Character Study: The Whimsical Illustrations of Peter Donnelly

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The whimsical illustration work of Irish designer Peter Donnelly runs the gamut from children’s books to craft beer labels.

Peter Donnelly’s illustration career didn’t get off to a textbook start.

“I applied to art college when I finished the equivalent of high school in Dublin, but I was rejected,” says Donnelly. “And that lit a fire under me. Rather than sit in my bedroom, depressed, listening to Joy Division, I thought, ‘I’m going to prove these guys wrong.’”

In the end, that closed door may have been a stroke of good fortune. Because at roughly the same time, former Disney animator Don Bluth had decided to relocate his own studio to Dublin, shortly after receiving critical acclaim for the 1982 film The Secret of NIMH and gaining the backing of luminaries like Steven Spielberg. Donnelly scored his first job offer and spent the next 15 years working as an animator on feature films including An American Tail and The Land Before Time.

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“It was such a lucky break,” Donnelly says. “I didn’t have to go traveling to pursue animation as a career—it just landed on my doorstep.” Donnelly worked directly under Bluth, finessing his character designs, creating model sheets that showed characters from different perspectives, and training new artists arriving at the studio. At the time, Disney was no longer producing high-quality work, a gap that led many to credit Bluth with spearheading the second golden age of hand-drawn animation.

In 1997 Bluth headed back to the United States and settled the studio in Phoenix, AZ. He invited Donnelly to join him, to mentor younger animators and oversee a crew of 50 artists. Occasionally, Donnelly would travel to oversee work contracted out to smaller studios in Los Angeles, California; London, England; and Budapest, Hungary. Six years later, he moved to Berlin to work as an art director at another animation studio before returning to Dublin and eventually pursuing freelance illustration work.

“When I first started showing my portfolio to agencies, it was very different from the work they were seeing from other illustrators, due to the influence of my animation background, so I was picking up work almost immediately,” says Donnelly. “But I was very much a jack-of-all-trades, making a lot of money doing storyboards and other conceptual development work; I hadn’t really developed my own style.”

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A poster design by Donnelly detailing “a mish-mash of Dublin (Dubhlinn) medieval history.” All images from donnellyillustration.com.

peter-donnelly-illustration-craft-beer-labelsIllustrated packaging for Smithwick’s Craft Beer

To do that, Donnelly looked to heroes like Jim Flora, Mary Blair, Charlie Harper, Milo Sasek and even Picasso. He also found inspiration from fairy tales, mid-century art, and linocuts, which led him to create a series of illustrations around the German telling of Little Red Riding Hood. Donnelly exhibited “Rotkäppchen,” at the opening of the Copper House gallery in his hometown of Dublin.

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“That was one of the first ‘honest’ pieces of illustration I’d done, that really came from the heart, reflecting some of the influences that had inspired me for years,” he says. “It got such a strong response, a lightbulb went off in my head: You really do need to create work that comes from yourself, and not the work that people expect you to do. From that point on, I always showed art directors the type of work that I wanted to get.”

Soon, Donnelly received an editorial assignment from a Scottish magazine called Hot Rum Cow, for an article detailing the history of British Cider; the high-profile piece was recognized in Creative Quarterly, and quickly led to even more work.

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Hot Rum Cow

He’s done everything from children’s books to beer labels and even tennis shoes. When a friend mentioned that Bucketfeet Footwear was licensing images for use in stylish sneakers, Donnelly submitted two designs depicting traffic in London and New York, which proved to be among the more popular patterns in their men’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection. (For the record, he has yet to wear the shoes on Dublin’s streets, but a pair of each share a prominent place in his studio.)

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Bucketfeet Footwear

When the Dublin office of The Brand Union landed a rebrand of Irish Flapjacks granola bars, they asked Donnelly to combine his illustrations with images of healthy fruit, chocolate, and nuts. “I suggested a stripped-back vintage look, with very little color so the photographic elements could pop,” says Donnelly. “The project shows the influence of my career in animation—simple characters that contain a lot of movement, even though they’re single, still images.”

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Irish Flapjacks granola bars

Two years ago, Donnelly hired an American agent to promote his work in North America, and he considers it one of the best decisions he’s ever made. John Brewster Creative Services has led to illustration work for Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s, Milkbone and Safeway. But on the other side of the pond, Donnelly represents himself—a challenge that has proven much easier thanks to Behance, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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“Social media has been the best thing for my work,” he says. “I know a lot of illustrators hate using it, but it’s 20 percent of my job every day—a free way to get my work onto people’s desks. Years ago, when I started out, I was knocking on doors, cold-calling, dropping off my physical portfolio, which is a good lesson that can help build confidence, but you could only do it in your own town; I wasn’t going to fly to the United States and cold call agencies, it’s just too expensive. Now I can do the same thing with the click of a mouse.”

Right now, Donnelly is collaborating with a London agency to update a brand of potato chips, or “potato crisps” as they’re called in Ireland. He’s also secured a contract to author and illustrate two children’s books for Gill Books, the first time he’s crafted his own story rather than illustrate the work of another writer. The topic of the first book? A pigeon’s adventures in—you guessed it—Dublin.

See more of Donnelly’s work at donnellyillustration.com.


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