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Jacqui Oakley – HeyThere
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Jacqui Oakley

Freelance

Illustrator
Jacqui Oakley lives and works in Hamilton, Ontario. This steel town is fast gaining a reputation for hosting some serious talent of which Jacqui is one of the heavy hitters. An illustrator with an unmistakable style she brings passion, skill and vibrancy to her work.
HT

In your biography you say you basically grew up all over the globe. Has this influenced your output? Do you ever reference back to the cultures you’ve experienced in your work?

JO

I think all of our upbringings seep into our work. I feel really lucky to had the experience of travelling as a kid and seeing lots of different cultures and experiencing artwork from different areas around the world. Each place was inspiring in its own way and my parents were really great at introducing me and my siblings to lots of forms of art and craft – from sculpture in Africa, to Batiks in Malaysia, to colourful Persian rugs.

I remember staring at the designs in the Persian rugs in our house, and being amazed by the mythology in various Thai folklore drawings in our house. I can clearly remember looking at the detail, colour and line work and it could be why I’m drawn to colour and intricate pattern now in a lot of my work. I also remember staring at the African sculptures and masks in our home and I think this is an obvious inspiration to the paper masks I make now, trying to capture that interesting stylization of form and shape I once stared at in those wood and ivory forms. I believe these patterns & colours (and to some extent, even the fantastical themes) from my childhood informed a lot of my tastes and work today.

HT

As an illustrator how disciplined are you? Do you have a rigid routine you have to stick to or do you work in a more flexible manner? How do you get the creative juices flowing?

JO

I’ve gone through all sorts of routines and non-routines in my career. After I graduated I felt that I could only feel really creative at night and would work late and on top of that I was also was a terrible procrastinator. After a lot of stressful all-nighters I wised up and taught myself to be creative in the day and try and get work down as soon as I can. Being a freelancer, you never know what job might pop up around he corner and it’s good to have space for the unexpected. Thinking you can only be creative at a certain time of day is quite silly. You can train yourself to get into a creative mode. With each project I try to be economical and think about injecting something I’m excited about at the moment which could be a certain type of line-work, subject, colour or technique. I find having one thing you want to focus on and can get excited by helps to get your teeth in there. I also glance through my Pinterest folders and look at work that gets me inspired and then put it away and see where my own process will take me.

My husband, Jamie Lawson, and I both work at home and take turns looking after our baby, so our work schedules can be a bit more broken up throughout the day and sadly we do tend to get get a lot of our work done in the evenings. I’d like to change that and be able to have some downtime since I think it’s really important. You definitely can feel burnt out more easily as the years go by if you have bad work habits and poor work/life balance.

HT

Outside of illustration it’s quite clear you have a passion for typography. What do you love about it and who’s really doing some fantastic work in this field? Who taught you how to letter?

JO

I started to do lettering about 5 years ago since I saw amazing work out there that was really inspiring by people such as Simon Walker, Darren Booth, Spencer Charles, Kelly Thorn, Dan Cassaro, Jessica Hische, Dana Tanamachi and Gemma O’Brien. I stared experimenting with lettering myself with copying vintage typography books and adding my own flavour bit by bit. I’ve found a great way to start is tracing classic fonts and then adding your own flourishes and illustrations around them learning how to work with good spacing and forms and jumping off from that.

I found lettering to be something new and inspiring to bring into my portfolio. As commercial artists it can sometimes be easy to lulled into complacency by the ‘style’ we’ve mastered for ourselves and it’s always beneficial to keep experimenting with different techniques to get inspired again, be challenged and let that new found energy influence all your work. Lettering really did this for me and as a side benefit it of course opened my work up to new exciting job opportunities such as book and magazine cover work. It’s interesting to find an outlet to expand your skills and learn how to design outside the realm of illustration by merging artwork with lettering forms.

HT

As a freelancer you have to promote yourself regularly and basically be an accountant. What’s your process for dealing with the practical side of the business.

JO

Sometimes it does seem like I spend more time with administration work than artwork which can be exhausting. I do try and invoice my work as soon as the finals get approved by clients and mark down in my files as soon as I get paid so I can keep track of everything coming in and out and avoid confusion and frustration later. I also try to keep an ongoing list of people that I’d love to collaborate with, and try to send copies of my work to them about once a year. I used to make regular trips to New York to meet up with art and creative directors but that hasn’t happened as much in the last few years. I’d love to do that again though. It’s so nice to actually meet clients face-to-face and hopefully build a relationship with them. So much work these days is done only through email so it’s rewarding to be able to make those human connections when you can not only to find work, but also to feel part of a great community. I’ve found that getting asked to do talks in the US has been a wonderful way to meet other creative folk. I’ve met a lot of peers that I’ve gone on to collaborate with on jobs that have been really fruitful. When you work alongside people whose work you admire, such as great letterers, it really pushes you to do something that would rightly compliment their work too. It’s a great inspiration.

HT

You are now a mom (congrats!). Often parenthood changes your perspective on life, career etc. How are you managing to continue doing what you love while spending as much quality time with the new little person you love?

JO

Thanks! It’s been a crazy ride. For the first three months I turned down a lot of work after stupidly taking on a job the 2nd week of my son’s life. Not sleeping and trying to get my brain functioning enough to be creative was not a fun experience. After a few months I slowly accepted more work and luckily Jamie was around to share the load so we’ve been switching back and forth trying to balance having time with our offspring and keeping our careers going. It’s been interesting for sure. Having a kid has forced us to get down to work very quickly when we have the chance. There’s no time to spend forever getting inspired since our time is so precious and scarce. With the scarcity of time lately I’ve learned to get inspired fast and trust my gut more and I’ve pleasantly found that things tend to work out.

HT

You venture occasionally into making masks. Taking your two dimensional work and rendering it in cardboard to create some unique and special pieces. Do you approach these pieces differently, what’s your process here?

JO

Working with the masks has been a really different experience and a welcome one. In comparison to my illustrations I don’t have a plan or a drawing of what the end piece will look like, just a few photos of the animal I’ve decided to create. I keep adding more and more cardboard until the figure starts emerging then I refine with smaller and smaller pieces trying to get the personality of the creature to come out. It’s really enjoyable feeling no reigns on the work and just seeing where it will go, which is different from illustration where you have an approved sketch that needs to match the final. It’s also really great to do something a bit more physical and get away from a computer or drawing intricate lines hunched over paper (although I have endured my fair share of glue gun burns).

HT

You have a “style” in that it’s pretty easy to spot a Jacqui Oakley piece. How long did it take you to develop this and do you actively try push it?

JO

Glad that my work is recognizable, thanks. It’s definitely been a struggle to figure out where I wanted my art work to go and not to get sidetracked by what everyone else is doing out there in the wider world. There is so much talent out there, easily discovered online and it’s really easy to get overwhelmed and lose sight of what makes each of us interesting individual artists. I’ve tried to stay aware of what I enjoy doing, what kinds of imagery inspire me and what I’m good at and develop these skills and push into new directions by adding new challenges with each project. Of course being surrounded by new inspirations mostly that are outside the realm of illustration can bring a new perspective and the more varied and wide your inspirations will be then the more unique your work will be. I believe as long as you’re self aware about who you are as an artist your work will naturally evolve into something unique and personal.

If you look at a typical ‘Jacqui Oakley’ piece from 6 or 8 years ago, it’s in a lot of ways a very different beast. The changes along the way can be subtle, but if you do keep exploring it’s pretty amazing the path you forge for yourself.

HT

Over the last few years we’ve seen a real emergence of female creatives to the forefront of illustration and design. But overall in the creative industries they remain under-represented. Why do you think this is, and what needs to change?

JO

It has been amazing to see so many women in design, illustration and other creative industries. Luckily there were a lot of female illustrators connected to Sheridan College such as Lorraine Tuson, Jill Dallas, Anita Kunz and Jody Hewgill when I was at school who were doing really well in their fields so I didn’t consciously feel restrained by my gender at. I do remember guys telling me that my work “didn’t look like a girl drew it”… which I guess they sadly meant as a compliment? When you stop to think about it, there really are a lot of subtle expressions of sexism that one experiences and can tend to let slide, especially early on, when you’re still unsure of yourself. As I was coming up, experiences like that tended to just made me work harder to prove that I could be on the same level or to be accepted in a male-centric industry. Which is ridiculous of course – that shouldn’t be a struggle! I know there’s been a big push in the last few years at conferences to include a more diverse set of speakers. Obviously this helps to show the true makeup of who is working out there and show up-and-comers they can fit in, and show the old guard that their circle of influence needs to be more diverse. It’s 2015 after all.

HT

Outside of other illustrators what influences you? Are you a big fan of thrift stores, galleries, vintage cars…?

JO

Although there are lots of illustrators work I admire, I make a conscious effort to look outside of illustration as an inspiration. Of course there are many artists and designers work which gets my heart pumping and there are certain films that I could watch time and time again and their visions make me want to go right away to the sketch board. The compositions and colours in films such as Suspiria, Blade Runner, Solaris and the like always get me wanting to push my own work more and get better. Vintage packaging, poster design and books are things that I always bring back into my work too and one of the priorities when traveling is searching out great art galleries. Travel in general is one of my top inspirations. I blame my parents for giving me the travel bug early on. Just being around out of my regular day to day life really helps put things in perspective.

Also, just putting down a pencil and doing something totally different is so important especially something physical to try and stretch out of the humped-over-the-computer pose. I taught and performed Lindy Hop swing dancing and vintage jazz for a decade. Learning historical forms and blending that into choreography and performing allowed me to stretch out other parts of my creativity and forced me out of my comfort zone which is always a good thing. It allowed me to actually get a bit of exercise and work alongside other interesting people outside of my regular creative circles. Since retiring from teaching I have dabbled a bit in Argentine Tango and Popping but I have a long way to go with those before I’m the least bit proficient. I do enjoy trying out new forms though and I often forget how much I need to dance until I take it up again. Having a break from illustration does allow you to come back to it with fresh eyes and hopefully see new directions that you can venture into.

HT

Sharing knowledge is a great way to learn something about yourself. You teach at OCAD U – what have the students taught you?

JO

Teaching really forces you to break down your process and say out loud things that you might forget to do yourself (we all get bad habits afterall). Students can be so inspiring too. Seeing the level of work, innovation and enthusiasm that can sometimes come out at school is always a wonderful surprise and seeing things “click” for the first time with a student and knowing they’ll have many more of those moments along the way is so rewarding. It does remind you why you started in this business and not to take it for granted. We are so lucky to do what we do and make a living at it.


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