A Day in the Life: Illustrator Kirsten Slade

Kirsten Slade is the illustrator of the new kids’ novel by Eirlys Hunter, The Mapmakers’ Race (Gecko Press). Here she tells us – in words and pictures – about her daily creative routine, which includes something resembling a scene from A Summery Saturday Morning

I try to wake up a whole hour before I actually need to. I’m not a morning person, and require a gentle re-entry to the world, with at least one cup of coffee in bed accompanied by a little quiet reading time.

Once I’m well and truly awake, the mad dash to get my son to school on time commences. Amidst repeated reminders to brush his teeth, empty the dishwasher and just-get-dressed-now-please (!!!), I make his lunch and scribble what’s essentially a one-panel comic to send along in his lunchbox. I started doing this just after we moved to New Zealand, hoping to ease a somewhat rocky transition to a new school. It’s been almost two years and, at nine-and-a-half, he still hasn’t asked me to stop embarrassing him with horrible puns and three-legged dogs.

If there’s time and I’m feeling generous towards future-me, I’ll pop a load of laundry in and have a quick tidy of the kitchen.

There are dogs to walk … and it seems this is never not a complicated endeavour. At least living in Wellington means I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to wooded trails, bracing hilltops and pebbly beaches.

Okay… work!!! I have a lovely workspace set up in an extra bedroom at home. My partner works from home part-time as well, and my 18-year-old daughter is often at the other desk, working on her own portfolio. There’s a beautiful view of the bush and fantastic natural light, but it’s easy to let the dogs and other household concerns distract me.

This year I also have access to studio space in the city a couple of days a week, and that’s been so great. I’m borrowing a desk from an artist friend who is doing a residency elsewhere. It’s a shared studio and it’s just so inspiring to see what everyone else is working on and be able to bounce ideas off other creatives. I seem to get a lot more done on studio days than when I’m in at home, perhaps because there isn’t a tendency for laundry to pile up at the studio?

My work day varies depending on the type of project and what stage I’m up to. Research can involve anything from hitting the library to making judicious use of Google’s image-search feature or creating my own reference images with the camera on my phone. I keep my mental image-bank topped up by going on lots of ambles or bike rides to nowhere in particular, sketchbook and camera in hand.

Once it’s time to really dig in and draw, I start with lots of rough pencil sketches on cheap paper, although I recently splurged on an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil and have been churning out heaps of digital roughs without worrying about wasting quite so much paper. I’ll play with potential colour palettes and consider what medium might work best.

I’m a tactile, process-oriented artist and, for the most part, have been slow to adopt digital illustration tools. I like getting my hands inky, the feel of a knife carving through a linoleum block, the clink of a brush ferrule as it hits the side of a glass jar of murky water, the tooth of a deliciously rough paper resisting the flat edge of a crumbling pastel.

For The Mapmakers Race, I worked with a humble dip pen and ink. It’s my absolute favourite drawing tool and one I return to again and again.

While my preference is for analog work, my last step is usually to scan everything and use Photoshop to clean up any wayward lines, errants splotches or traces of pencil marks, although this doesn’t always go as smoothly as the technology promises (or maybe it’s just me).

Sometimes, I just get stuck – my sketches look all wonky or my mind won’t stop wandering. At that point, it helps to step away from my desk – go for a walk, or engage in some sort of manual labor where I don’t really have to think about the task at hand and can let a project tumble around and sort itself out.

My partner has a fairly flexible schedule, so depending on what our respective work loads are like, we trade off school runs and household responsibilities. My most productive time of day doesn’t necessarily correspond to school hours, so I really appreciate being able to hole up in my home studio late in the afternoon while he prepares dinner or ferries the boy to after-school activities.

I often end up working after everyone else has gone to bed. It’s when I work on my personal projects – my first love is comics and I’m currently working on a graphic memoir.

The house is quiet, there are no distractions and everything seems to coalesce and click into place.

Kirsten Slade
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As an illustrator, writer and creator of comics, Kirsten Slade uses a variety of traditional and digital media techniques to tell her own and others’ stories. Born in Liverpool, England and an immigrant three times over, Kirsten now makes her home in Wellington, New Zealand. You can see more of her work at kirstenslade.com.