Off the back of a number of big-name commissions and a brilliant solo show in London, the Irish illustrator Laura Callaghan is very much in-demand. But her seemingly stellar rise has been built on huge talent, hard work and a few odd jobs along the way.
For a short time she worked in the accounts department of a biscuit factory (the free biscuits were a let-down she says, but it did stand her in good stead for the financial side of her freelance career). Later she was illustration editor for Oh Comely magazine, a position that opened up her appreciation for visual styles that differed from her own.
“Part of the role was keeping an eye on what my peers were doing, but also discovering new illustrators to work with, so I found the work of lots of illustrators from further afield than the UK and the US which I might not have encountered organically.
“The house style of Oh Comely was quite muted, tactile and hand drawn – not really the kind of work I was drawn to at that time. But commissioning for articles gave me a much greater respect for wider styles of illustration. It can be too easy to say, ‘I like this thing, but not this thing,’ and to dismiss work without giving it a closer look.”
Being exposed to this range of influences clarified and strengthened her own approach, and it’s easy to recognise one of Laura’s images now thanks to the combination of color, composition and content.
Using watercolor, Indian ink and isograph pen she creates bold and beautiful work, almost always focussed on young women.
“I like to draw women with strength,” she says. “But that’s not to say they are perfect and together characters. Their lives and environments are messy, sometimes they’re working dead-end jobs, stuck in a rut or a terrible relationship. But I don’t think having that vulnerability makes them any less strong.”
She is, she admits, less interested in drawing men, but that’s more of a practical than a political decision.
“My work is very narrative in nature and a lot of the issues and experiences I’m exploring are personal, so I tend to tell those stories from a female perspective. I didn’t start out intending to only draw female characters, but it’s definitely where my interest lies.”
This ability to build her own experiences into richly compelling artworks was very evident in her exhibition earlier this year at London’s KK Outlet. Titled Aspirational, it was a reaction to – and a reflection on – the abundance of “inspirational quotes” Laura was seeing pop up in her social media feeds.
“These profound phrases, intended to motivate and inspire, are revealed to be meaningless when applied to real life,” she says. “They serve as a kind of rent-a-philosophy, as though copying and pasting something is a statement on your own beliefs.
“I came across so many inspirational quotes being used by brands on social media to try to engage with customers on a personal level.
“Some were so absurd and cringe-inducing – big businesses trying to cultivate a personality and essentially market people’s lives back to them. But these motivational posts are often the ones people react to the most, so each piece in the exhibition was a play on a particular quote.”
Brilliantly – but perhaps not surprisingly – she has now seen some of her pieces re-used on social media by brands who didn’t get the joke. “It’s the circle of life!” she laughs.