Artist Kelly Thompson considers herself an accidental illustrator

Fine lines

Bullied at high school for having bad skin and braces, Kelly Thompson used drawing as an escape. Nowadays, her illustrations have attracted international attention, and propelled her on a career trajectory that surprises her every day.

Call her the accidental illustrator. Kelly Thompson grew up in Rotorua and drew obsessively as a kid, but trained as a photographer because she never considered illustration to be a viable career. She now lives in Melbourne, drawing not only for an international roster of clients but, more recently, establishing an agency which advises companies on creative direction and represents other illustrators too. She’s in Auckland this week to speak at design symposium Semi Permanent – which prompted us to commission her to create what she says is her first-ever self-portrait for our cover. We spoke on the phone about her work, her childhood, and breaking creative moulds.

JEREMY HANSEN: You grew up in Rotorua, and you trained and worked as a photographer in Wellington. What led you to make the transition from photography to illustration?

KELLY THOMPSON: I started illustrating because I was really poor! All of my friends had full-time jobs and I was trying to build my profile as a freelance photographer, which was a bit up and down sometimes – there were weeks on end that I had no cash to have any kind of social life. So while everyone else was partying away their salaries I was a complete nerd, hanging at home solo with $2 in my bank account. It was during that time that I became really fascinated by models and how they turn it on so much on a shoot, sometimes too much. I was interested in the moment when they relaxed with me and felt comfortable. The photos completely change at that point. It was these moments that I started to turn into my illustrations.

Did you draw much as a kid?

All the time! If I wasn’t in the mud making forts with boys, I was drawing. My grandad taught me the basics when I was very young and it took off from there. My brother and I used to get big sheets of paper and draw roads and streets and houses and play with our cars on that. I also used to draw three faces in a row, and I’d draw them with messy hair and eyebrows and bad skin, and if I imagined they were going for a night out I would erase the hair and draw it back tidily and things like that. It was almost like playing with dolls on paper. Mum used to bring home art books, and I loved one called Rembrandt to Renoir and would sit and try and copy the artworks on the pages. This need to be creating things was like a burning energy in my chest that I had to get out, a constant need to be drawing something. Later, drawing became a bit of an escape. During high school I was bullied terribly. I had no boobs and bad skin and braces and buck teeth, so a lot of it was based on my appearance. It was horrible at the time, but I have to credit that period in my life as it helped build my drawing skills – I would always come home bawling my eyes out and sit down and draw away my bad day. I got in a lot of practice. 

Did it even seem possible at that stage that you might be able to make a career from illustration?

Becoming an illustrator was never a goal. It was just a hobby that somehow rolled into a job and kept going.
I also think that growing up in a small town meant that I was pretty naive about a lot of things, and maybe it was this naivety that allowed me to fall into illustration. I think a lot of big city kids have a lot more knowledge about careers and money, so are maybe more likely to go and be a lawyer, or get a ‘real’ job. I never thought about any of that, I just went and did things that I loved. 

Can you describe your approach to illustration? How have you developed your own style?

Developing a style is all about practice. All my personal work is from photographs I’ve taken or from people I know who have given photographs to me for reference. I first started out inspired by many amazing artists and wanting to be like them, but I soon realised that they were always going to do it better because that style was theirs. As soon as I stopped looking at the work of others, my style started to emerge. It started slowly, changing the way I used shadow and line, and then after doing things purposefully for a while it just became natural to me and flowed from there. Every now and then I try something new and I see a tilt in my style. For client work, deadlines are always so tight and there isn’t really any time to play. For personal work, there’s a lot more trial and error and playing around. It’s much more indulgent and just for fun. 

What led to your focus on fashion-oriented imagery – or is that just the imagery you’re just best-known for?

That all just started off as personal work and became my thing. Fashion is a really big part of my life. I guess professionally it started with me wanting to be a fashion photographer, but it was always a big focus of my life personally. I could almost be described as an obsessive vintage shopper, and I always like to find things that nobody else has. Sometimes I want to be a fashion designer, still might – I just love to dress up every day for the sake of it. I’m doing a fashion design course at night at the moment, more than anything to satisfy my curiosity about if I can do it or not. I’m always trying to learn something new. Sometimes I get completely in lust with an item I can’t afford and I have a little series of images called “draw it ‘til I can afford it”. It’s basically a wardrobe daydream on paper. 

You’ve done a self-portrait for our cover (below). You don’t do them much, right?

This is my first one and it was a really weird experience. I was thinking, ‘will people think I’m a bit vain?’ But I actually enjoyed it and thought about artists who do self-portraits all the time, looking at themselves and being honest with themselves. Its strange to analyse yourself like you usually do a subject. 

So this is the frank version of how you look?

Not completely! My hair is definitely not that orange, and my skin is not that clear. It’s not actually me, but it’s me in my style. I’m not as clean and perfect as that. Even on my own Instagram I will always brighten a photo of myself. It’s funny though, because I’ve noticed through my years of illustrating that whenever I have to illustrate a man they’re so much more particular about their appearance. They’re much more precise and concerned about how they’re portrayed. Maybe it’s that in the era of social media, women put themselves out there more, or we look at ourselves more – so maybe we are quite aware if not over-aware of how we look. And maybe men are not as involved in that world. 

You last spoke at Semi Permanent in 2013. What’s changed for you since then?

Oh so much! In 2013 I was just a gal drawing babes for the fun of it and somehow making full-time money from a hobby and getting heaps of international press. Now I feel like I’m a completely different person. I’ve stepped back from the tools a lot – I’m finding much of my previous experience twisting into this new role as a creative consultant and producer. I run an artist agency, Maker’s Mgmt, and the majority of my work is now advising others about creative direction for their brand or company. I also do a lot more public speaking, charity work and am thinking on a broader scale about how I can put my experience and position to work in different ways. 

You’ve mentioned that you’re pretty sick of repetitive advertising campaigns. How can advertising or other industries be shaken out of this?

I think a big problem is that there are too many people who are not creative dictating what creatives should be doing. The people I work with are overflowing with concepts and fresh perspectives which often get so watered down. The big companies are the ones that often fuck it all up. Sometimes there are so many people involved in a project throwing in their opinions without any expertise in the area they have control over. The more you trust the skills of the creative you hired, the better the results will be. 

Semi Permanent is on at Aotea Centre from 11–12 August.