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“... just because our world has reduced in terms of interactions, that does not mean there is nothing to observe. There is no such thing as nothing to experience in any given moment, even if we are totally alone.”

Ann Kiernan

Berlin, February 2021.

Interview with Ann Kiernan by Denis Leo Hegic

Ann Kiernan is an Irish illustrator, currently living and working in Berlin. Ann's work has been appreciated by a long list of awards so far – from the Moira Gemmill Illustrator of the Year Award 2020, V&A Illustrated Journalism Award 2020, HiiiBrand Illustration Award 2019, CA Illustration Awards Shortlist 2020, Social Art Award 2019 Selection to the World Illustration Awards 2018 Shortlist and many other honorable recognitions. In this interview we want to shed light on the artist's daily work, see how she thinks and ticks, and immerse ourselves in her creation.




Mixed media

20 x 30 cm

Ann, many of your illustrations accompany social and political journalistic reports - from the Washington Post to V&A. Are your brushstrokes well-tempered touches or rather brutal cuts with the chainsaw?

My brushstrokes are certainly considered. I know the line I'm going to make and with this type of work the mark needs to be made with confidence. That's not to say there aren't accidents but sometimes a flaw is the bit of magic needed to add emotion or to show the organic nature of the mediums working together - ink on paper. This horse is basically one stroke using the end of the brush handle to pull the ears and front legs from the ink.




One stroke illustration

Ink on paper

What about the motifs themselves, especially in the context of the articles? I'm thinking of your bleeding twitter bird, for example. Tell us about that particular work.




Ink and pencil on paper

Published in Open Democracy

For this article, which is about Twitter censorship, my goal was to portray that as an act of aggression. This is a second attempt for an image for the article. Initially I submitted an image which was called "Dead Tweet" and the author considered it strong but a little too morbid. I played around with a few different bird silhouettes and then it came to me that a pigeon was the original messenger bird and the silhouette is perfect to show energy. And that slash of red ink worked so well. 

When I sit to work on a piece of illustration for articles such as these, if I get a draft, I'll read it through a few times - I like to see if I can get a sense of the emotion of the piece, if it's anger or injustice or hope and I'll make an effort to translate that by using additional marks, like the aggressive black marks in "Twitter Jail" or perhaps I'll use a delicate naive pencil mark to suggest vulnerability. Sometimes it's like working a puzzle. I like to use a rule of three: you get three main elements and then arrange and rearrange until the puzzle clicks. As an illustrator I see my role as the route to capture the attention of a reader, to create an image that will cause them to stop and read the entire article.


DEAD TWEET (rejected first draft)


Ink and pencil on paper

That means you do get the full article ahead of time?

No, not always. 50% of the time you would get a headline or not even that. For the "Thinker" illustration for the Washington Post, the brief was to make an illustration for a series of ongoing opinion pieces to be written by experts making suggestions on how to approach the pandemic. I guess the best way to prepare for a bare brief is simply being interested in what's happening. So if I'm lucky enough to get a draft it's a bonus, then I can try to emulate the writer's own tension in the piece but probably the reality is, it's my perception of the story that I am using to inform the tension or emotion in there.

Are there examples when it is particularly difficult to illustrate a message of an article?

Absolutely!!! I'm currently experiencing that very issue. I said earlier it's like working out a puzzle so I will try several different elements and look at them from every different perspectives to see how they read - does it translate the message this way? Or that way? Often though, I completely scrap a concept and approach from an altogether different direction because most of the time there is a very quick turnaround for delivery so time is of the essence. The working out happens using pencil sketches with notes and once I've got it figured out, I get excited to get stuck in with splashing ink about!


TWITTER JAIL (sketch & notes)

It´s fascinating that you first "write" your sketches, which are about writing themselves. I have a proposal: Let´s make an experiment and transform this interview into a commission. How would you go about sketching out and illustrating this conversation? A possible brief: one person trying to learn from another creative head, both physically separated due to Corona, sitting in front of their keyboards.

(after a three-day break Ann replies:)

The experience of this period, the pandemic and lockdown and of not meeting physically to chat is itself a very disconnecting experience. Conversation doesn't flow so easily, trains of thought are lost because of poor connections and we have been reduced to a box in the corner of a screen. I think about how we are caught off guard by a frozen screen, in what is quite typically, a not so flattering facial expression, bad hair or questionable wardrobe choices. 

So approaching this one, I made drawing notes but stripped the image back to emphasize the isolation and the lost connection.



(working notes)




Illustrating the ongoing interview

Digital composite, ink and pencil

This is excellent, thank you Ann. I can't wait to hold it in my hands. Maybe I should hang it effectively in the back-wall of my zoom calls? It´s splendid to get a real-time insight into your design process. Do you have any advice for other illustrators? For other artists who base their work on observations, in lockdown times when you can't observe much more than your own four walls and the world online?

It looks like there is a pretty quick jump between my working notes and the final piece but actually there is usually a bit of head scratching and brain acrobatics going on during the entire process.

Advice for other illustrators...I guess I would say there is no wrong way to approach making a piece of illustration, it's a case of finding the route that helps you best work out what you are trying to say, if it's a personal piece. If it's an illustration for an article or story then it's usually a case of expressing what the AD thinks should be said visually, so it is a good practice to make notes and reasonably readable sketches because there is then an additional actor in your process. For artists and illustrators who base their work on observations and how to continue that during lockdown: just because our world has reduced in terms of interactions, that does not mean there is nothing to observe. There is no such thing as nothing to experience in any given moment, even if we are totally alone.

What about our own self commentary in the bathroom mirror each morning, or observations of the people across the courtyard. I am a confirmed obsessive people watcher but if there are no other people, I will look at me or if I don't want to look at me I'll make marks to sounds I hear or music, I will draw every day in some form or other. 

Sometimes I look inward and try to draw from what's within, it gives me good practice to paint expression or mood and at times it can feel uncomfortable putting that out on paper in colour, but this all works toward my practice and adds depth to the imagery I make for those tough pieces of illustrated journalism.





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