V&A Illustration Awards: Interview with Cat O’Neil (Editorial Winner 2018 and Student Judge 2019)

National Art Library
March 20, 2019

Cat O’Neil’s compassionate illustration captivated the judges of the V&A Illustration Awards 2018 through her cleaver use of visual metaphor. Winning the Editorial category, RSA Benefits (pictured below) sympathetically portrays life on the breadline. The illustration was originally published in the French newspaper Libération and shows a group of individuals grappling through the calendar month to reach their next benefits payment.

Since the awards, Cat continues to receive commissions from reputable publications including The Financial Times and New York Times. Additionally, Cat has presented at the Design Museum’s Friday Sketch Night. We are also thrilled to welcome Cat back to the V&A this year to judge the student category for the 2019 Awards alongside 2018 Book Cover Winner Suzanne Dean.

Cat kindly took some time out from judging  to tell us about the inspirations behind her work, how she developed a personal style and what advice she would give to emerging illustrators.

Congratulations on winning the Editorial Award 2018, what impact has this had on your practice?
lt’s quite hard to measure as I was already an established illustrator, but I think it was a great way to raise my profile among art directors. They were maybe used to seeing promo from me, but seeing that I had also won the Editorial Award gave my work another level of credibility. it’s a really nice thing to be able to tell art directors about if I’m wanting to pop in for a portfolio review, it makes you stand out a little more from the crowd.

You recently presented at the Design Museum Friday Sketch Night, tell us more …
lt was fantastic to be asked to host the Friday Sketch Night at the Design Museum! lt came directly as a result of winning the Editorial Award; the team at the Design Museum co-ordinating the event were looking for up-and-coming illustrators who were winning awards or heavily involved in illustration communities (either through exhibiting or social media). I really enjoy teaching, so it was nice to dip back into that for an evening. People can surprise you with their ideas and enthusiasm, which is refreshing and I totally feed off in a vampiric way. I don’t teach as much these days as I work full time as an illustrator, but I’m always keen to give talks and workshops because I remember how motivating those were for me when I was a student.

What made you want to become an illustrator?
Initially it was seeing work that I loved and wanting to make something like that myself; not direct imitation but to have my own thing that was a similar expression of self and a response to something else. Editorial illustration suited me because I have a tendency to read more journalism and non-fiction than narrative prose (don’t get me wrong, I love reading books and doing book covers, but I can’t deny that I spend most of my time with editorial!) I think the joy of being an illustrator is the pursuit of a technical skill and exploration of the craft side of ‘making an image’ combined with the artistic element of learning about the world and visually expressing your reaction to that. My favourite illustrations are a balance between excellent technical execution and brilliant concept. Not enough concept and the work is just decorative. Not enough technique and the work is academic without the art and craft. That isn’t to say decorative work or purely conceptual work is bad! But my interest lies in a balance between the two.

How did you develop your personal style? Who are your influences?
It’s hard to summarise that in one paragraph! I started off being very into realistic drawing, very true to life. But when I went to art school I started to enjoy making things that couldn’t really exist in reality; drawing was very freeing in that regard, not being restricted to just draw what I see but to draw what I thought. I was quite into the Surrealists at art school, so I looked at a lot of Magritte and Khalo in particular. I loved the aesthetic qualities of Japanese Ukiyo-e printmaking. After art school I was quite taken with Ravilious and Bawden, and I like a lot of contemporary illustrators like Brian Stauffer and the Balbusso Twins. I try not to look at contemporary illustrators too much though because I don’t want to be too influenced by them; it’s kind of a shame because I love a lot of the work but I think that if I look at it too much I will pick up things subconsciously, and I don’t want my work to look like anyone else’s working today.

I try to have a good knowledge of art history specific to illustration and pictorial fine art, so I’m probably quite influenced by lots of historical artists. I think people sometimes incorrectly assume my work is only influenced by Ukiyo-e (and sometimes by Chinese art, which is kind of funny because I honestly don’t have a good knowledge of it at all) because I’m half Chinese and they think they see that in my work. I don’t doubt that my work is influenced by Ukiyo-e, but I think a Western audience maybe doesn’t notice the influences of Western art in my work because that is what people here are more accustomed to seeing. In Hong Kong I’m sure my work looks very Western in comparison! Maybe in that regard my work is very much an expression of me as a person; I’m a mixture of lots of things, and so is my work.

How does it feel to be a judge of the student category of the V&A illustration Awards 2019?
It’s a huge honour. I’ve been working professionally for about 8 years now, and it’s interesting to see both sides of what happens during competitions. There’s so much amazing work … I want to give prizes to so many! There are so many young, new aspiring illustrators who are incredibly talented (it’s kind of sickening, but in a really good way! Like the way that makes you think ‘Oh God, in a few years they’ll be amazing and I’ll need to keep on my toes!’)

I really do want all the contestants of the student category to know that I was really impressed with the level of quality, and they should all continue to make work because the world is so much better for it.

What advice would you give to emerging illustrators and student illustrators?
If it truly makes you happy, you can find a way to make it work. lt is very hard working as a freelance illustrator, you do have to sacrifice certain things, but if it’s what you know deep in your heart will make you happy … there will always be a way to continue to make work. it’s totally legit to be an illustrator and have a part time job to help you keep afloat, and don’t let anyone talk down to you because of it. The world is so much richer for having artist in it, making creative work is important. People from all backgrounds should be able to have a fair stab at being an illustrator, which is why grants and competitions like this are without a doubt necessary. People should be supported and encouraged to do what they are good at, no matter what background they come from.


Our judges are currently conferring and the V&A Illustration Awards 2019 shortlist will be announced in April. Good luck to all who have entered this year! View the work of previous winners on our website.

Cat O’Neil’s portfolio can be found on her website.

1 comment so far, view or add yours


hey there, thanks for providing such a beautiful information.

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