Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
Happy Chinese/Lunar New Year! On this first day of the year of the yang wood Horse we bring you San Francisco-based Illustrator and Lead Artist at JuiceBox Games, Kim Herbst. She has an impressive growing list of clients, which includes Scholastic Books, as well as many gallery shows. Her video game inspired illustrations breathe 3D life into the tiny 8-bit characters you played as a kid, re-imagining what the worlds actually would have looked like IRL. Although her medium is digital, she is a master painter. Her compositions, lighting, and color choices put her in that cream always rises to the top category of illustrators. We were lucky to go to MICA with Kim and also have her in our group show “Tooth & Claw” back in October. Eat your Nian Gao New Years cake and enjoy our interview with Kim Herbst.
SHANON WELTMAN: How long does it take you to complete a piece from idea to final? You can describe any part of your process you want to share.
KIM HERBST: Oh man. I guess it varies. Whatever the deadline is, usually I just kind of sit there and think of ideas. I don’t even start sketching until I’ve got two. I’m usually too terrified to put something down. It can take maybe three days to really complete something. First day is kind of like just thinking about the problem, I don’t even touch the paper yet. Maybe at the very end of the day I start sketching out something, putting down colors and stuff like that. Then I second guess myself about a million times [laughs] and then I put in the final touches. ‘I guess it’s done?’ [laughs]
It’s all accomplished in Photoshop at this point in my life. I used to do a lot of watercolor and it was a horrible, horrific struggle. Even with gouache too. I was like, ‘I need something that can be a little more forgiving for me.’ Back at MICA I had professor’s telling me “You know, you have really nice line work. You should really just focus on this.” So, it’s gone from ink, to scanning that page, then coloring that in digitally. It’s so much more forgiving for me to do colors that way. And then even the inking kind of disappeared as well, for time constraints I can’t even scan them in anymore. So I hope for the best and if it looks like it’s not done digitally, then I’ve done my job.
SW: That one wedding present, was that an actual painting? The one based off of “[National Lampoon’s] Vacation.”
KH: No, actually that painting was all digital.
SW: WOW, really?
KH: Yeah, as I told you, I’m really glad. [Laughs]
SW: Yeah, I was like, ‘This is one painting within her digital portfolio? That’s cool.’
KH: Yeah they requested that look like this one particular style, kind of Frank Frazetta oil paint. That was like a personal challenge, because obviously I don’t paint like that, ever. So, I was like, ‘yeah let’s try it out it’ll be a good experiment’.
SW: What inspires your color palettes?
KH: Usually what I’m looking at at the moment, I keep things like my Tumblr feed open in a tab. Almost anything; things around my environment, things like seasons and stuff. I usually try and go for something that will look good on multiple devices. Which sounds really… really stupid, but I think it’s like the other side of me. My full-time job coming through, where you’ll spend tons and tons of time on these color choices and then you put it on a different device to see, like ‘hey what’s this going to look like on an iPhone vs on Samsung or something?’ all of your color choices just went out the window. It’s completely different from one monitor to the other.
SW: Wow, I never thought about that.
KH: Yeah it’s crazy, it’s like, what are my color settings when viewed on someone else’s computer? That’s just usually how I can view if it will copy. I just get inspired by whatever is around me, going from like cool paper shops to origami paper that’s so awesome. I’m totally influenced by that as well.
SW: Which subjects are your most and least favorite to work with?
KH: Just a lot of people, they’re just really fascinating. People and animals I think. I try to stay away from backgrounds and stuff, that’s always trouble for me. But people are always really interesting to me. It’s just, all the different emotions that they can convey even without their faces. Like contorting the body, things like that. What can they [people] easily relate with when looking at an illustration? Well, if you’re a person, you’ll probably relate it with yourself hopefully. The same thing with animals, animals totally have that power to convey emotion and things like that. It’s definitely a problem at this point [laughs], I should try and expand my horizon with different things. It’s a struggle.
SW: What about themes? Do you have certain themes you like working with or avoiding? You recently did “Hellraiser” and that was inspired by Clive Barker seeing your “Black Swan” illustration. Do you like doing pop culture stuff?
KH: I end up doing pop culture mostly because it’s asked of me. I’ve been doing a lot of weird gallery shows recently, and the themes are usually from like the 1980’s for some reason. I think that’s just a really popular thing in our culture now as nostalgia. We’re getting tons and tons of remakes and movies from the 1980’s and cartoons and things like that. With our generation it’s interesting because we’re having children of our own, or just starting to I guess and it’s like ‘Aw, I grew up on these cartoons and now I want my kids to also have those same cartoons.’ So a lot of gallery shows are like ‘hey, remember these video games? It’s been 25 years since this one came out. We should do a tribute show.’ So I sort of got involved with that through The Autumn Society, which is a group of artists brought together by Chogrin, who I believe is now one of the art directors on Adventure Time. He curates these shows. He will send out an email and I’m on that list and that’s basically how those themes come through. It’s kind of like a ‘This is what’s going on right now. If you’re interested…’ and that’s usually when I take that day to really think how, if you’re suddenly struck with this, this would be a really awesome illustration to put in a show. ‘Definitely, I will totally be part of it.’ It’s just that pop culture is so much fun. It’s also kind of another way to get people to follow your work, it’s one of the familiar things. You work forever and ever on a personal illustration, it’s so funny… you can put it on Tumblr or Facebook even and you know, you get maybe 1 or 2 people. ‘Oh, that’s cool’. As soon as you do something like Legend of Zelda, it’s like a thousand people suddenly have reblogged and passed this thing and its snowball effect. They see stuff they like and hopefully recognize. It’s useful but it also comes as kind of a hinderance.
SW: Does your video game design style influence your illustrations or vice versa?
KH: Yeah, totally. If you ever ask now, can you draw in a completely different style for a game and not only you, but a whole group of people have to follow this style guide, your own style always comes through no matter what. It’s extremely difficult. All the stuff that I’ve learned totally bleeds back into my personal work, color swatches, even painting style. It definitely helps out. It’s almost like picking hands, passing it back and forth. [Laughs] There’s no other way to put it, anything you learn at another job, you just kind of pick their brains clean. Even if it’s not an art related thing. I’ve learned, even on Icon’s line and stuff like that, you can realize doing really simplistic design can look good. It comes back into your own personal designs. How do I make this look like mine? You just take the the information you’ve used from whatever project and then you move on to the next project.
SW: Yeah, that makes sense. I can definitely see your style in the samples you show on your blog, they look just like your work.
KH: Yeah, it’s something problematic at the full time job. You know, if you’re always drawing very curvaceous shapes and things and really love wavy lines and stuff — which I do — very fluid motion and the style of the game you’re working on has zero curves. It’s all sharp angles and corners and things. It’s always a fight, but it’s definitely a learning experience.
SW: Who are your favorite artists? Even if they don’t influence your work.
KH: Huge influences… anything that has strong line work and gorgeous color. Moebius being one of the earliest ones, Tomer Hanuka definitely, even Ray Jones obviously, I totally love Ray’s work. A new one that I think that is a huge star now is Victo Ngai, she is really awesome. I feel like I’ve seen her work everywhere. I actually did have one or two colleagues mentioning ‘oh hey her stuff reminds me of your stuff, when I checked it out, I was blown away.’ That’s a massive compliment towards me, she’s awesome. She recently graduated I think from, I want to say, SVA. She’s been published everywhere. I’m like a massive fan [laughs], it totally influences. Whenever I look at her work it’s like ‘wow, this is really really cool. All these shapes and all these colors…’ and it’s the immediate pain of, ‘why didn’t I think of doing this?’ [Laughs] Yeah, anybody with gorgeous linework and that kind of color that emphasizes all the linework.
SW: Do you have any favorite artists that don’t necessarily influence, you just really love them?
KH: Yeah! There’s just too many to count. I think a few comic artists, like Becky Cloonan. I’m a huge fan of her ink work and stuff. Yuko Shimizu is another one. Just seeing their work… A lot of people that are favorites of mine are starting to be more towards in-production for film and cartoons and stuff. I think that’s because I’m on the West Coast instead of the East Coast which is more publishing and things like that. Seeing their work… the people that just need to produce a mass amount of work in a short amount of time, it’s a huge inspiration to me but also kind of terrifies me at times. It’s so easy to be on a social network like Facebook or something and see these people post things everyday and… [laughs] it’s a huge inspiration but also incredibly daunting.
SW: Okay two more questions, switching gears completely. Recap your Year of the Snake and what you think Year of the Horse might bring, for you personally.
KH: A recap of Year of the Snake… I feel like Year of the Snake started off with massive failure and then kind of a back track, a rethink life kind of thing [laughs], that was Year of the Snake. I think Year of the Horse has enormous possibility. I think it’s actually going to be very very awesome and I’m not even sure why. I think I am personally excited. It’s something new and crazy and I don’t think it can be as bad… well, last year wasn’t bad at all, but I believe this will be less terrifying, I guess. [Laughs]
SW: What year were you born?
KH: I was born year of the Rat.
SW: Ohh okay. Same as Ray.
KH: Yeah, I was the one who tricked the Ox and got to be first in line. Riding in on the Ox.
SW: I’m an Ox.
KH: Oh nice. Sorry! [Laughs]
SW: This is the last question: favorite Powerpuff Girl.
KH: Y’know, it’s totally Buttercup. She just kicks ass. [Laughs]
SW: I knew you’d say that.
KH: Of course! [Laughs] My favorite color is green, so it’s kind of a biased opinion, but yeah she is awesome.