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Meet May's Featured Designer: Kathie Kelleher

Designer Spotlight: Kathie Kelleher

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be an illustrator. “

I was born with a pencil in my hand” is often my response when asked about my artistic timeline. Fortunately for my mom that wasn’t the case! Scribbling with crayons came a bit later but I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t drawing. Mom was a talented artist and my first art teacher/mentor. Dad inspired us by building a family art studio. Painting, sewing, and photography were just a few of the explorations we did there. It was a magical place. I’m an artist today due to the early support and encouragement of my parents. After receiving an in-depth art education and graduating from Paier College of Art, I was hired as a technical illustrator. While not my dream job, drawing and inking jet engine schematics took my skill set to new levels. Simultaneously I was showing my children’s illustration portfolio to art directors. My big break came when Xerox commissioned me to illustrate work for My Weekly Reader. The same publication I loved getting in elementary school! That opportunity launched my children’s book illustration career. It was mostly educational work at first: textbooks, workbooks, book club books, puzzles etc. Trade book projects began popping up which was my career goal. Writing my first book for Holiday House–The Night Before Christmas: Deep Under the Sea–was a fabulous highlight.

What influences your art? My main influence came from the Golden Age of Illustration, circa 1900-1940. Illustrators like Norman Rockwell, Jesse Wilcox Smith, N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Maxwell Parrish and many others inspired me to become an illustrator. I was fascinated by their composition skills and draftsmanship. But far from living in the past, I’ve embraced digital technology. Procreate specifically has influenced my art and is a game-changer. Allowing me unlimited artistic freedom, digital art is a now a huge part of my creative toolbox.

What mediums do you use to create your illustrations? Drawing is at the heart of my art. Linear tools like pencils, pen and ink, and Procreate brushes are my mediums of choice. I also enjoy using watercolors, acrylics, and gouache for traditional painting.

Tell us about your first experience illustrating a book. Illustrating my first book, Now I Know Turtles by Troll Associates was a bit nerve wracking but also very exciting. It involved a lot of research which is one of my favorite parts of an illustration project. Seeing a book with your name on the cover is such a thrill.

Have you used an agent to get work, or have you always been able to get illustration jobs on your own? Hopping on the train into New York City to meet with art directors and editors at the major publishing houses was something I was able to do at one point. However, after moving to Boston it made more sense to get my first agent. Paige Gilles at Publisher’s Graphics afforded me greater access to the publishing industry which enabled me to make a living as a professional illustrator. I was with Paige until she retired. Then I was represented by Bernadette Szost at Portfolio Solutions until she retired. Yes, there is a theme here… Now I’m a brokered illustrator at Storybook Arts which allows me to get my own clients but also work with Storybook Arts clients when they can use my art style. What do you think is the biggest hurdle to get over as a new illustrator? Truthfully, I would say getting published is THE major hurdle. It takes a good deal of perseverance and creativity to open that door but it’s well worth the effort. Meeting tight deadlines is another obstacle but that soon becomes second nature–hopefully!

You have started to create surface pattern designs. What made you interested in surface pattern design and on what products do you hope to see your surface designs on? Do you have a dream company you’d like to work with? A powerful curiosity leads me to the most interesting things. Surface pattern design first captured my imagination when I block printed some fabric and sewed that into a truly one-of-a kind skirt. It was so much fun! Bonnie Christine and Spoonflower eventually appeared on my radar screen. After learning how to make repeat patterns, I was hooked! Surface design combines my illustration skills with my love of patterns. Definitely a win-win situation. I chose the name Blue and Friend because: A) Surface pattern design brings me much happiness. B) Bluebirds symbolize transformation and growth. C) I love seeing bluebirds in nature and I am their friend. The focus for Bluebird and Friend is to create repeat patterns for the fabric industry. Designing greeting cards, wallpaper and home decor items are also high on my wish list. Moda Fabrics, Cotton and Steel, and Dear Stella would be my dream clients. Sewing with their unique and modern fabrics is such a pleasure.

Have you taken any online courses in surface design? I’m a proud graduate of Bonnie Christine’s Immersion and Stacie Bloomfield’s Leverage Your Art courses. They both provide jam-packed lessons in an easy-to-understand manner. Memberships with Bärbell Dressler and Liz Kohler Brown round out my surface design education. I love all the information they share and the ongoing nature of that format. Lifelong learning is my passion.

What advice do you have for anyone thinking about a career as an illustrator? Draw and then draw some more. Paint and then paint some more. You will get better and better which will lead to greater opportunities. Enter art competitions to get exposure on a wider scale. Post your work online. Join an illustration critique group. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) if that’s your area of interest. They have great critique groups, too. Call in favors–someone who knows someone might just be the connection you need. Seriously consider getting an agent. They have access to people that aren’t available to most of us. You can still approach certain publishers without representation but please research who is open and who is closed to unsolicited art and/or manuscripts. Most publishers list submission guidelines on their websites. Don’t get discouraged. It may take a while –it usually does–but getting your first piece published will open doors. Be professional and you’ll be fine.

What’s next for your artistic endeavors? I launched my Spoonflower and Society Six shops recently and I’m also pitching my three design collections to fabric companies. An adult coloring book is in the works which will be available on Amazon’s KDP site. My wide and varied interests have merged through surface pattern design, and I couldn’t be happier. There are so many ideas kicking around in my head! Thank you, Stacie, for allowing me to share my story and artwork with your Surface Design News subscribers. Hopefully something I said will help or inspire new illustrators with their career path. Being an illustrator is such an interesting and satisfying vocation–good luck!


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