KT Smail dreams in (water) colour; the Brooklyn-based artist’s vibrant work can be described as a mix of watercolour, collage, and hand-drawn illustrations. Simultaneously romantic, feminine, and whimsical, Smail’s artwork first caught my eye on a design.love.fest feature, and I’ve been following her work ever since.
After enjoying her desktop wallpaper and iPhone backgrounds on all my gadgets for months (download them here), I figured it was time to learn more about KT and the dreamy work she creates. In this interview, I discuss the ups and downs of being a freelance artist, what inspires KT, which pieces are her favourite, and best of all, KT’s authentic, honest advice for anyone that’s pursuing what they love. Dream on, dreamers.
CT: Can you tell me a bit about how you got started?
Is drawing and creating something you’ve always done? I was a creative kid, very into singing, reading and putting on plays. I always drew, but only really fell in love with drawing and painting whilst in High School. It became an all-consuming passion when I realized this was something I could pursue and I went on to Edinburgh College of Art for my degree. I decided to specialize in illustration because I love books, I love the interplay between words and pictures and I wanted to really learn the skill of visual communication. Whilst I love working in traditional forms of illustration, I was also so excited to play with the possibilities of illustration in new contexts. I liked the idea that illustration work could be a smaller and more accessible version of the fine art I was making. After college I worked really hard on unpaid illustration work, collaborating with lots of different people until I had built up a good network, and a portfolio of published work which helped me to find my agent (I am represented by Kate Ryan Inc. in NY).
CT: Which piece of your artwork are you most proud of?
This is such a hard question, because the answer shifts all the time. I almost always feel most passionate about whatever project I am working on at the time. At the moment, that would be my personal painting work. I have been returning to paint after years of pen and pencil, and it is such an exciting and scary departure. I feel proud of the abstract landscapes I am working on; not because I think they are perfect in any way but because I see new things and possibility when I look at them. I feel excited for what is to come.
CT: What inspires you?
At the moment: Matisse, Thomas Hardy, Joan Mitchell, Classical FM radio, Shelter Island, summer light, Ana Kras, Helen Frankenthaler, wildflowers.
CT: What do you find the most rewarding about being an artist?
Feeling a project develop, all the way over that horrid ditch where you question what the hell you are doing, to a new place that you never even thought of. Feeling inspired and knowing that it is my job to explore it and try to make something beautiful. Feeling love and joy from people who respond to my work.
CT: You use a number of techniques from collage to watercolour; as an artist, how would you describe your style?
Dreamy, sensitive, feminine, decorative, magical, expressive.
CT: Pursuing a creative career can be challenging; can you tell me about a time when you were faced with a struggle and how you overcame it?
I feel like every time a job falls through or I have a slow month it can be a struggle to not be overcome with anxiety. It is a constant practice for me to let go of that anxiety and trust that if I continue to work hard, good things will come along. Over time I have come to understand the rhythm of the freelance life, to try and ride calmly on its ebbs and flows and not become too dispirited when prospects look bleak. As long as you keep making work, keep putting it out there, something invariably comes up. Learning not to panic is my battle!
CT: Do you ever have days where you’re feeling uninspired? If so, how do you deal with it?
Of course! My natural inclination is to push and push through that lack of inspiration but over the years I have learned that this rarely results in good work, and always ends in tears and frustration. For me, time away from work is as important as time at my desk. If I am feeling uninspired it is usually a sign that I need to get to the botanical gardens, a new exhibition or a good book. At times when I am the most stuck, spending time far away from work, just living and taking care of myself is the best way to get out of a rut. It is important for me to switch off with a run, yoga, time with family and friends or, ideally, a trip to a new country. A good glass of wine and a hot bath doesn’t hurt either.
CT: What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career as an artist, graphic designer, etc.?
Keep creating, work hard, collaborate with other people. Someone in the industry once told me that creating work and putting it out into the world is like sending out a message in a bottle; eventually, when you least expect it, that image or idea will wash up on someone’s shore and something amazing will happen. So put out lots of bottles! Also, cultivate your own truth; don’t try to draw like anyone else.