When it comes to fashion, it's always been about the visual and nobody understands this better than fashion stylist and illustrator Sara O'Neill. Georgina Heffernan reports.

Once upon a time, fashion magazines relied on illustrators to create images of what was in vogue. Then, thanks to photographic developments, snapshots rather than sketches became the norm. But in recent years, fashion illustration has undergone something of a renaissance. From the editorial pages of style magazines to the luxurious world of couture, hand-sketched fashion plates are back in vogue as an effective alternative to the glossy fashion photograph.

GH: What were your first experiences of illustration?
Sara: Drawing was something I’ve always loved, ever since I was a little kid, and when I left university it was something I really wanted to pursue. As it worked out, styling took up most of my time, and it was only three or four years ago that I began to draw again; I started off by  doing detailed little pencil drawings and had a couple of illustrations published in magazines.
My big break happened when I was styling a BBC culture show, and happened to meet art consultant, Carrie Neely -  she was curating a couple of group exhibitions and invited me to participate. From there, I secured a couple of solo exhibitions and my work is stocked in a few lovely galleries. Commercial illustration is something that always interested me though, and in the New Year I signed with London-based Lemonade Illustration Agency.

Blue Angel pencil drawing (below)

What’s been the highlight of your career to date?
I think signing with Lemonade has been the highlight so far, their client list is unbelievable and they represent some incredible artists, so I was thrilled when they sent me a contract. I had looked at their website for years but I procrastinated terribly about contacting them; I think I hated the fact that they might not have responded to me! Currently, I’m expanding my commercial portfolio, but I’m really enjoying the direction my work is taking, and the feedback and guidance that they give me.

What do you love most about your job?
When I’m styling, I love working with teams of talented, creative people- photographers, designers, make-up artists, models, many of whom have become good friends over the years. Although some shoots and shows can be stressful and challenging, seeing the final outcome - in a magazine, on a billboard or catwalk - is always exciting and gratifying.
With my drawing, I love that people want to hang my work in their homes or commission me to create a commercial image for their business; my drawings are so personal that I love when other people love them. I recently did a drawing of Charlotte Free (I love her pink hair); she saw it on Facebook and shared it with a lovely compliment. That was pretty cool.

What are your ambitions - do you see yourself working as a fashion stylist or moving more into art?
I hope to continue working in both fields, although I’m becoming busier with the illustration, and I imagine that will begin to take up more and more of my time. I do plan to keep working as a stylist because working and collaborating with other people keeps me inspired -  that in turn feeds into my drawings. I do combine both occasionally, when I style a model and then draw the image, which is great fun and I’m very lucky to have lots of beautiful model friends that are happy for me to draw them. The best example of that was probably a piece for my last exhibition, where I wanted to create a modern 'Ophelia' so I had my friend Caroline lie in the bath while her daughter and I surrounded her in flowers and tried to make her look beautifully deathly!

What inspires you?
Music, film, history, art, fashion, theatre and literature are great sources of inspiration. My last exhibition ‘Love me to Death’ was based on classic gothic literature and one of my favourite shoots was inspired by Wuthering Heights.

Is it difficult to make a living, especially when you are doing something so unusual?
It can be… the fashion and creative industries in general have been affected by the downturn in the economy, like all other industries. Thankfully, I’ve been kept constantly busy over the past eight years but the most difficult thing is probably cash flow. Some companies take months to pay and that can be hard, especially when you’ve been really busy and worked flat out but have nothing to show for it! Chasing overdue invoices can be time consuming as well. The money does come in eventually but you have to be disciplined and budget for all eventualities.

What challenges have you had to overcome and what keeps you focused on your goals?
Sometimes my workload can be a bit overwhelming, especially when you’re freelance and self-employed, it’s only you that can do your job and run your business and each client, rightly, expects 100%. I try to just focus on one job at a time, if I thought about all the work I had to do at any one time I don’t think I would get anything done, I probably wouldn't get out of bed! The beginning of spring and autumn tend to be especially busy, when the shows and ad campaigns kick in. Just running my business and earning a living keeps me focused, and getting great feedback from clients keeps me pushing forward.

What's your vision for the future?
More of the same really! I would love to travel a bit more with work, as I feel that is something that has been lacking over the past few years. I have a million different ideas for things I would like to do, especially with my illustrations - expanding into more galleries and commercial areas - perhaps into imagery for interior and fashion print; I love the idea of bringing my work together rather than running them as two separate disciplines. And I have a dream list of magazines that I would love my work to end up in. So I imagine I will have a busy few years ahead of me.