Interview with Laura Callaghan
We kicked off the week At Work With with Magazine Brighton, learning more about running an independent magazine shop, and to end the week we look at magazine illustration. We spoke with one of our favourite illustrators of the moment, Laura Callaghan, whose work has recently appeared in a wide range of magazines.
Illustration above from The Lifted Brow
Laura was illustration editor for Oh Comely between 2010-2013, and she has recently drawn a collection of particularly memorable images for Riposte. Her fiery and iconoclastic work has also been featured in independent gems like The Pitchfork Review (above), and she’s been a weekly contributor to powerhouse Sunday Telegraph weekend supplement Stella for three years.
How do you first approach a brief for an editorial commission?
It depends a lot on the time frame I have to work with. Ideally I like to do a lot of research and collating of reference images beforehand. I dismissed Pinterest as a shrine to cupcakes and wedding invites at first but now I’m obsessed with it! I start a new board for any project I’m working on. I’m not someone who draws out lots of thumbnails, I’m too impatient so usually dive straight in to sketching and figure out layout and composition by trial and error. I use myself as a model if I need additional reference for figures, hands, facial expressions etc. My laptop is full of embarrassing Photobooth pictures – I should delete those. Once pencil roughs have been approved I ink the image using an isograph pen and then colour using watercolour or Photoshop depending on time. I’ve had a few hectic months so digital colouring has been my friend lately.
What is the difference between your editorial work and your personal work?
It makes a big difference to be involved in a piece of work from start to finish, the initial concept, planning and creating - I put far more of myself into personal work. It’s an opportunity to experiment without wasting a client’s time or money, and express ideas without censorship or editing. I didn’t have the opportunity to make many personal pieces last year but I’m making a new body of work to exhibit at Pick Me Up in April at the moment and it's so much fun - I missed it! I enjoy a good editorial brief but you can’t beat the freedom of personal work.
Are you usually given a lot of freedom for interpreting a brief?
I’m at a stage now where I cultivated a particular style so editors know what they're getting when they commission. In most cases the art director will attach a few samples of previous work I've done and requested something similar in tone or colour palette. So yes I think comparatively speaking I have more free reign now than I did when I first started freelancing. That being said, every job is different and some art directors have a particular vision in mind: that can also be a good thing!
Your illustrations for the third issue of Riposte depict the evolution of street style through the decades. What was the process involved for this project?
I was really busy and a bit overwhelmed when Danielle (Pender), the editor, contacted me so my initial impulse was to turn the job down, but the reference photos she sent through swung it! The essay was written by Nina Manandhar, author of ‘What We Wore’, and she has compiled a treasure trove of personal photos from lay people and celebrities involved in subculture fashion from the 1950’s onwards.
I researched the trends I was unfamiliar with - UKG didn’t quite make it over the waters to my north-eastern Irish town - it was so much fun to look at pictures of head to toe Moschino and Burberry. I sent through initial sketches but was given a lot of free reign. I inked and coloured all five illustrations in a sleepless 48-hour period, it was intense!
Are you usually shown a written article before you illustrate it?
80% of the time no - I usually get a brief outline and perhaps a few details which the editor wants the illustration to focus in on. It’s a double-edged sword, in some ways I think not reading the copy beforehand lends itself to more unbiased creativity - an immediate response to an idea. On the other hand you’re missing out on some details and minutiae, which could strengthen the piece.
When you were illustration editor for Oh Comely, what did you look for when commissioning work?
Oh Comely had an established tone and look when I joined so my job was finding interesting illustrators who could add another dimension to the magazine without compromising the overall feel. We favoured illustrators whose work had a hand drawn or tactile quality; the magazine was intended to be a break away from hectic modern life so anything too brash or overly vectorised and digital looking would have disrupted that. Oh Comely’s content has always been engaging and strong so the main aim was to pair pieces with illustrations that held their own.
And how would you match content to an illustrator?
I kept a list of illustrators I had come across online and sorted through it when a new issue was being commissioned. I tried to categorise names by the facets of their portfolio that I was drawn to, they may have been great at portraits or hand rendering for example. We did a feature on fictional maps where I got to pull from my 'map' archive. It was quite an organic process though, I think taking the time to properly look through an illustrator's portfolio and blog gives you a good sense of where their strengths lie and whether the article you have in mind would be of interest to them.
Your weekly fashion illustrations for a column in Stella centred on a different garment each week. Did the quick turn around affect your style in any way?
It certainly encouraged me to pare back my paintings more and be less precious about perfecting every little detail. This was more to do with the scale I was working at than the timeframe however, the illustrations were printed at 54.5mm x 120.8mm so it was pointless focusing too much on the tiny details. I drew one illustration in the same format every week for 3 years; your brain works in a different way when creating something so familiar - I finished up my last ever Stella illustration this week incidentally, just in time for London Fashion Week!
What are the most difficult editorial briefs?
I find the drier more corporate briefs most difficult. I work as a graphic designer part time now which has afforded me the luxury of turning down jobs which aren’t of any particular interest or which I feel my work would not be right for, but there are always tight months so I can sometimes end up working on an illustration that’s a chore to finish.
What would be your dream magazine to illustrate for?
I’d love to do something for Lucky Peach, they are doing really interesting and unexpected things with their content and design, it’s be fun to illustrate something food related! I’d also like to work with Vogue, mostly because I think it would impress my Mam.
Interview by Madeleine Morley