Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
You might want to get yourself a snack, because I totally lost track of time interviewing Illustrator Kali Ciesemier. She’s fresh to NYC after spending the last few years teaching at MICA in Baltimore, MD. Her illustrations have a spark of life that’s illuminated in every intricate and very carefully planned out detail. She finds a perfect balance of simple flat surfaces and subtle true to life elements, like the bend of a knee or dusty chalkboard. Kali also doles out some fantastic illustration advice on her website sometimes. Did you get that snack yet?
SHANON WELTMAN: When did you realize you wanted to be a professional Illustrator versus just that childhood dream of “I want to be an artist” ?
KALI CIESEMIER: Let’s see, I was really into academics when I was in high school. I took a lot of AP courses and honors stuff and I wasn’t totally sure of what I wanted to do because there was a lot of different things I liked to do. I feel like when you’re choosing your college, that’s sort of when you decide ‘what is my path?’ Going to art school is a very different path than going to a regular academic college. That was sort of the crunch time in my junior and senior years, where I started to think: ‘I enjoy doing all this stuff, but what do I really feel passionate about?’ It was definitely art. I didn’t even really know what the professions of art were, I was just like ‘I like to draw, maybe I should go for this thing’. When I got to MICA, that’s when I sort of got exposed to the different sections or different paths you can take. I took a graphic design and illustration course my freshman year. I really connected with the problem solving aspect of it, versus my fine art classes where it was more representational or just ideas that we had. I really, really connected with being given a problem and then having to find a solution for that, that sort of checked all the boxes, and looked good. [Laughs] That was sort of when I realized, ‘this is the thing for me.’ I like the thought aspect that goes into illustration.
SW: That’s great, you can see that in your work. That’s why, other than being so talented, your work really sticks out. It’s so thought out!
KC: [Laughs] Thanks!
SW: I was asking Ray, what kind of questions should we ask. He was like, ‘I don’t know, just… why is she so good?’ [Laughs]
KC: [Laughs] I mean, I guess I just… I like to plan things out. I think some of it is a weird OCDness where I need to have total control over what I’m doing, where I’ll just get really into researching whatever I’m working on. I’ll pull up a million references, do a color study, I’ll do the sketches. I really like the preparation aspect of that, where you’re becoming a master of whatever sort of topic you’re illustrating. That’s part of the appeal, I guess, with illustration you get to illustrate a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons and you find out a little bit more about each one the more that you do.
SW: That’s cool, so you’re learning about the world and then visually documenting it kind of?
KC: Yeah, yeah! I really like that aspect too. That’s one of the perks of being a freelance Illustrator, I think. You’re exposed to a lot of different stuff.
SW: That leads into this question, of your personal work, what subjects and imagery do you like to draw?
KC: I’m definitely into stories about women, but also fantasy stories, science fiction stories. I’m a big nerd, I’ve always been really into reading, especially reading sci-fi. If I had a hobby, I guess that would be my hobby. [Laughs] So I feel like I’m influenced by a lot of the stories that I enjoy. I want to try and bring those into images. I’ve been talking with Sam (Bosma) lately about how I’ve just been frustrated with the lack of stories that are catered to me. In movies or television or books… and I want to put out things that I would enjoy consuming. So, I’ve been thinking about making a comic recently. I’m not a natural storyteller, but I want to have more stories that I want in the world. A lot of the personal art that I do, it’s fantasy characters or heroines that I’ve come up with, or dreams that I’ve had. It’s all things that I wish there was more of, I suppose. Does that make sense?
SW: Yeah it does! Would you ever collaborate with a writer that you really like? Since you say you’re not a natural storyteller.
KC: Yeah, I did a book cover for an author that I really enjoyed.
SW: Was that the Newt’s Emerald?
KC: Yeah, the Newt’s Emerald. That was awesome. If it’s someone that I trust, I’m definitely able to do that, but in the meantime maybe I just have to get better at learning how to tell a story myself.
SW: I think your work actually does tell stories, but maybe not what you’re referring to. The details… it’s just so true to life. I’m looking right now at that one with the girl in Chinatown, or she’s in Japan. Where is she?
KC: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s an alleyway in Japan, it’s called Omoide Yokocho, it means either Memory Lane or Piss Alley. [Laughs] It’s just this tiny series of alleyways in Tokyo where there’s all this yakitori style and stuff. It was for a gallery show about places that we’d want to go. That seemed like a really cool place to go to. Yeah I mean, I guess one of the things I feel like our teachers talked about in school was putting details in your work. Like if you’re going to draw some guy wearing clothes don’t just give him blue pants and a white shirt, give him a specific brand of clothing or a specific style of it. That puts you more into the image. It gives you more to create a story from. That’s where gathering reference comes in for me. Where I just try to gather a lot of reference from those specific places, or from the person that I’m trying to draw, and include that in there to help give people something to grasp on to when they’re looking at the image.
SW: That’s actually one of my questions, I’d like for you to elaborate on if you can. What do you use references for? It looks like you use references for everything. It’s not just the anatomy that’s spot on, or things that look accurate in proportion, it’s the movement. Like going back to the piece we were just talking about, this girl walking through, just the way her leg is bent, it’s just so natural. I don’t know how you’re not looking at things because it’s perfect!
KC: Thanks! I really appreciate that. I honestly feel like people and people moving is probably some of the hardest stuff for me to draw. Backgrounds I’m totally cool with because I feel like there’s rules that go along with environments. Or at least there’s guidelines that I can draw from. Whereas with people, everyone’s so individual and movements can be so unique. That’s the part that takes me the most amount of time on any image. Trying to get the people right. I feel like I end up fussing with them forever. [Laughs] I appreciate you saying that, because I feel like that’s one of the things I struggle with the most.
SW: Ah, well maybe it takes you longer to draw, but you’re not struggling. [Laughs]
SW: Like, at all. [Laughs]
KC: I don’t always get reference for people, but I feel like I get more reference for environments which is just maybe why those are easier, because you have more of a resource to draw on.
SW: So these poses, you just make up?
KC: Yeah, sometimes. I’ll look at crowd photos sometimes, to see what people are just doing regularly as they’re walking around, or there’s always the good old photobooth on the Mac where I’m posing in front of it in certain ways. [Laughs] But yeah, I guess it’s a whole sort of mix of reference and then just some of my own self in there.
SW: Going back a second, you said there are rules for the background. I don’t necessarily know what you’re talking about.
KC: I don’t know! I think it must be just a mental thing. I’ve talked to other people and they’re like ‘what are you talking about?’
KC: [Laughs] I feel like… it must be some comfort level thing that I have in my head, where with backgrounds I feel like it’s just… all you’re really doing is layering stuff on top of other stuff. Like, if you’re showing distance, it’s just a matter of some things being in the foreground and somethings being in the background. It’s a matter of putting shapes together in an interesting way. In a compositionally nice way, which I feel like I understand better than human shapes I guess. I don’t know, it’s really hard to describe because I’m not sure if I totally understand it either. But for whatever reason I’m not stressed out about doing environments at all, but I get really stressed out about doing crowd scenes. I don’t know. I’ve done cities and cityscapes for certain pieces and I don’t get worried about those at all. It’s just, like, certain shapes next to each other, or on top of each other. It’s just boxes or squares or whatever, but with people there’s so much more individuality and movement that happens that’s harder to capture I think, for me. It must be just a mental thing that I have.
SW: It probably is, I always thought it was just a matter of practice but… Ray and I have been talking about this as teachers, because you’ll see one student draw something… Okay, so that scene in the “Royal Tenenbaums” where they’re putting together the shapes and some guy is making that crazy shape?
KC: Yeah yeah!
SW: That’s not just a joke, that’s accurate. I guess there are some of us that literally, like you’re saying, can actually see ‘differently’ than the rest of us, who struggle. It’s just your brain is more advanced. [Laughs]
KC: [Laughs] I don’t think it’s that, I mean, it’s also just like that with environments too, it’s easier to find reference for those too. You’re not 100% on your own, but like there’s something… I don’t know, I don’t think it’s being more advanced. I feel like it’s just having a comfort zone. I think everyone has things that they can draw better or more easily than other stuff, or than other people.
SW: It’s like a sensory thing, not really a talent thing, what I mean. Like some people’s brains actually, if you were to say, show them a cylinder in front of this other thing, they just wouldn’t know the spatial distance. It has nothing to do with their drawing skills, just visually comprehending that, not everyone is on the same level. Like you can have two incredibly talented people and one person just might… the way it just looks as a successful piece, it’s just not anything beyond that. This old man sitting in this kitchen, the space that he is from the door with all the pieces framed, spatially you’re seeing it, it’s not just geometric shapes compositionally. You’re in that room.
KC: Right, also I feel like the way I approach it though… I feel like there’s tricks to it. You can make a good image by just having things be at different distances from the viewer or by having one part be lit in one way and one part be lit in another way. I feel some of it is just tricks I’ve learned over the years that are easy for me to deploy for backgrounds. If you have a person out in the middle of the woods or if there’s a sky above them, put a giant moon behind their head! There’s sort of easy ways to make things look cool or make an image look nice. I feel like I’ve learned some of those for backgrounds but maybe not necessarily for humans. [Laughs] Whereas, like, I’ll talk to Sam and Sam is a character guy, 100%. He can draw these amazing people that look like they have these awesome personalities. You can tell everything about them just by looking at them. I’m amazed by that, but at the same time… You’re talking about, like, people just have natural talent in different ways, and for me things like color and lighting come a lot easier for me than they do for Sam. So sometimes we’ll consult with each other, help each other out on certain aspects of an image. Cause, y’know, everyone’s got their talents in different ways.
SW: Yeah, his characters are great.
KC: And he can just pull them out of thin air, like it’s nothing! It’s so fast for him and I’m just like… ‘uh.’ [Laughs]
SW: I guess that would be… not a negative or a weakness or anything like that, all the people in your universe are really beautiful and in shape, [Laughs] and have good genes.
SW: He knows how to draw some ugly people, [Laughs] but like, beautiful ugly. Not bad drawing ugly.
KC: Exactly, exactly. There’s a certain trick to it that I have not mastered at all, but I would like to add more of a variety of people I think. That’s one of my goals going forward, to try and include a greater variety of faces and shapes and types of people. All of that, just a small goal for myself.
SW: Yeah, you’ll reach it.
KC: Yeah, just trying to be more conscious of that.
SW: Cool! So simple question, maybe two answers. How long does it take to complete a piece? The difference between a turn around for a client, versus just you doing like your food illustrations, stuff like that.
KC: Generally, I’ve done some pretty fast turn arounds. Within the same day or the next day, but those are usually much simpler images, or black and white. In general I feel like the smallest amount of time I need is probably a day for sketches, and then at least another day for the final, if not two. I pretty much take however much time I can for a piece. If I’m given more time I’ll spend more time on it putting more details and stuff. If I’m given less time I’ll specifically try to simplify my sketches so I’m able to finish them. That’s why my pieces don’t have a lot of people in them, because people take me the most amount of time, so if I’m working on a piece that has a crowd there… it’s going to take me at least a couple days or more. Because I sort of know the more people there is, the longer it takes. Whereas drawing food, that’s super easy. [Laughs] I can do that in a few hours, or a day depending on how complicated it is, but there’s not a general rule that I have for things. I just end up filling whatever box I’m given. [Laughs] I’ll work all the way up to the end or for as long as I can, but I need at least a couple of days for a nice editorial assignment.
SW: You said you did an all-nighter last night, are you a night owl or do you work well in the day?
KC: I’m a night owl and I don’t really want to be. But I feel like, again, it’s a mental issue where it’s almost hard to work through the days, like there’s other things going on around me. Whereas at night things get a little quieter. I feel like it’s a little more isolating in a way, where you’re not seeing other people around you, it’s just you in this space, at night. I just sort of end up working better, but I don’t know how much of that is habit and how much of that is preference really. I think I’d like to try to reverse that, but it’s just how things are right now.
SW: Okay, two more questions. This is the one I think you kind of already talked about on your blog. What is the best advice you can give to someone about maintaining a steady artistic career? So, going back one second to the last question, there’s a really good point you just made. You don’t know if it’s habit or preference, because I’m going through that same thing too. I’m a night owl, but then I teach classes of little kids during the day, so I really need my energy.
KC: Right right.
SW: So it ends up, more times than I like I end up sacrificing, not doing art so I can be rested for the next day. I have to go to another job, but if I didn’t have that… So, like, advice given to someone that, like you, can wake up and not have to go somewhere else to pay the rent.
KC: Right, well, I don’t know if I’m the best person to give advice. I feel like I still don’t have all my shit together. [Laughs] There are too many nights when I am sacrificing my sleep in order to get a job done. I’ve been realizing that more and more these last few years. So, I feel like some of it for me is coming to terms with the amount of work that I can get done, or the level of work that it needs to be because I’m a perfectionist. Which is why a lot of these late nights happen, I’m tweaking forever. And so, I feel like you need to kind of find a balance between what’s good enough for a client and what’s good enough for you, because that’s kind of what personal work can be for too. Doing things that you want to do in the amount of time that you have to do it, whereas with a client, it is a job. So the more time you spend the less money you’re getting for that job. Sometimes realizing that and, like, you want to do your good work, but you also want to get paid appropriately for that, which is a part I have not totally mastered yet. [Laughs] I do think, something that plays into it is… if illustration is going to be a sustainable career, you have to be enjoying what you’re doing too. If you’re working on a bunch of jobs that you’re not really satisfied with in the end, that doesn’t make you want to continue doing it. There’s always going to be some jobs that don’t work out the way you want, or maybe you feel like you didn’t do your best work… but finding a way to get excited about each thing, is for me, sort of key to being interested in illustration, to be able to continue in illustration. Which is, I think, where all that research and stuff comes in. By knowing more about what you’re drawing or the things that you’re drawing, you’re sort of naturally getting more involved in it. So, like, you have a stake in what you’re doing, because you’re interested. Does that make sense?
SW: Yeah it does. So what would you say to someone who, say, is very fresh in their career, doesn’t matter if they’re a student or 50. They’re trying to be an Illustrator. Could you give that same advice to someone who is not necessarily getting work that they like but enough to live off of?
KC: In that case, that’s where personal work comes in. I think in the beginning of my career I was getting a ton of business men doing things types of jobs, which I was not totally into.
SW: No. [Laughs]
KC: Yeah [Laughs], so what I would do is try to do other work that was work that I wanted to do. Like try to find extra time to do narrative work or fantasy work or work with more women in it. Putting those things out into the world, I’ve gotten jobs from a lot of them. So, like, a lot of the jobs that I get now are a little more tailored to my interests because over time that’s the work that I’ve been exposing people to, that I like to do. So, I get way less businessmen jobs and way more jobs about kickass women or moms or whatever, or vaguely fantasy stuff or book covers. A lot of it takes time, a lot of it’s really tough, but I feel like you have to sort of put your interests into your work and into the world so that people will see that and come to you for those things. Does that answer the question?
SW: Yeah, and everyone’s viewpoint on that is different. Some people it’s about the community they keep, some people it’s about other kinds of things, but I think what you’re saying is really unique and very karmic in a way. You get what you give.
KC: Yeah, it’s sort of worked for me [Laughs], I suppose. That’s also why I would put out stuff explaining my process or going through a composition or talking about tax tips. It’s all stuff that I would want to know I guess. A lot of times it leads to things that are related to that. I like teaching and I want to do more teaching. There’s been jobs that I’ve gotten from certain pieces that I’ve put out, that have been personal pieces that I’ve done for fun, but have lead to a real job afterwards.
SW: That’s great advice, we have another artist that we interviewed a few months ago and that’s how she’s making it. She does a lot of commissioned work but she still spends time working on her personal stuff. That, like you’re saying, really brings in the work she wants to be doing.
KC: Yeah, ironically, I haven’t had a lot of time to do a lot of personal work recently, so I’ve been trying to put my interests with the actual work that I’ve been doing. I think it is important to actually have that time to process your own thoughts and do some of that growing, and discovering what you like, what you enjoy. For me, I’ve lost track of it recently, which is bad, but sort of another reason to get on track with things more.
SW: You just made a switch, y’know, moving to NY is kind of a big deal.
KC: Yeah, like, a lot. I feel like there’s more pressure here. Not only financially because rent is higher, but also just because you have all these other amazing people around you succeeding in all these various ways. You’re just sort of like ‘oh I better catch up to everyone!’
SW: With social media you don’t even know if they’re really successful or if they’re just presenting them that way either. There is a lot of pressure.
KC: I find that’s part of illustration too, a sort of a fake until you make it kind of thought process that goes on. The good thing that NY has is all of the other artists and Illustrators that are here. That is a thing that I’ve been appreciating a lot more. There is some competitive pressure, but at the same time I just enjoy seeking other people that do similar jobs to me and I feel like I’ve just seen more people in general in NY and been able to connect with more people than I could in Baltimore. There just wasn’t the volume of Illustrators there. I really like the camaraderie aspect of it. It’s been really nice for me, but yeah there is more pressure here in general to keep going and keep climbing. Which can be good pressure too.
SW: Last question, totally off topic of everything. Might take you a second to answer this one. In the Hollywood version of the story of your life, who would play you and Sam?
KC: …This is impossible. [Laughs]
SW: [Laughs] I mean, they might have to get a haircut, you don’t have to match someone with your same hair.
KC: I don’t think we even have a story though… [Laughs]
KC: What would our Hollywood film be? I don’t know!
SW: Michael Bay would direct it and there would be robots of some sort. [Laughs]
KC: I don’t even know…I’m like trying to think of bald guys. [Laughs]
KC: Umm, that’s really hard… uhh… maybe…uhm. Well, first of all there would not be any sort of interesting story about our lives…
KC: …but barring that fact. Maybe Larry David for Sam… and… Ellen Degeneres for me? The hair is about right at least! [Laughs] Just a movie about nothing with those two.