an interview with illustrator kt smail

October 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Illustration KT Smail

I recently interviewed one of my favorite illustrators ever—the illustrator of everything from fashion editorial to (s)Mythology, an extraordinary painter of flora, and the master of bespoke stationery, KT Smail. KT is a Scottish illustrator, designer, and painter based in Brooklyn, NY, whose work has been featured on DesignLoveFest (which is where I first saw KT’s work—a super cute watermelon painting that I used as my iPhone background) and Refinery29. Her illustrations are just dreamy and her bespoke wedding stationery is probably the best I’ve ever seen (see her full line of work at whatKTdoes). In this interview, KT talks about her illustrations, making mistakes, finding success in the creative industry, and her dream project.

Can you tell us what you were like as a child and as a young adult growing up in Scotland?

When I was little I was bookish, daydreamy, bossy, polite, talkative. I loved putting on shows and playing make believe with my little brothers. We spent weekends playing in the woods, walking by the river and visiting botanical gardens and museums. I liked to read, draw and play dress up. As a teenager in high school I was a good student, and also good at having fun! I loved school, got good grades and had a wonderful group of friends that I spent a lot of time with. I was in theatre groups and loved to act. My best subjects were history and English. I didn’t really discover I could draw until I was 16 when I had an encouraging art teacher and an artistic boyfriend. From then on spent all my spare time in the art department and it became a passion for me.

I find that moving away from my hometown and traveling abroad have had a very positive effect on my life and work in general. How has moving your studio and home to Brooklyn and traveling had an effect on your life and work?

I have always had itchy feet and I come from a family with a long history of moving to new countries and living in interesting places. It is in my blood. I always knew that I wanted to try and live elsewhere, to try and find something larger than what I knew. I fell under the spell of New York, and Brooklyn is a lovely place to live. I am surrounded by a community of wonderful, creative friends. I have the peaceful green of my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and access to all of the buzz and art of Manhattan. I think that being under new skies brings invaluable shifts in perspective, and those have undoubtedly shaped my work.

The girls in your illustrations have a very nostalgic, melancholic feel to them. Even the animals have personality. What drew you to these types of characters?

I’m not sure it is a conscious choice. I am an emotionally sensitive person, and have always been drawn to expressive art and people. I think my characters are a way of exploring that.

kt smail illustration

Your body of work is beautiful and has a very dreamy and feminine aesthetic. Did you always have this style as an artist, or was it something you developed over time?

I think, yes, there have always been dreamy and feminine qualities to my work, but I think that my aesthetic has developed and shifted over time. It has been a natural progression that has come from being true and honest to how I am feeling, what is in my life and influencing me at any given time. So important not to try and draw like anyone else! I’d like to think my work is always recognizable as mine, without being stuck in a stylistic rut. It’s important to keep moving forward, I think.

What was the career turning point for you and what path did you take to get there?

I studied illustration at Edinburgh College of Art, and I knew in those 4 years that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I had a kind of blind determination then, which has never really faltered. After I graduated I worked hard, always drawing, often for free and earned my living as a waitress. After a few years of working away, building my portfolio and community of collaborators I was taken on by Kate Ryan Inc here in New York. Having an agent who believed in me was very validating and felt like a big turning point for me.

If someone who wants to pursue a creative career asked you what mistakes have you avoided, and what mistakes have you made and learned from, what would you tell them?

I would tell them that everyone has to make their own mistakes, that you can find the teacher in all things. I don’t regret anything as all of my mistakes brought me to where I am. I will say that when I first started I believed that my career would arrive, fully formed, into my lap and I was very hard on myself when that didn’t happen straight away. I think you have to believe that it will happen for you, but with a gentle understanding that things need time, love and care to grow and develop. Creative careers, especially when you are freelance, can be very challenging so make sure you love what you do. That will carry you through the “mistakes” and make them worth while.

KT Smail Illustration

Who or what has had the biggest impact on you as an artist?

So difficult to answer! I would probably say the unfaltering support of my family and friends, without which I might never have believed it was possible to be an artist at all.

What techniques, tools, and materials do you use and how come?

My choice of materials really depends on the project, but a rotating combination of pencil, pen, copic markers, colored pencils, collaged paper and goache paint. If I want the image to look detailed and neat then it will probably be pencil and pen. For something more expressive then it is usually paint.

How would you describe a day working in your studio?

Every day is different, which is what I love. It usually starts with responding to emails, Instagram posting and other clerical things. Printing out any references I need for the day. Most of the day will be taken up with drawing and painting and then I scan in what I have made and adjust things in Photoshop, ready to send to clients. There are lots of cups of tea in there, too.

What is your process like when you approach a new assignment, job or illustration idea of yours?

Again, it depends on the project, but usually starts with a conversation with the creative director and then a gathering of images from their references and my research. I pin those pictures to my wall and start sketching, sometimes referencing old, relevant sketchbooks of mine. I send sketches and composition ideas to the client, who then come back to me with feedback which I incorporate into the creation of the final artwork. When I am working on my own things, the process is a little more fluid. Maybe it starts with a trip to the botanical gardens or an exhibition, lots of sketching again, and then wherever the inspiration takes me!

What would one most likely find you doing on an off-duty day?

I usually run or practice yoga every day, but on my days off I especially enjoy the relaxed time I have in the mornings for these practices. Afterwards I make breakfast with my husband, maybe we go for a long walk around the city. I talk to my mum, meet up with friends, drink wine, cook dinners, have hot baths and read books. I love my days off!

Do you have any long-term goals for the future?

My dream project right now is to travel the world making drawings of wildflowers in all the different places. I’d turn the sketches into paintings, an exhibition and a book. I’d also love to do a residency somewhere with beautiful gardens. My other goal is to be healthy, happy and close to family and friends.

What would you say is the secret ingredient to finding your place and finding success in the creative field?

I think it is a combination of staying true to yourself, passion, kindness, hard work and determination. You need them all.

What is something that many people do not know about you?

I married my husband six weeks after our first kiss.

See more of KT’s inspiring work on her website, Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram.

KT Smail
KT Smail Bespoke Wedding
KT Smail Illustration
KT Smail Work

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