Éilis McDonough interview: Drawing with an adventurous spirit

An interview with Éilis McDonough – a fantastic artist operating out of lovely Portland, Oregon.


So many great things have happened as a direct result of my decade (and counting) on Twitter. Just one of them is chancing upon the lovely artwork of Éilis McDonough. I can’t recall now exactly how I came across her work – but it definitely involved Twitter, and I am definitely glad it happened! As you can see from the examples of her work on this page, Éilis (or, rather, Sir Éilis, to accord her the full knightly title of her Twitter name) has a beautifully flowing line, an enviable gift for balancing sombre backgrounds with vibrantly coloured details, and a neat line in portraits of – to use her delightful phrase – “stern-looking women”. In this interview, Sir Éilis generously gifts us good-natured, witty and wise insights into her working methods and her inspirations, plus some excellent advice for those who might be thinking about selling their art. Please do consider following Sir Éilis on Twitter or Instagram. My thanks to Sir Éilis for taking part in this interview, and for her permission to present her artwork here.

MC: This is a question I always like to ask artists: What is the earliest thing that you can remember drawing?

EMcD: That’s really hard for me to say because I was such a prolific artist when I was little. I think that it’s a mermaid! I was obsessed with the ocean and wanted a mermaid tail so I could swim with whales.

MC: I’m interested in the routines and habits that creative people develop to help their creativity flourish. What are the best circumstances for you to put pen to paper? Do you have a favourite time of day to draw? Do you like to have music playing?

EMcD: I either need to have the house entirely to myself for an hour or two to get the ball rolling, or start late at night when other people in the house are sleeping. I’m very sensitive to noise and can have trouble focusing if there’s anything going on outside of my workspace. Generally I like to work on projects late at night or very early in the morning, and I’ll throw on some ambient nature sounds or soft music. Lately I’ve been listening to ambient/background music from my favorite video games while I work!

MC: Do you dive straight into the artwork, or do you allow time for the idea to percolate (whether through research or just letting concepts brew in the subconscious)?

EMcD: Usually I spend a fair amount of time thinking and daydreaming about a concept before I actually start the drawing process. I’m trying to get better at setting aside time to build up my visual library and practice drawing other objects I want to incorporate into the drawing aside from the character (seashells, seaweed, fabric textures, etc.). I’m generally the type of artist who waits for inspiration to strike rather than putting my nose to the grindstone every day and sticking to a drawing regimen. Though, to be honest, I think it would serve me better to be the more hardworking, disciplined flavor of artist!

MC: The characters in your recent pictures come from a diverse array of locations and historical periods – but there’s such a stylistic unity to them, too. Do you ever imagine a world that might contain them or a narrative that might unite them?

EMcD: Well, the world that contains them is the one that we live in! They’re generally inspired by characters in folklore that I’ve encountered and interpreted in my own way.


MC: I could see your art fitting in beautifully with a comic/graphic novel form. Is this a medium that interests you – and if so, any particular favourite comics/graphic novels or comic artists/creators?

EMcD: You know, I’ve never quite gotten into that medium of storytelling, and it’s not for lack of trying! Something about it doesn’t resonate with me, though I love illustration in general. I’d love to try my hand at illustrating children’s books someday, though. I should probably expand my repertoire and practice drawing more things than stern-looking women first!

MC: Your artistic style is unique and hard to pin down. There seem to be a range of flavours in there, including art nouveau, ancient Greek art and perhaps even touches of Celtic mythology. What are the main influences on your drawing style?

EMcD: Good eye! This isn’t really an exciting answer, but I look at a ton of art. And I really look at it closely! I love seeing how different people interpret things like texture and movement, how they simplify shapes so that the subject doesn’t necessarily look perfect – or even realistic, sometimes – but it’s still believable. I try to figure out how they built it up, too; it’s like a puzzle! I also spend a lot of time just observing things around me when I’m out and about and thinking about how to effectively communicate that stuff on paper later. So really, I just take in a ton of visuals from different sources and play around with a variety of techniques and ideas until something sticks. It can come from anywhere!

MC: What one work of art would you most love to have produced?

EMcD: I’ve been thinking about John William Waterhouse’s painting “Boreas” a lot lately, so I’ll go ahead and say that. I’m obsessed with the movement…and the texture of the fabric…and the sky in the background. It’s just so good.

MC: What materials do you use (inks, papers, paints, etc)?

EMcD: I’ll sketch with pencil first and then fill the drawing in with inks, mostly. I use Copic multiliner pens for outlining, and a mixture of gel and white/metallic paint pens for everything else. Recently, I started sneaking some colored pencil in there, too.

MC: For those who draw, there is nothing like losing yourself completely in your art. What is the longest that you have ever lost yourself in drawing without realising that you’d not even taken a break?

Four hours, I believe. I’m sure there are many others who’ve spent more time than that at once on their work, but that sure is a hefty chunk of time for me!


MC: It was fascinating to see your recent Athena drawing take shape via your tweeted updates on the work in progress. Please could you talk me through the process of producing such a piece?

EMcD: I noodled around with stick figures until I found a pose that I liked, then did a basic sketch in pencil until I had a very basic outline of her character done. Then I outlined everything in black, and spent a long time staring at it in a mild panic and thinking “OK, now what? How do I fill this in?” I put down a layer of white Prismacolor pencil for her skin, followed by two coats of a white paint pen to smooth it out. Then I crisped up the line work with more black, spent a considerable amount of time filling in all of the texture in her clothing and fixing little mistakes here and there, filled in all of the metallic gold bits somewhere along the way, stared some more, added more little details here and there on her helmet and shield, then called it a day. That’s generally the process for each of my drawings. Sketch, outline, staring and panic, details, staring and panic, metallics, finishing touches. It’s working out alright so far, though I don’t recommend much of the panicking part of this method to other people!

MC: Have you ever sold your art – either as original pieces or as prints? If you ever have, what advice for people looking to do so?

EMcD: I have, actually! And that blows my mind. My advice is to always ask for more money than you personally think your work is worth (because you’re probably underselling yourself, if we’re honest here), collect half of the payment before starting work and the other half after completion, send your client some updates as you work to make sure things run smoothly and they’re getting what they want, and do everything you can to provide a deadline and meet it. It’s not as scary as you think it is.

(I still have to tell myself that…)

MC: What is the thing that you most enjoy drawing? Is there anything you would prefer never to have to draw (or never to have to draw again)?

EMcD: I love drawing people: always have, always will. I’m also starting to dabble in drawing animals more and that’s been so much fun! I used to hate the idea of drawing a lot of things, but very recently I’ve had a change of heart and want to be good at drawing everything. So, I suppose nothing is off limits now!


MC: Do you have any advice for anyone who might be thinking of taking up drawing regularly?

EMcD: Dive in! Treat it as play and don’t take it so seriously. Celebrate the goofy mistakes that are absolutely going to happen and learn to laugh at yourself. Focus on effectively communicating an idea rather than giving in to your perfectionism or trying too hard to develop a style right away. Try different tools and mediums. Just draw, and do it with enthusiasm and an adventurous spirit. You’ll get better through practice.


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