Artist Interview: Darren Kennedy

Darren Kennedy Interview
participants: Darren Kennedy (DK), Ben Lutz [childhood friend/classmate] (BL), Sherèe Lutz (SL)
date: 1.13.2016
DK-Blog-01 (2)

This is one piece in a four-part series narrating the poem “¿Revolutionary?” by Vincente Perez.

SL: How did you become interested in illustration?

DK: My oldest brother is 8 years older than me. He got me into a lot of stuff that I am involved with now like dancing, drawing, video games, etc. I was a very impressionable kid, and then I stuck with them. When I was younger, my parents could not ground me in the traditional way, because when they did, I would just go to my room and draw. I watched a lot of cartoons, and movies, played a lot of video games. I didn’t read a lot of comics, because I didn’t have many, but I still followed them through action figures. I read more comics later, especially after I met my friend Jim—he hooked me up. I was always the art kid in school. In middle school I wanted to be an animator, and my dad trying to be a good father, took me to the side and did the whole “It is more practical to be an engineer…” So, in high school I didn’t take any art classes until my junior year. But I was drawing all the time.

BL: The teacher battles!

DK: Yea! The teacher battles, just drawing stuff to make my friends laugh.

BL: But these were a multi-stage processes—doing the line drawing, adding the ink, digitizing that, then cell shading—all that just to put it up on the board in a teacher’s classroom once every month.


The Battle of the Teachers


DK: Well, I got my first graphics tablet in the 7th grade. It was really rudimentary; only the Wacom Intuos 1 was out back then. I had like a kid’s version as well as a basic form of Photoshop that I played with. It is interesting that photography, illustration and picture-making in general all utilize a lot of the same tools.

SL: With illustration right now, do you still feel that hand drawn work still brings something to the table instead of just using photographs as illustration?

DK: I actually think they go hand in hand. Right after photography came out, the early American illustrators and representational painters etc. didn’t have to do studies as much. Photography filled that void—using the photograph as reference instead. Take Norman Rockwell, he revolutionized how people illustrate because he was very meticulous and thorough in how he took his reference photographs. You can see some of his Saturday Evening Post pictures and how he posed the models as a direct one-to-one correlation. Then he made the image livelier in the illustration. There is this myth that people can just draw without reference. It is a good skill to have, but you are always referring to something.

SL: How often do you feel people would say that? I feel like many would say they are drawing from something—either in the natural world or a memory.

DK: Exactly, you are the sum of your experiences. You were influenced somewhere. So, after junior year, I started to take art classes. Tom Holland, my high school art teacher was good. He followed that book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which teaches you how to “see”. With seeing you are turning on and off certain things in your brain, like observation. We all come equipped with seeing if something looks off or not, everyone has the ability to see if something looks messed up.

SL: Same with music. Almost everyone can hear if it is wrong.

DK: Right, most people can tell if it sounds horrible. Everyone has the basic ear, or eye, or touch. These senses understand when something is off or not. Drawing at its core is self-editing, what it is that you hope to express. Even in music, you are probably in a sense, self-editing to get that right note. Then you perfect by repetition. It’s also the same thing with dance [Darren is also in a street dance crew, The Rhythm Kingz].  This movement needs to hit here, this one here. I’ve done this enough times it’s muscle memory.

That is where I am at now. All these forms of different art or expression at their basest level are the same thing—forms of communication. The art part is your personal voice. Creativity is taking something that that has already been done and then adding you to it, it becomes a new thing. That’s why people study the masters, and then once you get that technique down and get inside their head then you use those skills that you learned to try something new. But the cool thing is when you study different masters you get a range of techniques.

SL: Very true. A lot of study would support that. What are you influenced by when you draw?

DK: Like I said before, other art, video games and music, but there were a couple of books that I looked at: Boris Vallejo, I actually stole this from my brother. Vallejo is like an erotic fantasy artist, and I discovered that in middle school, it had an impression on me (laugh). Another one is Burne Hogarth who was a longtime anatomy teacher. The video game art I was looking at was some anime, because my brother brought it home, but I think for a lot of artists and illustrators you grow out of that phase. As a little kid you are into Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z and all that. I had my own phases.


8-year-old drawings of comics and roleplaying games


SL: Do you think that it’s because a lot of anime is line drawing? I don’t want to say simple, but maybe cleaner?

DK: It is simplified to an extent, also Disney. It’s more like stylized.  They are vehicles for storytelling. As a child, Akihiko Yoshida was one of the final fantasy artists on some of these games that I would emulate. Then as you get older you get exposed to more things and you start drawing from life—observational drawing. Your perspective changes a little.

Observation rather than emulation.

SL: What would you consider to be your own personal style?

DK: The project I’ve done more recently plays into the spectrum of my voice. There is the goofy side, like messing with people’s faces, doing the caricatures. When I’m at my job (I design year book covers for a living), and I travel to some of these schools, I load up my cell phone with mug shots and draw them. When I was in school at The Art Department (TAD), I took a course with one of the character designers at Pixar, Dan Holland. We had this one assignment where we had to draw mug shots, and it was one of funnest things ever. The stuff Pixar does to make their characters is freaking fun, definitely more entertaining than anything else I could find on the plane (laugh).


SL: How long does it take you on average to do one of these portraits?

DK: The basic shape is pretty quick, but if I’m doing all the rendering, maybe 30 minutes?

BL: Are you using ballpoint pen?  What are your preferred materials?

DK: Yea, but I need to stop using it as much. It’s good to keep fresh. I’ve been on this kick with ballpoint pen, because I can do it the fastest. The pen is unforgiving, but I’m doing an underline pencil drawing of the basic shapes, and then I just erase it afterward.  One of my teachers I did a lot of workshops with at The Illustration Academy, George Pratt, talks about using a whole bunch of different materials because you tend to make habits, and using different materials keeps things looking fresh. Pratt does a lot of work in watercolor. For the Enemy Ace graphic novel, he took a reference photograph for every sketch. He was living in New York at the time and got access to the aeronautical museum after hours to take reference for his aerial dogfight scenes.  He was on ladders and able to take pictures and stuff.

After I did that series of portraits on Facebook [Darren drew a portrait for every person who wished him a happy birthday online], all the caricatures, I needed to chill!


SL: That is A LOT! How many did you do?

DK: I think it was 157. There were 11 pages of portraits.

SL: That is such an interesting project conceptually.

DK: On the day that all the messages were coming in, I was like “I’ll just do this,” and then I realized what I had committed to! Some of them are inside jokes, like Anita Kunz, she has done the most New Yorker covers than any other illustrator, so I referenced her own illustration in her portrait.


BL: You penciled first, and then put your lines in?

DK: I did a quick outline in pencil and went over it with a regular pen. For my initial portrait as a baby, I scanned it in, blew it up, and drew it with a different face. I have this process I stole from one of my friends (Andy Brinkman) where it’s like print-making, doing different layers on each piece of paper. You can get very elaborate with it. Then lay them over digitally with Photoshop and colorize them.

SL: How often do you use this process where you work with pencil, pen, layering, putting it into Photoshop?

DK: I’m still experimenting with it.  I can draw with a tablet in Photoshop, but I feel like you lose some of the tactile quality – the physical feeling of pen to paper.

SL: Do you think because our age demographic is on the very edge of a generational divide, we are at the end of using physical materials? Where younger animators will automatically or simply learn on computers/tablets?

DK: Using digital is just another tool, like drawing, or painting. Especially, the really good people use digital exactly how they would use traditional. Some illustrators look like they have a very traditional style, and you find out they are digital, they are using the line work, just like they would with ink on paper.

At the Spectrum Fantastic Art convention, which had been in Kansas City the last four years but next summer is going to be in San Francisco, I would walk through and could not initially tell if something was traditional or digitally rendered. I think you should still at least train in traditional. There are galleries popping up on the coasts that are just for illustrative fine art.

To me, fine art is posing questions while design is answering them.

At KU I had a teacher named Jon Swindell, he was one of the intro design teachers, but was actually a sculptor. We had an assignment where we had to come up with the difference between art and design. What I got from that was there is a spectrum: on one end you have “art for art’s sake” and then on the other end is total utility, where you engineer this thing for it to function. And then you have everything that is in between.

SL: You definitely lean towards drawing human figures, have you done much work outside of that?

DK: Yea, my degree is in industrial design, making products. In high school, my brother’s roommate was in industrial design. I was like “Oh, cool” and I still had what my dad said in the back of my brain, so I thought this is a good hybrid. I’m good at math and drawing, let me mix those two things together. I really liked it for a while, but when I got cancer in college, and came back after the stem-cell transplant, I started developing cataracts from all the chemo and radiation. My vision was yellowing, and I got obsessed with trying to find a precedent of a visual artist with cataracts, and I couldn’t find it. I scoured the internet, and the only thing I could find was Monet, who had one of the earliest forms of cataract surgery towards the end of his life. You can see his later paintings start to yellow, and then after he got his surgery, the palette came back. That is the only example I could find. I kind of became obsessed with it, isolating myself. Shut myself in trying to figure out if this cataract is going to destroy me creating. I needed to test if this was true, and found The Illustration Academy. It is a summer workshop where each week an illustrator comes in, gives you an assignment, works with you, and then leaves. The next famous illustrator comes in and critiques the past weeks assignment and gives you a new one. The Illustration Academy’s mantra was “Train your Brain.” I found that drawing is all in your head. The vehicle for my seeing had changed a little bit, but you just adapt to it. So after industrial design, I needed to draw. I finished out my degree, and then went into TAD for a year until it closed. It changed my trajectory.

One of the workshop teachers, Chris Payne has drawn everything from children’s illustrations; to Time Magazine covers; to every single political person you can think of, celebrities etc. People may consider him a caricature artist, but he considers himself to be more of a likeness artist. He tries to make the illustration represent more than just the physicality of the sitter. He attempts to bring out personality features, making person look more like themselves than they actually do, if that makes sense.  That resonated with me.

SL: And then caricature would be more exaggerating?

DK: Yea, you parody different parts where you push and pull more. I can do that, but then a lot of it becomes less serious. It’s a sliding scale: you have portraiture, which is capturing the truest representation of the person, then you have a likeness, and finally caricature, which exaggerates. I can get to that point, it’s just super absurd.

SL: What would you consider your style on that spectrum?

DK: I like bending the rules a little bit. But I don’t want to cross that line too much. I do like twisting things, but at the same time I think the situation determines it. Like some of the Facebook portraits are less parodied than others. People I knew better, I would push and pull their face more.

It’s kind of a social thing. I don’t know this person that well so I don’t know how they might respond.

SL: You are censoring yourself depending on the relationship you have with the person.

DK: Yea. So for my Facebook baby portrait, I used a digital version of Chris Payne’s process.  He does an underlying pencil drawing in a colored pencil, and then he does acrylic washes over it. I think he does some watercolor renderings, oil wash over that, and then uses a kneaded eraser to pick out the highlights. After, he fixes it because you cannot put water-based medium over the oil, he then ends by doing all the light values in colored pencil and darks in acrylic.

BL: Wow, that is a long process.

DK: Right. He is from the old school tradition. I have done his process a couple times. But he got his initial process from Mark English, the most award-winning illustrator alive who lives here in Kansas City. He hasn’t been an active illustrator since the 90s but he has kinda been a mentor sometimes. Hallmark hired him so that is how he came to KC.

SL: I assume you have done a lot of figure drawing?

DK: Yea, I used to do it a lot at TAD, we used to do it two-to-three times a week, but have not done in a little bit over a year. Ron Lemen has done a lot of anatomical and figure drawing. He had us learn anatomy by drawing from muscle shape and function more than the medical part of it, so like this muscle on the chest looks like a fish, the way it connects to the arm.  Ron Lemen uses an armature method for figure. Some use the Reilly Method.  And then Mark English does it a totally different way. He does it very painterly, so he uses a broad charcoal or pastel for the shapes and then keeps editing it.


SL: Do you pretty much always have a sketchbook on hand?

DK: Yea, I do always have one with me. I also started taking notes or ideas in one of these smaller books, Field Notes.

SL: Last question; are you in the middle of any other projects?

DK: Just trying to start getting into caricatures more, and seeing if I can make it into a business.

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