Artist Talk: Illustrator Mai Ly Degnan talks about finding your ‘personal voice’

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Monday, February 7th, 2022

When Mai Ly Degnan sits down to create a new illustration, she’s melding the immediacy of hand-drawing with a deft skill at digital refinements: and that work has found fans far and wide.
The award-winning illustrator and illustration professor presents an Artist Talk at PCA&D on Tuesday, Feb. 15, at 1 pm in the College Atrium. Her work has been recognized by The Society of Illustrators of New York and Los Angeles, American Illustration, and 3×3, and clients have included the Boston Globe, Bust Magazine, Baltimore City Paper, VICE Magazine, NPR, Frankie Magazine, The Bark Magazine, Tigress For Girls, The Oyster Review, Midnight Breakfast, and La Guarimba International Film Festival — among others. She received her BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design.
We talked with Degnan about the importance of finding your own voice — and the ways in which her work, even now, can surprise her:
When you look back at what you were creating as an undergraduate — do you see the roots of your current style or has it changed quite a bit? 

Mai Ly Degnan: A little bit of both!  There are many things about my work that have definitely changed since my time in undergrad.  Most specifically the way in which I draw my characters and the look and style may feel very different.

headshot of Mai Ly Degnan, Illustrator

Mai Ly Degnan

As I began to find my market professionally, my overall style certainly changed and evolved.  However many of the themes I drew then can definitely be connected to my current work now.  Theme-wise, drawing people and celebrating different kinds of characters was always my favorite thing to illustrate when I was in undergrad, and that definitely remains the same.  Technique-wise, I’ve definitely stayed pretty true to my process with a mix of hand drawing and digital color.  I can get the best line and details when I can actually feel the paper I am drawing on.  I’ve always had such a love for linework, and patterns, which is my favorite thing to perfect when I am working on any piece.  This is definitely the thing that has stayed with me since my time in art school.

“As an illustrator, creating personal work is so important, and I definitely wish I had done more of that in undergrad.  Most of my time as a student was really spent making work for the assignments vs. thinking about making work for myself.”
What is it about pattern-making that appeals to you? Is there a part of the process that you find most challenging? 
MLD: I love pattern-making so much because there is a ton of potential for illustrations to live on things outside of a 2D world.  Probably the most challenging part of the process for me, is that it is often unpredictable.  I make patterns by hand drawing them, and then digitally coloring and slicing drawings into tiles to make them repeat.  There is often a bit of surprise each time in the final repeat, because I have a difficult time predicting the end result visually ahead of time.  However, it is such a lovely feeling of accomplishment to see the pattern repeat in the end. I also get so excited imagining all the different 3D possibilities the patterns could live on. 
Illustration by Mai Ly Degnan

Illustration courtesy Mai Ly Degnan

What do you wish you’d paid more attention to in your undergrad years? 
MLD: I definitely wish I paid more attention to my personal voice while I was in undergrad. As an illustrator, creating personal work is so important, and I definitely wish I had done more of that in undergrad.  Most of my time as a student was really spent making work for the assignments vs. thinking about making work for myself.  One of the most important things I’ve learned working as an illustrator was that my work is best when I can make the assignment work for me.  I go out of my way to try to make sure that I always add something I love to draw to each illustration job I do.  This really helped me build more consistency within my work, as well as help me get the kinds of jobs I want to illustrate for in the future. 
Who or what would be your dream illustration client or project? 
MLD: A dream project would definitely be to write and illustrate my own children’s book.  I’ve done so much work illustrating other people’s words, and it would be such a dream to end day write and illustrate a children’s book of my own.  I have always kept a sketchbook full of ideas, but between teaching and freelancing it is really about finding the time to dive in.
illustration by Mai Ly Degnan, two women caring for houseplants

Illustration courtesy Mai Ly Degnan.