The Q&A: Kyle Pierce

By Peggy Roalf   Monday February 24, 2014

Q: Now living in San Francisco, where are you from originally?

A: I've never lived more than 75 miles from where I do now (for better and for worse). I grew up in the East Bay: Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Alamo, Danville… and graduated with a BS in Biology and a BA in Art Studio from the University of California Davis.

As an artist, what are some of your favorite things about living and working in San Francisco?

I've always been inspired by nature, and living in San Francisco affords me the opportunity to get out into it more often than not. A 15 minute hike through Presidio National Park separates our home from the beach; a few hours on the road and I can find myself among the 10,000-foot summits of the Sierras, in Yosemite, or amidst the coastal redwoods. As I use a lot of photography in my work, these landscapes—my environment—become an integral element. Perhaps because "home" hasn't varied much geographically, travel is important to me, whether by foot, bike, boat or other means. A change of environment helps reset my focus and impacts the content of my work.

How and when did you first become interested in photography and illustration?

Hard to say, exactly. I've always enjoyed photography. My early years were documented with a Vivitar 110, a modest camera with built-in flash and stylish wrist-strap. My dad later gave me his father’s Nikon S-2, a 35mm rangefinder on which I taught myself to calculate exposure without the aid of a light meter and to experiment with depth of field. Simultaneously, I was drawn to the illustrations that augmented my childhood reading: Shel Silverstein, John R. Neill's illustrations of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz series, Johnny Gruelle (author & illustrator of the Raggedy Ann & Andy stories). And I drew. In college, these drawings served as sketches for larger paintings. It took me a while to realize I could push these two interests together to create something new 

Left: “Simple Investing,” for Kiplinger's (cover art, November 2012). Right: “A Cabin in the Woods,” for Kiplinger's (August 2013).

What was your first commercial assignment?

I illustrated an invitation and a pair of tickets for the San Francisco chapter of the AIGA in 2001 while working for Elixir Design (where I was employed as General Manager from 1997-2011). The AIGA invitation was selected for Print's Regional Design Annual the following year.  

What is your favorite part of the creative process?

I enjoy so much of it--initial ideating with the client, drawing line art, applying color (primarily oil pastel and water color), making photographs, composing digitally. Seeing a project come to life over time is very rewarding.

Do you keep a sketchbook? What is the balance between art you create on paper versus in the computer?

I no longer maintain a sketchbook, though my drawings are all created on paper and most of my photography is still shot on medium-format film. I like making things tangible and stepping away from the screen. (The mash-up of my photography and illustration happens on the computer and this process can require a significant amount of time.)

How do you spend the first hour of your workday?

Taking a fresh look at the work I made the night before. I like working late after the boys have gone to sleep, but often nod off not knowing which direction I'm pursuing is strongest. The morning can be clarifying. 

Have you ever had a creative block with a deadline looming? What do you do to get crackin’?

Creative blocks are rare; generally it is just a matter of pushing through, making the work. (I can't get into a groove if I don't start.) 

What are you reading?

The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Sunset Magazine in print; I read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal online. I've become a bit of an article junkie in recent years and look forward to getting back into longer formats and away from current events.

Who and what are some of your strongest influences?

My strongest influences are those that influenced me early: John R. Neill (illustrator of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz series),Shel Silverstein, Johnny Gruelle (author & illustrator of the Raggedy Ann & Andy stories), Uta Barth, Henri Rousseau, William Gedney, Paul Klee, Edward Gorey, John James Audubon, and various films from my childhood that married live action with animation: Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins, Dot and the Kangaroo, and Pete's Dragon

What advice would you give to a young illustrator who is just getting noticed?

Don't let up. I think it is important to have a foot gently applied to the gas pedal  at all times. Embrace new opportunities that will challenge you.

What was the last art exhibit you saw and what did you take away from it?

Richard Diebenkorn's The Berkeley Years (1953-1966) at the de Young Museum in September. Printed on the wall at the entrance of the exhibit were Diebenkorn's "Notes to myself on beginning a painting." My favorites were "Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for" and "Mistakes can't be erased, but they move you from your present position." You can find the complete list here. Looking back on my own notes I see that I scribbled "more patterns, clothes, towels, stripes, florals, skirts, knees." We'll see what happens! 

Pierce was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution to create a 43-ft mural for Q?rius, the National Museum of Natural History's new education center, which opened December 2013 in Washington, D.C. Above: Two detail views of the Smithsonian mural, which leads visitors from the museum's lobby on Constitution Avenue to the Q?rius education center’s interactive space inside (overall view below). Pierce's collage of photographs and illustration challenge visitors' perceptions of science and set expectations for their experience.

Has social media been a boon for self-promotion? Or do you have methods you've always used that still work?

A: I use Facebook to keep family and friends informed of new projects. This has occasionally led to new projects or referrals, but I haven't used social media to accumulate "followers" so my reach on these sites is limited.

You can also find me on Flickr, Behance, and LinkedIn. Separately, I maintain my website and blog, and communicate via an e-newsletter with colleagues, clients, and potential clients 3-4 times a year. And I'm not averse to picking up the phone and introducing myself to folks I'd like to make work for.

Where do you teach—and what do you like best about teaching?

George Peabody Elementary School—I teach an after-school art class to a group of K through 3rd graders. I'm struck by how differently each kid approaches the same project: their speed of work, intensity, selection and use of materials. There is no one answer. It is pretty awesome to see their personalities reflected in their art. In many cases, they're able to hold up a finished piece and say "this is who I am." 

Kyle Pierce is an illustrator & photographer who enjoys building layered narratives from photographs, illustrations, and bits of hand-drawn type. His work has been recognized by American Illustration, HOW, Communication Arts, and Print’s Regional Design Annual. Clients include McCann Erickson, Chronicle Books, The National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian), Exploratorium, The Globe and Mail (for Report on Business Magazine), Evolution Bureau, Kiplinger's, Time Out Chicago,Utne Reader, Cottage Life, Cleveland Magazine, Elixir Design, Chen Design Associates, prAna, Sportsnet, Nazarene Publishing House, Carleton College, and the American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA). Kyle lives in San Francisco with his wife and two sons.



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