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Creative Agency founder and director, public speaker, event host, brand ambassador, educator … and artist! Melbourne based illustrator Kelly Thompson is an inspiration to all who meet her or hear her speak, and her talent and beautiful artistic work surely serves to confirm her place as a 21st Century Renaissance woman. With spare and delicate lines, decorative details and splashes of colour showing her background in fashion photography, Kelly’s subjects nevertheless look out on the world with a confident and self assured gaze – much like the artist herself.
My first question has to be – just how on earth do you manage to find time for your artistic practice? Between founding and managing your own creative agency, your brand ambassador work and your many speaking engagements you must squeeze more hours into the day than the standard 24 the rest of us get!
I’m not going to lie, I do have a tendency to get overenthusiastic and load myself up more than I should, then quietly stress to myself about it all wondering why I can’t stop turning everything into a project!
Lately I’m doing a lot less illustration work and am much more selective about what projects I take on and who I work with, it’s not always a money thing, but very much about if a project is a good fit for me. I’m very focused on the growth of the agency, and with illustration I just needed a bit of time out to find my love for it again
Now, because I work across a few different areas, I obviously have to be super organised to ensure things don’t end up half ass (which has happened in the past). I have a pretty strict daily routine, get up, walk the dog then spend the morning focused on urgent issues, paperwork, emails, client communication, planning, then I use my afternoons to action plans or work on assignments, hopefully without too much distraction. I also have a great Marketing Assistant Susan who works for me a couple of days per week on Maker’s Mgmt things and she is my HERO!
Keeping some kind of balance is also really helpful when getting things done, I find that getting outside at lunchtime and going for a walk greatly improves my afternoon productivity. I’ve also had to start to make more time for my health and book myself in my calendar for exercise, I find that if I book a class or sign up for something I’m much more likely to go instead of letting work push everything aside. I’ve also got a few apps that block me from social media after about 5 minutes per day, these are the best! It is amazing how much more can be done without these tiny constant distractions.
Your early career as a fashion photographer has definitely influenced your illustrative work, but it has moved well beyond those origins. What do you find most appealing about working in this way compared to capturing your subjects through a lens?
When I was working as a photographer I loved it so much, it was like play for me, but I always felt like I didn’t know enough about the technology, or just had some kind of separation between myself and what I was creating. When working on paper with a good old-fashioned pencil, there is something so calm and connected about it, marking out stroke after stroke is so meditative and positively consuming. I think I most enjoy it as a moment of complete alone time, just me trying to capture a vision with a basic tool and my hands.
Was working as an artist always part of your life or career goals, or was this something you found yourself drawn to further down the track?
Illustration happened after working as a photographer for a few months, when I was brand new and poor and trying to find clients. I started to draw in my spare time because I had no money to party like all my pals were, and everything rolled from there. It was never really a plan; I still don’t think it is part of a plan really. I’ve always just wanted to be an awesome employee for someone if I’m honest, but nobody has ever believed me in the past when I’ve applied for jobs! I think because I’ve built profile in my field people just assume that’s what I really want to do with myself, but in reality I started illustrating in my spare time, sold some things, picked up some clients, got some agents and the spider web grew without me realising until one day I was just stuck in it!
…and when you did start your artistic work who were your influences, your artistic heroes?
I started before social media was such a huge thing, which I’m grateful for. When I drew I purposefully wouldn’t look at other artists because I really wanted to try and make something up without too much influence. I had always been a huge fan of Richard Grey and the agency MM Paris and their free flowing illustrative work and alphabets, and like many young illustrator females, I was obsessed with Audrey Kawasaki who was propelled into fame around the time I was starting out.
You work with creatives of many different types, do you find there is a difference when working with artists from your agency (or elsewhere) rather than those that have a purely commercial focus? Fashion photographer vs. fine art photographer for example.
I don’t really work with many creatives who would consider themselves as “fine artists” the majority of the artists, creatives and art directors I work with are primarily commercially focused. In saying that, a couple of my artists including Merijn Hos dance beautifully between the two. In the past, when working with artists who work less regularly at a commercial level I usually find the main issues that come up are time management related, ego (they appear less happy to take feedback and really don’t like it!), and sometimes, because they are not used to working commercially, they find sharing their process step by step a bit strange.
All quite understandable, and obviously I am generalising based on my history, I am sure this is not the case for all. When working with an artist who isn’t used to the commercial process it’s just really important to explain the process before the project starts, make sure all of their questions are covered and be available should they need any help or support along the way. It’s just a different journey, but all artists want to make the best work they can.
I often find myself expressing my disappointment with the direction and exclusivity of the fine art market and establishment in Australia. Is this something you have encountered, and if so how do you deal with that?
Oh yeah! I know one of Australia’s most recognised painters and so many times in the past he corrected me when I called myself an “artist”, “oh no, you’re an illustrator, not an artist (dear)” …my mistake.
I personally think that the division of titles is a bit of a joke and laced with such snobbery. It all comes down to positioning of work, the audience and marketing. Put an illustrator’s work in a traditional gallery setting, market it to an art collector crowd under a different name with a bigger price tag and if it’s good it will still sell as “art”. It’s all context, put an “artist’s” painting beside an editorial and it’s just the same as an illustration.
I do think however that the boundaries are being broken down, creatives need to survive and have an income, there are hardly any Kings wishing to act as a patron these days so a lot of artists work commercially too which I think was originally what categorised them as an “illustrator”. A lot of illustrators now also create one of pieces or special projects, collectors buy prints and fine art pieces and hang them together, I think it’s just a bit of an old way of thinking about art in general; art is completely subjective, so if I want to call myself an artist I’m going to!
Social media is an increasingly important way for any emerging artists to gain exposure, do you have any advice for those artists who are trying to gain a following for their work?
Well I think that now it’s all about that damn algorithm and paid marketing, things are changing again. I would say to young artists don’t pin your hopes on Insta-stardom and don’t tick all the required social media boxes, likes don’t mean success. Instead focus on creating a strong body of work that is distinctly yours, don’t just follow social media trend, think about what makes you special, what are your strengths and who are you as a person, these things really matter in a crowd full of mediocre when everyone is trying to tag the same dream clients. I would suggest getting involved in your creative community, approach clients directly, build a body of work to get an agent, and these are things that will pay off with exposure in the long run.
Our audience loves to get into the nitty-gritty of process! Could you let us know how you bring a piece from conception to completion?
I usually start with writing ideas on a page and then very roughly sketching compositions (that look a lot like a child drew them!). I work for reference and have a huge library of photographs I’ve taken or imagery I’ve found. I categorise everything into folders like “good hands”, “Vines”, “Big smiles” etc. etc., so that I just have things waiting for me when I need them. I always build my own reference in Photoshop if working from sourced imagery to make sure that things are still original.
I then print out my manufactured reference and put it on the table beside me, usually working from a grid system to transfer it over to my page. I work on huge sheets of recycled cardboard, it’s so cheap ($2 per sheet that’s almost a metre wide), I like it because of the texture, and draw most of the time using Faber Castell polychromos blacks. I’m that horrible person who goes to the art store and buys all the black pencils and all the pencil sharpeners! I scan and do all my colouring in Photoshop, I like this because I like to play with colour and change things, and it’s also so handy when working with clients who like to tweak things.
Now to the future, what are you working on at the moment, and what shows or other events do you have coming up?
I’m really focused on growing Maker’s Mgmt and our online store Maker’s Mrkt at the moment, this is really important for me. We are still the little guys so my main goals are around building our community and client base. I’m also in discussion about a pilot for a web TV show with a creative focus and we are waiting on investor approval so fingers crossed that comes through, I think it will be really fun and different if it goes ahead. Later this year I’m speaking at and hosting the Curvy Women’s Conference which is visiting the Gold Coast for the first time and also one other location (I can’t remember where, that has completely slipped my mind atm!).
I have been doing a little bit of illustration, I just drew about 70 pieces for an animation for a candle company that will be out soon,(maybe that’s not actually a little bit! haha) and have started to play around drawing a bit in my spare time again. At nights I’m currently doing a fashion design course, but I’m just doing that to have a hobby that isn’t my job more than anything…
I’m also trying to be a fit person and look after my health a lot more, I’m currently a bit of a Pilates and Barre junkie and I’m finding it so relaxing and energising having a bit of life balance … for once!