Joe O’Donnell swaps digital illustration for painting with intricately therapeutic results

The illustrator’s new muses include a chicken, cats and even a cow, simply “because their expressions make me smile”.

20 August 2021

For Manchester-based illustrator Joe O’Donnell, creative constraints have always been a positive. For instance, initially his bobble-like illustration style emerged out of his “limited understanding of Adobe” and his “frustration with inconsistency in my early work,” he tells It’s Nice That. Both of these factors created the digital illustration practice we’ve always known Joe for, where characters and scenes take on an almost pixel-like form designed by the artist. Until now, that is, when we see the same quality has been transferred to a new painting practice – and somehow looks even better.

Joe has only switched to painting relatively recently, driven by a desire to “bring a more human touch to my work,” he explains, “but it’s been a struggle to reach a point where I can accept the imperfections that come with painting as opposed to digital vector illustration.” However, by placing more personal constraints on himself – like restrictions on what shapes and colours he is allowed to use – each painting still appears uniform “even if the subject matter is completely different”. This process is also “pretty much the same as my digital work,” Joe adds. He’ll even still begin a piece digitally, as a space that allows him to experiment with layouts and shapes (without that added pressure of the paintbrush veering off). “This is the stage where the most brain power is required, there tends to be a lot of rescaling and wrestling with an idea until I get to a point where I’m happy with a piece.”

In terms of subject matter, however, Joe has found a new muse: animals. When previously speaking to the illustrator, his references and influences have been vast – from gaming to one particular album by The Streets – but there appears to be a certain something about recreating any animal in his now-signature style. “I think I’m drawn to animals because their expressions make me smile,” Joe says. “I used to think that a painting or an illustration had to be clever or witty in its subject matter, but more recently I have been trying to remove any idea of a message and simply paint things that appeal to me.”


Joe O’Donnell: Dog on Earth (Copyright © Joe O’Donnell, 2021)

Joe’s sitting portraits now detail the startled look of two cats caught in the light, through to wide-eyed dogs and cows, and even a squawking chicken features. Each one “conveys as much in a few shapes as possible”, and so the outlines of these animals are always in neatly drawn circular shapes dotted close to one another. And, although planned beforehand, swapping digital illustration for painting allows for an element of surprise: “There’s a great moment of relief when I’m trying to work out the shape of something and all of a sudden the pieces click together,” he says, “and there’s a goofy-looking dog staring back at me.”

With painting the key output of Joe’s practice for the moment, the artist does remain unsure if it’s here to stay. “I tend to get quite obsessive over things in my work and keep making them until I’m sick of it, so it’s hard to say if I will solely stick to painting now.” If anything, this experiment of applying his style to a new medium has shown the artist that his practice is in fact transferable, so who knows where it might head next.

Yet, on reflection, painting has produced a very worthwhile reaction in Joe: enjoyment. “I do think painting has helped me to enjoy the process of working much more, though, where working can be broken down into different stages. Once the brainwork of figuring out what to paint and how it’s going to look is done, there’s the whole other process of actually transferring the image onto my chosen canvas and painting it,” he says. “This second part requires much less thought and I find it to be very therapeutic, getting to this point of tranquility can sometimes be the motivation to grind through the designing process, and I think this is also what makes me want to continue making work. It’s an addictive process!”


Joe O’Donnell: Cow and Croc (Copyright © Joe O’Donnell, 2021)


Joe O’Donnell: Tree (Copyright © Joe O’Donnell, 2021)


Joe O’Donnell: Dog (Copyright © Joe O’Donnell, 2021)


Joe O’Donnell: Two Black Cats (Copyright © Joe O’Donnell, 2021)


Joe O’Donnell: Chicken (Copyright © Joe O’Donnell, 2021)


Joe O’Donnell: Pigeon (Copyright © Joe O’Donnell, 2021)


Joe O’Donnell: Ducks (Copyright © Joe O’Donnell, 2021)


Joe O’Donnell: Flowers at Sunset (Copyright © Joe O’Donnell, 2021)

Become an Extra Nice Supporter

Unlock an inspiring new way to explore It’s Nice That, get your hands on exclusive perks, and help bring meaningful creative projects to life.

Sign up!

Hero Header

Joe O’Donnell: Fruit (Copyright © Joe O’Donnell, 2021)

Share Article

About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.