Evoking emotion through illustration with Mark Conlan

Mark Conlan is a professional illustrator based in Melbourne, Australia. He develops conceptual based illustration for products, editorial, picture books, advertising campaigns and one off commissions for clients all around the world.

Your work is very defined. There’s a lot of nature, expressionless people and juxtaposition — why?

I guess defined is a hard word to use when it comes to my style. I would like to think that I am beginning to find a style that I can call my own. I have only really been an illustrator for over a year now, so it could always take several more years to really define it.

Yeah I really do feature several elements throughout my work quite regularly. I guess the main reason is because these are subjects that really interest me and I find it easiest to express myself through them.

Who doesn’t love nature? The simplest thing like a walk can bring us the greatest pleasure and clear our heads. I also think it’s down to me developing as an artist and these are the elements that are helping me shape my style along the way.

My work can tend to be quite moody lately so that’s where I am coming up with these expressionless people. I used to really illustrate my characters as very animated and full of expression. I find that doesn’t really appeal to me anymore. I’m trying to find other ways to express emotions throughout my artwork, whether it’s the composition or the colour palette.

So you used to be a UI designer. How did you generate the confidence to switch from UI to illustration?

After leaving London and heading for Australia, I was set on continuing as a designer when I arrived In Melbourne. I freelanced for a little while but I quickly realised it wasn’t for me.

I always loved the idea of illustrating but I never thought that it could be a viable path. I played with the idea and so I began taking on less design jobs and then eventually phased it out completely.

I’ve now been working as an illustrator full time for just over a year now and I have never looked back. Obviously the biggest concerns are how am I going to pay the bills, but I managed to scrape by initially. I think the creativity, passion and being your own boss outweighs anything else.

I get to do what i love the most everyday while influencing others around me — now thats perfect :)

A lot of your work is quite contrasting, separating light from dark or wet from dry. You seem to have such control over the space in your illustrations.

I like imagery that creates an emotion. Something that can pull us from one mood to another. This is something I have really been toying with lately in my work, I guess you could call it a learning/experimental phase.

Having such contrast in my work allows me to play with the composition and control the space where I want the viewer to be.

It can also help me create multiple focal points too, which i find really interesting. Obviously there are certain times that a creative doesn’t allow you to be that moody or experimental.

Sometimes the underlying mood needs to shout happy and provoke joy. This is when I love to pull out the crazy characters and bright colour combinations.

Your Instagram shows you like to explore with different tools such as watercolour and pencil sketching & colouring. How does this fit into your process?

I am a big believer in keeping notebooks on the go all the time. I believe this is a huge part of development and discovery. I also love the idea of having full notebooks to go back on and pick up ideas for future projects.

In these notebooks, I try experiment as much as I can. I think being experimental keeps me fresh and it can give me some great techniques to bring into my digital work.

A lot of my notebook journey is for my own personal fun and enjoyment too.

How do you decide what goes into your portfolio? Any tips for how to curate?

I always find it hard to decide what to put in my portfolio. What I may like may be less appealing to anyone else. I always tend to dislike older work for the reason that I have grown out of it or something.

I usually go with my gut and add the work that I like the most, hoping that it works. Maybe I should get someone to look over it more often. Maybe thats a good tip — go with your gut and add the work you like the most, but then get someone who hasn’t been involved in the process to look over your choices and see if they like the curation.

You just recently opened your own online store! What’s been the biggest challenge of that so far?

It hasn’t been too difficult so far. It’s so much better than selling through the likes of Society6 or Redbubble and you get to actually interact with some of your customers.

It was difficult choosing what prints to sell and what people actually would buy. This is definitely something I am learning along the way. Some sell and some don’t.

I also finally found an awesome printer here in Melbourne — Hound & Bone in Brunswick. They’re super talented friendly and passionate about what they do.

What advice would you give to an upcoming illustrator who’s trying to attract more clients?

Keep developing your own style and don’t be afraid to experiment and get out of your comfort zones. Potential clients don’t know who you are yet, so get out there and introduce yourself and the potential you have.

Find Mark on: Twitter | Instagram | Dribbble | Behance | Portfolio

What is The Creative Series?

The Creative Series is a publication run by Femke that highlights the under-deserved creatives of our industry. If you’re interested in being featured or want to submit someone, please reach out to Femke on Twitter.

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About the author

Hi I’m Femke — a designer, writer and podcaster who overlaps between a day job, freelancing and side projects. I love to help other creatives be the best version of themselves. I’d love to get to know you more, say hi on Twitter 👋