Alana McCarthy is an amazing, award-winning illustrator. Her commercial clients have included The Wall Street Journal, Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Scholastic, Penguin Books, and Absolut Vodka. She also created the adorably fresh logo for our sister site Freak4MyPet.com.
Alana is best known for her Geeky Pet art, which depicts cats, and the occasional dog, in superhero outfits. Robert Downey Jr. is even a fan! We got the warm fuzzies when we sat down to speak to the artist about her diverse artistic practice, her pets, and how she stays motivated.
When/why did you decide to start pets in superhero costumes? What was your first Geeky Pet art piece?
I had been selling prints of my artwork at comic conventions for years. One showed my two cats dressed up and looking pretty upset about it. It kept getting a lot of attention. Then a friend asked for a sketch of a cat as Green Lantern. It just clicked. Cats as superheroes! In 2010 I went ahead and painted BatCat, SpideyCat and SuperCat. They were a hit, and the rest is history!
How do you decide which animals best suit which superheroes? For instance you drew Groot as sphinx cat, which was particularly intelligent – how did that come to you?
I like to sketch until something makes me giggle. A lot of illustration is problem solving; I had to figure out how to make the wooden skin of Groot translate into a cat version. Turns out that a hairless cat stuck in a log did just that!
Have you always been a cat lover? Do you have cats of your own?
I love animals, but I’m definitely more of a cat person than a dog person. I always had cats growing up, and my parents fed strays for a while so our backyard was filled with random felines. At one point I had three of my own, but the two old ladies – Luna and Bacon – passed on, so now I just have a big, fat, needy, cuddly, orange cat named Pumpkin. He’s awesome.
Did you know right away that you were on to something special when you started making the Geeky Pet art? Did you know they would blow up like they have?
I knew I had something special that first year when I saw the response I got from displaying them at FanExpo Toronto. People would be walking by, and they’d stop in their tracks. Lots of “OHMIGODs,” and squeals of delight followed. It’s so gratifying to see my art bring such joy to other people. I have loyal customers that come back year after year to add my newest pieces to their collection. Plus I love painting them – it never feels like work when I’m bringing a Geeky Pet piece to life.
You have a very diverse practice of commercial illustration, Geeky Pet art, and other work. How do you balance commercial projects and your own work? Have you always had such a varied practice?
I’ve always been very versatile when it comes to my art. Some of my illustration work is much more serious, elegant, and dramatic. I find that doing my Geeky Pet art allows me to take a break from all that seriousness. Also, my commercial work is usually dictated by an art director who has their own vision of what the piece should look like in the end. Geeky Pet allows me to be in control of the whole process, from concept to finish.
You do chalk drawings that are absolutely amazing. Can you talk about working in chalk and how it is different from other ways that you illustrate?
The chalk drawings are usually for marketing campaigns put on by ad agencies. They’re very temporary and definitely attract attention. I know that some of the ones I did for Loblaws, a local grocery store, had to be touched up since many people felt the need to run a finger or two through them to see if they were actually chalk.
It’s definitely different than painting in acrylic or working digitally. It’s much more drawing based and gets really messy – which is a great break from being on the computer!
Robert Downey Jr. posted some of your Cat Avengers works – how did that happen and what was it like? Did you get to talk to him?
There was one day that my phone just kept pinging with print orders from my Etsy shop. I looked at my stats and saw that hundreds of people had visited my store. I got on my computer to figure out where all the traffic was coming from. Turns out Robert Downey Jr. had posted my Cat Avengers image to his Facebook fan page, with a link to my Etsy shop. I was totally taken aback!
Nope, I didn’t get to talk to him, but I found his fan mail address and sent him a print of the piece. Who knows, it may be hanging in his trailer somewhere.
Have you always known that you wanted to be an illustrator?
I’ve known that I wanted to be an artist since kindergarten. I was always at the craft table making giant art projects from construction paper. I even went to a specialized art high school where you had to get in by passing a portfolio review.
I actually didn’t know that illustration was a career choice until college – originally I was going to go for graphic design. Luckily I attended an orientation session that gave a brief overview of the different design majors. When I saw that there was an option where you could draw and make a career of it, I was on board.
How do you stay motivated? Do you ever get artist’s block or are you always full of ideas?
I have my up and down times in terms of ideas. I find following other artists on Instagram and social media is really inspirational. If you see someone else drawing and creating every day, it really makes you want to as well.
Time is the biggest hurdle for me these days as I balance a full time day job, freelance illustration work, Geeky Pet, and I have two young sons that keep me busy. I use what free time I have, even if it means painting away with my laptop on the couch as I relax at the end of the day watching TV with my husband.
What advice do you have for young artists and illustrators?
Believe in what you do. Don’t let clients take advantage of you, offering low paying or free work in order to “add to your portfolio.” By saying no, you’re helping everyone in the industry. Be sure to get your work out there on the many portfolio sites as possible. Keep at it and draw every day!
For more about Alana McCarthy:
And if you’d like to follow Alana’s advice to get your work out there, upload your art to our gallery.