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Q&A: Illustrator Michaela Kuenster

by Anne Bothwell 14 Oct 2010 4:06 PM

Guest blogger Tina Aguilar talks to illustrator Michaela Kuenster about coming from a family of animators, capturing movement and gesture in her work, and hating the color purple. Among other things.


Guest Blogger Tina Aguilar teaches humanities at El Centro College. This week, she talks to illustrator Michaela Kuenster, who is among the many artists participating in Art Conspiracy Oct. 23.

Birch Rabbit

What animals surround you? My conversation this week is with Michaela Kuenster, an exuberant illustrator and creative force who explores all things human that animals can portray. Happiest with a pencil and nearby sheet of paper, Kuenster’s creations include watercolor, some acrylic, and the use of birch wood, and she shares some inspiration about the trail she blazes.

Tina Aguilar: Michaela, how did you get started with illustration?

Michaela Kuenster: I don’t remember exactly, but my family is all animators. I grew up in Los Angeles with a whole bunch of them. My dad [T. J. Kuenster] wrote songs for the Don Bluth movies from the ’80s and my uncle [Dan Kuenster] was the director of Rock-a-Doodle and All Dogs Go To Heaven, all those movies with animals doing people things. I grew up in that environment and I did it for a while, but I was young and I really wanted to find my own thing. It came out of that and the way that I learned how to draw and paint came out of that. Everything came out of the family. I mean I would go home afterschool and I would go to the studio. When I was done with homework it wasn’t time to go home yet. They would sit me down with a stack of cels and I would paint the cels.

T.A.: This begins with the storyboard.

American Composers

M. K.: Oh yeah, all animated movies start with a storyboard and then each panel is like hundreds to get that camera movement; so, I learned the concept of storyboarding and I use it a lot. When you go into animation you first draw it real loosey-goosey and sketchy and fast. There’re all kinds of lines and it looks like a mess. They mean different things. All you’re trying to do is capture the movement.

Say it’s a cat that’s walking across the floor. You are going in and trying to get the shoulders the right way. The animator will sketch and do a line and another line and another line, until he feels that he’s got the right cat length and shoulder turning. Then you’ll clean up that drawing and choose your favorite line out of that mess of line; that spaghetti noodle of line. From that cleaned up one line choice, you’ll take that and turn that into a cel and paint and that will be shot. You have to do it super loose and fast and you’re doing 24 drawings per second and it’s a lot. I like to get loose with my personal drawings. I like to suss out the right lines and movements.


M. K.: I tried oil paints and I liked it and that worked for a while. I use acrylic every once in a while, but when I do I usually thin it down to a watercolor because I like that watercolor happens; it’s not up to you. You can control it up to an extent, but once it’s on there, it’s on there. And there are these little blooms and blossoms that happen and that might not be in your lines but would work in it and it gives it this emotion, a breathing quality like lungs or fungus. It’s just quick. It’s just fast. I mean with oil paintings…do you know how long those take to dry?

T.A.: Yes.

M.K.: I have let go of a lot of detail and I like taking a big, fat, soft pencil or even charcoal and doing the first kind of motion movement that happens with what I am trying to draw.

T. A.: Who are some illustrators that you find kinship with?

M. K.: I found out recently, actually a couple of months ago that Quentin Blake, he’s the illustrator of Matilda and The Witches who worked with Roald Dahl, has this new Museum. I just found out he’s a very big influence to me because I was looking at a book that I bought, one of his newer books, and I realize, I draw just like him. There are all kinds of mistakes and scribbles and scrabbles. I watched a video about the Museum, The House of Illustration, and he’s doing it exactly like I do. He’s fast, loose, and he picks a color and paints it in – just lets it be. That’s how I like doing it. It allows me to not worry about it, if you let it go, the lines that come out aren’t going to be perfect, but it captures the essence.

T. A.: The gesture.

M. K.: Yes, very gestural. I tell people that all the time when they want help with drawing: don’t be afraid to make a bunch of lines and find the one that works.  A ten second gesture of something I saw I like more than a painting I’ve worked on for four days. It’s like a Polaroid. Jules Feiffer is another one that I really, really respond to; I mean it’s obvious why because I read all those books. I grew up looking at them and I don’t even remember not knowing those books.

Bear Swimming

M.K.: I don’t like purple. So I sort of rule out purple, usually, unless it’s absolutely necessary. But I don’t really think about it. It’s usually an animal; so most animals are a specific range of color and their fur coats especially. If doing realistic colored animals then the rest of their surroundings would probably be greens and browns. I like muted and old-fashioned, like Beatrix Potter, that feel is what I really like.

T. A.: Tell me about these animals that you create. Do you have a favorite?

M. K.: I don’t know. Rabbits are my favorite. Rabbits, bears, and pigs…I’m partial to them because they are so easy to make them doing people things. I mean you can make an animal do anything. But rabbits, bears, and pigs are the most like humans, at least to me in my head. My rabbits don’t look like real rabbits. They really have these weird, weird arms. They’re more like hares but I can make them do whatever I want.

T. A.: Are you working on any new projects?

M. K.: Well, a children’s book, and I write too. I have written several different things for children’s books and I am still kind of molding them. I write short stories for my own fun. I like Maira Kalman, she’s an illustrator, I like how she will do a trip, say to Mount Vernon, and she’ll do a paragraph about her trip and then she’ll do a big illustration. You know, a huge narrative illustration regarding that paragraph and then go down and do another one. I’m interested in that for adult fiction. I am trying to develop a format that I like or that I’m comfortable with.

Michaela Kuenster will take part in this year’s Art Conspiracy and continues to imagine new animals amongst us.

  • Michaela is truly a treasure in the Texas talent pool. Originally I was enchanted by her musical performances only to learn she did visual work as well. The three composers, as seen above, are works that were proudly exhibited at Kettle Art recently. Her capabilities and knowledge of what she is doing in both categories is astounding. Big props to Art & Seek for this coverage.

  • Awww… FRANK!

    It was great seeing you the other night – and thanks again for the EyeTunes show!

    Jurassic Park?

  • Dan

    Nice article, I really liked the illustrations.

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