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Melina McGough’s Risky Business

By Terri Stone

Melina McGough is a risk taker. From drawing live in front of audiences to quitting her corporate job to pursue a career as a full-time artist, the girl has guts. We sat down with the Melbourne, Australia illustrator to talk about building a brand while being true to oneself.

Create: How did you learn to draw?

Melina McGough:  It wasn’t something I had to learn—it just came naturally to me. When I was five years old, my dad gave me a whiteboard. I had the freedom to draw and experiment without making a huge mess. It was just fun; the more I drew, the better I got, I guess.

At university, I studied fashion design for a few years, but I didn’t like the mathematics of pattern-making and grading. I was more interested in concepts and sketching.  I then pursued graphic design and completed a Bachelor of Communication at RMIT University. I chose an illustration and painting elective and graduated at the top of my class. I went to Milan for six months on a scholarship and was so inspired by the culture that my fascination for observational drawings began.

After uni, I worked as a graphic designer and lead digital content producer in marketing teams within fashion and beauty companies. The places I worked loved my art style and encouraged it. I did some illustrations on ads, some posters, textile prints on their bags, and finished art packaging.

On the side, I was always doing freelance work; mostly illustration commissions, like celebrity portraits. Every night I'd be drawing until 2 or 3 AM, doing work for my clients, and it took up most of my weekends.

Create: Did you have a business plan when you left your corporate job?

MM: I didn't, really. Before I left, I did make sure that I was financially stable and that my brand was recognizable. Everything is word of mouth now. I hustled and worked on my brand for years until it got to a point where I felt it could support me.

I did a bit of analyzing and market research to get to know my audience; how and why they chose me, and what it was about my style that appealed to them. I thought about people’s buying spending habits, too. I always want my work to be affordable.

Create: How would you describe your brand?

MM:  My brand is authentic, black and white, timeless, and powerful.

I provide a unique service, including original art, wall prints, custom requests, murals, live drawing, and brand collaborations. Soon I’ll be expanding onto interior products and textiles.

I've always been drawn to the black and white—it's really art in its most basic form. The main is to create emotive work that connects with people on a deeper level. It’s contemporary work with an eco-friendly and sustainable approach.

I feel like a lot of illustrators, especially in the fashion industry, are doing the same thing, drawing in the same style—you know, skinny, pretty girls, delicate features with pink flowers. I'm a little more dark and edgy. I like to bring out and evoke emotions. Life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows—people are complicated. When I'm on Instagram and see people killing it, it's tempting to do what they're doing. But you have to be true to yourself. People can tell when you're authentic or when you’ve copied someone else's style.

Create: What appeals to you about celebrity subjects?

MM: They're influential, iconic, and instantly recognizable. Most people have a favorite celebrity that they want drawn; I just go with the flow and do what the people are asking for.

Clients come to me because they want something different, and they're happy for me to have creative freedom. I develop sketches and experiment with mediums—I might use pencils, inks, or paint. I always start with pencil and then go in darker. Most of the time, it's a combination of mixed media.

Create: Do you ever use digital tools, or is it all analog?

MM: I do sometimes use digital illustration tools; for instance, when I'm doing commercial work that requires a printed document or text. I scan drawings in Photoshop, where it's easier to clean images, edit, or enhance shapes. I use InDesign for pre-visualization samples for clients, as well.

Create: I saw examples of lettering on your Instagram. How long has lettering been one of your skills?

MM: Lettering is something I really want to improve on. I’d like to master it before I can say I’m a letterer or take on any lettering jobs. It’s really a separate skill. I had a class at uni dedicated to typography, which was digital typesetting for graphic designers. We learnt about grids, margins, columns, and the characteristics of each letter and the legibility of paragraphs. It’s complex. But freehand lettering and calligraphy is a completely different ball game, and I highly respect designs in that area.

Create: How important is social media to your professional success?

MM: It was key for building my brand. Most of my customers find me through Instagram or by word of mouth.

Social media is great because people like to engage. I like having a chat, answering questions and giving advice. People like seeing the face behind the brand and want to get to know them. You can develop deep connections. It’s amazing to see how many people have followed my journey from the start, and it’s fun because we celebrate milestones together. I am part of my brand as well as my art.

Social media is important, but it’s not everything. The downside is that you can get distracted and lose focus. It’s so important to get out of the studio and make real-life connections and network and have a social life. For example, when I did live drawing at the Melbourne Racing Club a few years ago, the interaction was such a major part of it. People recommended me to other people and business flourished. The more live shows I do, the more my network expands. You need to put yourself out there. You develop real relationships as well as virtual ones.

The video of and stills from McGough drawing larger-than-life lips with just two Sharpies is a crowd-pleaser on her Instagram channel. Click the image to play the timelapse video.

Create: Drawing live at the Melbourne Racing Club and weddings, quitting your corporate job, drawing  lips in Sharpie without a pencil outline to follow—they all take bravery. Have you always been a risk taker?

MM: I’ve never thought of myself as a risk taker, but I guess I am! I like to challenge the norm of what a designer is and does. Being my boss has been an exhilarating and fulfilling experience. I like making my own rules and choosing my jobs, and being a positive influence on others is rewarding. Growing up, I had to move houses a lot, interstate and overseas, while supporting myself, so I’ve never really had a stable home or workroom. I guess that played a role in my risky/ambitious nature.

Create: Some of your work has a different feel than your finely detailed portraits. Tell me about those pieces.

MM:  Yes, you're right, that’s more me coming through rather than what I’ve been asked to do.

I feel like my corporate job and illustration requests made me a perfectionist because you’re trying to please someone else. All my professional work to date has been highly detailed.

“Brush Strokes” (also known as "Atelophobia") and “I am Art” are two that were more personal to me.

"Brush Strokes" (left) and McGough in front of "I Am Art" (right).

"Brush Strokes" was an impulse creation that was me breaking free from being a perfectionist. I was going though a crucial time in my life with lots of changes. It was something I had to make for myself and I’d love to create more like that.

"I Am Art" was an installation I created it for the Creative Hub Co. The intention was to be interactive and emotive. It was an expression of beauty and identity, to make us all reflect and celebrate ourselves. Everyone is art—unique, original, and most importantly, a work in progress.

It was based off my Rihanna artwork, but I wanted people to connect on a deeper level. I sprayed and dripped paint out of the paper, which ran down the gold frame onto the wall to create a feeling of discomfort. When people look at a celebrity, they think that person has it all—beauty, fame, money—but not everyone’s life is perfect. This artwork is messy, and so is life. There was an empty frame set up next to artwork and people took photos of themselves inside it. It was shared around social media with the hashtag #IAMART. People really got involved and it was amazing to see. Art should always make an impact.

To see more of Melina McGough's work, visit her website and follow her on Instagram.