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A Fine Line: The Illustrations of Tim McDonagh

By Charles Purdy

From a spare studio in his Brighton, England, flat, 27-year-old Tim McDonagh creates vibrant, imaginative editorial and advertising illustrations.

Although the rest of his home is decorated with art prints and the like, McDonagh keeps his studio bare so he can focus on his work. There’s a large desk, his two-PC setup, his pots of pens and brushes, a Moleskine notebook to sketch and scribble in, and a taxidermy magpie for company. “I like things very clean,” he says. “I’ve lived here for six years now but only moved into my new place under a year ago, so I still feel as though I’m setting up really.”

“Here” is Brighton, a progressive seaside town with a flamboyant creative streak, and it makes sense that McDonagh—whose showy but sophisticated sensibility has earned him a client roster that includes Wired, Field & Stream, New York Magazine, Nike, Penguin, and many others—has set up shop here.

Brighton is home to a diverse population, and these people are a source of inspiration for McDonagh. “I really love subcultures and the identity, brand, or look that some of them give to people,” he says. “I love a lot of pop culture stuff too...sci-fi, TV, old punk music, tattoos.” Even more than these, though, he is inspired by nature and wildlife. And the fun comes from combining these varied sources: “So a tattooed Darth Vader, sitting in a woodland, listening to The Ramones would be a good illustration, I reckon.”

Illustration of a fish, commissioned by

“This was only finished a couple of weeks ago for Field & Stream magazine,” says McDonagh. “I was given a really nice article about a guy who had searched his whole life for a fish this size, and when he finally caught it he didn’t have the heart to kill it and keep it as a trophy. It was an excuse for me to just get really into all the detail of this fish and incorporate it into an interesting composition.”

Illustration of two children with flashlights. Illustration by Tim McDonagh.

“This was a cover for New Scientist that I did a couple of years back but am still really proud of,” says McDonagh. “The whole issue was about the night, and this image touches on some of the articles in the issue. I was allowed to do whatever I wanted really, and we ended up turning it into a special fold-out cover.”

WILD CHILD

McDonagh credits his atypical childhood, in part, for his fascination with wildlife and the natural world. Born in England, he moved to a self-sufficient commune in West Virginia with his family when he was seven years old. They lived there for four years, a time that left a significant impression on him.

“We grew our own vegetables, reared animals, and had our own school there where all of these things were taught,” he says. “This had a huge impact on me…. There was wildlife everywhere, and we had the freedom to go wherever we wanted within 100 acres.”

Back in England after that, he had some difficulty adjusting to a more traditional school environment—one where painting on classroom walls, milking goats, and growing vegetables weren’t significant parts of the curriculum. “Going from that environment at age 11 back into a Catholic school, where a school uniform was mandatory, the Lord’s Prayer was repeated every day, and lessons included maths, science, and English, was really quite a shock.”

Eventually, McDonagh’s parents decided that it would be better to home school him. By the time he was ready to go to college, he’d long felt connected to drawing—and he’d put together an impressive portfolio of personal work. Through his college studies, he fell in love with illustrating, and he went on to study illustration at the University of Westminster. It was there that he found his niche in terms of the materials he wanted to use and the types of images he wanted to create.

Toward the end of his university studies, we won a D&AD New Blood Award. And that led to some commissions and to being signed by the Handsome Frank Illustration Agency, which represents him today.

An illustration by Tim McDonagh, it shows a majestic lion.

“This was for a magazine cover here in the UK, for their World Cup special,” says McDonagh. “I only had a weekend to deliver the rough and final for this, and it was quite a tight deadline for a fairly complicated image. It all came together really nicely though. I used a statue of a lion for reference rather than a real lion, and I think that really added something to the look of the creature.”

Illustration portrait of Thomas Rothman, by Tim McDonagh

McDonagh says, “On the surface, this brief seemed quite difficult: Variety magazine wanted a portrait of Thomas Rothman, the chairman of Sony Pictures, on the cover. There aren’t a lot of pictures of him online, and I didn’t know much about him, but I came out with something that I was really happy with. I really love the work of Daniel Clowes, and I think you can see a bit of that inspiration here.”

DRAWING OUT DETAILS

Unconventional though his early years might have been, McDonagh works in a fairly typical way: After he (and the client, of course) is happy with a pencil sketch, he draws over it with a brush (Winsor & Newton series 7, to be precise) and ink (Higgins Black Magic). When he’s finished the drawing, he scans it—in pieces, since his drawings are usually larger than his A4-size (standard document size) scanner will allow. “Over the years I have perfected how to do this,” he says, “but it did take some time!”

Then he uses Adobe Photoshop CC to color and finish his drawings. In each of his illustrations, he likes to work within a limited palette of colors, choosing hues that he finds strange or interesting.

Although he has become known for complex, finely detailed line drawings, McDonagh has recently also been employing broad strokes and heavier lines. A recent cover for Variety magazine (a portrait of Thomas Rothman) shows how McDonagh combines these two drawing styles: the central figure is fashioned in bold lines, while detail lines are finer. “I would love to go even heavier with my lines and create some stuff that is more graphical,” McDonagh says. “I’ve toyed with the idea of a sort of illustration ‘alter ego,’ and it’s something I’ve got a few ideas for.”

“I think I’m slowly starting to learn that it’s good to take risks,” he continues. “When I left university five years ago, I was so nervous about working with clients and making mistakes, I didn’t really allow myself to take risks, which might lead to interesting work. That’s something I’m only now starting to feel comfortable with and ease into a lot more.”

In the near future, McDonagh has just begun working on a dream project that he’s not allowed to discuss. “But,” he adds, “if I could've told 11-year-old me that this is what I would be working on when I was 27, I think he wouldn’t have believed it.” He’s also having fun with skateboard deck designs (which he enjoys for the interesting dimensions) and taking on more editorial and book assignments.

So as a professional illustrator, what are his struggles? “I find the social media, constantly updating my online presence, quite difficult,” he says. “It’s this strange paradox because if you don’t update your online profile, it looks as though you’re not really working or active—but the reason it’s hard is trying to find the time to do all of those things! Usually if I have a quiet day or two, I think, ‘Ah, I should do a new blog post or website update.’ But most of the time I find that a bit of a struggle.”

An illustration by Tim McDonagh, based on the video game Zelda: Ocarina of Time

“This was a dream project,” says McDonagh. “Medium asked me to draw something that represented my favorite video game. Zelda: Ocarina of Time has always had a special place in my heart, and I remember playing it at around age 11 whilst my two younger brothers would watch.... The piece I did was quite personal to me and seemed to resonate with a lot of people too, which was great.”

Illustration of a woman looking at a fire, for Atlantic magazine, by Tim McDonagh.

“This was for a story in The Atlantic,” says McDonagh. “For me, the fun of it was trying to light the girl in the right way, and even though there are some parts of this image I look back at now and wish I had done differently, I’m still really happy with how the girl in the image comes across. I think there’s something kind of moody about it, and that is always a fun sort of emotion to conjure up!”

LEARNING AND TEACHING

One of McDonagh’s first illustrator obsessions was Adrian Tomine: “It was through studying his work that I realized how much you could do with a brush and ink as opposed to pens,” he says. “His graphic novel Shortcomings completely blew my mind. Each frame is so well composed and beautiful, it kind of influenced not necessarily how I want my work to look but how much time and effort I should be putting into my work.”

He says that Aaron Horkey’s work was another eye opener: “The detail and how he visually describes objects is just staggering.” And he describes his university teachers—such as Alan “Charming” Baker (“before he got world-famous”)—as having been essential to his development as an artist.

Having been home-schooled for a few years, the notion of going to college had been fairly terrifying for McDonagh—but he ended up thriving in the environment. These days, McDonagh goes back to that same college to lecture for future illustrators. “It’s really lovely to be able to go back and meet students who are just starting out down that path,” he says.

On a practical level, his advice for these students is to practice drawing celebrities and politicians—likenesses of famous people are especially sought after by magazine art directors. He also stresses the importance of a cohesive portfolio and of experimentation as you seek to find your own style. “It’s great to be influenced by people,” he says. “But through that influence, you have to try and invent your own way of working.”

Check out more of Tim McDonagh’s distinctive illustration work on his portfolio site.