Gemma Correll talks illustration, funny pugs, introversion and life in sunny California

Gemma Correll is a cartoonist, writer, illustrator and describes herself as an "all-around small person". You will undoubtedly be aware of her famous pug cartoons, which are incredibly popular with fans all over the world. So popular, you can purchase any number of her pug-inspired products – t-shirts, tea towels, greeting cards – from various shops and retailers.

Originally from Norwich, Gemma has recently moved to sunny California with her two pugs and boyfriend to enjoy warmer climes and to continue working as a freelance illustrator. Represented by Anna Goodson, her clients include Hallmark, The New York Times, Oxford University Press, Knock Knock, Chronicle Books and The Observer.

She's also the author of many books, such as A Cat’s Life (Te Neues, 2012), A Pug’s Guide to Etiquette (Dog N Bone, 2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to Life (Andrews McMeel, 2015). If that doesn't keep her busy enough, she also publishes her Four Eyes cartoon at GoComics.com and at The Nib on Medium.com. And she even draws a monthly Skycats cartoon for the Emirates Airlines Open Skies magazine.

From hard work and self-discipline to learning how to say 'No' and wishing pugs could talk, we chatted to Gemma about her life as an introverted illustrator.

How did you get started? Where did you study? What was your first job?

I studied at the Norwich School of Art and Design (now NUCA) in Norwich, UK. The course I took was a BA in Graphic Design and I chose to specialise in Illustration. After I graduated, I didn't go straight into illustration full-time. I worked as a teaching assistant during the week and did illustration jobs on the evenings and weekends. My first job was for Virgin Holidays, illustrating a brochure of vacation packages.

When and how did you launch your own business?

I graduated from college in 2007 and worked in part and full-time jobs for a couple of years while illustrating for clients on the weekends and evenings. I was also making a lot of my own products, like zines, screen-printed totes and T-shirts and hand-sewn plush toys, which I sold at craft fairs and online via Etsy. Eventually, in 2009, I was able to go full-time as an illustrator. At that time, I also started working with my Agency, Anna Goodson Illustration Agency.

What challenges did you face in those early days and how did you overcome them?

Getting my work 'out there' was a challenge in the early days. There are so many illustrators, all vying for a small number of jobs. It really helped me to work with Anna Goodson, who found work for me with international clients like Real Simple Magazine and Ulysees Press. I also spent a lot of time on promotion – designing postcards to mail to art directors and contacting clients that I wanted to work with.

I also continued to make my own products – I spent all of my extra time producing and shipping them and going to events where they could be sold. I set up a wholesale website and was contacted by stores who wanted to carry the products and eventually by companies that wanted to license my artwork for use on shirts and greetings cards.

Was there a moment when you realised you'd "made it"?

I don't remember a specific moment. I suppose going full-time as an illustrator was a landmark, but I didn't really feel like I'd 'made it; at that point. To be honest, I still don't – there's always something more that I want to achieve.

"It will be hard work, to begin with, but that's what is necessary to get established."

There'll be a lot of illustrators out there struggling to get started. What pearls of wisdom can you share that helped you to become a success?

It really comes down to hard work – and time. It takes a while to get your work seen by a wide audience, but social media is very helpful in that respect. Make sure you maintain a good website, with links to your social media sites. Keep those sites updated with new work as much as possible, not just finished work but sketches too (I find that people love to see work in progress and sketchbook scribbles). Always make sure to put your name on your work so that it can be traced back to you.

Also, take time to find your own style – don't copy other artists or follow trends. Look at books, not just the internet. Find inspiration beyond illustration, in other art forms and culture.

Finally, make your own products and sell them online and at events. It will be hard work, to begin with, but that's what is necessary to get established.

In terms of marketing yourself, what tools, tricks or resources have you found to be the most helpful? Tell us more...

Social media, of course. I especially like Instagram as a way of sharing doodles (and pug photos!). I use my Facebook Page and Twitter to communicate with fans and keep them updated with new work and events. Tumblr is great for image sharing.

Contacting art directors can be daunting, but just being yourself and being friendly gets you a long way. Also, entering contests, such as those held by the Society of Illustrators and the Art Directors Club, has helped me to get my work noticed.

Have you made any mistakes along the way that still make you slap your forehead now? What did you learn from that/those lesson/s?

My biggest mistakes have all involved my reluctance to say 'No' to things, which has lead to workloads that were bigger than I could cope with and underpaid, overly demanding work that I shouldn't have done – and ultimately, high stress. It's only recently that I've become comfortable with saying 'No'. I have to, for the sake of my health and sanity.

Your Worrier's Guide to Life, quite obviously, reveals that you're a worrier, true introvert, and expert insomniac. Have these traits held you back in any way, or only led to greater things?

The traits are part of who I am and inspire and infuriate me in equal measure. My introverted nature means that I'm not great at networking, or being a proper 'businessperson'. I overthink my work, which leads me to spend too much time stressing out over minor details when I could be making more work.

You obviously love cats and dogs – pugs particularly. They feature heavily in your work. What is it about animals that inspire you to draw them?

I love the personalities of animals. They are so varied. Pugs, in particular, are such characters; they are very silly and funny. I like imagining what animals might say if they could talk.

"Take time to find your own style – don't copy other artists or follow trends. Look at books, not just the internet. Find inspiration beyond illustration, in other art forms and culture."

Who has been your biggest inspiration in life? And why?

It's difficult to say, as I've been inspired by so many artists and other people along the way. Maybe Lynda Barry, whose work I have admired for a long time. Her comics are unusual and charming and very funny.

You have a very distinct style. What inspired it?

I've drawn in a similar style since I was a child – always focusing on characters and humour and using simple line art. Back then, I was inspired by cartoonists like Gary Larson (my parents had a Far Side anthology, which I read every day, despite not understanding all of the jokes) and Posey Simmonds, as well as the artists from all of the books that I read, like Terry Deary, who illustrated the great Horrible Histories series.

I knew from a young age that I wanted to draw and write for a living. I was always encouraged to draw by teachers and friends. Once I realised that I could use art as a tool to get out of PE lessons, I was even keener. At primary school, I was sometimes allowed to stay in the classroom and make posters for upcoming school events rather than put myself through the humiliation of falling over and generally being terrible at all of the sports.

At art college, I discovered the art of Jeffrey Brown, Tom Gauld and Simone Lia, as well as Lynda Barry and Matt Groening (and many, many others - I spent a lot of time in the college library and browsing in bookstores). I was also very inspired by folk art and crafts and outsider artists.

You've recently moved to America. Any reason for that? How are you finding the place?

I love America. I like the open spaces, the variety of landscapes, the friendliness of the people. I've been besotted with this country since I first visited when I was seven and travelled to North Carolina to stay with some of my dad's relatives. I love the open spaces, the variety of landscapes and cultural influences. Another major factor was the weather. I do not deal very well with cold, overcast days, which make up the majority of the year in England. I feel much healthier here in California where the sun shines nearly every day.

Describe your morning routine

I am not a morning person! So I begin my day pretty slowly. I walk my pugs and usually go to grab a coffee somewhere. Once I've woken up I'm ready to sit down and begin my day. Sometimes I'll start drawing right away, sometimes I'll answer emails or do some admin. It depends what my schedule looks like and how I'm feeling on that particular day.

What's your work setup look like? What tools can't you live without?

I work in a studio, which is really a sectioned-off part of my open-plan apartment. I have a small desk for my laptop and scanner and then a bigger desk which I use for drawing. My drawing tools are pretty simple. I like Uniball eye pens for fine lines and Fabel Castell brush pens for larger images and more fluid lines. I use marker pens, coloured pencils and ink washes for colour, as well as Photoshop. All I really need is some good paper and my pens – and my sketchbook, of course.

What are you currently reading? And what three books would you recommend to others?

I've just started reading Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Catlin Doughty. So far, I love it, as I have a rather macabre interest in death and dying. If I had to pick three books to recommend to others, I'd choose – How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (all the Caitlins!) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and pretty much anything by David Sedaris, who is my favourite writer.

What do you do to relax?

Ha ha! In all seriousness though, I've been carving out more time for myself recently as for the past couple of years, I have been working too much, which has led to high stress that made me ill.

I love reading, so I spend a lot of time in bookstores (Oakland is full of them!) and in the library. I sit in coffee shops and doodle or read. I go for walks in the sun with my pugs. I travel whenever possible – I love to visit new places. I go to thrift stores and antiques shops to find the kitschy ornaments and souvenirs that I collect – I love snow globes and vintage plastic knick knacks.

What's happening next? Do you have any interesting projects, books or exhibitions coming up?

I'm going to begin work on a new book of comics soon, based on my experiences as a woman in particular. I recently completed The Feminist Activity Book for Seal Press, which will be released in May – I had a great time working on it. I'm also planning for a couple of exhibitions, including a duo show with Deth P Sun at Grumpy Bert in Brooklyn, New York, in May.


To find out more about Gemma, visit her website www.gemmacorrell.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Main image credit: Dave Tada