An interview with Kirsten Shiel – a phenomenal Dublin-based artist, art director and illustrator.
Kirsten Shiel’s artwork will wow you. Her Instagram is a constant, never-ending stream of witty, warm and beautifully-realised artwork. These pictures are alive with movement, with character, with humour.
And her artwork just keeps coming. She shares amazing new pictures with the world on a seemingly daily basis. You can keep up with the flow of Kirsten’s art by checking out her website, or by following her on Instagram and Twitter.
I am honoured to host this interview. My thanks to Kirsten for her hugely entertaining answers to my questions, and for her kind permission to feature her artwork here.
Kirsten Shiel interview: A little smattering of doodles
MC: This is a question I always like to ask artists: What is the earliest thing that you can remember drawing?
KS: I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that. My earliest memory of drawing would be trying to figure out how to draw hands. There was the way we were taught, which was three-fingered bubble hands, but I remember thinking “but we have five fingers!” The bubble chubby method wasn’t suitable for my four-year-old level of control as I kept running out of space, so I’d draw a circle for the palm of the hand and then five nightmarish skinny fingers branching out from that. I remember drawing me hanging out with my mum a lot, haha! I’d draw me and her rollerblading, even though we’d never ever done that. I was a weird kid, obviously. But I don’t think normal kids become professional artists when they grow up.
MC: Your art is alive with movement, character and story. Do you set out to draw with a particular narrative moment in mind, or do you just go wherever the pen takes you? Do you sketch a black or colour outline first, or just dive straight in?
KS: Thank you very much! It depends on the day to be honest. Some days, I get an idea and I can’t WAIT to have a break from work to start drawing it, but otherwise, I’ll sometimes start just sketching and see what comes out. I can never resist adding little details or looks on characters’ faces to make it into a little story moment though, I guess that comes from my previous career as an illustrator.
I’ll browse Pinterest for some inspiration on particularly bad days when creativity levels are a bit low and I’ll usually end up doing a study.
Similarly my method can kind of change depending on the style I’m going for. With my line work, I try to be as loose as possible at sketch stage (and at inking stage to be honest). With painting, everything starts off as a complete blob and I figure it out as I go.
MC: Looking at the gallery of work on your Instagram page, my mind boggles at the sheer volume and quality. Is drawing a daily habit for you? Do you need particular conditions in which to draw?
KS: Daily drawing is extremely important to me and a habit I’ve had since I was a child. The environment in work definitely helps me be in a “work mode” and all the equipment is there for me, so it’s easy to dip in. Often when I talk about my relationship with my work, I say I’m “obsessed”, which I don’t think is an understatement. I draw at least two things every day outside of work stuff, but mostly I’m only happy with one. I have a bad habit of deleting a lot of the stuff I’m not happy with, so I can’t even come back to it.
I do take breaks definitely (at the weekends, I don’t touch a pencil). The balance these days is important to me, since becoming a full-time professional, I do try to make myself take some time off from constantly drawing, even if it’s fun. I’ve experienced burnout quite badly and it ain’t pretty.
MC: Much of your art is created rapidly at the moment of inspiration – or at least the Instagram captions suggest this. Do you prefer striking while the iron is hot or taking a slower and more considered approach to your art?
KS: I often find that my best work is produced the quickest. Every artist is familiar with how much more popular a 15-minute sketch is than a painting with hours spent on planning. I think there’s something in that. You can overthink and overanalyse what you’re doing when you spend too much time on it. Plus, I only have two 15-minute breaks and an hour’s lunch during the day, so I have to be quick to get it done before going back!
MC: There are so many purples, turquoises and greens in your pictures. How would you describe the colour palette in your work?
KS: I fall in love with certain colour combinations and have a hard time pushing myself outside of them at times. I love cooler colours definitely for the vast array of moods and times of day they can portray. But I also love how much orange and golds pop against them. Gold and dark turquoise has been my favourite colour combination for years. My mother once observed that I paint in the same colours that I dress in.
I also think that working in preschool animation for so many years makes me steer away from anything too brightly coloured in my personal work.
MC: How much inspiration do you draw from the physical world around you? How much comes from films, television, books? How much from the imagination?
KS: Inspiration for me comes from absolutely everywhere. I love history, literature and food, so I would definitely say they are a very reliable source for me. I love being inspired by live action films at the moment. There’s nothing better than spotting a pure masterpiece shot of cinematography* and saying “that’s the one I’m going to paint!”. I love Westerns, and always want to paint something after I’ve seen one.
MC: Do you have a current favourite pure masterpiece shot of cinematography?
KS: I can’t believe you’re making me pick a favourite! That’s so difficult! OK, if it’s fair, I can narrow it down to two. There’s this shot in The Quick and the Dead where Cort has just shot someone after swearing he was a man of God and would never bear arms again that I absolutely love. I couldn’t find a high quality image of it, so I had to watch a Youtube video and screenshot the moment to paint it. The silhouette of him is so great and it’s framed fantastically between the boots, the symmetry of the crowds on either side, and the lone wire crossing him. Beautiful.
My second choice would have to be a scene towards the end of the first series of True Detective, when a camera is attached to the back of Rust’s truck as he pulls out and drives away, but we can see his face in the wing mirror. I audibly gasped when I saw that shot for the first time. A stroke of genius.
MC: Cliché question alert! What artists inspire you?
I’m very inspired by the incredible artists I know. Jesus, there’s some ridiculously talented people out there. My favourite illustrators at the moment are both Russian; Roman Muradov and Victoria Semykina. Their stuff is just another level.
MC: I suspect that you might well be a fan of Station to Station/Low-era Bowie. What is your favourite Bowie song?
KS: My favourite Bowie song is a cover-of-a-cover, so I don’t know if it counts. It’s called My Death, and was originally a Jaques Brel song**, in French. It was then covered by Scott Walker***, in English, and finally, covered by Bowie**** on the bootleg Live Santa Monica ’72 album, and it is stunning. The audience are so quiet throughout and it’s such a beautiful, emotional song. Out of his original stuff, I absolutely love Moonage Daydream.*****
MC: And what is your favourite Bowie look?
KS: Haha! Have you ever seen his mug shot? Hot damn, that’s my favourite look. So suave, so effortlessly cool.
MC: Keeping with the musical theme, do you like to draw with music playing? What would be your go-to music for drawing choices?
KS: I HAVE to listen to music while I draw. It’s one of my great regrets in life that I’m completely musically incompetent. My whole family is tone deaf, too, so I can’t even sing a little bit. On my Spotify, I think I have about 40 playlists last time I checked. They range wildly from 50’s halloween surf rock (seriously, I have a whole playlist of just that) to traditional Irish music to electronic music to 90s Madchester music. I’ve got a lot of bases covered, to suit any mood I’m in. I used to be mad into podcasts and audiobooks, but that was when I was a background artist and could switch my brain off a lot easier. Nowadays, I have to be coming up with new ideas a lot more and problem solving, so I don’t really have the spare concentration for them anymore.
MC: Your website bio mentions that you work as “a concept artist, art director and background artist for animation, as well as an illustrator”. Do you have a personal favourite among these types of work?KS: Oh god, I didn’t think I’d ever be made to choose! At the moment, I sort-of juggle a few of these titles. I just wrapped up art-directing eight music videos for Disney, which I enjoyed HUGELY. We’re all so proud of how they came out and I couldn’t have asked for a better team to work with. My first experience art directing was a lot more stressful, I was hired as an assistant art director on a new series that hadn’t even started development, but they weren’t able to fill the art director position for a year, so I took on the responsibility. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end. That was a steep learning curve. But one that I’m eternally grateful for.
My primary job in work at the moment is as a concept artist. Which is very fun. My job is different every day and the stuff I get to design is very varied. One day it’s some plastic spoons, the next it’s the main character for a new series.
Illustration was my first love. I started off my career as a full-time illustrator. I worked primarily in editorial and advertising. I eventually went into animation, but every so often, I go back for the right job. I’ll only take on one job every few months if I really like the sound of it. I got the opportunity recently to produce two book covers for Cois Life. I definitely think my roots in illustration have a strong influence on my work.
On a more constant basis, I illustrate weekly for a podcast I’m involved in, Motherfocloir on the Headstuff network. I listen to the raw tapes and try to come up with something, usually drawing it in 10 to 20 minutes. The time constraints are good for me, I think, or else I’d be painting something up for hours and probably overworking it.
MC: What are your three favourite animated films or series? How do you think they’ve influenced your style of art (if at all)?
KS: My boyfriend is a massive film buff, and on one of our first dates, he asked me: “What’s your favourite film?” And I said the Prince of Egypt. He said “No, like a proper film”. (I slag him about this in front of animation friends all the time now because it always gets the “animation is proper film!” argument, so he probably won’t like that I’m bringing it up again here now). But Prince of Egypt is genuinely my favourite film, ever. From the story, the colours, the backgrounds, the character design, even the music (I usually hate musicals), I love everything about it.
If I had to pick a favourite series, it would have to be the masterpiece of Gravity Falls. This would certainly have had a huge influence on the colours and lighting I use in my work. I was just obsessed with the backgrounds and had a rotation of them for my computer screensaver for years. Absolutely stunning work.
A recent film I was really struck by, and very inspired by, was Revolting Rhymes, produced by Magic Light Pictures. I usually prefer 2D animation to 3D, but I fell head over heels for this really amazing stylised 3D animation. Please check out their instagram (@art_of_revoltingrhymes), it’s really something else.
MC: What’s your preferred medium – traditional art or digital art?
KS: I love digital art for the ease of getting an idea down, but if I’m honest, I’m much more proud of a good traditional painting. There’s also something lovely about getting your hands dirty. I sometimes go into a weird focused “zone” for hours on end when I’m working traditionally, and when I come out of it, I’m COVERED in paint. I mean like, it’s on my face, in my hair, usually one of my legs was used for cleaning my brushes. It’s a mess.
MC: What one thing do you least like having to draw? And what do you most like to draw?
KS: I really dislike drawing vehicles and bicycles. Bicycles especially are just a nightmare. I’ve seen them literally thousands of times and I can NEVER remember what they actually look like. I have to look them up every time.
I love drawing sad mermaids. I couldn’t explain to you why, there’s something so evocative about them.
MC: Where would you most like to see your art to go from here?
KS: I’d love to get a lot better with character design. I’m better than I was, but I see the stuff some people do and it absolutely blows my mind.
* Kirsten’s turn of phrase here puts me in mind of one of my favourite Twitter accounts (you can probably guess their specialism from the name): One Perfect Shot.
** Here is Jacques Brel’s La Mort…
*** …here is Scott Walker’s cover (now entitled My Death), which can be found on his Scott album, and is also collected on the excellent Sings Jacques Brel album…
**** …and we conclude with Bowie’s version of My Death. I have to thank Kirsten here – I’d never heard this particular performance before. It is incredible.
**** Gentle reader: Freak out – if you will in a Moonage Daydream.