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‘My art began to suit the atmosphere of the country’

From drawing as a child in a small town in County Galway to learning in the Liberties and then having his artwork tour the world, illustrator David Rooney discusses his creative process – and a success rooted in the darkness of Ireland in the 1980s. 

“As long as I can remember I’ve been drawing. School was complicated for me because all I wanted to do was draw,” says David Rooney.

It wasn’t until he began attending a boarding school in Eyrecourt, County Galway, that he felt he could pursue his passion for drawing properly. 

He started at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), in the heart of The Liberties, when he was 17. He studied there for four years and has fond memories of a butcher across Thomas Street who used to pay him to draw the advertisements for the shop’s deals every Friday. 

Rooney has done illustrations for projects including the five-part documentary series, ‘The Story of Ireland’, which was commissioned by The BBC. 

Rooney completed 100 illustrations for this series all based on the dark past of Irish history.

And on a lighter note, his illustrations can be found on Jameson Whiskey label. 

Illustrations for Jameson Makers series. 
Photo courtesy of DavidRooney.com 

One of Rooney’s latest projects is An Posts commission of four stamps to celebrate the Irish Antarctic explorers. The explorers included the likes of Francis Crozier and the famous Tom Crean, who contributed significantly in the Antarctic expeditions of the 1800s and early 1900s.  

 

“These men were sailing to the Antarctic, relying solely on wind and currents to navigate them.” Rooney is fascinated by their stories and was especially intrigued by the adventures of 19th-century explorer Francis Crozier from County Down.

“I try not to research too much. If I overthink these projects, they won’t be as good,” he remarks. Rooney says that while he consumes a lot of information daily, he would rather let the ideas flow naturally. 

“My best ideas are the ones that come directly to me without thinking about it.” After 30 years as an artist and illustrator, he finds his intuition for these projects to be a better source of creativity. 

He talks about his idea to include a short animation video to go along with the four stamps commissioned by An Post to “add more life to the story”. This video even includes a sea shanty!

“The idea came to me in a pub when I was out talking to a friend who happened to be a sound producer and by the next day I had it recorded and sent it over to him.”

It wasn’t something he had planned to do but was a great example of seeing where an idea can go. 

Projects such as the 1916 – Portraits and Lives book, published by the Royal Irish Academy, required significant attention to detail as they represented real, historic life events.

“The great thing about horror and history is that they’re the same thing.”

DAVID ROONEY

The book received the IDI Design Award for illustration. All 40 original portraits were acquired by the Office of Public Works (OPW) for the State and exhibited in Kilmainham Gaol as part of the 2016 Centenary Celebrations. 

The exhibition toured internationally with the Department of Foreign Affairs’ support to London, Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Johannesburg. 

Those pictures are famously deep and moody.

“When I was a kid I used to draw very dark toned pictures,” he says. He was influenced, he says, by horror books and comics he read as a child, as well as the atmosphere of Ireland when he left NCAD more than three decades ago.  

“Things were really bleak in Ireland in the ’80s and everything felt very, very dark.” Politics was at a very low point in Ireland and the Troubles were ongoing. There were also issues around the church beginning to surface. “My art began to suit the atmosphere of the country. 

“The great thing about horror and history is that they’re the same thing. All history is based around one terrible event after another with a small bit of peace in between,” says Rooney.

Rooney’s illustrations are often commissioned by museums to depict history. 

“Although, my work highlights the heroic work of many. There is a continual presence of misfortune that comes with illustrating the past.”  

An interesting part of Rooney’s work is the technique he uses to create these illustrations. He talked about the scraper board technique which involves scraping away at a black board.

“It’s a board that is firstly layered with chalk and then a layer of black ink over it and I scrape away the ink with a scalpel blade,” he says. 

‘The Story of Ireland’ commissioned by The BBC. Photo credit: DavidRooney.com 
‘The Story of Ireland’ commissioned by The BBC. Photo credit: DavidRooney.com 
 

This technique has been a huge part of all Rooney’s illustrations, with his first ever illustration for Hot Press magazine.  

Scraper board art goes back to the 1900’s and was used for advertising as black and white photography was of poor quality and couldn’t be used in newspapers at the time.  

“I enjoy how I’m always uncovering something when using this technique. I start off with a black board and I uncover a brighter picture from it.”

Not only is Rooney a successful illustrator but he has since entered the world of music. His latest project, Echotal, includes a four-track ep and is “an exploration to interweave the two strands of my art more fully”. 

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