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Ciaran Duffy Illustrating space and the sea

August 31, 2012

Ciaran Duffy is an Illustrator, with one eye on the bigger picture. He has a fewdifferent sites and is another artist who is gracious enough to share his marks and makings with us, that go to form his finished work. Space, seems like a big interest. I asked him some questions.

Can you tell me a little about yourself… age… and how you started out in the art field, have you always drawn ?

I don’t feel that I have a very interesting biography, really. I’m twenty-eight. I’m Irish and I’ve lived there all my life except for a few months in Denmark last year. I’m living in Germany at the minute.

I have always drawn.. I think pretty much every child likes drawing, maybe some more than others, but there was nothing vocational about my drawing. When I finished school I was going to study something else but my parents thought that would be idiotic since art was the thing I was best at. I loved art but I just didn’t see it as a job. So I did a one year course for applying to art colleges. It was ok and I mostly just did still life paintings. During the course, we had a visitor from an animation college show us some short films and talk about (the incredibly labour-intensive process of) animation. Before the talk, there were about five people interested in studying animation, when our visitor left, they had all changed their mind, but so had I, I was the only one interested in it.

Animation seemed rigorous and technical where fine art seemed woolly and just a bit too easy. I felt like I would improve a lot more if I studied Animatin, which turned out to be true. So I’ve come to illustration through animation. I never saw myself as an animator but that didn’t matter. I learned so much on that course. One of the key things was life drawing and the sheer dumb luck of having a great teacher. My life drawing teacher was the best teacher I’ve ever had and it was her that somehow made me stop drawing in styles and to just have the confidence to draw in a way that was much more personal. It took four years but I got there. I just say that because it seems like illustration courses seem to be saying the opposite and I’m so glad I avoided that. In between finishing college and now, I’ve worked as a background artist, compositor, 3d modeller and texture artist, art director and technical director. There’s no way I could’ve planned a path that haphazard but, looking back, I can see how each job was a step in the right direction.

Where did your interest in space first begin, and if you had the chance would you want to travel in that way ?

I remember having a couple of big books when I was maybe 8 or so. They were cross-section books that explained how big machines worked. In retrospect, one of the books was pretty strange. It had a really detailed cross-section of the shuttle and its boosters and the launch pad, and then a step-by-step breakdown of the launch. And then, strangely enough, the next pages were just outright speculation and showed equally detailed cross-sections of hemi-spherical moon bases with greenhouses for growing vegetables and then a page all about this enormous torus-shaped space-station that revolved fast enough to create its own gravity so the people there could walk around normally. Looking back on it now, I realise I never actually noticed that moment where fact left off and science-fiction took over but my head just filled with ideas about life in space. The fact as well the fiction.

I think going to space is the one unnecessary thing I’d risk my life for. But I’m more than happy to get a second-hand impression of what it’s like up there, thanks to all the photos and videos coming from satellites and cameras on the ISS and now Curiosity on Mars. It’s ridiculous.

I love Ciaran’s astronaut sitting on the moon and his tribute to Curiosity, NASA’s latest robot on a mission to discover more about Mars.

He has previously written a story about the space race, involving a massive bear. I’m loving his perspectives and colourations too.

What inspires you ? who inspires you ? Do you look to other people for inspiration or do ideas just ‘filter in’ for new artwork ?

This is a tough one to answer. I don’t specifically seek out particular people when I’m in need of inspiration. I never feel uninspired. I do go through periods where I think everything I do is awful and I can’t bring myself to do anything, but even at those moments I still love all my favourite artists, film-makers and musicians and what they do just tumbles into my brain in a way that I don’t understand. The question about ideas is difficult. I think every “idea” could be amazing or crap depending on how you realise it. I don’t think other artists influence the kind of ideas you have, but I think their approach, the way they handle the idea and tell that story is where their influence shows itself in your own work.

I should name some names in case I sound like one of those people who claim not to be influenced by anybody so, in no particular order:
Hayao Miyazaki, Scott Morse, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Shaun Tan, Daisuke Tsutsumi, Egon Schiele, Emily Carroll, Ingmar Bergman, Flavia Sorrentino, Shojiro Nishimi, Zac Gorman, Akira Kurosawa, Maurice Nobel et al, Aurélien Predal, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jon Klassen, Karin Dreijer Andersson, Dave McKean, Boards of Canada, The National Film Board of Canada ..and I’m actually going to stop now because that’s a good few names and I’m nowhere near finished.

Of course, Ciaran doesn’t spend all his time staring off into space, especially whilst there are other places to explore. Now it’s life on the ocean wave !

I really like how these illustrations come to life with the help of a home-made, lego, 3-D stage set. How very creative !

You can see a walk through movie clip below.

I really like the fact that you show ‘ work in progress ‘ pieces, what advice can you offer illustrators who are just starting out ? How would you approach a new project (thought processes, notebooks, ways of researching a topic, etc) ?

I’m glad somebody likes those. I always wonder whether to upload them or not.

There’s probably a hundred ways to approach any project. Just do whatever gets the best results for you. Nobody can say for certain if the best way to start a project is to try every possible variation in order to find the best one, or to just go on instinct with the first idea. You’ll just have to see for yourself. As for research, it became a sort of a rule for us in college that if you’re going to draw something, you get some reference first but I don’t like that. It can obviously be helpful later on but I think the first thing you should do is draw, or write, the thing without reference. That way you find out how that particular object or idea exists in your head and what it really means to you. That’s where Cubism and Expressionism came from. The difference can be kind of amazing. Draw a horse without looking at a photo, then find a photo of one and compare. It’s embarrassing.

Advice for illustrators..I think there’s more than enough of that online. The only thing I’d say is don’t undervalue yourself, don’t work for free. Don’t let anybody tell you that some job would be great for your portfolio, that’s your decision, not theirs. Don’t let anyone promise you that this free gig will lead to more work because paid work does that too. I know when you’re starting out you might not be good enough to demand huge money but be reasonable. Be fair. Working for free isn’t fair.

For his first book, ‘ The Lion and the Mouse ‘, we can see how the characters progressed.

There’s a lot of great observational drawing going on here.

‘Autumn’ is about is about a bee who gives up and a bear who doesn’t.

Do you have any art mediums that you prefer over others ? i.e digital v traditional paint ?

It’s all great. I don’t really care how a thing gets made as long as it’s good. I love painting traditionally but it’s just a personal preference. For a start, I like it because, for me, it means not sitting down. The other thing I like (in theory) is that, at any moment I could make the brushstroke that ruins a picture that was really coming along nicely. It’s annoying at the time but, thinking about it now, it’s something that doesn’t come up digitally because of UNDO. I work digitally a lot too but I just tend not to upload my digital stuff.

Ciaran’s other projects involve Hamlet, Robots and intrepid Little Knights, who are afraid of nothing.

A few more images about the joys of swimming and underwater  life.

What are you working on now that you can tell us about ? and any future plans or aims, desires, ambitions ?

Comics. That’s what I’m working on now, and I’m really excited about it because it’s a new thing for me to be actually making them. I’ve been trying to squeeze my ideas into childrens book pitches for a while and it’s been a really awkward fit. I think I’m better off doing it this way, but we’ll see. I’m also going back from whence I came and making a short animated film which I’m really looking forward to working on too, but I can’t really talk about the projects specifically or show any work-in-progress as they’re happening because it just kills the idea.

Anyway, that’s the extent of my desires and ambitions. When I quit my last steady job, my ambition was to get published. Then, a year later, that happened and I felt nothing. There was no Mario-style fanfare with flags and fireworks. So that’s when I abandoned ambitions. The goal-orientated life, suddenly seemed totally pointless to me. My only ambition now is to make good stuff.

Not content with being a whizz at Illustration, Ciaran is also ventures into the world of small films, you can see some of his work at

Lastly can you name 5 things that you’d take to a desert island and 5 things that you wouldn’t.

I hate the heat. I really don’t want to spend any time on this desert island of yours and I don’t know why you’re sending me, so I think I’d take 4 GPS distress beacons, to be sure, and a dog for a laugh. Then I’d look for you. Five things I wouldn’t take? would be books, music or inflatable rafts, ’cause that’s just what they’d be expecting me to do ! 🙂

Thanks Ciaran for such honest, inspirational replies and for making us smile and gasp at such talented work. Carry on making the good stuff.

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