Illustrator Profile - Kirsten Ulve: "I have to 'be' the person while I'm sketching them"

By Robert Newman   Thursday April 9, 2015

Kirsten Ulve is best known for her caricatures, brilliant graphic renditions of popular celebrities that delight readers of countless magazines and publications. Since bursting out of the pages of Entertainment Weekly over 15 years ago, Kirsten has created hundreds of bright, stylish, fun portraits of seemingly every person of note in the entertainment business. Her illustrations are cool and modern, but with a definite retro feel. And although they’re consistently creative and imaginative, they’re also very respectful of the subjects. As Kirsten says, “I never try to make fun of my subjects or make them look bad. I try to love them.”

Based in New York City, Kirsten has continued to develop and expand her style and skills. It's a big mistake to typecast Kirsten as only a portrait artist, even though that’s the work that has gotten her so much notice and acclaim. In addition to her signature caricature illustrations, Kirsten has expanded her work into a brilliant series of conceptual, lifestyle, fashion, and children's imagery. She’s even documented nightclub scenes for The New Yorker. Taking a look through her recent portfolio of work reveals an astonishing range of approaches and techniques to her illustration, all of them very cool and very stylish. It's exciting to see an illustrator who has the ability to continue to grow and develop at this level.

Kirsten has expanded her work to animation, creating a remarkable series of commercial videos, and she’s developed a wide range of products that are for sale via her website, including Andy Warhol throw pillows, a Dubuque (a city in her home state of Iowa) iPhone case, and some stylish shower curtains.

I grew up in Iowa, where a sense of pragmatism is assigned to you at birth. There was always a lot of healthy activity: tennis, ballet, skiing, exploring the woods, visiting/working on family farms. Mom was very glamorous and still is. Her sense of personal style was very influential on me as a fashion illustrator. She was also president of the local art association in Dubuque when I was a kid. I remember going to art fairs and galleries, and she oversaw the renovation of a 19th Century jailhouse into a museum. My brother and I would run around in the jail during construction and sneak into cells. A few still had graffiti from prisoners on the walls, one of which I remember being this very painterly, very sad little mural. Dad was a busy CPA, but had the ability to make me laugh when I was blue, which was frequent.

Mimicry was a big hit in our family—something I credit for my ability to draw caricature. I loved to make things and draw as a child, but my parents discouraged me from pursuing art in high school, as a major, and as a career. Of course this only motivated me to rebel and head into art school anyway once I went away to college. A few years into my career, when it was clear things were going OK, they apologized for doubting me. This moment was equal parts wonderful and awful.

I got my BFA in drawing/graphic design at the University of Iowa. There was no illustration program there, but I was lucky enough to land a job at the school’s graphic design studio with legendary illustrator Chip Wass as my boss. This proved to be the most educational (and hilarious) job I could have asked for. Our small staff of five designed all of the school’s brochures, the advertising for its restaurants and bookstores, promotional materials, etc. We met with clients and paper reps, and met our deadlines. And we both used illustration wherever possible. This was back in 1988, so we were working olde skule with mechanicals and waxers and ink. We also had the first generation of desktop publishing Macs, which I began to use for illustration using Aldus Freehand. It was glacially slow, and this was before “anti-alias” came along, so it was really caveman territory for digital illustration.

After graduating, I moved to Chicago for a while and freelanced as a graphic designer, and illustrator, sending out a few postcard promos here and there. I did a few nightclub flyers and regular gigs with Newcity newspaper, which was then art directed by Jorge Colombo. In 1996 I made the move to NYC and two years later I quit my day job working as a designer at the Princeton Review to be a full time illustrator.

I met my husband, Kacy Ross (aka Clay Pigeon at freeform radio station WFMU in Jersey City), after a friend recommended his show in 2007. He also mentioned being from Iowa, so I wrote to say “great show and hello from a fellow Iowan.” This started an e-mail exchange that eventually led to us eloping.

I work at home, which is a sunny loft in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. It’s big, so we have roommates to offset the cost. All of us, and everyone in this building, is a friend and artist or creative person in some way, so it’s like a sitcom over here a lot of the time. I work at a big vintage architect’s table at the front window surrounded by plants, sun, and my two cats. I also have another small bunker-like outpost facing the shaft window under our lofted bed when I need solitude and concentration. On weekends we escape to our wicca chalet in the Catskill Mountains, where I have another studio outpost. I’ve cut a labyrinth of paths so I can walk and think in the woods up there.

Everything starts with a very messy pencil sketch, and refined by tracing on paper over a light table. Sometimes this gets scanned and adjusted in Photoshop, reprinted, resketched. Eventually the sketch is whisked into Adobe Illustrator to use as a template.

My career has been so diverse, I’d say I have a few moments where I got lucky and was pulled into different specialties. Back in 1997, I got a call from George McCalman at Entertainment Weekly to do a caricature of Harrison Ford (I think I had only done one other caricature in my life, of Jay Leno for a celebrity cookbook). I remember it not turning out so great, but it got easier as I made more of them. I had no idea this would become a specialty for me, and I’ve done work with EW ever since.

The other break was from Target. I had just moved to NYC, and got an assignment to do their in-store Halloween campaign, which was a huge amount of work. I had to quit my day job to finish it. I stayed busy after that.

Erte, Evel Kneivel, Al Hirschfeld, Mary Blair, Phyllis Diller, Rudi Gernreich, Bob Mackie, David Bowie, Kiraz

My husband, Kacy Ross. He’s a musician, writes experimental musicals, fiction, and interviews the homeless on his radio show. I’ve learned so much from him about creativity and compassion. He also makes me laugh the hardest.

I’m a total workaholic, so the biggest challenge for me is to stop. I think I’m developing scoliosis in a very non-glamorous way, hunching over my drawings and computer. I try to balance it out with more spastic activity and exercise (like training to dance to “Thriller” with zombies in the Halloween parade). I go to this crazy gym where Broadway performer types teach classes in hot pants and capes and top hats. Perfect!

Two art directors I’ve worked with over the years who are always fun, always inspire me to make better work, and have a great sense of humor are Patrick Crowley (at Billboard) and Brian Anstey (from EW, currently at InStyle). They are also both fellow Iowans, so I guess we speak the same language. I think when you’re a creative person from Iowa, you tend to rocket launch out (if you make it out), and then bond with others who have done the same.

Art books I’ve discovered online and ordered at 3 am. Pinterest. Flea markets. Technicolor MGM musicals. NYC! Parades, protests, drunken drama, fashion rebels, dogs in clothing. All right outside my door.

Designing a watch for Mr. Jones Watches of London. I made a very graphic, Shroud of Turin-like representation of Jesus for the face, with a crown of thorns and blood running down, and the time displayed in his teeth.  I was raised Catholic, but am no longer one of them. I do think Jesus was cool. He’s certainly universally recognizable. My approach was: “No time for church? Just look at your wrist (it’s called: the Time Savior).” I think some people loved it for graphic reasons, some for religious, and I got some hate mail.

I’m starting a line of scarves/textiles, which has been a dream of mine for a while. Most of my work feels so ephemeral a lot of the time—pixels flying through the ether to clients via e-mail, then out with the recycling in magazines. So the tangible side of wearable art and textiles appeals to me, as does the way illustration can be a physical, practical thing. And there’s my Iowa pragmatism.

It was kind of an accident (see my story with George at EW above). I didn’t know it could be a specialty of mine until I tried it. It’s a weird skill. I have to “be” the person a bit while I'm sketching them (this is where the mimicry comes in). The only challenge is if the caricature subject is also the recipient. People don’t always see themselves how they appear.

I don’t have a type that’s hard. I will say that it’s hard to work from full frontal smiling photos. It’s best to see people speaking to get the essence of the face.

Some people I’ve drawn many times: Oprah, Sara Jessica Parker, Russell Crowe, and Jennifer Anniston come to mind. Usually the piece calls for a different situation that they’re in, or enough time has gone by that my style has evolved, or I’ve refined something about their expression the second or third time around. I haven’t been doing this long enough to have drawn a significant age progression in a subject yet. There is a famous example of this in Al Hirschfeld’s depiction of FDR before, during, and near the end of his four terms in office. His eyes and bearing got heavier and heavier with the weight of his Presidency.

I honestly have no idea; I just channel it out like I’m at a séance. But it does help if I’m familiar with the celeb and their facial/acting style. Video helps a lot, seeing the way people speak and move their face. And no, I never try to make fun of my subjects or make them look bad. I try to love them. Sometimes when I’m looking online for the right photos or clips to work from, I find myself reading about their lives before fame, how they got to be famous. Everyone’s struggled in some way, even Tom Cruise. He grew up moving to several different towns with an abusive father and getting bullied for being short. Kind of explains a lot.

The answer is: Bradley Cooper. Once I was doing a piece for The New Yorker on Hangover 2, a big splashy scene with Ed, Zach, and Brad. For some reason I had locked Bradley into a profile in the composition, and I could NOT get him to sing. I don’t know how many hours I spent—it was ridiculous. Ultimately I had to hand in the job, and I still wasn’t totally satisfied. A couple of years later I drew him for Silver Linings Playbook in Entertainment Weekly, and he practically drew himself. So I must have figured something out subconsciously between assignments.

I would love to draw Obama. Or the current, groovy Pope. Drawing important world figures is an honor. No one is stopping me from doing this; I just don’t usually get those calls.

The animation on my website was only styled by me. I drew the key frames, and various studios animated them for commercials. I worked on several spots for Time Warner this way with live action people in illustrated, animated worlds. I did a lot of research of Witch Hazel/Bugs Bunny cartoons for those—the staggeringly great work of Maurice Noble. The only animation I know how to do myself is the lowly gif, which I still love to make for the holidays to send out in e-mails. A few magazines request gifs of editorial pieces for the iPad. I wish more would.

We’ll see! I have a book pitch out right now with author Roman Milisic (also from House of Diehl/Style Wars). I may be making a foray into children's book illustration as well as textiles.

I have two reps (Mendola in NYC, and CWC in Tokyo). I also advertise in the Workbook, but everything else is spotty. Postcards, competitions, social media...I find it hard to make the time. I need an assistant if I want all of that taken care of.

Love your work. Diversify.  Be visible. Be flexible. And be open when working with art directors. It’s your JOB.

See more Kirsten Ulve illustrations, new work, and updates:
Behance Portfolio