we want your job

We Want Your Job: Penelope Dullaghan

by Caitlin Kelch


A few months ago, Grace introduced me to the work of Penelope Dullaghan, an illustrator and pattern maker whose lovely imagery floats around in my head almost daily. Penelope is ultimately a storyteller, creating tales that we all can connect to through her use of color, texture and her ability to capture the beauty of the everyday and the imagination.

Penelope is based in Indianapolis, IN and works with a wide variety of clients, large and small. She’s created work for Crate and Barrel, The New York Times and Oprah Magazine to name a few. I was thrilled to connect with Penelope and find out more about her creative path. As you can see from the lovely video by the Emmy-award winning team behind SALT Project after the jump, Penelope takes time to explore nature and her creativity. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook, too. –Caitlin

What was your career path like?

I started my career working as an art director for an ad agency. I was lucky they hired me right out of school, and I got to learn on the job from some really creative thinkers who helped shape my approach to work. The whole time I was at the agency I was getting illustrator promos in the mail — and I loved them. It was unreal to me that people were out there making art for a living. I started to wonder if I could do that. After a year of moonlighting as an illustrator and working up my courage, I made the leap to become a freelance illustrator. And now, 12 years later, I’m so happy I did.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be an artist. There was no other option in my mind, really. I went to school for graphic design instead of fine art, though, because I thought that was the only way I’d be able to make ends meet.


What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is the freedom I have. My schedule is mine to make. I can take long lunches if I need a change of scenery. I can volunteer at my daughter’s school. I can work late into the night if I’m feeling inspired. Also, I have the freedom to explore my own artistic whims. Last year I decided I wanted to learn how to make patterns, so I did some research, started playing and got good at it. Since then, I’ve been hired to make patterns for some cool clients. I love that I can pave my own roads.

And the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is definitely the ups-and-downs in my head. You know, the rollercoaster artist brain of “I am not good enough. Why am I doing this? So many other artists are doing better stuff.” Versus the flow I get into when I concentrate on my own work — when hours pass and I’m in a zone, feeling good about what I’m creating.

How do you handle on-the-job stress?

I walk every day with my husband (who also works from home) and our dog, Lucy. During the cooler months we walk along the river behind our house. It helps ground me and inspires a lot of my personal projects. I also do yoga every day. I get grumpy if I skip it.

What life skills have been most helpful in pursuing a career as a creative entrepreneur?

For me, I think being reliable and going beyond expectations have been the most helpful. I work hard and try to over-deliver in some way on every project… always hitting deadlines (duh), maybe sending sketches a day or two early, involving the client in my process for their feedback (I’ve been fortunate to work with clients who do help make the work stronger), and following up to make sure they have everything they need. I hope it makes clients want to work with me again.


What advice would you give someone who would love to work in a similar field?

Do work — lots of it and every chance you get. I think my work evolves the most when I play and keep following the work. Make something (anything) and if it’s not working — ask yourself why not — then do it again and again until it does work. Keep trying new techniques to find what feels natural for you. Keep playing with ideas and taking the next step in front of you — you’ll know what that is as you start walking down the path.

How should they get started? What should they study in school or learn about on their own?

I think just putting pen (or brush or whatever) to paper is always a good start. If you start doing something, you’ll find out a lot about whether you really want to do it professionally or if it’s best enjoyed in hobby form. You also start to see your own style come through. I can’t speak to studying illustration in school — I think a lot of great illustrators come from that background, but I didn’t. But I recommend interviewing working illustrators to find out what their day-to-day is really like. See if you can shadow someone. Take a class online, do the assignments and see if you like the process.


What else would you love to do in this field?

I would love to work on fabrics, textiles and product lines with my patterns. I’d love to do more packaging and advertising for sustainable brands that are doing good in the world. And I’d love to work on video animations for clients. I’d love to work on game packaging (card games, board games, kid games, etc.). I’d love to do more book covers — they’re very fun! And last thing I’ll mention: I’d love to somehow work on projects that help change the monstrous food system in the US — helping organic farms take over the political world of processed food. I’d especially love to focus on helping kids make good food choices, whether that’s bringing whole foods to school cafeterias, helping organizations teach kids about healthy cooking, or helping school gardens become the norm. It’s a topic I’m super fired up about. I’d love the food scene in the US to be something we’re proud of.

Penelope Dullaghan

How do you stay inspired? And where do you get your ideas from?

For me, I think inspiration comes from doing. Doing one thing inevitably leads to doing the next thing. And I just keep doing the next thing. I guess that doesn’t sound very romantic, does it… like creative drudgery? But each step is one I can’t wait to take!

Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on? Or one that you are most proud of?

A recent project I’m really proud of is the May/June cover of Spirituality & Health Magazine. It was one of those projects where personal exploration got to play a part in client work (love it when that happens!). I’d been experimenting on my own with collage work and art director Sandra Salamony saw my posts about it on Facebook. She asked me to explore some of those collage techniques as an idea for the cover. For the final, I combined my tried-and-true style of paint with the new collage elements, and I really love how it turned out.


What’s next for you? Are there any projects coming up you’re excited about? Or dream projects you’d like to tackle?

I’ve been working on illustrated advent cards that I’ll have for sale in my Etsy shop for the upcoming season. These are different from the usual countdown cards in that they put the focus on making the season more peaceful, simple and introspective. Each day there is a new illustration and meditations mixed in with easy day-to-day activities to help spread joy! I think they’re very fun and hope people will love them!

And finally, just for fun, what’s your favorite decorative element?

Hmm… anything from nature. But maybe the feather is my very favorite.


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  • A big fan of Penelope’s work! So glad you profiled her. And I love that video. I’m an illustrator following a similar path to hers, only it took me 8 years to make the leap from moonlighting to working as a full-time freelancer, but like Penelope, I’m so glad I made the leap!

  • So happy to see this interview! I met Penelope years ago when I ran a small art center. She participated in a show at the center and she was such a pleasure to work with. A true professional and exceptionally talented artist. So proud to say that I actually own a Penelope Dullaghan original piece — it’s a treasured item in my household.

  • Been following Illustration Friday and Penelope way back since 2004 when I needed some creative juice to fill my empty graphic design glass! So glad to finally see her here. Her work is incredible, original, authentic, and inspiring. Yay DS!

  • Penelope I don’t know if you know about this project coming to Indianapolis but this may be a good opportunity for you to fulfill your wish to work on food systems with kids: http://www.ibj.com/articles/59981-musks-brother-plans-to-plant-100-gardens-at-indy-schools
    It sounds like an exciting opportunity for those of us who care about food systems, food deserts and folks who would like to grow their own food or learn where their food comes from. I’m looking forward to hearing more about it and finding out what the role of Master Gardeners can be in this.

  • I found Penelope’s work when she made art from Emily Dickinson’s poems. I loved it and think she is a real inspiration on taking what is inside and making art. It’s nice to see what she is doing right now.

  • Beyond thrilled to see you and your beautiful work on Design Sponge. You are such an inspiration for living a gorgeous, centered creative life. Thanks for sharing.