Painting, illustrating and designning with Kellen Hatanaka

Painter, illustrator, and designer Kellen Hatanaka creates artwork that is an amalgamation of his many creative pathways, using elements of all three to create his individual style. Not so unlike the digital illustrations created on a computer program, his graphic paintings make use of blocks of color and hard lines. These exacting angles appear as though they are cut from collage, instead of built up in the compositions of the artist’s bold paintings. With a background creating editorial illustrations and commercial work, Hatanaka has delved head first into his practice as a painter creating large-scale paintings as well as the occasional mural.

Hatanaka’s work shows us an energetic world of informed by a fusion of interests and artistic avenues, coming together in visually unexpected and wonderful ways. This jack-of-all-trades artist has not only worked on illustration projects for children’s books along with his own practice, but has authored several books as well. Currently living and working in Toronto, Canada, the artist tells us about his biggest motivators in life and how he finds a balance between his personal and commercial work.

AMM: Have you always considered yourself an artist? Did you grow up in a creative environment, or one that was supportive of your creative interests?

KH: No, I haven’t always considered myself an artist, but I’ve always had a keen interest in visual arts. I grew up in a very supportive environment and my parents really encouraged me to pursue all of my creative interests including art and music. They were the ones that introduced me to the idea of going to art school.

AMM: Tell us a bit about getting your start as an artist and designer. Did you study design or studio art? What inspired you to pursue a commercial design avenue in your career?

KH: I majored in illustration at university. The program was geared towards editorial illustration so there was a heavy emphasis on conceptual thinking, but not much focus around design. That’s something I picked up on my own because I had an interest in it. When I graduated I wasn’t sure that editorial illustration was something I was really passionate about, so I worked as a designer at an ad agency before deciding to go out on my own and focus more on my illustration work. Up until a few years ago I hadn’t given much thought to having a fine art practice, but when my wife and I moved out of the city I rented a great studio space and it’s given me the opportunity to paint more often and at a much larger scale. Now I feel like I am at another crossroads in my career where I am slowly trying to shift the focus of my practice from illustration towards painting and sculpture.

I think initially, like many people, I was pulled towards commercial art and design because it’s often seen as a practical application of art and a “safer” direction as far as having a career. I think that’s probably why I ended up in the illustration program rather than in painting. Even though I am really passionate about pursuing fine art now, I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to work commercially as well. The thing I enjoy most about it is the problem solving and collaborating with clients. I don’t think I’ll ever fully give up one aspect of my practice for the other.

AMM: You create artwork through painting, murals, and illustrations. Do you consider one of these to be your primary practice, or do all of these creative avenues feed into and influence one another?

KH: I think at the moment illustration is my primary practice because it’s what I am best known for, but all of the avenues of my work influence each other even if it’s in an indirect way. Often times the restrictions of a client brief will push me to work in a slightly different way than I am used to and that might inspire something new in my studio work. Other times I’ll try and bring something to a commercial project that I have been experimenting with in my personal work. The variety of work that I get to do is really important to my overall practice. It keeps things fresh and exciting.

AMM: Do you create your work digitally, through physical methods, or perhaps a mixture of both?

KH: I use both digital and physical methods in my work. Almost all of my illustration/commercial work is digital, but that could change in the future. I also like to sketch for paintings on the computer. I don’t have a tablet or anything like that, I just draw with my mouse, which can be rudimentary and difficult at times, but I like the loss of control and raw results it produces. The lines and shapes I get by using this method are very different from the natural stoke of a brush, which is smoother and more organic. By trying to mimic my computer drawings I find the paintings end up with a more interesting and unique quality to them.

AMM: How do you balance your commercial, editorial illustrations with your personal artistic practice? What are the benefits and challenges that come along with this balance?

KH: Finding a balance between my commercial and personal work is definitely a challenge and constant work in progress. My commercial work is kind of like my day job. I feel very lucky to be able to have a job that is so directly related to my art, but it can make it tricky to find time to focus on my personal stuff. Since I’m doing creative work for clients all the time it’s easy to feel burnt out and tempted to turn off that part of my brain at the end of the day. Lately, I’ve been much more proactive in scheduling time for personal work. I was recently awarded a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, which has helped me tremendously in terms of being able to focus on my art career.

AMM: Tell us about your work making children’s books. I understand you write them as well as illustrate them?

KH: Right around the time I left my job in advertising I was very fortunate to receive my first book deal. It was called “Work: An Occupational ABC.” I had never planned to pursue children’s books, but a series of very fortunate circumstances landed my work in front of my publisher and the rest is history. I wrote and illustrated “Work” and also a follow up called “Drive: A Look at Roadside Opposites”, although being concept books the writing in both was quite minimal. The third book I illustrated is called “Tokyo Digs a Garden.” This was my first full storybook and I was very lucky to be able to work with the author, Jon-Erik Lappano. It’s really rewarding putting these projects out and seeing how kids react to and interpret them. It’s especially exciting for me now, as I just recently became a father.

AMM: Is there anyone in your life that gives you inspiration or motivation?

KH: Yes, definitely. First and foremost my wife inspires and motivates me every day to do my best work and be a better person. She’s the most incredible person and I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. She was the one that encouraged me to take the leap and leave my job in advertising even though it meant jumping into uncertainty.

I am also very fortunate to have a group of extremely talented friends that keep me motivated. Markus Uran, who is a very talented designer and runs the clothing and home goods brand, Metsa Design, and Adrian Forrow and Jim Mezei who are both incredible artists and illustrators. Also Isaac Watamaniuk who is a great painter and runs an awesome brand called Love Skateboards.

AMM: What is your favorite place to go in Toronto to view art?

KH: The AGO and Gardiner Museum are great. The Textile Museum of Canada is cool and the Museum of Contemporary Art just re-opened in a brand new space, which I am looking forward to checking out.

AMM: Tell us about an illustration or design project you recently worked on that you found particularly exciting.

KH: Recently I worked with the design studio 7D8 on 3 paintings to be included in the 2017/2018 Utah Jazz yearbook they produced. I really enjoyed the project because the subject matter of basketball is right up my alley, it was one of the first painted illustrations I have produced for a client and the overall design and production of the book is beautiful, so it was exciting to contribute something to it.

I also just released a limited edition print with Victory Journal of my painting entitled “The Champ Ain’t Here.” I’ve been a fan of the publication for a very long time so it was very exciting to work with them on this edition. It’s also the first time I had a painting reproduced as a screen print. It ended up being printed in 18 colours and it was really cool to see how it all came together. The printer, Serge Lowrider, did an amazing job.

AMM: What is next for you? Do you have anything coming up that you would like to share with our readers?

KH: Right now I’m really focused on painting a lot more and creating work with my grant. I am also going to be in a group show entitled “EIGHT”curated by Jeroen Smeets at Line Dot gallery in Chicago opening in November.

Find out more about the artist: www.kellenhatanaka.com

Interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Magazine.