In conversation with Ann Kiernan, Moira Gemmill Illustrator of the Year 2020

Digital Media
July 20, 2020

Congratulations to Ann Kiernan, who has been awarded the Moira Gemmill Illustrator of the Year and the Illustrated Journalism Award 2020!

Selected from over 800 entries, Kiernan joins an illustrious list of previous winners of the V&A Illustration Awards, including Nora Krug, John Vernon Lord, Sir Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman, Posy Simmonds, Sara Fanelli, and Yasmeen Ismail.

Twitter Jail, illustration by Ann Kiernan
‘Twitter Jail’, illustration by Ann Kiernan for ‘How Twitter is gagging Arabic users and acting as morality police’, by Wael Eskandar. Publisher: Open Democracy. © Ann Kiernan

Kiernan’s winning illustration was commissioned by Open Democracy to accompany an article by Wael Eskandar entitled How Twitter is gagging Arabic users and acting as morality police. The fluidity and drive of her brushstrokes create a sense of urgency that impressed the judges who praised her inventive use of the well-known corporate logo.

My professional work is mainly created using bold and energetic inks. Using brush on paper, my illustrations have an energy in the drive of the stroke in which the goal is to evoke a visceral connection to the image.

This is almost in complete contrast to my self-initiated projects where I develop quirky, contorted compositions without caring much for proportions or perspectives. I see this as a perfect symbiosis where the goal is to ignite my own inspiration and drive the creativity process forward.

We caught up with Kiernan from her studio in Berlin to find out more about the commission, her inspiration and creative process, and what advice she might have for other illustrators out there looking to get published.

'Social Distancing'. © Ann Kiernan
‘Social Distancing’. © Ann Kiernan

What inspired you to become an illustrator?

My route to becoming an illustrator has not been a linear one. I found escape in drawing from a very young age, I just loved drawing, reading comics and watching cartoons. I drew on everything – school books, copy book margins, my friends’ copy books.

I studied classical animation in Dublin, Ireland and worked in the industry for a few years. The intense drawing practice, especially life drawing, really lit a fire in me during the time I studied, and even though for some years I didn’t work in a creative job at all, I always continued to draw and took regular life drawing classes.

I think in 2011 I decided to give illustration a real try. I had been freelancing making animations for a few years and making some illustration work but it wasn’t until I found Christoph Niemann’s book Sunday Sketching that the epiphany came for me. That, coinciding with a move to Berlin, opened a new world for me in my creative life. Berlin itself is a creative incubator, there is so much to be inspired by and it was then I doubled down and decided to really pull focus. I registered to study for an MA in illustration and that began a very visible upward curve in my development as an illustrator. During my MA studies I decided to make my focus editorial and illustrated journalism.

Can you talk us through your creative process?

I’ve always been a people watcher. I get lost in the imagined narratives of individuals standing on train platforms or in the park. I love to watch interactions and try to gauge the emotion of a moment between two or more people or a single person with a dog. When I was studying for my MA I looked at situationism: a theory that humans react to situations; different situations bring out different behaviours.

Really trying to get a sense of the tension in a moment is what a great photographer captures, and as an illustrator, when there is no photographer, it is my job to read that moment in a body of text. So I will read and re-read the text because I like to get a feel for the emotion of the article as a whole.

Illustration notes.
Illustration notes for ‘Twitter Jail’. © Ann Kiernan

Mark-making is a tremendously important component of the illustrations I make. I use it as a form of creative ignition – it becomes a descriptive vehicle to further express the emotion I try to find in the written piece. To begin with I work with pencil and paper to make initial sketches. I then make a selection of the three strongest iterations, scan and email those off to the art director/writer. They then let me know which they would go with. Usually I sit with the paper for a short while, I try to assess what I am feeling when I consider that story and then make the first mark. The remainder of the image is usually a result of that first mark.

The aesthetic of the imagery I make comes from the most honest place that is possible for me. If I’m choosing to work with ink, the image will generally be quite abstract because of the technique I use. I like to use a sumi brush – it gives me strong sweeping strokes and ink has a wonderful intensity of colour while still transparent. It’s also waterproof so I can make many layers without bleeds occurring.

Left: Blue bird pencil sketch; Right: Blue bird with ink. © Ann Kiernan
Left: Blue bird pencil sketch; Right: Blue bird with ink. © Ann Kiernan

Colour combinations are part of the emotional experience of the illustrations especially for a piece like Twitter Jail. The image should be easily identifiable as an article about the social media platform but it’s a deep dive investigation into a more sinister subject, so the cute logo would not have fit so well for that piece. I did have the benefit of working quite closely with the writer, so I had some additional insights. He was quite clear in the direction he wanted to go with an image. Even though I had made some sketches the first iteration in colour was considered by him a little too sinister. Twitter Jail was the resulting second pass.

Rejected illustration for ‘Twitter Jail’.
Rejected illustration for ‘Twitter Jail’. © Ann Kiernan

What advice would you give to illustrators that aspire to have their work published?

Without doubt there is no magic formula, and if there is, I certainly have not be privy it. These last few months have left many industries reassessing how to move forward and illustration has been no different.  Having said that, I do believe illustration is a hugely important tool to quickly relay a story or grab attention to an important happening. So, for online news and editorial it can be as important as the headline to capture the audience attention.

Getting work published comes off the back of simply hard work and persistence from my experience. I keep myself informed on art directors work, where they might have moved within the industry and touch base with them once in a while.

Illustration is my practice. Even when there has been no work, I draw every day because practice is the key to learning the language. Personal work is an extremely important component of my creative process. There is a symbiotic connection between the work I make on a personal level and my professional work. With my personal drawing I get to explore and experiment without judgement.

In the past few years I have also made a very definite decision to not scrap a drawing. Previously, if I became frustrated with a drawing or painting, at any stage my instinctual reaction was to throw it away. Learning to accept mistakes and accidents in the images has pushed my development much further than I could have expected. Sometimes I will revisit or reconstitute a drawing and you might see an element of some previously abandoned drawing make an appearance in another composition.

Try not to compare yourself to other illustrators and artists but be inspired – keep your finger on the pulse of what’s new or trending and enjoy what you do. If your focus is on editorial illustration or illustrated journalism, read and stay informed.

Find out more about Ann Kiernan illustration

Website   |   Instagram @ann_kiernan   |   Twitter @annieillustrate

About the author

Digital Media
July 20, 2020

I produce and commission digital things to help tell stories about our collections and programme of exhibitions and displays.

More from Keith Hale
2 comments so far, view or add yours


Great interview, thanks. I especially appreciated the artist’s advice on learning to accept mistakes and accidents, and how she sometimes uses work she previously would have discarded as a starting point for something else. Congrats to the Ann Kiernan on her award!

Add a comment

Please read our privacy policy to understand what we do with your data.


Join today and enjoy unlimited free entry to all V&A exhibitions, Members-only previews and more

Find out more


Explore our range of exclusive jewellery, books, gifts and more. Every purchase supports the V&A.

Find out more