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Interview with illustrator Ellen Rooney

Thursday 16 March 2017
Words Spindle

Ellen Rooney is an illustrator, designer, and artist hailing from Massachusetts and now residing in the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Her work feels whimsical and magical, with beautiful soft colours and a variety of textures. We caught up with Ellen herself to discuss her work,  her creative process, and her favourite commissions.

How did you get into illustration and graphic design? What compels you to create?

I’ve loved drawing since I was very young. From those early days, I connected reading and looking at books with wanting to make those things. That is part of the beauty of books when you are a child. The membrane is permeable. Ed Emberley had these wonderful books that showed you how to make people and animals out of simple shapes and I remember spending hours drawing epic scenes on big sheets of old dot-matrix printer paper that my dad would bring home from work. I used to write little stories and illustrate them. Drawing is an activity that produces a thing. As an activity, drawing is a way to observe and make sense of the world using your eyes and your hands, and that is probably what compels me the most. I’m also interested in that end result, and the process of sharing that, but that basic drive to draw goes pretty deep.

You produce both illustrations and you’re a graphic designer – tell us about your work.

I have lots of interests, so when I started out, I saw graphic design as a way to be visually creative and work in a variety of fields where design was needed. I’ve always been more drawn to editorial and communication-based design, which led me to work for magazines, museums, nonprofits, and environmental groups. For many years I focused on graphic design and did very little art and illustration, but over time I realised that while design is creative, it doesn’t really exercise the same muscles that art-making does for me. Sometimes very literally – you can spend a day designing and use nothing but your mouse hand! Gradually, I began to carve out time to make art. I moved to Canada with my husband ten years ago, which shook up my work life and led me to do more freelance and contract work, and also gave me the flexibility to study, practice, and find my way into illustration.

Your work feels quite magical and almost fairy-tale inspired, while also remaining quite rooted in the natural world. How would you describe your work and its visual style? How did you develop this?

Style is one of those hard-to-plan things. You set out on a journey following your personal interests and passions. Then you start bouncing off other influences – artists you encounter, client briefs you work on, teachers, books, other fields of art and design. And you just keep working, picking up skills, following your interests, re-focusing, learning what you need in order to take the next step. Sometimes you aim for one thing and end up discovering something else. In my case, terms like art “work” and art “practice” are very appropriate. For me, it takes a lot of both. If I try to identify where my work comes from, I would say an interest in the natural world, people, and in art that has a narrative component. Visually, I like to push representation toward more simple and abstract forms, so there’s room for the viewer to fill in the blanks.

What’s your creative process? Which materials or techniques do you use?

Drawing and sketching is a constant. Understanding my subject matter helps free me up. Cutting things up is my secret superpower. It forces me to simplify shapes and overall composition. So I often start with collage, and mix in a variety of other media. I love having a brush in my hand, so I use gouache or acrylic paint to play with texture and colour. I do a lot of exploration and sketching off the computer, and then assemble bits and pieces digitally.

Do you have a favourite series or piece of work that you’ve created?

A commission to illustrate a feature for Spirituality & Health magazine is a recent favourite. Their art director is great to work with, and she wanted to use animals to represent archetypes of different types of spiritual seekers. So it was the perfect opportunity to use natural imagery in a metaphorical way, and to invest the story with a sense of mystery.

What kind of briefs and clients are you drawn to?

The best clients are the ones who understand and value your strengths, but who elevate your work with their own high standards and enthusiasm. The working relationship is important. I also look for new things to learn and a project I can believe in.

Which commissions have you most enjoyed responding to?

It’s exciting to help create something I couldn’t do alone and watch it take shape in the world. Last year I was asked to design a series of interpretive panels for a nature trail. It was a great collaboration, and a chance to dive deeply into the natural and human history of a very special place.

Is there something you ultimately want to communicate with your work?

Illustration is an approachable kind of art. It can be innocent, fun, and decorative, but it can also touch on deeper themes and connect people to something bigger than the moment we find ourselves living in. When I think of the long history of stories, folk tales, songs, and fables, and the long line of artists, known and unknown, who have illustrated these kinds of stories, I think it would be great to carry that on in some small way.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been immersing myself in children’s books recently with a deeper focus on characters than I have in the past.

What’s your dream creative project? 

I would love to develop a children’s book as an author/illustrator.

Check out more of Ellen’s work at: ellenrooneydesign.com.