Episode cover for illustrator Kerry O Callaghan

Kerry O’ Callaghan was born and raised in Kinsale and moved to London to work after graduating from Limerick School of Art and Design in 2009. Work and travel took her to the USA and Canada before before she returned to the UK to pursue her dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator.

In 2018, Kerry graduated from Cambridge School of Art with a masters in Children’s Book Illustration. She has a deep love for creating stories for younger audiences and has been inspired by her nieces and nephews who are the toughest critics of her work.

Kerry returned to Ireland in 2021 and is now based in Clonakilty where she works as a Graphic Designer and Illustrator for both brands and publishers.

In this episode, we chat about her journey into children’s illustration and her playful style. We discuss the importance of diversity and representation in her work and her collaborative process. She also talks about the challenges she has faced, including gaining confidence in her work and navigating the highly competitive field of children’s illustration.

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Date:         29/05/2024

Duration:   24:06 mins

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[00:00:00] Geraldine Hennessy: So you’re very welcome to Cork Creative, Kerry.

[00:00:02] Kerry O’Callaghan: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:04] Geraldine Hennessy: So how did you get into art and particular children’s illustration? What drew you into this niche?

[00:00:09] Kerry O’Callaghan: So I always loved art. I was one of the kids who was always drawing or painting or making a colorful mess. In secondary school then I did art for my Leaving Cert and I knew that I wanted to do something creative, professionally.

But it’s so hard to know what can you do that will pay you money that allows you to be creative. And I went on and studied graphic design in Limerick School of Art and Design. Okay. And after that, I worked as a graphic designer. And I still do. And now I knew during the graphic design course that, so we had a final year show where you did what you wanted.

 So it was less like tight brief. It was kind of what would you like to do? And yeah, I realized I was really drawn to making pictures. Okay. But I didn’t know how to draw at that point. Okay. Other than like leaving certain art.

Geraldine Hennessy:Yeah. You hadn’t gotten your style yeah. Okay.

Kerry O’Callaghan: And as well, like I think our schools are like, it’s amazing all the things we learn, but we don’t have a big like drawing focus in Ireland.

 So I made like this little picture book that was out of cut out bits of paper and kind of layered all these little characters together. And yeah, I thought, oh, I’d really like to learn how to do this properly. Okay. It kind of just was something that I put together, but without really any knowledge of it.

 Yeah, went off working as a designer, but always had it in my head oh, I wonder how I’d get into that. Mm hmm. And I went and I worked in London and started like researching. When I moved there, I realized there was all these illustration degrees that people had done. I was like, what?

[00:02:19] Kerry O’Callaghan: I could have done an illustration degree. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn’t even know that it was a thing. Yeah. I heard about the Masters in Cambridge, Children’s Book Illustration Masters. Okay. And as soon as I heard about it, I thought, I really want to do that. Yes, yeah. It was a few years before I managed to get myself together to apply and it’s really competitive to get in and I thought, oh, there’s no way I’m going to get in I can’t draw.

But I got in. Yeah. Yeah. They obviously saw that I had something that I could work on. And yeah, it was, 18 month course, super intense, like learning the structure of picture books and yeah, just learning about all these artists that make these incredible stories for children that you only start hearing about once the world opens up.

Yes. Yeah. It just feels wow, there’s so much out there and there’s so much it doesn’t have to be the super famous ones that we all know about.

It doesn’t have to be that to be published and yeah, from there I didn’t publish the first book until 2021, and I graduated in 2018, so all that time I’ve still been working on trying to develop my voice and how I work so yeah, it’s been a bit of a journey

[00:03:50] Geraldine Hennessy: Very good.

You didn’t rush it.

[00:03:53] Kerry O’Callaghan: No.

[00:03:54] Geraldine Hennessy: You took your time and you knew what you wanted and you got there.

[00:03:57] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah, slow and steady.

[00:03:58] Geraldine Hennessy: That’s it yeah, yeah.

Can you describe your work and style to those not familiar with it?

[00:04:04] Kerry O’Callaghan: I like to use blocks of flat colour. I usually try and make it quite fun and interesting for the kid that’s reading it. And I like to mix like primary colors with more pastel colors. I love working on the color palette and finding out if you mix this color in this color, adding that color into the palette.

 Yeah, I would say playful and a little bit silly.

Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah, I think it’s quite fun

It’s not boring. I wouldn’t call it like flat in the sense that it’s quite immersive.

Kerry O’Callaghan:Yeah. But I guess with the word flat, I meant like blocks of color. Yeah. I don’t use any shading as such. I don’t have lots of shadows.

Yeah. It’s almost what a poster paint would give you, just like, yeah, a block of color.

[00:04:50] Geraldine Hennessy: Color. Okay. Yeah. Okay.

 And what inspires your illustrations for children’s books? Are there specific themes, styles or artists that influence your work?

[00:04:59] Kerry O’Callaghan: So what inspires me is definitely people.

And seeing how people interact with each other, seeing how kids interact with each other. Just, I think, looking around you. Okay. And looking at what exists in my nieces and nephews rooms. Seeing what’s on the walls and that kind of thing. I think those kind of things are, it’s actually a little bit more mundane, yeah, is what is inspiring.

[00:05:35] Geraldine Hennessy: But, yeah, but like I can see that because there’s an appeal in the ordinary as such.

 Very good. And is the process of creating the illustrations for a children’s book a process dictated by the illustrators, the authors or the publishers, or is it a collective approach and how do you navigate creative differences and maintain the integrity of your illustrations?

Kerry O’Callaghan: So the process is really collaborative and it really depends on the publisher you’re working with. Usually the publisher will put together an illustrator and an author. So like often, if I say to somebody, I’m an illustrator, they say, I have a great story, but actually, a publisher is much happier to receive stories and illustrations and make that match.

Geraldine Hennessy: They’re like the middlemen as such.

[00:06:26] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. And put a team together. For Minding Me, the publisher came to me with the story and said, here’s the text and it was really quite collaborative. So sharing rough drafts is what happens first, like rough pencil drawings of how it will all look.

And the authors then would review those as well as the publisher.

[00:06:50] Geraldine Hennessy: Okay.

[00:06:51] Kerry O’Callaghan: And make any changes that you want at that stage . So you have a little bit of back and forth. Like how about this instead or trying it that way or move that kid to this side or those kind of things. Yeah , everybody works together.


[00:07:07] Kerry O’Callaghan: And then moving on to color. Usually in theory, you, when you finish with the color, then there isn’t lots of feedback. And I’ve been lucky in that the two books that I’ve worked on haven’t had loads of feedback once I was at color stage.

[00:07:25] Geraldine Hennessy: So if there’s any creative differences, how would you maintain the integrity of your illustrations?

[00:07:32] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah, again, I think it’s quite collaborative. We think this, what would your solution be? Yeah, a case of having a little meeting together and discussing what other options are.

[00:07:43] Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah, so back and forth as such. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

And eventually it works out.

[00:07:47] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah, exactly.

[00:07:50] Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah, that’s part of life, it; ‘s a negotiation, isn’t it really? Yeah, Yeah. Okay.

And how do you approach the process of bringing a children’s book to life visually? Can you walk us through your creative process from conceptualization to completion?

[00:08:04] Kerry O’Callaghan: So it usually starts with drawing really small thumbnail drawings.

Okay. In a sketchbook, really rough, like they would look terrible to anybody else. It’s like shapes where the shapes would be. And then, placing where the text goes and thinking about, yeah, like when you turn a page, what would happen? So that’s like important to a kid.

[00:08:34] Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah. That first impression kind of thing.

Yeah. Yeah.

[00:08:37] Kerry O’Callaghan: Or that they want to turn the page. So making sure that you’ve got a good sense of the pace of where the text is and where the images are. Yeah. The next stage would be the pencil drafts. I usually work digitally for this, and I draw on the iPad. I would get that little scrubby thumbnail image and start to add a little bit more detail.

And when you blow it up to the size of the actual book, think, oh Would it work with? How much detail would I have to add and does it still work as a bigger image or is it just nice when it’s that small? And yeah, working through all of pencil drawings and then seeing. Sometimes on the masters, we were always encouraged to print that out and actually make a little book, see how it looks just as a little print cartridge paper.

How does that feel? And yeah, making any changes to that before moving on to the colour stage.

[00:09:43] Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. Yeah.

It’s a fairly lengthy process, isn’t it? Yeah. Yeah. I’m so naive. Like when I look at a children’s book, I’m like, okay, and I see the pictures. But you don’t realize the work and effort . Everything is positioned on purpose and yeah.

[00:09:58] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah.

[00:09:58] Geraldine Hennessy: Very good. Yeah.

[00:09:59] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah.

[00:10:00] Geraldine Hennessy: And do you enjoy the whole process?

[00:10:02] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah. Yeah. I love the process. Yeah. I love it. Yeah.

[00:10:04] Geraldine Hennessy: Seeing the finished product must be just incredible. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:10:07] Kerry O’Callaghan: It’s so exciting. Yeah. I remember seeing The A to Z of Minding Me in the Window of Kerrs. Oh gosh. And being like…

[00:10:14] Geraldine Hennessy: yeah, that’s the book I illustrated.

Yeah, Yeah.

[00:10:20] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah, and just holding it is so exciting.

[00:10:21] Geraldine Hennessy: The physical, because it’s probably been in your mind, yeah, and your iPad and all your sketches for so long. And there it is in its reality. Yeah. It must be so rewarding.

[00:10:30] Kerry O’Callaghan: It’s, yeah, super rewarding. But typical, I don’t know any illustrator who doesn’t just go through and look for things they wish they did differently.

[00:10:39] Geraldine Hennessy: The flaws, yeah.

[00:10:40] Kerry O’Callaghan: Oh, look at that. And it’s literally nobody would have seen it.

[00:10:42] Geraldine Hennessy: No one would see it but you, yeah.

I suppose that’s in every job, in every career. You always see the flaws yourself.

[00:10:48] Kerry O’Callaghan: As soon as it’s printed, yeah.

[00:10:50] Geraldine Hennessy: But that’s a good sign, like you’re always trying to improve it, which is good.

Exactly, yeah. Okay,


 Illustration for children requires a unique understanding of young audiences. How would you ensure that your illustrations resonate with children and effectively communicate the story’s message?


[00:11:06] Kerry O’Callaghan: I have lots of nieces and nephews. Getting to know them and seeing them grow up is really helpful for that and seeing how they interact with their books and what they pick out. I feel like the parent reading the story will pick up nearly a different message than what the child will pick up.

 But I think adding lots of little details is really important, especially for younger kids who mightn’t be reading yet. That they can almost make their own story out of what they can find in the pictures. I think also I’m a big child . I love to wear bright colors. I love just silliness. And trying to just enjoy life for enjoyment sake as much as I can. So I feel like little details that make me giggle that I add to a book are also things that, you know oh, I’ll put a big hat on that fox, and I’ll make her pose look like your granddad’s pose, or, yeah, that kind of thing, it’s just Silliness that kind of tickles me will often work with the child.

[00:12:26] Geraldine Hennessy: That’s not being disrespectful to you though.

But yeah I get where you’re coming from. Very good.

And how important is diversity in representation in children’s literature and how do you ensure that your illustrations reflect this?

[00:12:38] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah, I think it’s super important. Even just Irish kids books. Today’s Ireland is so different to when we were kids, but also the kids book market is also so different. There’s a lot more representation in the bookshops now But still not enough So I think, yeah, just really using my eyes and seeing who are my nieces and nephews friends and making sure that they can all look at books and go, Oh, that’s me.

[00:13:09] Geraldine Hennessy: That’s you. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. It’s so important, I think, in a children’s book, more so than in, in an adult’s book.

[00:13:17] Kerry O’Callaghan: Definitely.

[00:13:17] Geraldine Hennessy: That they see lots of different types of people, people with maybe a wheelchair or, that they’re not all just this perfect blonde , blue eyed, white, girl or whatever, yeah. It’s so important. It’s important to have diversity.

[00:13:30] Kerry O’Callaghan: It is, yeah. So I work for a company called Librio and our books are personalized. The kind of goal is that every kid can go on and find a book and design themselves on the website. Oh, yes. Yeah.

 Some of the books you can add a hearing aid or every kid can make themselves. Yeah. Yeah. That’s obviously not possible in a non print on demand book, but I think just making sure that there are always like main characters from different backgrounds with, as you say, like just seeing yourself.

[00:14:05] Geraldine Hennessy: Yes. Yeah. Little visual differences. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Very important. Okay.

And what do you believe sets apart a truly memorable children’s book illustration? Are there specific elements or techniques you prioritize to engage young readers?

[00:14:19] Kerry O’Callaghan: I think if I knew that I would be quite wealthy. I don’t know that there’s like a definitive formula that you can say that’s what it is. And I think all kids have a different favourite book, one favourite film and , so like it’s so hard to say that will be one that they like. I think yeah, just making sure that there’s like visual things that are remembered or that are noticed by the kids.

Yeah. It might not make it the bestseller, but it will be something that they can remember or keep going back to. Yeah and that’s always a lovely sign when I hear that, oh whoever’s little five year old, a friend, they want to read that at night. It’s even if that’s not forever.

Yeah. It’s it’s so nice that it’s something that the child wants to.

[00:15:19] Geraldine Hennessy: And I think a child will pick up on something like, I’m reading the same book to my son he wants to read the same book. He can’t read yet. But he loves looking at the pictures and what he calls the book is different to actual the name of the book, but that’s what he’s pinpointed from an illustration. In the book, there is a giant with an underpants. Yeah. And that’s what he calls it. I want to read the book about the underpants. Wow. And it’s just one picture, but that’s what he likes. It’s amazing how their mind works different to like my mind.

Completely. But he he loves that book.

[00:15:56] Kerry O’Callaghan: What is it? What’s the book called?

[00:15:58] Geraldine Hennessy: It’s the Kindest Giant in Town. Oh, yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. He’s got a whole series of those books in a bag and he just reads the same one now for going on three months.

[00:16:08] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah, you’re probably ready for a change.

[00:16:12] Geraldine Hennessy: Can we read one of the other books?

 Can you share any memorable experiences or challenges you’ve encountered while illustrating children’s books?

[00:16:21] Geraldine Hennessy: And how have these experiences shaped your approach to your craft?


[00:16:24] Kerry O’Callaghan: A challenge for me was having the confidence to put my work out there. Yes. And I think that’s something that a lot of creative people struggle with. I finished the master’s and there was just so much talent graduating the same year, coming up the next year is there’s so much out there and just feeling like totally overwhelmed.

Like, how will I ever make something like as good as all of these people? Becoming like comfortable with your own work.


[00:17:04] Kerry O’Callaghan: And remembering the reason that I want to do this work is the target audience I think you can get really overwhelmed with so many talented illustrators in the world, but actually my six year old niece isn’t going to be saying, but I preferred the smudging of the charcoal on page five you know, like, You can look at things from this art school lens.

[00:17:33] Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah,

[00:17:33] Kerry O’Callaghan: but ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

[00:17:36] Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah, exactly, I know, yeah.

[00:17:38] Kerry O’Callaghan: Um, So I think that’s something that it took me like a long time to come around to.

[00:17:43] Geraldine Hennessy: Letting it go a little bit.

[00:17:45] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah. And blocking out the noise of Instagram or Pinterest, or if you’re in a creative world, all you’ll see is that.

Just being able to put your blinkers on and say, Oh, but this is what I’m creating. Yeah. And becoming comfortable with what you’re creating. And it doesn’t have to be in the Tate Modern. Or it doesn’t have to have papers written about it for it to be

[00:18:13] Geraldine Hennessy: Successful. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:18:15] Kerry O’Callaghan: Or enjoyed by who you want to enjoy it.

[00:18:17] Geraldine Hennessy: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

Take the little wins.

[00:18:20] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s definitely a learning.

[00:18:22] Geraldine Hennessy: Okay.


Okay. Very good.

And has your approach to art evolved over time?

[00:18:28] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah, definitely. I think it takes a really long time to get comfortable with or pick the materials that you want to use.

 I think it’s still changing. I’m always going to be tweaking it. And I think it’s because I work a lot digitally, I can get a bit tired of looking at a screen and it’s just so natural to want to pick up pencils but it’s a lot more time consuming. Yeah. So if you spend a few hours.

It’s a few days making one spread, which a lot of illustrators do and the feedback from the publisher is, Oh, we need this piece to be on the left page. Then you have to start again and you probably won’t be as happy with the finished piece as you were the first time around. So working digitally means that you can very easily move things, change a color, try a few different options. While it makes it so much easier, there’s definitely that element of missing the tactile, getting your paints out. I’m always trying to find a balance with those.

[00:19:39] Geraldine Hennessy: And would you, if you were struggling, say, with a particular concept, say, would you just go okay, I’m packing this digitally, and I’m going to my pen and paper.

 Would that help you with the whole creative blocks?

[00:19:51] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yes. Okay. Yeah, that definitely helps. Or just making something completely different. Maybe just getting out inks, different colored inks and trying them. Not thinking about the project at all is almost the best thing to just have a play with some other materials.

 Or yeah, maybe trying it with something physical, but then scanning it in and seeing how it looks digitally, on a screen with some edits. But I often find that I end up redrawing it again digitally.

[00:20:27] Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah.

 It’s finding that balance, as you say, is important.

Okay. Yeah. Okay. Okay.

We mentioned it there in passing, but do you ever have to deal with creative blocks and how do you overcome them?

[00:20:39] Kerry O’Callaghan: Yeah, definitely I feel like you can be in the flow of something and then maybe you’re going to work on a spread that you thought it was all going to work really nicely and it’s just not working and I think, usually I will pause that, do something completely different, go out for a walk. We’re surrounded by such lovely landscape, just like taking in everything that is unrelated to what I’m doing. Have a coffee and people watch and seeing how people interact with each other and getting re inspired by day to day life.

[00:21:24] Geraldine Hennessy: So the everyday inspires you. Yeah, very much so. That seems to be the vibe that yeah, just even as we were saying earlier, they’re just watching your nieces and nephews, how they interact with each other, what they’re looking at, that all gives you that kind of push back into where you need to go.

[00:21:40] Kerry O’Callaghan: Definitely. Yeah. Yeah. And I think you absolutely can look through Graphic design books or look at paintings or I feel like that can overwhelm.

[00:21:52] Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah, the senses. Yeah


[00:21:55] Kerry O’Callaghan: Whereas actually doing something totally different is the thing that like…

[00:21:58] Geraldine Hennessy: Gets you back. Yeah. Gets it back on track.

Yeah. Okay. And what piece of advice would you give to aspiring artists or illustrators? Are there any lessons you’ve learned along the way that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

[00:22:10] Kerry O’Callaghan: I don’t know if somebody said this to me or if I read it somewhere. So the reason that you want to be an illustrator or an artist is like you know what, good illustration or art is, like you can appreciate it. So that’s probably what’s driving you to do it as well. Or design or whatever it is, you can see what’s beautiful and you want to be part of making it.

But I think the reason why a lot of people give up is that they’re not at a level of reaching their own standards. Yes, yeah. If you keep going and keep working on your craft, whatever it is, you’ll get to that standard. But being able to work through it is the hardest bit.

Yes, yeah. And being able to say, That isn’t great, but it will be if I keep going.


 So I think that’s something when I heard it, I felt Oh, that makes so much sense. Yeah.

Geraldine Hennessy: Just work through it. Yeah. Keep on going.

Kerry O’Callaghan: You’ll get to a stage that you’re really happy with the work you’re making and you will be at the level of all the people you were admiring so yeah, I think <iframe title=”Episode 50 Kerry O’ Callaghan, Illustrator” allowtransparency=”true” height=”150″ width=”100%” style=”border: none; min-width: min(100%, 430px);height:150px;” scrolling=”no” data-name=”pb-iframe-player” src=”https://www.podbean.com/player-v2/?i=kwibg-1625f47-pb&from=pb6admin&share=1&download=1&rtl=0&fonts=Arial&skin=2&font-color=auto&logo_link=episode_page&btn-skin=c73a3a” loading=”lazy”></iframe>.

[00:23:19] Geraldine Hennessy:

Very good.


There you go. On that positive vibe, Kerry, thanks so much for coming in to chat to us on the Cork Creative Podcast. If you’d like to learn more about Kerry and her work, you can find links to her website and socials on corkcreative. ie.

[00:23:32] Kerry O’Callaghan: Thank you so much.