Designer Spotlight: Karen Torok
Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be an illustrator/surface pattern designer. In college, I studied studio photography, but I’ve loved drawing since I was a child. At first, I just wanted to have a job that enabled me to be creative in some way. Before starting my own art & design business in 1999, I gained experience as an Art Director, Graphic Designer, Photo Stylist and Photo Editor. While working as a graphic designer at an advertising agency, I decided to take a leap of faith and freelance. Eventually, I switched my focus to mainly illustration. I worked mostly with publishers and toy companies. The past 5 years, I’ve been concentrating on surface pattern design.
What influences your art the most? I keep many sketchbooks going so I can play with various types of art supplies. The freedom of experimenting with new mediums is very inspiring. I started using old books as art journals, covering them in gesso and allowing previous words or art shine through to inspire what I create on the page. Art journals allow me to express my mood whether it’s introspective or joyful. I also enjoy going to art galleries especially when I travel. Finding new music to listen to while I work is always inspiring.
What mediums do you use to create your art? I work digitally as well as traditionally using watercolor, ink, pastels and colored pencils. All my children’s book illustrations were done by sketching on paper and creating the final vector art in Adobe Illustrator. I used a Wacom Intuos and still do when I work on the computer. I’ve never had a Cintiq. It sure would have made creating whole children’s books in vector art much easier. The ipad has been so liberating when I travel. I’ve always had a fear of not having enough paper or colors with me and Adobe Fresco is like having every art supply you can imagine always available.
Your style could be described as a playful style with lots of whimsical motifs. Does your style of artwork lend itself to any particular area of surface design? I think my style works well for holiday products. I really enjoy creating for my favorite holiday, Halloween. Having spent so many years illustrating children’s books, my style is innately playful and fun and works well for children’s products, partyware, paper products and gifts.
You have worked with some prominent companies. Were you able to secure these opportunities on your own or do you work with an agent? I worked with 2 agents over the years that approached me. I’ve had more success marketing myself and approaching companies on my own. I learned a great deal taking Start Your Surface Pattern Business class with Elizabeth Silver.
Do you have a favorite project you've worked on or a favorite company you have worked with? I really enjoyed working on Flower Girl World books and REAL Cookies. Both allowed me to use all the tools in my skill set as I got to create a complete brand identity from scratch – logo design, illustrations, patterns, marketing materials, typography, and packaging design. The beginning of a project (brainstorming, sketching, creating color palettes) is my favorite part of the creative process. Working with American Girl was incredible. I illustrated a feature in their magazine every month for a few years as well as a number of their books. Their art directors were always so fun to collaborate with.
You have done quite a bit of children's book illustration as well. How did you get started in that industry? When I first started in illustration, I advertised in American Showcase and theispot.com. I was shocked when I was approached by Mattel and Random House within a week of posting my portfolio online. From there, I began working for magazine and book publishers and toy companies.
Do you have any plans to manufacture your own products or are you going to continue to only work with companies who license or purchase your artwork? Since I have a chronic illness, art licensing works well for me because my schedule can be sporadic. I have an Etsy shop where I sell hand painted ornaments.
Do you have any dream companies you'd like to work with in the near future? Working with Greenbox Art + Culture to produce my art as puzzles and wall art would be fabulous. I’d love to work with StudioM. They produce so many beautiful products.
What's next for you in your artistic endeavors? I’m focusing on pursuing my dream companies and sharing my surface pattern portfolio. In my spare time, I’d like to get back to painting on huge canvases again.