Bleaq interview: Kelly McKernan


A few weeks ago I wrote a feature dedicated to the elegant and romantic portraits made by American artist Kelly McKernan. Kelly was kind enough to take some time (well, a lot of time – she’s very thorough!) to answer a few questions I had about her work and inspiration. Enjoy!


Hi Kelly! Thanks for taking time to answer a few questions :) To introduce the Bleaq readers to your and your work: could you tell a bit about yourself and how you became an artist?
Hello! I’m Kelly McKernan, a 26 year old female artist based in Nashville, Tennessee in the US. I was one of those little kids that decided early on to become an artist and I never changed my plan. My entire world growing up was all about creating, building, and making. I kept to my passion and had a wonderful art teacher in high school that I credit so much for encouraging my exploration as a young artist. I then went to Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, Georgia (where I grew up) and majored in drawing and painting (also briefly in photography as well as art education). About a year before graduation, I decided to take my budding career seriously and learn to network online and in person, speak to galleries, and build and present my portfolio. I think that made all the difference, so that when I graduated in 2009, I was able to keep my transition out of college and into the real world a smooth one. After that, I would do my best to keep only a part time job to keep building on my career, and eventually, in mid-2012, I went full time as an artist and illustrator.




Your bio tells you’ve always had an interest in art, even from a very young age. Can you remember a specific piece of art you’ve seen as a kid which really made an impression?
Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” totally grabbed me and never let go. It was on a poster in a classroom in elementary school – maybe 3rd grade – and I remember being aware of surrealism and his work very early on. The dreamy atmosphere of the piece really appealed to me. I was one of those kids that lived in their heads, y’know? That piece represented a world that I inherently understood. I finally saw the original in person when I was 17 years old. I cried.



–  “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali [source]


Something I really like about your work is how you combine modern elements with more traditional art-nouveau influences, like the ‘pixelated backgrounds’ is pieces like ‘Incarnadine’ and ‘Dissonance’. How did you came up with that? Are you inspired by digital work or is it just me who sees pixels in everything square? ;)
It’s funny – I’ve never seen those squares as pixels. When I’m creating a piece, I’m never conscious of any modern influence, and that’s partly why I mainly paint nudes… I don’t want clothing to represent an era, whether modern or classical. To me, they’re just a design element. It developed from a fascination with grid paper and filling in the squares. It’s very relaxing! I don’t really mind that a lot of people see them as pixels, though I’ve been doing it less perhaps because of that.




Speaking of digital, in the FAQ on your website you announce digital work to be added to your portfolio in the near future. Can you tell a little bit about those pieces? Do they resemble your water-coloured pieces for instance?

It’s a work in progress! I’ve taken a digital painting class recently, and I’m trying to get used to working with my tablet, but it may be awhile yet before I’m comfortable sharing what I’ve been working on.


On your website you also mention you dropped your double major in photography to focus solely on your illustrative work. Is photography something you still do?
Unfortunately, it’s not, but I really miss it. I literally dream about the smell of a darkroom. I sold my equipment a while ago when I realized I was just going to keep toting it everywhere we moved and it wouldn’t get used. Hopefully later on in life I’ll have the space to set a darkroom up and find the time to return to it. Right now, it’s just not practical.




You do both commissioned and free work. Do you enjoy working on the commissioned pieces or is it just something you have to do to survive as an independent artist?
Of course, I prefer to do personal/gallery work because it’s on my own terms, but commissioned work is pretty much necessary. Thankfully, I’ve loved most of the projects I’ve been commissioned to do in the past and more often than not, I learn quite a bit from each of them. Sometimes it’s refreshing too, since I have to think in a completely different way than I do with a personal piece.




You have an active online presence: your website is up-to-date and you’re active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and DeviantArt. How important is the internet for you as an artist?
Oh, very important. I’ve only gotten to this point because of the exposure and following I’ve obtained through social networking. I love what the internet has done for artists today since it totally doesn’t matter where you live. As long as you can photograph or scan your artwork and know how to market your work online, your chances of exposing your artwork to people who will buy it and support it are humongous. I spend several hours a day on maintaining my online presence as an artist – I think it has been crucial to what successes I’ve had.





– Some of Kelly’s Instagram photos (cute cat alert!) [source]


One thing I never heard of, seen on your DeviantArt page and now absolutely love: an influence map! The connection between your work and art-nouveau artists like Alphonse Mucha is one I made in my earlier feature of your work too – and not just because of the prominent feature of the powerful, ethereal women in your pieces. Can you tell a bit about how the artists in your influence map influence your work?
Oh totally. It’s a little old – I made it in 2010, but most of those artists are still big influences. I use “influence” in the sense that their work makes my heart stir and inspires me to expand my own abilities and produce better work. For some of them, it’s a style they use – graphic elements, use of design, use of medium, like MacDonald, Mucha, and Toulouse Lautrec. For others, it’s the subject matter and the way they bend reality in interesting ways, like James Jean, Joao Ruas, Tran Nguyen, and Eric Fortune. The rest are a combination of the above. I respect each of them immensely.



– Kelly’s influence map [source]


In the map’s caption you mention you’d love to make an influence map for things and movies too. Could you name a few things and films we would definitely see in those collections?
Hmm. When I wrote that, I think films and music had a much bigger influence on me than they do now. What has been influencing me most lately are old illustrations from artists like Dulac and Rackham as well as concept art books. I’m not sure how much influence podcasts have on me, but I mostly listen to This American Life, Radiolab, TED talks, and art podcasts like Your Dreams Are My Nightmares and Sidecar Nation while I paint. I think I’m at an age now where music doesn’t drive me to create like it used to. Maybe it’s an intellectualism thing… listening to podcasts while I paint keeps the analytical part of my brain focused while the creative side does its thing.




Last but not least: can you recommend a book, movie or artist you’ve enjoyed lately?
I’ll do one of each! When I have a block of time, I’ve been reading through the Fables comics. As far as movie, I’ll actually pick a cartoon – Adventure Time! I love having it on in the background. It’s so goofy and surreal. And artist, the first that comes to mind is JAW Cooper. I am completely in love with her work. She’s been inspiring me lately to try new things too.



– Adventure Time [source]

Thanks for reading! And thanks to Kelly for answering all these questions, your answers are really insightfull :) Have a nice week!

All the images of Kelly’s work are found on her website. The artist portrait photo in the intro graphic is made by Michelle Scott.

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