Kathleen Kemly – Illustrator Interview

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Some of the illustrators I have interviewed on my blog I have met in person; some I have watched their careers debut and take off. In Kathleen’s case, I randomly picked up a picture book at my local library a few weeks ago and decided I not only wanted to profile it on perfect picture book Friday, but I had to interview the illustrator too.

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

[KK] I wish I was an author! It seems like magic to me to have a story in your head that unfolds on paper. I am a visual artist and illustrator but do love to tell stories in pictures.

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

[KK] I grew up in suburban Detroit, near Lake St.Claire, the tiniest of the Great Lakes.
As we Michiganders like to say, I lived right here on the mitten:

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[KK] As a kid my favorite books often took place in New York City. Books such as “From the Mixed Up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and “Harriet the Spy”. So when I had the chance to go the the Big Apple to study art at Parsons School of Design, I was thrilled. Even better, Maurice Sendac was one of the instructors, teaching children’s book illustration. My major was in illustration which meant drawing, drawing and more drawing…heaven! I had many wonderful instructors at Parsons, but unfortunately not Mr. Sendac, he went on sabbatical during the year I would have taken his class.

No matter, by then I had taken my love of drawing into a different direction, toward fine art and printmaking.

After college, I worked in a toy packaging design studio, always thinking that I would eventually get into either children’s books or fine art. Toy packaging was really fun, however, especially in early February just before the annual Toy Fair show in New York. That’s where the new, cool toys are revealed for the first time. Our studio, Matsumoto Design, was in the same building as lots of toy manufacturers showrooms. We had to be very careful not to let anyone see what we were working on, (Transformers!) since there were toy spies all over the building. I learned so much from my boss, Sue Matsumoto, about being a creative person running a business.

It would be many years before I finally would enter the children’s book world. In between, I got married, had two boys and moved across country to Seattle. It was here, in Seattle, so far way from the publishing world of NYC, that I finally got my start as an illustrator.
I kick-started my portfolio by taking a terrific class from children’s book
author/illustrator Keith Baker. We learned to do character sketches, create a loose storyboard and dummy. We also learned the importance of designing illustrations to they make the reader want to turn the page, and have each layout be new and surprising. From that class a small group of us formed a critique group.

My early illustration work was collage, using painted paper like Eric Carle. I got my first job in Lady Bug Magazine, it was so exciting. Back in those days we didn’t have the internet to just look up photo reference. For this illustration, I went to an accordion store to do sketches of the Hurdy Gurdy.

Eventually, after doing a lot of magazine work for Lady Bug, Cricket and Highlights, and educational books and booklets, I finally broke into the picture book world. By now I had stopped doing collage. It was far too time consuming for deadline work. I also was disappointed in how it printed. Watercolor eventually morphed into watercolor and pastel.

“A Fishing Surprise” started as a nice surprise. One of my critique mates, Rae McDonald had been working on a story about kids fishing and only catching apples. We were all thrilled when she sold the story to Northword Books. A month or so later my rep had a fun project to propose, when I read the manuscript, it was Rae’s story! We had to fess up to the publisher that we were friends, fortunately they were fine with it and our first picture book was born.

[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

[KK] By the time I got to illustrate Dianne Ochiltree’s wonderful story “Molly, by Golly”, my most recent book, I had tried many mediums. Watercolor and pastel had given way to all pastel, then digital. I was never satisfied with how tight the final art looked compared to the nice loose sketches in the beginning.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe from a work in progress, and the process of creating them?

[KK] When I started to work on “Molly, by Golly!” I finally had a way to keep that sketchy quality intact. By then, I had a nice IMac computer, with Photoshop and a tablet with a stylus to draw and paint digitally. I also invested in a large format Epson printer; nicknamed “J-Lo”, for her diva like tendencies to not work when
I’m under a tight deadline.

I could then do nice loose sketches and print them out on watercolor paper. Then, to the studio to play with actual paint! I found that if I sealed the paper with a clear gesso, I could use oil paints in transparent players to build up color for the final art.
Here are some of the steps:

Digital rough sketch…

Finished digital sketch…

First few layers of color…

Final art…

[JM] What is your favorite spread in Molly by Golly and why?

[KK] Here is my favorite spread in “Molly, by Golly!”….

I’ve always loved doll houses and miniature towns that you can look at from all angles. This illustration gave me a chance to show the scene from a new perspective. It was also fun to show how the different people were reacting to the fire. Painting the snow swirls was super fun!

The painting part of the process was really enjoyable. But I realized that while my education had a lot of emphasis on drawing, I needed to learn more about painting and color. I took a color painting class at Gage Academy, here in Seattle, and fell in love with color. With color in mind, I’ve worked my way through various mediums: from oils, watercolor, pastels and acrylics to painted paper collage paintings. Yes, back to Eric Carle’s inspiration!

One of my new collage paintings:

Road to Monteverde

Currently, my inspiration is the beautiful Pacific Northwest landscape, although I love painting people too.

I hope to bring this technique to children’s books at some point. Books are such fun, because like a printmaking series, it is a group of images that relate to one another and tell a story.

[JM] What does your workspace look like?

[KK] Here is what my studio looks like these days…

A painting in the works…

[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?

[KK] Art in my house? There is so much, it’s hard to choose!

This is an original illustration by my good friend, illustrator Karen Lee Schmidt.

© Karen Lee Schmidt

We used to have backyard chickens, my quilt making friends Theresa and Heidi, helped me make this wall hanging.

Chicken Quilt

This is a painting by my painting teacher and mentor, Terry Furchgott.

© Terry Furchgot

The beautiful pear painting is by my friend, illustrator/ artist Jo Gershman. My son Chris made the mouse when he was in school. The big apple was a gift from author Rae McDonald to celebrate “A Fishing Surprise”, it is actually a big apple shaped gourd!

Big Mousie

Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world?

[KK] I love our National Parks! In the past few summers Brian and I have hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier, the Seven Lakes Basin in the Olympic National Forest, the Big Island Hawaii and Zion National Park in Utah, among others. Now I want to see them all!

Here are Brian and I on top of the world in the Olympic Mountains.

[JM] Cats or dogs?

[KK] Pets?

We have a fat cat named Henry…


A seven toed tiny cat named Miss Priss…

Miss Priss

And, Luna, our sweet doggy!


[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[KK] Most people don’t know that I love listening to old country music like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn.

[JM] What was your first job (besides babysitting)?

[KK] My first real job, after babysitting was at a Hickory Farms at the mall. I didn’t last long…

[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[KK] Go-to treat for creativity…that’s easy, chocolate! My favorite is Theo’s dark chocolate, made right here in Seattle.

Check out my website at www.kathleenkemly.com
or at Instagram KathleenKemly.

I love that you named your printer J-Lo!! I visited Hemingway’s house in Key West over Christmas and had my first encounter with (many) polydactyl cats, now I am fascinated. Miss Priss’s toes are so visible!! I am a big hiker too and now I am adding Washington as a hiking destination to my list! Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

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3 Responses to Kathleen Kemly – Illustrator Interview

  1. What an interesting and creative career from toys to illustrating books! I am always intrigued with what encourages artists to illustrate children’s books. There is so much freedom and imagination. Would love to have that talent. I especially like Kathleen’s bold use of color in her town scenes. Makes you want to visit. Artists must be delighted to have so many more mediums available to them so they can experiment. I’m always amazed with their digital work. And, I loved Kathleen’s collage painting — what fun to experiment. Thank you ladies for an enjoyable interview.

  2. Pingback: Molly, by Golly – Black History Month PPBF | Miss Marple's Musings

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