Mai Ly Degnan Illustrator Interview

Mai Ly Degnan

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Can you recall the first time you realized you were going to be an illustrator? What were your earliest impressions?
I was constantly drawing as a kid. However, the first time I realized I was going to be an illustrator wasn’t until college. I started at a liberal arts college as a bio major. By my second year in college, I decided to take an art class to take a break from science classes. It was then that I realized I had a passion for art and knew that I needed to make a change. For the first time I felt excited and passionate about something. That was when art went from a hobby to a career.

Who or what influenced your art when you were young?
My Dad was always a big influence on me when I was a kid. He’s a family doctor, and an incredibly talented musician and writer. We went to art museums together when I was a kid. He would occasionally draw along with me on family vacations to New Hampshire. I always thought he drew better than I did. I even taped some of his drawings to my bedroom wall. He cheered me on when I decided to be an illustrator. He has been my biggest supporter.

Do you remember what your first artwork looked like? Do you still have it?
I loved dogs as a kid and though I don’t have my early work any longer, I remember making small breed dog sculptures out of clay: clay that could be baked, and painted. I’d add google eyes.

Why did you choose illustration as your life’s work instead of, for example, filmmaking, law, or even medicine?
I choose illustration over medicine because it was something I knew I could do for the rest of my life and be happy. Growing up, there was a big part of me that wanted to become a doctor. It wasn’t until I actually took an art class that I realized art didn’t have to be just a hobby.

Did you study art in school?
Once I switched majors, I transferred to an art school. I moved to Savannah, Georgia to attend Savannah College of Art and Design where I earned a BFA in Illustration. A year later, I decided to go to grad school and moved to Baltimore, Maryland where I earned an MFA in Illustration.

Where does your inspiration come from; your impulse to make art? Do you have a source for your ideas?
My inspiration comes from a love of creating characters. Any time I draw in a sketchbook I draw people. They are my favorite subject. I love trying to give a character a backstory while inserting my own sense of humor.

How would you describe the process of creating art?
My process occurs in different stages. My work is part traditional and part digital. An idea for an illustration always starts with brainstorming lists. I come up with key words or phrases to use as a foundation. From there, I take a general idea and try to make as many loose thumbnails as I can. I communicate visually through different compositions and points of view. Once I have thumbnails that I love, I blow them up and create finished sketches. I refine my drawings, and add detail, until a legible, rendered illustration results.

Do you have a favorite illustrator? What is it about that illustrator’s work you like?
My favorite illustrator would have to be Edward Gorey. Edward Gorey has had a huge influence on me, mostly for his sense of humor and the way he used to tell stories. His style was dark and funny at the same time. His tedious line work was the most beautiful part of what he created.

If you could do something else, other than creating art, what would it be?
I started teaching recently and it’s something I really love to do. I enjoy introducing students to illustration. Showing them how to brainstorm and think outside the box is a pleasure.

Do you remember your first set of paints, pens, or markers?
Yes, a giant all-in-one set of watercolors, acrylics, oils, and colored pencils from a craft store.

Do you have a favorite artist supply, a favorite method, or favorite location, where you like to create artwork?
My favorite tool to draw with is a .005 micron. I’ve gone through hundreds, and I use them for literally every illustration. I prefer to work with a mix of traditional and digital methods. I like to draw by hand and then color my line work on the computer using Photoshop. I chose this method because I’m cautious and afraid to ruin my line work.

If you could give a viewer clues to understanding your art, what would you say?
I’d describe my work as stylized characters with some humor. I always try to make my characters relatable and hope they make people laugh.

Do you think illustration has the eye of the public or could public awareness of this field be improved upon?
Public awareness can always be improved when it comes to illustration. Oftentimes, people don’t understand the idea of illustration or see the hard work involved in working as a freelancer. Many people don’t consider it an actual job.

Why does art matter to you? Why might it matter to the world?
Art matters to me because without it, the world would be an incredibly boring and drab place. Art forces a viewer to think about things in a different way while also bringing excitement and color to the world. I truly believe that art helps us relate and connects us to one another, whether we like it, or not.

If you could look back or forward a hundred years, do you think the life of an illustrator was or will be better than it is today?
That’s a really hard question and I don’t know the answer. At least, with the work I do, technology has improved things. Sometimes, it may be for the worse, but overall, it’s for the better. Illustration is more accessible to people via social media and the internet.

Since I’ve graduated from college, so much has changed in how we connect with one another. People write me from other countries who know and like my work as a result of social media. Without technology, instances like these just wouldn’t happen.