Working as an Art Director, your digital (and regular!) inbox is constantly full of cards, letters and other great promos from hopeful talent from all over the globe. It’s quite an honor to get to sift through the endless array of amazing portfolios and find the right person to fulfill your vision for a story or service feature on a monthly basis. One such portfolio has been the work with Ontario-based illustrator Joel Kimmel. Joel has been on a very short list of “go-to” illustrators I’ve had the honor of working with and feel like I’ve had in my back pocket since joining the Seattle Met crew. Now that’s not to say he’s always available (he’s one busy, busy dude!), but when you have an assignment for Joel you always know what you’re going to get: top-notch illustration with very few rounds of edits. Seriously, this guy always seems to kill it.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Joel about his life as a full-time illustrator and what inspires him in the process. Hope you find it as enjoyable as I did.
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1. First off, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions Joel. I know you’re a super busy guy. First lets just start off with the basics: Mouse or pen tablet? Mac or PC? Bird or Magic?
I now exclusively use a tablet when I’m working digitally. I was slow to switch over from a mouse and now I can’t believe I held out for so long. I haven’t mastered it yet, but it feels much more natural.
As for computers, I actually use a PC. It just happened that way. I bought a new computer before college, before I was told Macs were the way to go when doing this type of work. That computer lasted 10 years and was so reliable that I just stuck with a PC. I’ve been teased about it for years by other illustrators and designers and at least a handful of art directors have jokingly mentioned they just can’t work with me anymore!
I didn’t really start watching basketball until the last year of Bird and Magic’s career, so I can only compare what I’ve seen in highlight videos or classic games. I should probably give them a tie, but I’ll go with Larry because I like the Celtics infinitely more than the Lakers.
2. That’s too funny. I’m in the same boat (age wise)—but would totally give the edge to Bird as well being a life long Laker-hater. So quickly take me through your illustration process. I just called you up with an awesome assignment (you know, because my assignments are always the best). What’s next?
After a short celebration, I like to take some time to think about some ideas. I’ll get started on some really scratchy thumbnails that basically just give me an idea of composition and to see if the ideas would work. If any of these thumbnails are good enough then they will be rendered with more detail as final sketches. From the final sketch that is chosen I start to look for reference images or take my own photos to work from. Then I begin work on a linear drawing. That is drawn on some newsprint or bond paper with pencil and helps me figure out any details that may need to be changed that I’d rather make at this step than on my watercolor paper. After finishing this linear drawing I will use my light box and trace it onto watercolor paper and start inking. Before I paint, I do a digital color study. This is really helpful to figure out my range of colors and some basic lighting. Once I’m done painting I scan the piece, add some digital elements and it’s ready to go! Almost, anyway. I stare at it for about 20 minutes to make sure it’s ready to be sent to the art director.
3. Well I’ve noticed your portrait work seems to be popping up all over the place. Congrats on all the work! But are you happy with that trend of slowly becoming a “go-to guy” for portraiture? Or are you more interested in doing some of your more conceptual or scenic stuff?
Thank you! I love doing portraits and I’d love to be a go-to guy for portraiture. It’s been something I’ve been trying to get into since I started illustrating full time back in 2006. I know a lot of people don’t enjoy doing them but I find them really enjoyable. I’ve had fun with them lately on a few projects where I’ve been incorporating smaller images that relate to the subject in the background. I’m trying some new things with them, trying different mediums and seeing where I can take them aside from being just straight forward portraits.
4. You’ve always impressed me with such a classic, timeless style. Who are some artists that inspired/shaped you along the way growing up?
Thank you again, that just might be the ultimate compliment because in the last few years I’ve really tried to find something that could eventually feel that way. As for artists who inspired me growing up, I have a pretty definitive list of about three artists (although there are many more who have inspired me over the years): The first artist whose name I knew (but couldn’t pronounce) was Rien Poortvliet, the Dutch illustrator famous for the Gnome books. Second was Andrew Wyeth. My parents had a couple prints of his in our house. I never knew who painted them and they were a bit creepy, too, but I grew up around them and now I am just a huge Andrew Wyeth (and N.C. Wyeth) fan. Finally, I’ll have to include Todd McFarlane, the comic book artist I think about 90% of illustrators my age grew up idolizing. I collected everything he did and I copied his work for a few years.
5. I can totally relate. I definitely copied a few Todd McFarlane illos back in the day. In fact, I still own the first few issues of Spawn. So I’ve been getting a kick out of Illo Confidential. How’d that come about?
The illustrator Brian Taylor invited me to be part of a Facebook group in January. The idea behind the group was to form a small community of illustrators to share illustration advice and talk about some of the projects we were working on. From there, Thomas James rolled with the idea and created a website for the group where we can showcase our new illustrations. We now have 21 members of the group and it’s been amazing to be a part of. We’ve become a pretty tight-knit bunch and have shared so much invaluable information with each other that has really paid off. I would definitely encourage other illustrators to create a small community to interact with. Whenever I want to share new work, get an opinion on some personal projects or ask a business-related question, the Illo Confidential group is the first place I go.
6. I’ve also run across your basketball portraits a couple of times over the last few months. You seem to be quite the NBA fan. I grew up playing basketball for years—and it was always a dream of mine to someday play in the NCAA and NBA. Did you share a similar dream? Do you still play? And if so, how often do you get out to shoot?
I would have loved to play in the NBA, but I realized at a young age that my dislike for practicing would have ruined me as a pro (wind sprints are my downfall). My dream was actually to make the NBA, play for one year, make a few million and then retire to spend the rest of my life drawing. I still play, but its been hard to find games where I live. So every Tuesday during the winter I play full-court games with a bunch of men whose average age is probably 55. They’re surprisingly good and their stamina might actually be better than mine. Its been a lot of fun and nice to get out and be one of the young guys on a team of 60-year-olds. We also have a hoop in the driveway that I shoot on during the summer.
7. You seem like you’re kept pretty busy between all the illustration assignments and running Papillon Press. How’d you get into the printing business? And where in the world did you find a 60 year-old press?!?
My wife found an ad online for an old press for sale in Cornwall, Ontario. It was being sold by a retired pressman and the press was just sitting in his basement’s laundry room. When my wife and I moved back to Canada from Brooklyn in 2009 we decided to buy it and start a letterpress stationery company. It was pretty much done on a whim. I was still living in NY when Chantal called me and said “I found this press, should we buy it?” We loved letterpress stationery and thought it would be fun to try to start a company selling illustrated wedding invitations, greeting cards, and other paper goods. We had to disassemble it to get it out of the guy’s basement (it took 7 people) and then move it 7 hours north. Chantal had some previous printmaking experience but it was completely new to me, so I had to learn how to design and illustrate for letterpress and how to run the machine. I don’t do as much with the company as I used to. Chantal runs the press and manages all of the business side of things. I still contribute card designs, help to change the rollers and help out whenever I’m not too busy doing editorial illustration work.
8. So you’re also a professor at Cambrian College? How’d you get into that role—and is it something you see yourself doing more of down the road?
I teach an illustration class to second year graphic design students with a concentration on Photoshop and Illustrator. I’ve never taught before and it was amazing how much I learned just by talking about something so much. I really had to hone my digital skills and that’s helped me immensely. I also started playing the part of their art director on certain assignments where they had to email me assignments, approve my budget and communicate with me over email. I realized what things they were doing that I didn’t like and I made some changes in the way I communicated with and sent work to art directors. I don’t know if I’d like to do more teaching. I only teach one 4-hour class a week and that takes a lot of time out of my schedule. I’m pretty happy with once a week!
9. I know us art directors can be a real pain in the ass sometimes. Do you have any good stories for me on how they’ve “screwed the pooch” on one of your illustrations?
Haha, well, I haven’t had it bad at all, and the worst scenario was last year when I illustrated a full page for a magazine that will remain nameless. Speaking of pooches, it actually involved a dog and for some reason, despite sending well-rendered sketches, the art director asked me to make multiple changes to the dog’s expression. He was too happy, too sad, too menacing and stressed. I changed ear positions, the wag and direction of the tongue, size of the eyes, arc of the tail and nothing I did made the art director happy. The worst thing was that I loved the illustration when I sent it in, but after the experience I just never wanted to look at it ever again! Overall, I’ve been really lucky to have great experiences with some amazing art directors so far in my career. Some are easier than others to work with or communicate with, but it’s been very smooth so far.
10. Well, speaking of art directors—who are some of your favorite to work with? Or who have you always wanted to work with?
Even if you weren’t the one interviewing me, I would add your name and André Mora‘s name to the list! It’s probably not surprising that some of my favorites are ones I’ve worked with a few times and really had the chance to get to know over email or preferably on the phone. Some of my favorite art directors are ones who are really open with the project. They share layouts to help me get a sense of where the art will be placed and I feel like I’m part of the process.
The list of art directors I’ve always wanted to work with is so long! I have a list of dream clients such as The Folio Society (Sheri Gee), ESPN magazine, and the NBA, of course. It would be great to work with Paul Buckley at Penguin and Steve Charny at Rolling Stone. Doing an illustration for the MTA Arts for Transit is another dream job of mine.
11. Well, thanks again for taking the time to chat with me Joel. I got one more for ya though: There are a ton of really talented illustrators out there—and I think that’s becoming even more evident these days with the use of social media and the internet in general. Who are some of your favorite peers/who do you think is doing the most impressive work these days?
Definitely check out my friends at Illo Confidential, there’s an amazing variety of great work there. Some others whose work I love are Jonathan Bartlett, Owen Freeman, Chris Buzelli, Sam Weber, Martin Wittfooth and my wife, Chantal Bennett. I know I’m leaving out so many names! I look at a lot of illustration every week and there’s so much excellent work out there. These are really exciting times for illustration.