Kiri Østergaard Leonard
(Interviewer: Kelley Van Dilla, GS Editor for SPACES)
Kiri Østergaard Leonard is a Danish illustrator who grew up in the small country village of Boeslum. While still living in Denmark, Kiri attended The Academy of Fine Arts in Århus, before leaving her home country behind to continue her studies at the Pratt Institute in New York. Kiri continues to reside in New York City along with her husband Alexander Leonard (and their two cats), where she thrives as a freelance illustrator.
Kiri enjoys working on projects that range from children’s books and fantasy illustration to realistic portraiture. Drawing upon inspirations from her own childhood, along with nature, mythology, folklore, and fairy tales, her artwork tends to take on an imaginative and whimsical feeling, full of color and with occasional modern elements.
Kelley: On your website, you have a very eloquent artist’s statement about how you draw inspiration from your childhood in Denmark and the fairy-tales, folklore, and mythology that you grew up with. I’d love to hear more about that.
Kiri: One day, three or four years ago, I suddenly realized, ‘wow, I’ve been super inspired by my childhood,’ and oddly enough, that had never occurred to me until then. Because I randomly stumbled across a cartoon that my mom let me watch when I was a kid which was based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. I started realizing that when I was a kid my mom actually really conditioned me towards becoming an artist, without knowing it. She’s not an artist herself. She’s very creative but she doesn’t draw or paint or anything. But she’s always conditioned me towards those because she would always surrounded me with folklore stories from the area that I grew up in. Which I thought was interesting so I started looking at other artists I was friends with to see which elements of their artwork corresponded with where they were from. One of them was an American artist from New York City who I’m now married to. His work was very “U.S.” which I thought was interesting. I guess it makes sense that you can see a lot of someone in their work even if they’re not knowingly trying to put themselves into their artwork.
Kelley: That makes a lot of sense to me.
Kiri: I know earlier on I noticed that a lot of my drawings looked like people I knew although I wasn’t trying to draw them.
Kelley: Did anybody say, “Oh! That looks like me.”?
Kelley: Really? What happened?
Kiri: My ex boyfriend’s mom would always ask, “Are you trying to draw your (then) boyfriend (at the time)?” And I would say, “No! It doesn’t look anything like him.” And then she’d start to point out features, like it has a pointy nose, like he has. I guess a lot of it is super sub-conscious when you’re drawing. You just pick up from your surroundings.
Kelley: How did was growing up in Denmark?
Kiri: It was absolutely fantastic. It’s a very lovely country. I’ve had a lot of friends from all around the world and when they visited Denmark they say “wow! I can totally see why your artwork is the way it is because this country is totally like a fairy-tale. Everything is just cozy and idyllic.”
Kelley: Well, your artwork isn’t necessarily idyllic to me, it’s certainly fairy-tale-like but not so comforting or cozy.
Kiri: I do like the darker side of things.
Kelley: Do you just have a natural inclination for that, or is there a specific reason?
Kiri: Yeah, I like the–I don’t want to say conflict, but I like the questions that it poses when you have something that on the outside might seem nice and fluffy but there are those deeper levels. I like to play around a lot with those. A lot of that is also inspired by artists whose work I admire, like Brian Froud and Alan Lee. I really enjoy darker retellings of fairy-tales. Especially [American] McGee’s Alice, the computer game. It’s a freaking awesome retelling. It’s really dark and it touches on some very sore topics, and I think that’s a very cool thing to do with your work, if you can touch on some deeper subjects. So if you have a younger audience, they can appreciate it for being nice and pretty, whereas if you have an older audience they can pick out deeper levels in the work. It’s not something I have a lot of currently in my work, but it’s something that I aspire towards.
Kelley: I’m looking at your website right now and on the main page is the image of Peter Pan, from 2013, and that’s exactly what you’re talking about.
Kiri: Well, I’m very happy that I’ve succeeded with that piece.
Kelley: Did you have all of that intention in your mind when you were making this piece?
Kiri: With the Peter Pan piece I did because I had just read the original story and I love how in the original, Peter Pan is not a very nice guy, but he’s very much a child. He gets lost in the moment all the time to the point where it’s kind of scary for the other children because he’s so unaware, and he’s so self-absorbed because that’s how children are and it kind of gives him this dark edge. Of course if you look at the Disney version, you aren’t going to have that in there. I just thought that was a really interesting aspect for him as a character and I wanted to touch on that in the illustration. I hope I have the time someday to do a fully illustrated version of Peter Pan, but it’s not going to be in the next year, because I’m booked with work now.
Kelley: Well, that’s a good thing! Can you talk a little bit about your process?
Kiri: Well, first I get an idea. Of course. Then I do a bunch of rough sketches – my sketches are super messy. They’re really kind of bad. I’m trying to improve them.
Kelley: I can’t imagine them being bad if the final image turns out like this.
Kiri: No! They really are – that’s the fun part! The sketches are so messy and they’re hard to read. The anatomy is terrible. I’m a very give-and-take artist in that I’ll do too much and then I’ll erase and then I’ll draw too much and then erase again and eventually I’ll narrow it down to something more specific. Then I scan the sketch, I take it into photoshop and I start putting down blobs of color and it continues to be a big mess of blobs and shapes and eventually I start narrowing it down to a more polished image. So yeah, I have a very messy process, which is something I’m trying to improve, because when you work for art directors, it’s not very good to work in that fashion. Often times they’re going to want to see a sketch that they can easily read so they can make changes. So I’m really trying to work with putting more time and effort into the earlier drawing phase.
Kelley: There is so much detail and meaning packed into your individual images. I think it would be very hard to continue that level throughout a whole series or an entire book illustration.
Kiri: I’m actually struggling with that at the moment because I’m talking to a publisher about doing a Tarot deck and I have to do about eighty illustrations. They were looking at my website and the images they like in particular are pieces that have a ton of detail in them. So doing eighty illustrations with that level of detail is going to be interesting.
Kelley: But you said yes, because that sounds awesome.
Kiri: Yes, we’re still trying to get it approved – they have to pitch the project. It’s not guaranteed yet, so we’ll see how that goes.
Kelley: Can you talk about your education? You went to art school first in Denmark and then in America?
Kiri: It took me a very long time to realize that I wanted to be an artist. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties actually that I realized I wanted to do artwork. I always did a lot of drawing growing up, but I was never able to settle on what kind of education I wanted. When I was 24, I applied to the academy of fine art in Arhus where I lived and I got in, which was awesome. I really enjoyed it, but I realized after the first half-year that I was there that the type of work that they were doing. The way it was taught was more loose. They teachers didn’t crack down, it was more “do your own interpretation,” which is great for fine art, but if you’re looking for something illustration-specific, it’s very hard to work in that fashion. And at the time I knew so little about how to craft an image that I got lost and I started losing interest in it, but then I got to speak to some illustrators who were working in the states and they suggested that I study abroad.
Kelley: Where did you go?
Kiri: I went to Pratt Institute. Unfortunately I could not afford continuing for four years because the tuition cost is absolutely ridiculous.
Kelley: Yup. Welcome to school in America.
Kiri: Woohoo! Yeah, in Denmark, schools are covered under taxes. But the teaching was awesome over here. I loved all of my classes. I had great professors. I met a lot of lovely people. School was awesome. I’m so sad I couldn’t continue with it.
Kelley: Are you working on any projects now?
Kiri: I just had my first book published, and I’m really excited about it.
Kelley: That’s amazing! What’s the book?
Kiri: It’s Vikings of Legend and Lore (paper doll book) for children, with Dover publication. I was working on it in the spring and it came out two or three days ago.
Kelley: Where can we buy it?
Kiri: You can buy it on Amazon and also in Barnes and Noble. I also have a small selection of artist proof versions available on Etsy that I will sign. They’re only $10.00 a piece, so great Christmas present for kids!
Kelley: I’ve of course heard of paper dolls but never talked to someone who designs them. How did you become involved in this project?
Kiri: It actually has a really cool story. When I moved over here to go to Pratt, I started blogging. I bought a couple of fairy-tale books with the work of Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac and I did this review of them on my blog and about a year later I think, the author of the books contacted me. He had seen my blog post and he liked my work and wondered if I would be interested in doing some paper dolls for Dover Publishing because he worked for them. So I had to send him a new portfolio with samples of paper dolls and as a kid I did a ton of paper dolls, but I hadn’t touched it since I was ten years old. So it took me a long time to put together that portfolio, but when I got it done, I sent it to Dover, they really loved it, so they hired me to do this project. Since then, I’ve become really good friends with that author who is also an illustrator, his name is Jeff A. Menges. He’s done work for Magic The Gathering, early on, and now we travel to Illuxcon together every year, which is really great. So blogging is fantastic. It really opened doors. I’m going to pitch a number of other projects to Dover this month actually, so I might have more dolls coming out in the future.
It’s a really good startup project for new illustrators because it’s not quite as involved as a full color illustration. The style they’re done in is a little more simple. It’s a great way to break in and learn how to work with art directors and publishers. It’s been a great experience. And it was a super bonus for me that I got to work with Vikings since I’m from Denmark. I got to decide which characters I wanted to do myself and focus on things I was really interested in.
Kelley: You mentioned the Tarot card project, and I think your art is a perfect fit for Magic The Gathering. I’m secretly a huge Magic The Gathering fan – no one knows that about me.
Kiri: Magic is the company to work for. But it’s also really really really difficult to get in with them. You have to be so good.
Kelley: Well it seems to me that you’re on your way.
Kiri: I probably need another five years of heavy practice. At least.
Kelley: Have you worked on any other card games?
Kiri: Yeah, this year I did card illustrations for Mayfair Games for their new board game, Asgard’s Chosen. That’s actually the first published card illustrations I’ve done. Their art director was fantastic to work with. He didn’t mind my messy sketches. I hope to do more with them in the future. I think a lot of my work is turning out to be more geared towards young adult. I haven’t quite decided what direction I want to go in, so I just go by what projects I can pick up and see where that leads me.
Kelley: That’s great. You’re just on the journey, wherever it takes you.
Kiri: Sometimes it’s easier if you know specifically what you want to do, but I’ve never known what I want to do. I’ve always been very confused and just, “we’ll see what happens.” My husband was actually the college roommate of the art director for Magic now.
Kiri: Yes. They were very good friends in college.
Kelley: Have you gotten in touch with him?
Kiri: No, I haven’t.
Kelley: Well, this interview will put this information out there, just like you did with your blog before. So we will see what magic happens…. No pun intended!
Kiri: Well. I don’t think my work is geared to what Magic does, because it’s more monster specific.
Kelley: You have monsters on your website.
Kiri: I do. I have some trolls.
Kelley: To wrap up, at SPACES we like to as a silly question at the end. So as we met at New York Comic Con ’13, do you have a favorite or most ridiculous cosplay that you saw?
Kiri: Yes! In that case I have two. My super favorite was the Captain America who was a head taller than everyone. And he actually looked kind of like Chris Evans. His costume was really well put together and it worked out really awesome because he was so tall and he was a nice guy too. I saw photos of him kneeling down to talk to a guy in a wheel chair. Another fun situation was a girl who was wearing a really short skirt and she accidentally pulled it up way too high. She was trying to pull it up without everyone seeing, but everyone saw. There were a lot of great costumes. There was a couple that was dressed up as the characters from Tangled. They were awesome.
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