Interview: Eamo Donnely

“I illustrated spots…in the magazine [Playboy] dating back to before your dad’s collection in the garage.” – Eamo Donnely


The concept of Australia being personified by something as simple as a Milk bar is strange and perplexing at first… but as the idea starts to sink in all the purchasable manifestations that is a Milk bar begin to melt into a colour spectrum that blots 6 stars and a top left corner union jack, and people like Eamo Donnelly are in fact the solid blue background. Traditionally you would find a human being so patriotic, outside the chosen building, perched on a milk crate, working hard at their beer and lapping up the sun. Eamo Donnelly took the Milk Bar in a different translation and has built up a whole commercial persona around this containment of Australian culture. As you will read, this proud movement coupled with a natural and endlessly passionate talent is serving him very well in deed.

Firstly Mr. Donnelly, what essentials are a must for your Trunk?

In the Burt Orange 1974 XB Ford Fairmont is a beach towel, sunscreen, Esky, car jack, Melways, service manual, spare tire and a Big M Frisbee.

How long have you been at it for?

I have been professionally illustrating full time since 2004.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Geelong, Victoria and was raised at the beaches. I spent my time running through the garden sprinklers, drawing Disney and Looney tunes on perforated computer paper. I would ride a BMX with spokey dokeys, fluro flag and an orange stack hat round the corner to Dave’s Milkbar. I spent the rest of my time playing with Sega, Super Soakers, drinking Sunshine Pine, and sneaking into the last quarter at Kardinia Park to watch the Cats get thrashed. I’m now based in Melbourne, working in a 1913 era Heritage listed shop front and am currently doing some research with the local council to find out whether it was ever a Milkbar. Here’s hoping!

So you’ve well and truly buried your talent in commercial work. How did you break into the commercial world? Was it a direction that you always intended on going in?

I always wanted to be a commercial illustrator. Growing up I had ambitions of working for magazines like MAD and Rolling Stone. I’m incredibly lucky to be working as a full time illustrator in such a tough and competitive industry. A combination of hard work, endless promotions (both online and in print) and blind luck has got me commissions for magazine’s, brands and agencies. In particular the US market where a few early commissions were seen and subsequent clients got in touch.

To give the good folks an idea of what you’ve achieved, what’s your top three personal bests?

In no particular order… A print campaign I illustrated for VH1 Spain, commissioned and art directed by New York advertising agency Y & R (who’s London offices are referenced in Mad Man). I won a Silver at this years International Cannes Lions Advertising Festival, Gold at the New York Clio Awards and was a finalist in the London International Awards.

I was invited to speak at the AGIdeas International Design conference this year in Melbourne. It was such an honour, but incredibly humbling considering childhood heroes like Ken Done, Alex Stitt (Norm/Life be In It) and Mimmo Cozzolino (Symbols of Australia) have spoken during its 25 years. That pre-speech coldy at Flinders street’s infamous Clocks with Sonny from WeBuyYourKids helped ease the nerves in Hamer Hall.

Breaking into the competitive American Editorial market has been the greatest and most unexpected highlight. When I started out I never thought  that I would ever get a foot in the door. I didn’t even actively promote myself over there, I didn’t know I could. Then the right person saw my work and it flowed on from there. Now 99% of my commercial commissions are from the USA. Having an illustration featured in the 2010 VCE Studio Arts Exam was something that your mum could be proud of too.

I saw that you’ve done work for Playboy magazine. How did you scoop that? Did Hef call you up and be like, “Hey Donnelly, my blonde period is over. I need some more colour in my life.”

You can never really tell how jobs are generated, where a client, agency or art director has seen your work. Did they just find you for that specific commission or have they known about your work for a while? You can never tell… It’s all about planting as many seeds in people’s minds along the way as you can. Some clients have kept cutouts of editorials I have illustrated from years back on pin boards, waiting for the right job to come up. It’s just the luck of the draw that the right person will see your work.

In the case of Playboy I don’t really know what was spotted out there that caught the eyes of the AD’s. It was great working for such an internationally iconic magazine, it’s always been the one client I always get asked about and was definitely on my top three clients to work for. I illustrated spots for the ‘After Hours’ feature pages, which have been in the magazine dating back to before your dad’s collection in the garage.

Magazine’s run on super tight deadlines, and illustrations are turned around in about 1-2 weeks. One change I had to make to an illustration of a lady was from blue hair (I know, what was I thinking?) to blonde.

From what I understand, most of your stuff is hand inked? How much of an artwork is done by hand and how much is done on the computer?

All of the line work is done by hand, first sketches with pencil then inked over with a super fine brush. I then scan and colour all the lines manually in Photoshop. I’d say it’s pretty much 50% hand done versus 50% digital. In this digital era I’m quite lucky to be able to mix my traditional hand drawn skills with digital colouring to achieve the colour palette I desire.

Is it expensive being a hand-inker?

No not really, my materials are quite cheap. The ink is simple black drawing ink, available in most newsagents and the brushes are about $13 each, plus a Staedtler pencil and some recycled copy paper.

The thing that costs the most each year is promotion. They say as an illustrator to keep relevant you should spend at least, at least $2000 a year on self promotion, whether that is through your agency or your own personal promo’s.

How important is colour to you? By the looks of it, there’s never a dull moment in any of your artworks.

Colour is probably the most important component to my work. I spend the same amount of time colouring a piece as when inking and sketching. There is a common palette running through all of my illustrations including yellows, peaches, greens, blues, aqua, pinks, pastels, and purples. I consciously avoid using black in all pieces so it gives the colours a truer harmony.

Colour also helps with the humour, evoking a real sense of fun and happiness as well as the nostalgia. Colour is rarely used nowadays in the way it was in 50s-80s art, design, illustration, so colour evidently creates this sense of nostalgia. This plays well into the idea of the Australian in my work. If you can think back to a colour palette of the era I’ve grown up in: from 1981 onwards it’s a mixture of bright pop, pastels, technicolour. Look at the commercials, print ads, fashion, even the Australian Cricket uniforms were bright yellow with lime green, like the VB cans of yesteryear, now it’s a terrible bottle green; allah baggy green.

The West Indies cricketers were made to wear pink uniforms in the 80s by World Series Cricket, which they described as ‘Watermelon’. Please note: I hate Cricket.

What’s with the obsession with drawing people? Do you consider yourself a cartoonist?

I always drew faces growing up. That was my favourite thing to draw: caricatures, cartoon people, portraits. Classmates and teachers would still look back now and remember my poisonous pen. I love getting those little nuances and mannerisms in people’s personalities through illustrating a face. I revel in the exaggerations. Also using hands as an expression in an illustration is a big part of my portraits. I’d say I’m a mixture of a cartoonist and a humorous portraiture artist.

What’s the whole story behind the Milkbar theme you seem to have going on?

When I was a kid we had this Milkbar round the corner from home owned by Dave who’s Milkbar was his namesake calling it ‘Dave’s Milkbar’. I spent a lot of my childhood there or conjuring up ingenious ways of earning some copper to spend there. It was the perfect Milkbar. If the Powerhouse Museum were going to recreate the long forgotten Australian suburban icon, the Milkbar, they would use Dave’s as the basis.

It had it all: mixed lollie counter, Peters and Streets ice cream cards up on the walls, Four ‘n’ Twenty pie warmers, fly zapper, plastic door strips, an old colour telly up in back corner, The Sun and Herald newspapers stacked inside the door, VHS and Beta movie hire, salad rolls in the industrial glad wrap with carrot, lettuce and beetroot staining a slice of rubber cheese. They lived out the back and had a couple of scally wags always running in and out of the shop who we called them ‘The Squealers’. Dave’s changed hands a few times in the 90s, Mum even had a stint there selling sausage rolls and choccy M’s to passing truckies. Since closing about 15 years ago it’s been a ’boutique’ real estate agent and now I think it’s a photography studio. They chipped off all the advertising and sign writing on the brickwork and now it just looks, well, uncannily like the shop I’m working in. The Milkbar is the essence of my childhood.

I can see you’ve had some massive influences that have lead you to the artist you are today… Could you talk us through these influences and inspirations?

American cartoons, MAD Magazine, Mort Drucker, Jack Davis and Will Elder, Bluey and Curly Comics, Norman Lindsey’s Bulletin illustrations, the 80s, colour, Australian summer, beaches, suburbia, holidays, Robert Crumb, Charley Harper, retro video games, Alex Stitt, Ken Done, and Anime.

Are you lucky enough to travel with your work, or does the Internet save you the ‘hassle’?

I don’t have to travel with work; all of my commissions are done via email so I can work with a client wherever they are, in any country and time zone. I’m a night owl so I have no troubles working in the wee hours of Australian Eastern Standard Time. I would love to travel more with my work though, even to just pop into meet some of the clients I’ve worked for over the years.

What’s the weirdest/craziest project you’ve ever been asked to work on?

This is an old one, going back to 2000 when I was in my first year at Uni. I was an impressionable 18 year old, wide-eyed kid searching for career direction and some cash. I don’t even remember how I was contacted for this job, I didn’t even have a business card and it was possibly through the university. They had a pin board where I suppose people advertised because they knew we were young, cheap and could be manipulated. The job was to draw caricatures of corporate guests at an end of year function for a major Telco. For the interview I had to ‘try out’ by drawing a portrait of my interviewer. I think I made her nose too big for her liking, but ended up getting the gig. On the night amongst the caviar, bubbly and ego’s I tried my best to not offend.

You’ve got so much work done in your time. What’s your dream project? Have you come across it yet?

Not yet… I’m still hoping to illustrate editorial for Rolling Stone USA. I can still remember sitting in the Annex one Summer’s afternoon in the Port Fairy Caravan Park, sun burnt shoulders and zinced nose (I was probably about 11 years old), flicking through an issue of Rolling Stone dreaming of drawing’ a cartoon for an issue when I grew up.

Lastly, if we all lived in a cartoon-ized world of Eamo Donnelly, and given that being hand drawn cartoon characters is all we knew, what would you draw differently in the human race?

Heads, noses, eyes, ears and hands would be bigger and exaggerated to the extreme. Everyone would be wearing colour and, most importantly, everyone would be happy.


View Eamo’s work by visiting his website or view his profile on the Jacky Winer Group website.

Browse the Trunk Junk collection; maybe even pick one out for yourself.

© Jonathan Boonzaaier 2016

Jonathan Boonzaaier Eamo Donnely