely kill my momentum. That’s when I got an agent and started to focus more on Children’s book. But quitting my teaching job and doing murals was the committing to becoming a professional artist.

What sparked your interest in illustrating children’s books?

When I was little I was always drawing and writing my own stories. I actually wrote a lot of poems too. I did that first I think, when I was really young. Like 8 or 9 years or so.

In May of 2021 you illustrated a board book titled When I Hold You by Ashley Huffstutler. Was this your first illustrated children’s book?

Yes.

How did B&H Kids find you for the illustration job?

They contacted my agent Astound.

 

Were you working on your second board book God’s Always Loving You, while finishing When I Hold You?

Yes!

Was Love You, Little Lady your first Illustrated picture book?

Yes :).

How hard was it to juggle illustrating three books in such close dates?

Haha. It was pretty tough. But looking back pretty essential to grow as a professional. COVID was in my favor. Because all my distractions disappeared and I was at home all day focused on getting it done.

How and when did you connect with your agency, Astound?

Right after I graduated and COVID hit. March 2020 I believe. I just sent them an email.

Last year I found your illustrations when I featured Some Bodies by Sophie Kennen. How long did it take you to illustrated that book?

Ehm.. The process was about 6 months I think. But not full-time hours.

I see that The Mermaid with No Tail in coming out this year in September. How far are you in the illustration

I would say I am half way through rendering the final art. So over half-way done.

What do you feel influenced your illustrating style?

Well, in the beginning my cyanotypes really influenced my style. But since working with bigger publishers and tighter deadlines, there is just no time for traditional media and I just don’t seem to find the space and time to work with cyanotypes. Further, I look at a lot of artist and if I like their work I try to study it and incorporate whatever it is that I like about it in my own work. But honestly I struggle a lot, because I often feel that I am trying to make things perfect instead of having more fun while doing it. See, when I was doing cyanotypes I didn’t have that problem. But, unfortunately it is also part of the job to give publishers a little bit of what they want, and dot eyes don’t sell. Muted colors also don’t sell. And like this there is more. So, I think that working in the professional field has shaped my work because I have to work with the time limitations. It’s a loaded question for me at the moment. But as far as what influences or inspires my work in general, let’s say something I draw for pleasure, for myself, then what always drives me is just the place within myself that makes me feel warm and safe. My happy place sounds cliche, but I think that’s what it is.

Would you consider illustrating a book for an author who wants to self-publish?

If the project holds enough value for me, yes.

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

I don’t really count because I am always drawing when I am working. I would say I try to be mindful about how much I work. To stay healthy.

Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

I do style and color research, yes. I tune in to what I would like the final book to feel like when I hold it in my hands once published and that’s what I try to hold onto for the duration of the production process.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Yes and no. As far as getting an agent and communicating remotely with art directors and publishers, yes. I also get a lot of emails from people wanting to publish their first children’s book looking for an illustrator. As well as commissions. Instagram is great for doing commissioned work. The downside of the internet is dat so much information is available, and it is still sometimes hard for me to not get intimidated by seeing so many great artists out there. The algorithms know how to bombard me with the stuff that I really love, not just illustration, and sometimes I feel that because I see so much great stuff it is hard to really still be impressed or moved by something anymore. I have to desensitize first before I take in new information, or before I judge my own work within the framework of myself – if that makes sense. From what I remember from before the internet I was never comparing myself to other artists in a way that would make me feel bad about myself. I compared myself to myself and that was always a positive curve upwards. And if I saw other people’s work, which was not that often and never while in the middle of my own project, it was an inspiration and something that would motivate me to become even better. Now everything has changed and it gets hard sometimes.

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?

I work on my iPad Pro with Procreate. The very first sketches are often on small pieces of paper.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter or Procreate with your illustrations?

Procreate.

Do you have any career dreams you want to fulfill?

I would really love to make enough money from my business as an artist. I have another hobby and that’s making animal dolls and bears, I just love my sewing machine. It’s a different way for me to bring characters to life. I love fabric. If I could somehow bring it all together, in a shop, or a YouTube channel… or who knows. That would be great. But one step at the time. If I could first bring back my cyanotypes or some other way of working non digitally back to my work flow, that would be amazing. I just don’t know how yet!

What are you working on now?

I am working on Mermaid With No Tail a picture book with Sounds True Press, I am also working on another book with Little Simon, I have a couple murals and two family portraits
lined up. And I have an 8 month old baby to take care of!!!!

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us?

Paint or paper Just do whatever feels good to you, that you love – the best place to feel better is in nature first!

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

Well, when I was younger I used to do great work in an impuls. However it was never sustainable because I couldn’t repeat it on a consistent basis. So, essentially I never really learned a lot. This might sounds a bit abstract, but what I am trying to say is that I learned over time that when you put hard work in, you will grow in a deep way. Not just on the surface. But you really can make your skills your own. And even when you get tired of something, just take a break. But don’t quit.

For some people this is basic, but the basic wasn’t obvious for me for a long time. So if I can help someone else out there who feels like they are going in circles, I just want to say: even when it is really boring, or it hurts, or you don’t see the point, maybe you need to go take a breath, go for a walk and don’t make any decisions from a disregulated state.

Airin, thank you for taking the time to answer the interview questions and sharing your process. Please let me know about your future books and successes so I can share them with everyone.

You can visit Airin using the following links:

WEBSITE: https://www.airinocallaghan.com/

INSTAGRAM: https://www.instagram.com/airinocallaghan/

LINKEDIN: https://www.linkedin.com/in/irene-o-callaghan

ETSY: https://www.etsy.com/shop/airinsworld

FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/airin.ocallaghan

AGENCY: https://astound.us/publishing/Irene-o-callaghan

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Airin, your journey is amazing and your work is so beautiful, I’m glad you chose the art path over teaching (though teaching is wonderful too!) 😀

    Like

  2. I love her work!

    Like

  3. Wow, I love these illustrations, especially the water/beach scenes. Thanks for sharing your work!

    Like

  4. Fabulous! I LOVE the cover for The Sun Will Rise and the two little girls with the surfboards. All of the illustrations are lovely, but those two are special. Thanks for a beautiful post.

    Like

  5. Beautiful!

    Like


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