Characters, skulls and making art

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Zoe Meehan's art is all-consuming – an intense world of character, form, colour, and stories, as well as growing technical skills. Words and photographs by Jack Meehan.

“I’m not interesting!” Zoe Meehan says defiantly. “I’ve barely lived yet. I’m just 17.”

A wall covered with life drawings and a bookshelf bursting with dozens of packed sketchbooks undermine her claim.

There are paintings, storyboards, clay maquettes – and a skull. Zoe consults this clay sculpture often to flesh out a new character’s story or attitude. 

“I made him last year, when I wasn’t so clear on the volumes of things. Especially the backs of people’s heads,” she says. “In a way, this process is part of the skeleton that makes up a lot of the personalities I create. I overlay the character onto the skull and speak to it.

“I find that talking aloud to my characters makes them feel alive, because I’ve given them attitude and all of these other things that they wouldn’t have had if I simply just decided to draw a picture.” 

Colour and contrast have always been important to Zoe, who is in year 11 studying Studio Arts and VCD, as well as Screen and Media at AIE.

“I’m definitely a visual thinker and the way I see the world is pretty visually intense.” 

“I’m putting everything out there and it’s confronting. I’m forced to reckon with everything I’ve made in the last year and I’m disappointed in myself, to be honest,” she says. “I’m scared to spend a lot of time on one thing.”

There is an immense pressure to keep going, to keep filling sketchbook after sketchbook. “If I haven’t sketched, it makes me sad. I think with pictures, I try to draw every day.”

Zoe’s style has changed a lot since she started, evolving her angular and cartoonish caricatures into a much more natural rendition of how she sees the world and how she envisions her characters.

“I’ve carried a few of these characters with me for a long time and it’s fun to see how they’ve changed as my style has too.”

She says the characters are more of a projection than a design choice, and were created as ways for her to deal with her issues.

“I have a habit of making characters that don’t fit in. Once I’ve developed a character, I find that the need for it is gone.”

Working on a tablet has given Zoe the portability she needs to make art when the mood strikes and is essential for pathways into the industry. 

She is now learning 3D modelling and animation. Although it’s a slow process, it’s helped her to “see” more of her art.

Learning to paint and draw has improved her patience. “Once you pull through that first hour, you want to keep going.”

Zoe has started binding some of her own sketchbooks, in part because she’s not had the opportunity to go out and buy any. 

“I suppose part of it is that it feels like it’s really mine. From start to finish, I made this thing. It’s definitely a rewarding process.” 

“If you found one of my sketchbooks on the train, you’d understand a lot about me,” she says.

It’s difficult to find a favourite piece. “I see all the flaws, it’s not complete, I haven’t done enough stuff that I’m proud of, nothing I create is ever good enough,” Zoe says. “I guess that’s just an artist thing.” 

 Zoe likes to develop her art by acting it out, using herself as a reference for some illustrations. Other times, she’s used portraits of herself as figure study.

Many of Zoe’s characters have wings, including a three dimensional one she’s creating in Maya, for animation. She often photographs herself, for reference. Photography is useful for learning how to illustrate certain qualities, such as translucency.

It seems that Zoe thrives from all the “chaos”.

“I’m the best I have been in the whole of my life right now.”

Zoe says she wants to become a full-time concept artist. “I have this need to do it, it’s what I’m best at,” she says. “Some people struggle to come up with ideas, I’m not like that.” 

“I have the habit of making up stories and worlds, thinking very in depth about how they work, what happens inside of them. For example, what they do in their spare time, how they collect snow, what things they eat. I focused a lot on that, I find that very interesting.” 

This level of detail is a fundamental part of Zoe’s creative process. “I’ve accidentally designed a whole world when I was only meant to design one character.”