Each year we commission a new illustrator to create artwork of native trees to go alongside our Greening the City native tree giveaway. This year, the illustrations were created by Hope McConnell, a young Bay of Plenty artist whose work is fresh, fun and colourful, often incorporating animated elements. 

MELINDA Hi Hope. How did you start out in the art and illustration world?

HOPE I have a really cute photo of myself when I was one or two, painting, so it goes right back! My mum filled the house with creative things, lots of arts and crafts. I learned to cook and sew at a really young age. I don’t know why but my parents decided against watching TV, so we didn’t really spend time doing that growing up, we just painted and drew and made things. I think that was really formational for me. I’ve always been a maker. 

Going into high school I kind of knew that I was going to do something creative. When I could choose my subjects, I chose as many creative ones as possible. I focused purely on that side of things. I was actually going to go into fashion, that was my dream. When I was young I did a lot of fashion design competitions, but when it came to going to university, I went to the fashion department at the university I was interested in going to and it just didn't appeal to me. Everyone looked really exhausted and there was all this machinery everywhere and people looked like they’d been up for three days in a row. It didn’t look colourful or fun or what I’d thought it would look like. Then I went next door to the visual design department and people were making books and collaborating and brainstorming, doing photography and 3D printing stuff. It just felt really fun and team-based. So I thought ‘That seems more like me’. 

Post-university, I struggled to find a job in the design industry and didn’t really have the confidence to back myself to go out full-time as an illustrator. So I dabbled in a couple of jobs working in-house at a company and at an agency. Then 2020 hit and I was at home, doing a lot of corporate design work and not really loving the company I was working for. I felt creatively itching to do more. I also had some health issues so I ended up leaving that job, taking some time out and doing a bunch of personal work. At the start of 2021 I went out on my own as a full-time freelance illustrator and graphic designer and ended up getting represented by International Rescue, which opened so many doors for me. It’s been awesome, I’ve gotten to do some really cool work and curate my own personal style or vibe. I feel like I get to bring my personal best to all the projects I get to be a part of.

MELINDA Your Instagram is really fun, and I like the way you often show the process behind your work. It’s amazing to see how versatile visual design tools are today. Have you always worked using digital tools?

HOPE Actually, no! I always used Photoshop in high school but a lot of my work was analogue. At university I did a lot of acrylic painting, a lot of watercolour, a lot of work with ink and sketching, so my foundation was very analogue; I always kept sketchbooks growing up. I still really enjoy watercolour though I don’t really post mine on socials because I like to do them for myself, not to be paid. A lot of my work now I do use digital tools, which are amazing. But I always prefer to begin sketching by hand, really rough, just getting the movement. I feel like my style is not too structural but I do like to have some good design elements in it, good composition and flow, some straight lines and contrast, and the sketching helps me get the movement of the piece and then I can refine it from there using digital tools.  

MELINDA Your work does have that really analogue look to it.

HOPE I love the textural feeling of painting but then digital has so much freedom and you can make mistakes without ruining the whole piece!

MELINDA You can see that in your works at Britomart, which have a very painterly feel. How did that project come about?

HOPE I got it through my agent, International Rescue. I was stoked to get it because I love Britomart. When I was studying at university in Auckland, I used to hang out there, and I loved the vibe. I also love the idea of the Greening the City event. What a cool initiative to be part of. I also love any opportunity to illustrate Aotearoa, where we come from, and its native flora and fauna. I am always inspired by that. I love getting out into nature. I think it was fun as well. The brief was for something a bit more youthful and playful with a lot of energy, and I think my style is very joyful, I love using a lot of colours and adding a bit of humour or a wink to the pieces I work on. So it felt like a really good fit. 

MELINDA When you were doing the illustrations did you know much about the plants and which birds might be suitable to go with them?

HOPE I’ve done projects before where I did a series of illustrations of different landscapes in New Zealand and what bird would populate those landscapes, so I had a good foundation. I had no idea about the scientific names, so I had to look them up, but once I figured what the Maori names were or the native names, then I knew what they were. But I did still have to do some research into what plants grew together. On the illustrations, often I’ve put more than one plant together, so for example, with the kauri tree, I had to think about what plants would grow around that. With the cabbage tree, tī kōuka, that would have a lot more flax around it. And then I’d think about what kind of birds would be rustling around in the bushes underneath, or sitting in the tree. So that was fun, piecing the different worlds together.

MELINDA I think you’re the first illustrator to make the decision to put multiple plants and birds together, so it’s interesting to hear how you went about that. 

HOPE I love the combinations of colours and textures. That’s what the beauty of the bush is to me, all these different combinations of colours and textures and shapes bouncing off each other. 

MELINDA You also created a short animation to go with your posters, which we’ll be sharing online. Is that something you often do when you’re creating illustrations?

HOPE Yeah, I’m moving more into that space. I started with ProCreate, just playing around with the gif function back in 2020 when I had all this creative energy that was going nowhere. I said I’d do a gif a day for 50 days. At first I was like, ‘This is such a great idea’ and then by 30 days in I was staying up for two hours every night to make them. But it was a great crash course and I realised that I really like bringing my work to life through animations. I did a job with Dilmah a couple of years ago, working with BrandAid and Assembly, which brought all my illustrations to life in a whole new way. That was such an eye-opener for me. I feel like you can add so much personality with animation. 

MELINDA Do you have any other projects coming up that people could keep an eye out for?

HOPE I do have a couple of projects coming out in supermarkets but I’m not sure if I can specify what they are until they’re fully released! I have some limited-edition coffee packaging for L’Affare that’s coming out in supermarkets, and also some limited-edition products for a big New Zealand client, which is still very hush-hush! I also have a kids’ book coming out this Christmas with Penguin. So I’m super-excited about all those things.