Interview with Illustrator, Zoe Keller

What’s your inspiration?
Nature related books are great, I have quite a few now, and there are a handful of nature blogs that I follow, but nothing compares to being outside. It’s especially wonderful when I stumble across a species of mushroom or flower that I’ve drawn from photo references but have never seen in person. There’s this amazing kind of conversation that goes on between my remembered image of that organism and what it is like to encounter it in the wild, in three dimensions – recognizing small details that I squinted at in photos, or having my misunderstanding of a form or color progression corrected.

Interview with Illustrator, Zoe Keller on Jung Katz

What does your typical day look like?
My days vary quite a bit. I try to structure my weeks so that I can get in 2 to 4 solid 10 to 12 hour drawing days every week. I save one day each week for delivering orders, restocking on food and art supplies, and then I draw between 6 to 8 hours for the rest of the days that week. I’m bad at taking weekends, so I tend to take longer breaks between big deadlines. On my all-day-drawing days, I get up, have a little coffee and breakfast, and then spend the rest of the day going back and forth between my desk and the kitchen for snacks. I sometimes go on short walks or take a break to cook a big dinner on those days, to recharge before the drawing night shift.

How do you keep motivated?
We live on such a fascinating, fragile planet, I don’t think I’ll ever run out of subjects to make work about. Making work all the time can be very financially anxiety-inducing and lonesome, but I’m learning to manage those aspects of the job with more grace as time goes on. Surrounding myself with other wonderful, excited creative folks as much as possible is incredibly important.

Interview with Illustrator, Zoe Keller on Jung Katz

What do you want others to take away from your work?
I hope that my drawings remind people how beautiful the natural world is, and inspire them to pay attention to the smaller members of whatever ecosystem they find themselves in – the flower that clings low to the ground, or the insect that only stays still for a moment before it springs off. You have to see and appreciate an organism before you will be moved to protect it.

What, if anything, would you tell your younger self?
Don’t give up on drawing! I drew constantly up until middle school, then stopped almost completely until 2014. Sometimes I can’t help wondering how much further I would be if I hadn’t lost those seven-ish years of practice.

Interview with Illustrator, Zoe Keller on Jung Katz

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
During my freshman year of college one of my favorite professors told me to lighten up. I should have listened to him sooner.

What are your thoughts on art school?
Art school has definitely paid off for me; I was exposed to so many different disciplines at MICA (the Maryland Institute College of Art). I came out of those four years as a much more well-rounded visual problem solver than I would have been if I skipped art school. Even though I work almost exclusively in graphite and ink now, I can still feel my graphic design and painting knowledge at play as I tackle a piece. And I am incredibly thankful for the time I got to spend in MICA’s printmaking studio. I love letterpress and screen printing so much. All that being said, I should acknowledge that I was lucky enough to receive massive scholarships to attend MICA, and with a bit of financial support from my family was able to graduate debt free.

Interview with Illustrator, Zoe Keller on Jung Katz

What’s your dream project?
I would love to work side-by-side with folks working in the natural sciences, to translate their research and conservation efforts into visual stories. I day-dream about residencies at science research stations, and about joining botanists or ornithologists or herpetologists (or any other nature-related ologist) on their field expeditions. Of special interest to me is the work being done in the world’s biodiversity hotspots; there are 35 on the planet and one of them is so so close in California (I’m in Portland, OR). I am also very curious about endemic species on low-lying islands and coasts that will be swallowed up by climate-driven sea level rise.

Interview with Illustrator, Zoe Keller on Jung Katz

What art supplies do you use?
I use a variety of Pentel GraphGear 500 mechanical pencils, Staedtler Mars Lumograph 6B pencils, and a whole slew of different erasers – Mars Plastic, kneaded gum and mechanical. I use sticky notes to block off drawn areas to prevent smudging.

What’s your process like?
I start most drawings with a research period – maybe I want to make a drawing that only includes endangered turtles, for example. This is honestly one of my favorite parts of the whole process. I love delving into my field guide collection, wrestling with oversized books at the library and losing myself in the internet. After gathering a little nest of written and image based research, I proceed to thumbnail sketches and then to a larger sketch. I prefer to develop the whole drawing in the sketch stage, so I can try to visualize where the darkest darks and lightest lights are going to be. Then I work from top left to bottom right developing the base layer of shading. When it’s all done I’ll take a step away from the drawing for a day or two and come back to adjust the values over the whole piece.

Follow Zoe Keller on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr.

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