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Get to Know Illustrator and Muralist Caitlin McDonagh

Get to Know Illustrator and Muralist Caitlin McDonagh

If you’ve visited Breakwater before, you should be familiar with Caitlin McDonagh’s work by now. She’s the artist behind the colourful and whimsical illustrations splashed across the top of our What’s Happening series every week.


Caitlin’s intricate and illustrative works are inspired by folklore and tradition, as well as both the real and the surreal. She works in a base of acrylagouache paints that lends itself well to her attention to detail, pattern work, and use of vibrant colors. We caught up with the former Victoria resident, who’s now based in Montréal, to learn more about what drives her work.

You recently moved to Montréal. How are two cities different in how they approach the arts?

Growing up in Victoria, I feel like Montreal was always the art city. Now having spent time in Montreal, I can say that’s true. Every time I walk around, I notice or see a new piece or public art project underway. When I visit Victoria, I feel like I’m starting to see elements of this happening as well. It’s exciting to see not only the vast local talent being commissioned and given awesome opportunities, but also international artists coming to share their work. While every city has their own personality, public art is quickly becoming one of Victoria’s traits. 

You like to draw on themes of folklore, tradition, and the surreal. How much of your physical surrounding drives that inspiration, if any?

Growing up and spending most of my life on or around Vancouver Island was a huge inspiration for me. The natural world is in everything that I create. Through finding inspiration from mythological and folklore roots, I’ve worked on developing my own folkloric narratives that are woven through these surreal landscapes that I keep coming back to. 

Are there any folklore stories in particular that you keep coming back to? 

Choosing a particular story is hard; over the past seven years, I’ve been gathering books, ideas, and countless bookmarked pages on tales, traditions from different cultures, strange phenomenon, symbolism, and even the history of costume and rituals of various countries. Choosing one is too difficult!

What else gives you inspiration? 

Inspiration isn’t something I actively look for or try to gather. Moments or ideas seem to accumulate for me, and sort of piece together and come to life—usually pretty suddenly. When I’m not doing a commercial or illustrative job, a large part of my paintings and personal work is somewhat stream of consciousness, created without over planning. 

You predominantly illustrate—both hand-drawn and digitally—and you’re also a muralist. Tell us about experimenting with other mediums. 

Incorporating murals into my art practice, or any shift in medium, is such a thrill for me. Creating art is so solitary, such a meditative process, that anything that challenges how I paint, how I approach my work and interact with it, is so valuable for developing as an artist. 

Speaking of murals, you recently completed your second in Victoria [titled, “In the Trees,” a mural for Trees Island Grown]. Your first adorns the walls of The Number Creative in Rock Bay. Do you find the community in Victoria supportive of artists and muralists? 

During both of my mural projects in Victoria, there was such an overwhelmingly positive response to the idea of bringing visual art outside. I think that once people start to see these projects come to life, it really opens their eyes to the possibilities of how public art can shift a space or environment. There are so many talented artists in Victoria, of various mediums and genres, it’s really exciting to see them being supported and given exciting opportunities to share their work in new ways.

What are your favourite projects to work on?

Working with clients on illustration projects is so fun—I love bringing visual dialogue to someone’s ideas, product, or words. Also murals! I like those a lot

Who is someone on the Island you’re inspired by?

My good friend Jason Niles is one of my rocks, and is always someone who I can bounce ideas or dreams off of. He always brings a new way of approaching or looking at things, and leaves me inspired to try the weirdest of ideas. 

Where is your favourite place to visit when you’re back on the Island, and why? 

Definitely the ocean, plus stopping to quench my dog-fever while strolling the off-leash area along Dallas Road. 

Give us your go-to place to grab a meal or beer in Victoria.

I usually end up stopping by The Drake to see what selection of sour beers they have on tap, as well as a coffee and breakfast bagel at Fernwood Coffee

Check out more of Caitlin’s work online, and see what she’s up to over on Instagram.

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