An interview with illustrator Gemma O'Neill


We visited Gemma O’Neill during Kylie’s visit to Belfast and caught up with her about visionaries and storytelling.

Tell us who you are and what you do?

My name is Gemma O’Neill and I’m an illustrator/author from the Causeway Coast. I’m now based in County Down and I work from Blick Studios in Belfast. I graduated from Falmouth University back in 2011 with a BA (Hons) Degree in Illustration and my first authored and illustrated children’s picture book deal after visiting the Bologna Children’s Book Fair during my final year of study. I started out specialising in writing and illustrating children’s books, but I’ve enjoyed taking on a wider range of projects in recent years. I now have my own illustration print range and I also really enjoy photography.

Do you think illustration is a good vehicle for storytelling?

I think illustration is a brilliant vehicle for storytelling… and an essential one. It’s a universal language really. It can really enhance text too, bringing an extra narrative of it’s own to storytelling which can’t be captured in text or other storytelling formats. The youngest audiences understand images before words, so it establishes a foundation of learning from an early age for later life. It’s such an important tool.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I'm developing a children’s alphabet book, counting book, picture book and a potential series of children’s information books. Outside of children’s publishing I always continue to add new products to my print range. It currently consists of prints, greetings cards and bookmarks. I’d like to introduce some new products soon too... possibly some notebooks and mugs. I’m also working on a few personal commissions at the moment, as well as on an ongoing project, Houses of Hillsborough for an exhibition with In klöver (one of my stockists) sometime after the summer. 

How do you use your work to share knowledge?

I started out sharing knowledge through children’s books. Picture books invite children into imaginary worlds and introduce them to the idea of visual/written language and their relationship to the real world. These books in particular give adults and children a common ground to start a conversation. There’s the opportunity to clarify words that the child doesn’t understand or share a subtle joke that is contained in the illustrations, but the illustrations give the child flexibility and independence to interpret a story for themselves too. I hope my books create a nurturing and understanding environment that leaves a positive, lasting impression, aiding development.

Who are some of your favourite visionaries?

I have so many favourites! Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake brought about my love for books from a young age. Roald Dahl is the ultimate storyteller to me. He’s just an absolute original, who can never be replaced. I think Quentin Blake is the ultimate illustrator too. I doubt there’s anything he can’t illustrate and the joy for what he does just shines through in his illustrations. I’m a huge fan of J K Rowling and Frida Kahlo too. They both produced incredible work during times of hardship. They’re two very strong, inspiring ladies. I also really admire David Attenborough and everything he has done for the natural world. He’s another irreplaceable visionary.