Illustrator Profile - Kyle Webster: "I try to get my paws into everything"

By Robert Newman   Thursday July 30, 2015

Kyle T. Webster is a graphic force of nature, with a delightful and intelligent visual presence across a wide variety of mediums and platforms.  “I try to get my paws into everything,” says Webster, and he's been doing his best to make sure that happens. Webster is a frequent editorial illustrator for The New York Times and many other magazines and newspapers, a teacher, lecturer, graphic designer/art director, and mobile app creator. He’s also developed a popular line of custom Photoshop brushes (over 125,000 sold to date!) that are used by many top illustrators in the business.

Based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Webster began his career working as a graphic designer. He started freelance illustrating in 2003 and has been “full-time” since 2006. Much of his editorial illustration work is done in a classic comic book/graphic novel style (it’s no surprise that he cites Tintin as a big influence), and he’s often called on to create situational pieces—scenes from movies, reported stories, etc. Webster is a superb visual storyteller and a brilliant technician, with a seemingly unending variety of styles that swing from hard-hitting to sweet and childlike. He hasn’t created any books of his own yet, but that’s going to change in Spring 2016, when his first picture book will be published by Scholastic.

I was exposed to a lot of very different imagery in my childhood because I grew up in Pakistan, Singapore, Cyprus and Taiwan. The local comics and magazines, posters, signs, buildings, museums, landscapes, clothing—all of these things made me want to draw.

I have a fraternal twin brother who probably has a lot more natural drawing talent than I do, but he never pursued an arts career.  He has a PhD in Physical Education and teaches at USC. My wife is German, so I get to hear another language when I’m at home, and that is soothing, I think, because I heard different languages growing up. I love her drawings, too, even if she doesn’t think they are any good. Sometimes she draws things for our kids that I think are wonderful. They (the kids) draw a lot, of course, and like any normal parent, I like everything they draw.

I studied painting and drawing and earned a BFA from University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I studied painting, drawing and printmaking as a Yale Norfolk Fellowship recipient in 1998, and I also spent a year in Rennes, France, studying painting, drawing, and more important things like “How to skip classes because France is too beautiful and inspiring and should be experienced through food, friends, travel, and adventure.”

After leaving university I was a web designer for three years. Then, I worked for four years as a graphic designer in a design shop. It was there that I started building up my freelance client list in preparation for the move to owning my own business as an illustrator.

I teach at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and I have an office on campus that I also use for all of my illustration and design work. The best part about having an office on campus is that I can step outside and see lots of interesting people doing interesting things in a beautiful environment.

I do everything digitally with a Wacom Cintiq 24HD and Photoshop. The Cintiq is a large digital drawing tablet made by Wacom. I use it for all of my assignments and I think it is one of the most wonderful tools ever invented for an illustrator. Even though I have had mine for three years, I still marvel at it.

I can simulate almost any media I wish with my custom Photoshop brushes and with deadlines being what they are these days, along with the frequent requests for last minute changes, the digital environment is a nice place for me.

My first New Yorker job with Max Bode led to a flood of great assignments and opened doors. I illustrated The Strangers, a movie with Liv Tyler.

Throughout my life, I have been in love with the Tintin stories by Hergé (Georges Remi). I read most of the books every year and they always feel fresh and I continue to learn from them. There are countless other artists who inspire me—Moebius, Mike Mignola, Claire Wendling, Victor Ambrus, Beatrix Potter, and many others.

I’m quite inspired by Jon Klassen at the moment. As far as I can tell, he is doing everything right: drawing and writing his way, collaborating with others who truly bring out the best in him, and designing his professional life with care.

If I could pick a second individual, it would be Jillian Tamaki, for the same reasons I admire Jon. Also, she can draw better than anybody I know—in fact, I sometimes get frustrated when I see her drawings, because I know I may never reach that fluency in the mark-making language.

One thing I liked about working at the design firm was the daily push from peers to improve upon existing ideas or designs; everybody offered constructive criticism throughout the day and we all benefited. When I work alone, nobody is standing behind me, offering great ideas for how to improve a piece of work. I miss that sometimes. Overall, though, I love working alone and have no interest, at least for a while, in returning to a “regular” job.

My art books (I have too many) and several websites: Muddy Colors, Illustration Age, and Swiss Miss.

I wrote and illustrated my first picture book. I woke up at 4 in the morning, about a year ago, with the idea for the book, fully formed (this is apparently not that unusual, according to some published friends of mine), and I wrote it down on a little notebook I keep next to my bed for such moments, and then went back to sleep. In the morning, I still liked the idea, so I immediately made a dummy and sent it to my agent. And here we are! The book debuts in the Fall of 2016 and will be published by Scholastic.

I am over the moon— I have always wanted to collaborate with David Saylor, who is the creative director at Scholastic. I have been in touch with him about working together on a book since 2008. When I wrote my picture book, Please Say Please, I had a feeling it was the right fit for Scholastic and he enthusiastically agreed. We will be working on more books in the future, I am happy to say. I’m also thrilled to have an editor as wonderful as Dianne Hess. I would especially like to publicly thank my brilliant agent, Laurie Abkemeier, for effortlessly guiding me through this new process.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to give this answer, but I would love to illustrate the Harry Potter covers. I would use a style similar to my Frogfolio calendar image from 2014— careful line work and lots of earthy color.

I enjoy working with Hayes Henderson at Wake Forest University for several reasons. First of all, he is good at giving useful guidelines and thoughtful ideas for each assignment, while still allowing the illustrator to have ample breathing room to do good work in the style or manner that is most comfortable. Second, he had an impressive career as an illustrator for about a decade, so he knows exactly how to work with illustrators. One good thing about this is I can send him embarrassingly rough sketches and he has no trouble envisioning the final art.

I like many kinds of illustration, but I am most interested in artists who have strong foundational drawing skills. I have lately been looking at more animation and comic artists’ work. Here are a few names: Sterling Hundley, Annette Marnat, Gary Kelley, Sam Weber, Mort Drucker, Claire Wendling, Clio Chiang, Helen Chen, Gipi, Christophe Blain, and Duncan Fegredo.

Seeing as how editorial budgets have not kept up with inflation at all in the past decade, I have expanded my reach into nearly every market—animation, book covers, animation, posters, packaging, and most recently, Photoshop brush creation. The Photoshop brush business I started has taken on a life of its own and now occupies about 50% of my time each week. I have over 125,000 customers and the pressure to continue innovating, as well as improving upon my existing products, is very real. This year, I will be growing that business with a few new brush sets, as well as some very cool new products that I have hinted at here and there on social media. This new venture has also brought in some wonderful opportunities for travel, teaching, and live demonstrations (Berlin, this summer, for instance), and it has allowed me to help make the digital art experience more enjoyable for artists I admire greatly, such as Paolo Rivera, Celine Loup, Dale Stephanos, Sophie Diao, and John Martz, to name a few.

I try to get my paws in everything. I even made a Top 25 iPhone game in 2009—that was a big surprise and it took me on an interesting diversion for a little while. I haven’t released any of my own new games since 2011, but I do continue to design and illustrate apps for clients. And, I do have some sketches done for a new game of my own that I am refining with my development partner, Denis Hennessey.

I also teach Life Drawing, Portraiture, Wet Media, and Digital Painting every year at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

Lately, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook have been the most useful for me. I sometimes pay for Facebook ads and these do wonders for my brushes business. Twitter and Tumblr bring in lots of interest, as well, and keep my illustrations circulating online. Picture books are a brand new world, and now that I have a great agent, I’m not really promoting myself very much—she keeps an eye out for books that might be a good fit for me, illustration-wise, and I send her ideas I have for new books. I haven’t done a mailer since 2007, but I intend to get back into print promotion after this summer.

Be persistent, but don’t let persistence get in the way of your ability to listen to criticism from art directors and others who you hope will one day wish to hire you. If several art directors say you need to improve in some areas, take that advice very seriously and set about making those improvements.

More Kyle Webster illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Kyle Webster website
Kyle Webster Photoshop brushes