You can listen to the Podcast here…
Steve McCarthy’s studio is sandwiched in between a pub and a Turkish takeaway on Liffey street. He looks down on the rhythm and chaos of the street that rides the hands of the clock with daily predictability.
The human form is something that McCarthy is drawn to, it’s a theme that emerges in his work. “My favourite thing to do in college was life drawing. I find it fascinating the way people assemble themselves when they think people aren’t looking. They tend to fold themselves into odd shapes. I’ve a burning desire to get it on paper, I try to inject it into my art. That’s one of the reasons why my studio is on the third floor!” McCarthy’s studio is a small space that is shared with other creatives.
No Formal Education
The only examination that McCarthy has ever sat was for the PADI license, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. “I went to school till the age of eight and then I stopped. I was bullied relentlessly. I was a very nervous kid and felt misunderstood by my peers and teachers. I was banned from drawing in class because it was viewed that I was not paying attention.” When his father was a child he ran away from boarding school several times so there was already a mistrust of formal education. His parents decided to homeschool him. “My education was about asking lots of questions and my parents would find me the answers.”
Art was something that consumed him and he knew from early on in his life that it was something that he wanted to do as a career. “I always knew exactly what I wanted to do and I would not be dissuaded. I always wanted to draw and I knew at some stage that I would have to make money from it. When I was seventeen I decided to pursue animation which turned out to be the wrong decision.”
Without a formal education McCarthy was presented with an obstacle to his goal of having a career in drawing. “The plan was for me to do the leaving certificate (an exam that Irish students take to graduate secondary school/high school). It looked like it was going to be gruelling and art was not a massive part. From what my parents could see it was not going to a massive benefit, it was a means to an end because I knew where I wanted to go.”
He already had an ample portfolio so he decided to test the waters with a few colleges. All of them would not entertain him without proper qualifications, Dun Laoghaire suggested that he try Ballyfermot College. “I made up a bunch of qualifications on the form so that I could get the interview. They liked my portfolio and offered me a place. I was nervous as hell because I knew I had to tell them the truth.” He told them, “and they were very nice about it. They told me that I could have a place but I would have to nail every exam in the first year, that way I could get a VTAC qualification which would outrank a leaving certificate qualification.” He excelled in the course.
Upon graduation he got a job with a small animation company. “I didn’t like it because animation is slow paced and you’re working for other people. I’d be developing my own ideas and get into trouble because it would be on their clock. They let me go!”
Turning Down A Dream Job
Soon after he was offered a highly sought after job at Brown Bag. “I got offered a lead character designer in Brown Bag which was an insane job to get but it was fluke. Someone in there knew the stuff I did and Brown Bag’s lead character designer was leaving for the year so they needed a temporary replacement.” He was around twenty-five at this stage and like a lot of people around that age he had very different priorities. “I had a trip to Thailand for three months booked so I asked them if they could wait, they said no unsurprisingly!”
It was an adventure that stirred him onto a path that he never knew existed. “When I was in Thailand someone asked me what I did and I explained it as best I could. They then said, oh you’re an illustrator. That was my first interaction with that term! I always thought that was part of other jobs not a job in itself.”
Becoming An Illustrator
When he returned to Ireland he looked into the area more. “I researched it and realised that it was something that I could do, now I think that it’s hilarious that I didn’t realise it before. It’s a career that is a combination of being your own boss and drawing which was and is perfect for me. I really struggle working with other people. I love collaborating on equal terms but I cannot take someone dictating to me. I know that that’s completely my fault. I’m aware that it’s an issue in some situations but I am way more comfortable on an even keel with people.”
His latest project is with Jameson, the Irish whiskey drink. Working with a client is usually a fraught process for McCarthy but Jameson were the exception rather than the rule because they were clear from the beginning. “They are genuinely an amazing client from end to end. I’ve been working with them for two years now which is the longest I’ve worked with anyone on any one project. I think it’s because they have so many dedicated staff that no one gets sick of me and I don’t get sick of them because they have so much time for it. It’s been strange having that much freedom with the concept, they let me loose. The tough part was to stay on brand. You need to always know that it’s a Jameson bottle from a distance. Then you have to adhere to the rules of the 30 odd countries that it is going to be in because they all have restrictions, which to me was this fantastic puzzle. I had the concept but then I have to fix it into this jigsaw which I found fascinating. I found working with big brands tough in the past because they don’t tell you what the rules are, Jameson they tell you it from the start.”
His Chinese Following
His work has already developed a following in China. They enjoy the image of the hands shaking and McCarthy’s concept of chancing your arm, something that you can learn more about in this video. “Chinese business men really like it. It’s something to do with the handshake. It’s a really nice present to give during a business transaction. They shake hands which is symbolic of the meeting and exchange the bottles, it’s a bit of craic for them!”
McCarthy’s unconventional education moulded him into an inquisitive person, a quality that makes him question and observe closely. He’s not daunted by challenges and can thank his parents for that, “my parents just figure stuff out. They’re not afraid to jump into something that they don’t understand and be bad at it until they understand.”
You can learn more about Stephen’s work on his website.