Jenny Kessler, is an East Coast illustrator and graphic designer. She creates surface designs, hand-lettered illustrations, and visual branding for theater companies, art galleries, game designers and the like. In her work, she has a fondness for mid-century stylings, bold lettering, and bright color palettes, influenced by a love of printmaking and vintage imagery. She has recently graduated with a Masters of Art from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore; due to the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, a DIY ceremony was held for her in her bedroom.
Jenny’s college career began in theater at Fordham University in New York. It was there, she studied as a costume designer for four years. Long hours, lots of hauling costumes across the city, and hardly any drawing, she decided it wasn’t for her. She said, “Most of the creative energy of a costume designer is put towards shopping, building costumes, and tailoring/mending.” Illustration continued to call to her, so Jenny switched gears and applied and got accepted to graduate school where she immersed herself in a colorful new world. “They (MICA) had an impressive illustration program with an excellent record of successful alumni. Plus, they had a new, one-year MA illustration program that would be much more affordable than the two to three-year programs I was considering. It all clicked together.” She packed her bags and moved to Maryland for a year.
It’s this spark of determination, her willingness to challenge herself, to create a new destiny that shines through her ever-evolving work. Jenny’s work graces our cover this Fall and we were lucky to chat with her via email to discuss her creative process, her goals, and a secret love for Pirates of the Caribbean.
Tell us a bit about yourself, what type of art you love, what your goals as an artist are.
Hi! I’m Jenny Kessler, an illustrator and designer based in the megapolis that is the East Coast (As you read this, I am likely somewhere between Philadelphia and New York). I grew up outside of Boston, studied in New York and Baltimore, and spent most of my early 20’s in beautiful West Philly.
I’m a bit of a nerd, so I’m fascinated by all types of art and art practices. For me, it’s important to see art in museums or spaces that give context to the work, so a lot of my favorite artworks are tied to certain locations. My first love was the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, but other favorites include l’Orangerie in Paris and Dia:Beacon in Beacon, New York. For my own work, I’m drawn to bright color palettes and sharp compositional choices, stuff a lot of the Pop artists were doing in the mid-20th century. I’ve been lucky that there’s been a number of excellent exhibits on Pop art and I’ve been able to see a lot of those works in person!
My big-time art dream is to work as a freelance illustrator and be my own boss. I would love to make work like gig posters for bands and musicians, custom pattern designs for fashion designers, murals, book covers, and little animations and video games. Someday I hope to have a great big studio in the desert where all my friends can come visit.
What are you currently fascinated by and how does it feed your work?
During my final semester in graduate school, I became obsessed with midcentury illustration and lettering. The aesthetic from this period is quite bold and graphic and the artists of this time were making satisfying choices about how shapes and colors fit together.
This current fascination is related to a newfound appreciation for printmaking, specifically risography and screen printing. These printing techniques have very structured approaches to creating palettes, which is done one color at a time. This forces printmakers to be smart about how they combine a few colors to create a wide array of hues.
Though I consider myself an illustrator, I also love graphic design and have the desire for every detail of an image to “click” together and make sense. I’ve found a lot of inspiration in these midcentury stylings, particularly in my process of building a color palette from a limited set of choices.
How would you describe your approach to art and graphic design?
My approach is to always stay curious! Making art is time-consuming and frustrating, so for me it’s important to pick subject matter that will keep me invested for long stretches of time. I have found myself in the middle of a project and felt completely uninspired and bored by my work, at which point I have to take a step back to rediscover what about the project excites me.
I have also created a pretty rigorous process for art-making, with clear phases, materials and timeframes that I use every time I create a new piece. I find that having a methodical technique allows for moments of discovery and surprise, what Corita Kent calls the “X quantities.” Basically, I’ve set up the boundaries of a sand box that I can play in.
Who or what has been your biggest influence as an artist?
That’s a hard question to answer! My interests are constantly changing, and so my influences and inspirations are in flux as well. I can, however, tell you my very first art hero was the one and only Mr. Eric Carle. I absolutely adored his books as a kid. I had a VHS tape of five animated Carle stories, and all I wanted to do was leap into the TV set and live in that world.
Eric Carle’s illustrations taught me at a young age about different ways of seeing. You can look at a caterpillar and see a little, squirmy, gross creature. Or you can see a magnificently fat, joyous, lovable creature. It’s in the hands of the artist to make those choices about color, shape, and composition that convey a certain “spirit” or feeling about the subject matter.
What are you passionate about, besides your work?
I spent a lot of my teenage years obsessed with projecting a high-brow persona to seem cool and sophisticated. If you asked me my favorite movie at the age of 16, I would have said Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. A great movie, to be sure, but one that I mentioned solely to sound fancy and artful. I wouldn’t mention publicly that I had seen Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End three times in theaters.
As I’ve gotten older and tried to worry less about seeming “cool,” I developed a genuine love and appreciation for pop culture. All that teen energy that’s been pent up since those early hipster days has been released with a fury! To be specific, I have become completely consumed by action movies, Carly Rae Jepsen, and neon pink, although I will still sit down for a viewing from The Criterion Collection every now and then.
What are your preferred mediums for making art (computer, pencil, crayons? etc.).What programs/apps do you enjoy using for making art...or do you prefer the old fashioned paper and pencil way?
I start with ye olde pencil and sketchbook to get out lots of ideas and try every possible concept I can imagine: usually filling out 3-4 pages with roughly 6-10 sketches on each page. I’ll also scribble little notes and ideas to myself. You never quite know when inspiration will strike, so sometimes I’ll be cooking or hanging out and be struck with a new idea or a solution to a problem, and I’ll run to my desk and try to find a piece of paper to write it down.
After that initial phase, I will do 2-3 slightly more refined sketches (still with pencil on paper). If I’m working with a client, I will send along these sketches as a first pass at the final illustration. Once we’ve decided on a direction, I’ll take a photo of the sketch with my iPad and do most of the illustrating, coloring, and finalizing work in Procreate and Photoshop.
I really like work digitally for a couple of reasons: firstly, it allows you iterate many versions of an illustration to show a client but keep all your versions in one neat file. If you’ve hand-painted an illustration and the client comes back with a response like: “I love it, but can you make the whole thing orange?” you’re going to have to do the dang thing all over again! Working digitally also allows you to iterate in real time. You can move things around an image, and if you hate the result, you can go right back to the original position.
That being said, I like to start with the sketchbook because I find it a lot easier to be messy and quick for the sake of brainstorming. Drawing on an iPad doesn’t feel conducive to jotting down ideas. There have also been instances where creating parts of an illustration are easier with traditional materials. For example, anything that has watercolor or gouache is much easier to do with paint and scan than trying to capture that recognizable texture via digital brush.
➛ Jenny Kessler’s career is off and running. She is currently living and working in Philadelphia (possibly New York) freelancing for clients and looking for an internship. Her dream is to work as a freelance illustrator and be her own boss. “I would love to make work like: gig posters for bands and musicians, custom pattern designs for fashion designers, murals, book covers, and little animations and flash games.” Jenny’s work is bold and bright, just like her future.