Challenging gender stereotypes with Illustration graduate Max Girdler-Heald
Graduating from our BA (Hons) Illustration degree as part of the Class of 2021, 22 year-old illustrator Max Girdler-Heald has a dreamy, feminine, boldly colourful style which caught the eye of the Plymouth College of Art Brand and Communications team, and saw his work being selected to be used in advertising and marketing materials for the college, both in print and online.
Originally from Reading, and now residing in London after finishing his degree, we caught up with Max to get the lowdown on his work, his dreams for the future, and getting his book published...
So Max, what are you doing in London at the moment?
I’m currently working in retail, and will continue to do so while I get settled in London, but I am using my fixed term contract end date to be my own personal deadline to get an art related job by then, such as gallery work or art technician.
You had your Graduation at the Theatre Royal in November 2021 - how was it?
I really enjoyed it; it was nice to catch up and see what everyone on the course has been up to since last seeing each other, and I was happy the announcer said my last name correctly, that never happens! My parents, brother, sister and grandma were there to see me graduate.
Tell us a bit about your experience studying at Plymouth College of Art.
I loved it; I definitely chose the right course. I studied Fine Art at A-Level, and would always come home and draw what I actually wanted to draw, and studying at Plymouth College of Art allowed me to draw what I loved for my modules. We also got to try out lots of other disciplines too, we tried 3D printing, ceramics, screenprinting, letterpress; as it could all be applied to illustration.
What made you choose Plymouth College of Art?
My aunt lived in Plymouth for a few years and when visiting her, we drove past and I liked the building. When applying to universities, it was the first one that came to mind. Being an art student, you get to go to each university for interviews to show your portfolio, and Plymouth College of Art was significantly my favourite interview as it was personal, I felt they took time to look at my work, and meet me. I also LOVED the previous students' work on the illustration studio tables!
Were there any fun projects or live briefs that you got involved with whilst studying here?
I love short deadline projects, so I loved looking at the job wall from the Careers team. I took part in OhDeerSubmissions Valentines Day card brief, the A-Z flower brief, Tate Christmas Cards and a few more. Also, during lockdown, PCA:SU created a lockdown challenge, creating prompts to create work to, and there was also Gabe and Lizzie’s Wednesday Art Swap to take part in, and one of my best friends Lou Holland's Zine Club was a favourite.
Is there anything that really stands out from your degree as particularly memorable?
Well the pandemic was definitely memorable. On some level I appreciate what the pandemic taught me; as someone who has chosen a predominately freelance career path, it taught me to use an alarm to get up every morning and to complete tasks and create personal deadlines, as there was no other person doing that for me; I now am much more comfortable planning my days and keeping myself occupied.
I also learnt that hiding what you really like is just limiting yourself; when I started in my first year, I was trying to be an “illustrator” and that was it, it wasn’t grounded in any genuine interest, but when I started to throw everything I loved into my drawings, I enjoyed it more, I created better work, and others liked it more as well! Baseless attempts at people-pleasing in creative processes is absolutely pointless!!
Let’s talk a bit about your process of working - are you digital first, or pen and paper?! How do you approach a brief?
I do mostly digital work, but when I work traditionally in my sketchbook I love me some gouache, or honestly just some cheap felt tips, love a scratchy texture. When it comes to approaching a brief, I go right in and sketch, no small thumbnails for me! I delete a lot and try again, but I try to get down how the work is going to look at the same scale as the final image.
What kind of themes do you focus on in your work?
A lot of my work is made for people to indulge in feminine things. I find that it’s something made fun of in both boys and girls, young boys are afraid to be feminine as it’s considered “gay” and therefore negative, and in girls, being indulgent in feminine things makes them “dumb” or “superficial” somehow, it never has any value placed on it. My showcasing of feminine things isn’t saving lives by any means, but it’s my attempt to brighten someone’s day with a bit of pink and sparkles, and just me creating my own world, making material for my younger self in a way.
At Plymouth College of Art we encourage our students to collaborate as much as possible with other students outside their subject, what was that like for you?
Drawing people is what my work revolves around, so personal commissions have been something I’m getting really comfortable with. About a year ago, I was commissioned by Milly Divine, a PCA Fashion Alumni who wanted me to illustrate her final fashion collection, Club Divine, which was my biggest commission, and still one of the illustrations that I have liked for the longest time. I’ve illustrated Melissa Rose’s final collection, as well as promotional material for El Rose’s crochet business “Hooked by El Rose” and a song cover for Dominic Slaney’s song “Espresso”. I’m also slowly carving out a little niche in the drag community, I’ve been commissioned to create work for a few drag artists such as Baby Angel, Susie Nova, LIV, merchandise for SweetBoy and Prudence, and recently a poster for drag performer Brat’s show in January “The Lonely Lovers Club”.
Who would be your dream client?
Oooo, well VOGUE is a big dream! An editorial illustration for Moschino would be such a fun fit! I’d also love to see my work in PansyMag, a collaboration with Lazy Oaf or Bratz dolls would be fun. There are so many things I’d love to try.
Who would be your dream agency?!
Lipstick of London!
What are your aspirations for your future career?
It’s been difficult accepting that things don't happen overnight, and being a graduate for a few months now I need to resist calling myself a failure because I don’t have an endless list of clients yet.
Since I graduated, I’ve been working on getting my final major project published. For my final major project, I created a picture book aimed at children to preteens, called ‘Dress like a Man’. It follows the format of a guide to dressing in a masculine way, but you soon realise it is a complete mockery of toxic and fragile masculinity and a lesson to just wear what you want. It’s aim is to expand the idea of boyhood and effeminacy being embraced. I believe in it, so I can't let it collect dust in my room! For the time being I’m selling small, paperback copies on my Etsy (MaxEdwardShop) - a cheeky plug!
When it comes to my future plans, in the next five years I’d love to have my book published and to be getting by on my illustration freelance work; I’d love to have collaborated and created work with brands I love and just be making cool stuff really! If I can pay for my rent and my Aldi food shop from just my drawing, I’m living the dream. I’d like to make sure I’ve always got creative freedom, and I get bored easily, so in ten years or so I could see myself moving in a different direction, maybe pursuing a more fashion route, teaching perhaps, I’m open!!
In Summer 2021, your work was chosen to feature in one of our big installations in the Barclays bank in the city centre, as part of the Ignite project, and after that was selected to be used on some of our marketing materials and in campaigns to promote Plymouth College of Art to the next generation of creative students - how did it feel to see your work in this kind of context?
It was honestly surprising to me how people have responded to that drawing; it was initially just an unplanned doodle I created in my spare time; I started with the face, then just kept adding to it until I was happy with it. I love how it can be the images you think the least about that people really respond to and like, and can use for so many things; it's not always the drawing you spend weeks on planning and worrying about. And yeah seeing it on the Plymouth College of Art building and in Barclays and on some ads is really heart warming, I've made sure to tell friends, family, and work mates "LOOK LOOK LOOK THAT'S MINE!" , it's a nice reminder and quite a literal way of displaying that I’ve made my mark in my time at PCA.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about - any upcoming collaborations or published work we should keep an eye out for?
One of my favourite magazines has expressed they love my work so I’m currently working on a project I’d like to pitch for them, and I’m currently working on a sticker commission - I’m also always posting on Instagram and updating my Etsy store. I really am ready to make 2022 my year as it’s the first full year I am fully in the world somewhat on my own so it is going to be completely what I make of it.
How can potential clients or agents get in touch with you?
My website: maxedward.co.uk
My email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m also very active on my Instagram: @max_e_illustrates and Tik Tok: @max_e_illustrates