Exploring Illustrator Mark Conlan’s Colourful Universes

Artwork by Mark Conlan

Mark Conlan never planned to make a living as an illustrator.

But thanks to a move from his home in Dublin to Melbourne, Mark came to the realisation that the grass was greener trading in his career as a UI designer, for sketching and creating radiant character-based illustrations full-time.

When I catch up with Mark to chat in the middle of Adobe Max in LA—a kind of creative melting pot/design conference that occurs once a year—he’s happy to be meeting other artists from across the globe; a rarity, he admits, given the typically solitary life of an illustrator.

But from Mark’s lone work in his leafy studio, entire universes of his own imagining are created, filled with distinct colour palettes and whimsical scenes that could be scenes straight out of your favourite storybook. His distinct style has seen him bag high profile clients such as New York Times, the Guardian, Adobe, Airbnb and more, as well as amassing a huge online following. I sat down with Mark to chat fusing traditional drawing with the digital space, making the leap into illustration and why the world needs to be curious again.

So, how’s the creative world treating you down in Melbourne?

It’s good, pretty thriving. A lot of illustrators I’ve spoken to here [at Adobe Max] have been like, ‘Oh my god, I’m such an introvert, I’m not used to these crowds.’ Because as an illustrator you literally spend all of your time alone in your little space, which is pretty sad (laughs). It’s good though, you get work done right? Gotta get your head down.

So you were a fulltime UI designer back in Dublin before you transitioned to illustration when you moved to Melbourne. Do you think it took moving to Australia to get you to make that leap?

I was animating in uni, then kind of came out at a bad time—Ireland was in the middle of recession—so we moved to London, where I was doing a lot of self-taught graphic design, working across several agencies doing brand UI and logo design. I always wanted to do illustration because it was such a big part of the animation, and then when I moved to Australia I did a few agency jobs and really fell out of love with it. I’m not sure if it was the freelance enivronment—it can be a bit of a hostile, and when you’re going in by yourself.

At that stage, I realised you could be an illustrator as a career. I never really knew that you could actually make money doing it… I know it’s not all about the money, but obviously, you’ve still gotta pay your rent. So I went at it full-on and haven’t looked back since. It’s hard at the start when you don’t have any clients and you’re just drawing (laughs) and you’re like, “What am I going to do with these?” But I was quite determined and made sure I treated it like a full-time job. Even just creating personal stuff that you can put up online, start building an audience which will help build a client base.

So do you always begin with physical sketches, or are you happy to start sketching in Photoshop?

It’s kind of changed recently with Photoshop being on iPad, it’s really helped with sketching on the go. But I always make sure I have a sketchbook with me, all the time. Inspiration can strike at any time, so I like to be prepared and I like to have that tactile approach; it’s good to have that pen on paper feel, and I think it’s an easier way to get out an idea. Then, of course, everything comes across to the digital realm from that one piece of paper. But I think it’s just a nicer process that gets you away from the screen for a bit.

Colour is such an important part of your work, has there been anything particular inspiring your colour palette at the moment?

Colour is just an intuition that some people have—it takes a bit of work to get used to certain palettes, and see what works for you. But when you start to find your own style, you find that certain colours really help to juxtapose your work. So I dunno, I feel there’s been a lot of trial and error, and finding what’s comfortable for me.

I love that piece of yours that plays with a burst of colour coming from within the white space.

Unexpected Discoveries?

Yeah, that was amazing.

That was really cool, because that was just a couple of sketches that got developed—there’s a guy who’s based in Atlanta, he said he’s a fan of my work and he was like, “Well, why don’t we animate it?” He was working on it for almost a year, and I hadn’t seen it and was so curious, like, “Are you still working on this…?” ‘Cause another animator wanted to work with it, but then he sent it to me and my jaw hit the floor, because I haven’t seen anything all along, and the sound was unreal too. The positive feedback that got was just amazing, he’s put that into loads of films festivals, Vimeo put it on their homepage, WeTransfer.. that was a cool project, now the pressure is to do a second one… I don’t know if I can (laughs).

Are there any new tools or features of the Adobe programs you’re really looking forward to experimenting with?

Yeah, for sure. Photoshop going onto the iPad Pro, that’s going to be amazing. Obviously they’ve had Adobe Sketch, which is a mobile app, for a while now which is great, but it was still quite limited when it came to my process in terms of digital. Photoshop is a massive part of my work, so bringing that completely on iPad is amazing—just having what you’re used to, you don’t have to slow down to speed back up again, if you know what I’m saying? Being able to get out of the studio some days and take your iPad with you is amazing, and having full access to Photoshop is going to be life-changing.

Then there’s Abode Gemini which is the painting and drawing app. Kyle Webster who was demonstrating it, I’ve always been a big fan of his because I’ve always used his brushes online. He’s the guy who brought in the real tactile brushes into Photoshop and changed everything. It looks amazing, the way the paints look and the way it reacts with the watercolours. You can drop in a new colour and it just blends… that changes everything, it’s just going to be so much fun.

I think that’s what we need—more fun again. A lot of digital media has become such a process; if you look at some creatives who put a lot of videos out online of their process, all the questions that come back are like, “What brush are you using? How are you doing that?” There’s no curiosity with a lot of people, they just want to find out straight away how you do something and it’s like, “Well, just experiment. I’m just showing you my process because some people are interested, but it’s not the brush you have to use.” Buying the right camera or having the right tool isn’t going to make you the photographer or the artist that you want to be, you’ve got to try it out for yourself.

‘How to Build a Relationship’ for the New York Times

What have been some of your favourite projects you’ve worked on in recent years?

I’ve been really fortunate to work on a bunch of cool projects—the Adobe video we worked on was awesome. It was putting myself out there on camera, but I knew I was working with an amazing team so I wouldn’t be, like, cringing. I’ve worked with the New York Times who’re awesome—they’re real old school editorial, you get an art director who… almost imagine them sitting at a typewriter smoking a cigarette, it’s kinda cool (laughs). They’re quite free for you to be yourself, like ‘We came to you in the first place because we love your work, so we’re not going to over art direct you.’ That was great because they were someone who I had always wanted to work for.

See more from Mark on Instagram @markconlanmarkconlan.com and see the latest from Adobe Sketch here.

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