They create bold and playful concept-driven graphics across a range of disciplines, usually with a sense of wit and irony, that hark back to the visual innovators of NYC in the 60s. Except these guys are from Cork. James and Michael Fitzgerald have had their work appear in Wired, The Guardian, Adweek, Variety among others and their commercial clients include Jameson and Three Mobile. They frequently contribute to group shows as well as holding solo (possibly duo) exhibitions.
I presume there must be lots of shared experiences but what did you read/watch/look at/listen to as a kid or teenager and did anything particularly resonate and have a lasting effect on you choosing a creative profession?
Like a lot of people in creative professions, we were just the kids that were into drawing in class. Although there isn’t any particular thing that made us choose a creative career, it did seem like a natural progression when we left school to move in this direction. All our siblings were also good at art so it was just something we always did in our family. We really liked making posters and entered different poster competitions as kids and this probably influenced our decisions. We were just into art and drawing in general and at the end of school thought the idea of making posters or designing graphics seemed cool so we gravitated towards graphic design.
Can you describe your creative professional route to your current position? Did you make a decision to work together or did it even occur to you not to it was so natural?
We both studied graphic design in Cork. We had made a few band posters for friends during college but never had a real plan to work together as a career. When we graduated from college in 2005 and we wanted to get work in a design studio. Over the next few years, we spent some time travelling and working in different agencies. In 2009 we both arrived back to Ireland in the midst of a recession. At the time we had to sign on the dole but looking back now it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us. We weren’t too sure what we were going to do or even if we would stay in Ireland but after a while we started getting a couple of odd design jobs here and there that we would work on together. We worked well together and didn’t have a whole lot to lose so we decided to just go for it and set up officially in 2010. At the beginning we were working locally on different graphic design projects. After a while we started focusing on more and more illustration projects as it was always image making that appealed the most to us. We started to make as much personal work as possible and eventually our work got noticed online which lead to a lot of commissioned work and it built from there over time.
Can you describe the layout and structure of your studio? How long have you been in your current space? How does the space affect your working practice and how has your practice influenced your space?
We have been members of Sample-Studios, an artist run collective housing over 80 practitioners, for over 5 years. We have been based in a large old government building in Cork City during this time. Being in a building like this with so many other creative people is really important to us. Within the building we had our own room but there were also some open workshop areas that are hugely important to our practice. It allowed us to work on some of the bigger pieces we have made. Also being part of the larger artist community in Cork has been hugely influential to us and has helped us to open up our practice beyond design and illustration. Unfortunately, the studio group had to leave the building at the end of 2016 so we are in a temporary space at the moment. We will be rejoining the group in the next few months as soon as their new premises is ready.
You are members of Illustrators Ireland. Do you think it’s important for illustrators to get involved in the professionalisation of their business? Illustration is quite a solitary pursuit, do you find it helpful being in touch with colleagues both professionally and socially?
For us it’s not as solitary as there are two of us working together. Also being part of a large studio group helps a lot as we are surrounded by other artists and designers every day. In terms of professionalisation, it is important to us that Illustrators Ireland exists. Most of the illustrators in the country know each other and are open in terms of advice and help to fellow illustrators. It’s a good community to be part of. There is daily contact between members online and the occasional meet up for a few pints is always good too.
Can you identify a major turning point in establishing your current process?
There have been a few turning points that have influenced our process. Our first personal project in which we illustrated an A-Z of Unusual Words really helped us in terms of image-making and how we approach a problem. Also joining the Sample-Studios group opened up the scope of our practice allowing us to explore our work in other areas as well as being exposed to other people’s work practices. Joining Cork Printmakers and learning how to screen print has had an impact on how we approach an illustration. How you break down an image and simplify shapes and colours is something that has translated over to our illustration work.
What is your essential studio toolkit? Are there any new (or old) technologies that are having a big impact or shaping your professional aesthetic?
For our illustration work we use a lot of sketchbooks. We tend to use cheaper sketchbooks, pens and pencils as we are not really precious about our sketches. We use drawing as a means of exploring ideas and getting them down on paper as quickly as possible so they are usually just a bunch of random scribbles. When we work images up on computer we just use a mouse and keyboard. We like the restrictions that this offers. It helps keep our work simple and graphic which is an aesthetic we are always aiming for. When we introduce textures to our work they are always handmade and scanned. This could be old paper, ink or paint. We feel that this gives it a more authentic feel. In terms of our larger artworks it would be screen printing equipment, paintbrushes and mini paint rollers.
What work of yours, commercial or otherwise, represents a real breakthrough moment in terms of business but also in terms of creativity?
For both business and creativity, breakthrough moments seem to always stem from our personal work. The exposure we got from the A-Z project pretty much led to us having a commercial illustration career outside of Ireland. Our larger art pieces have led to some more interesting commissions which wouldn’t have come about if we hadn’t started trying out painting, screen-printing or building objects. Personal work is something that we really value. We never look at them as ‘side projects’ so we try to give it the same weight as commercial work.
A new project lands on your desk…take us through your initial process?
The most straight forward and common projects for us would have to be editorial illustrations. We get contacted either through our agent or directly by a magazine to see if we are available. Once we approve times and budgets they simply send through an article. Sometimes it could be just a synopsis or rough draft if the article isn’t ready. As long as we have something solid to grasp onto it’s usually ok. Most editorial jobs are open so there wouldn’t be much limitations. They just let you get on with your job which is great. We start by reading the article and try to pull out some main themes and sketch out anything that relates to that theme, just simple shapes, icons or even writing words. We are always after something conceptual rather than purely stylistic so we try to find visual connections between 2 different elements in the article. Once we find that then most of the job is done for us. After this we would work up a sketch in pen on paper, scan it in and send it of to the client. Once this is approved the making part on computer comes together quite quickly. Blocking out simple geometric shapes and adding some subtle textures and then a file goes off to the client. Editorial deadlines tend to quite tight. The whole process usually just takes a few days.
How important are non-industry/work related influences on how you think and produce work? Can you give an example of an important non-illustration influence for you?
Coming from a design background, illustration probably wouldn’t be our first influence. The strong graphic shapes of Swiss modernism are something that has always appealed to us. In terms of our ideas, anything from everyday life and visual observations all have a part to play in our work. Everyday objects would feature quite a bit in our work so we are always trying to find something playful within an object’s shape that can work in an illustration. We also watch a lot of comedians. Dark humour or a wry outlook on life is something that we like to explore in our personal work.
Can you share some thoughts on what you are working on at the moment or planning to work on in the next few months?
We always have a few editorial illustrations on the go which we really enjoy doing and we are also working on a couple of design and ad jobs at the moment. Apart from our illustration work we also have a couple of large scale art commissions coming up. Unfortunately, we can’t say too much about them yet but it will involve some large murals and 3 dimensional work too. We have also worked with Facebook quite bit and we are planning to go back into their Dublin offices soon to build a 3 dimensional installation using laser cut plywood which should be fun. At the moment we are also playing around with some ideas for an exhibition later this year. There might be some large paintings and maybe sculptural work too.
Do you still have time to produce personal work? Do you have any hobbies outside of work?
Absolutely. Sometimes it is hard to balance commercial and personal work but we always try and leave time for personal work. It is hugely important to our practice as this is where we can experiment, develop and learn. This then feeds back into the commercial work and we usually find that our personal work leads to better and more interesting commercial work.
Do you have any advice for someone interested in following in your chosen path?
Get a twin! It halves the workload. Although it also halves the pay too. Failing that it’s the same as anything else you want to do. You have to work hard for it and be willing to invest in yourself. If you don’t, no one else will. For us it was always our personal work that got us to where we are. Also we would strongly recommend not putting short term gains over long term goals.