Friday, May 22, 2009

Interview with an Illustrator: Carmen Keys

The first in a series of wonderful artists that deserve recognition for all of their talent and hard work. I don't remember how I first found freelance artist, Carmen Keys....through Illustration Friday maybe. Following her blog, I often have moments where I can't help but thunk my head and exclaim, "no way!" "how in the world did she do that!" Carmen's work is soft and beautiful and peaceful. She mainly uses watercolor (my archnemesis!) and her paintings are sometimes so intricate and detailed I have no idea how she finishes them so fast. Click on the artwork to see it bigger or find out how you could purchase it.

Q: How did you get started as an artist/illustrator?
I have wanted to be an artist/illustrator since childhood, but never had the courage to step out and do it seriously until about 4 years ago when I found myself in a position where I badly needed a way to earn money. I knew that other people sold their art online, such as through Ebay and websites – I finally got desperate enough to get over my fear of selling my artwork and jumped in! I started by selling itty bitty ACEO paintings of fairies and fantasy on Ebay. Out of the necessity to earn money I learned to paint like crazy, and ever since then I've been painting hundreds of pieces every year. At the time I had a blog on LiveJournal (the archives are still there) and that is where I learned the wonders of networking! I met many artists there that are still my friends, and we look out for each other in this wacky business. I don't know what I'd do without them! Though most of my art friends are fantasy/fairy artists since that is where I started, their support and friendship are invaluable still as I've transitioned into children's illustration.

Q: How long have you been doing this?
Like a lot of artists, I've been drawing since I could hold a pencil – however, I've only really been painting for about the past 4 years. My mom and brother are artists, too, and we kids got to play with all my mom's good art supplies from the beginning! I owe a lot to her for that, even though we ruined a lot of markers and brushes. ;) She also was (and is) very adamant that children should not stifle their imaginations, encouraging us to use them more!

Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
There is no “typical” in my day, ha ha... I have discovered that sticking to a set schedule/routine just does not work for me, no matter how I've tried to fight it. I wish it did, but it doesn't; I am learning to just accept this and roll with it, as long as the work gets done on time! The creative part of my business (drawing and painting) happens best in the evenings to late night, so I try to do the more tedious office-y tasks during the daytime. Lots of web and computer work, post office, things like that. I feel more physical during the day, so I also let myself play in the garden on sunny days as I wish. Sometimes a painting will be so consuming that I will do it all day despite my dusk-loving creative muse. Lastly, all of the things I've just said are subject to change on any given day! Deadlines are good, schedules are bad. For me at least.

Q: Who/what inspires you creatively?
First and foremost, God. This is His business, not mine. I love innocence and all things childlike and gnomish, and I love being out in God's creation. His great and inexpressible beauty is something I long to stay close to. Those things really drive my work, and I want to make a little respite from the trials of this world for both adults and children. All of the beautiful illustrations and storybooks I loved as a child really helped me in this way. Looking at other artists' wonderful work is usually a good way to get me fired up for some drawing and painting.
Music is also a huge part of my creative process, as it is my other main vehicle for creative expression. I write it/sing/play instruments and I certainly love listening to other peoples' music. My brother is a very gifted musician/composer, and listening to his work is great fuel for creative fire!

Q: How has your art/style changed since you first started?
A: It has changed a fair bit, especially in subject matter. When I started I was an animistic pagan, so did a lot of fairy, mythology, goddess, and pagan type subjects in a rather Art Nouveau style with heavy ink outlines and bright, soft colored pencil. Three years ago I met Jesus, which has utterly rocked my world and just exploded my ideas about everything. My art began to change with me, switching to themes of innocence and childhood. My work also became much softer and looser, mostly all in watercolor. I love acrylics and oils too, they're just a lot more work! I still paint fairies from time to time, but I have felt called mainly to paint through the eyes of childhood (which can certainly include a fairy or two!). The transition from fantasy art to children's illustration was an inevitable thing for me.

Q: What are three pieces of advice you would give to someone just starting out?
A: 1) PAINT. (Or whatever you do to make art). Do it all the time. Set quotas, it doesn't all have to be amazing. I end up with plenty of mediocre and even bad paintings scattered amongst the good ones, and I go through artist's block ridiculously often. Doesn't matter, keep painting. If you get used to this, meeting deadlines even when you don't feel inspired becomes far less of a problem. If you want to do art as a profession, there are going to be plenty of times when inspiration isn't there (unless you are very unusual and lucky, then rejoice!), yet it still must be done. The more you paint the more you want to paint and get better at painting, and the less you fear painting -- at least for me. Also your unique style/voice will emerge naturally from this.
2) Make friends! The single most important thing in my art business other than doing the actual art is the networking with people. Almost every single licensing contract I have has come through knowing my circle of artist friends. Most people are more than willing to help set you in the right directions. We protect eachother against copyright violations and steer eachother through the murky and sometimes dangerous waters of contracts. I made friends primarily through my old LiveJournal blog when I started out, which also led me to various artist forum communities. Nowadays I make friends through my Blogspot blog, Illustration Friday, and recently Twitter. Some people like Facebook, MySpace, etc or may prefer face-to-face in their own community, people from SCBWI – find something you like and use it! Go forth and meet people! I'm shy/introverted and I did it, don't let that stop you!
3) Have a way for people to keep up with what you are doing, like a website and/or blog and be consistent with it. It's much more fascinating for people to see the human being behind the paintings and illustrations. Post sketches, works in progress, tutorials, pictures from your life, talk about your process, your life, etc. People will want to know more! This phenomenon still amazes me, but it is true. I know I for one end up liking an artist's work many times more than I already did just by knowing about who they are.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the future (artistically or otherwise)?
Many book publications with my illustrations in them, I hope! Getting my business in a place that it will support me without being always driven and nervous about the next set of bills (thus creating lots of lovely artist's block). A little less hand-to-mouth, please. Mostly I just want to listen to what God wants me to do with it and follow.

Q: What's one thing you've always wanted to do?
I would so love to be able to write my own little stories for my illustrations. I am incredibly shy and fearful about doing this, but there it is. My brother seems to just be able to write fantastic stuff without sweating it too much, but I don't have his confidence in that area!

Q: If you could meet anyone living or dead, who would it be & why?
A: Wow, that's kind of a tough question. I'm going to say Beatrix Potter, as I identify with her a lot. Besides loving her illustrations. I love that she created an entire little world to keep her company in a very introverted childhood, what a great imagination! And such perseverance despite obstacles. I'll bet she might be a “kindred spirit”.


Thanks so much, Carmen! Go and leave her a note on her bloggy if you LOVE her work as much as I do. or visit her Etsy and ArtWanted shops and personal website.


  1. Thank you so much for the interview, Elena!! :)

  2. What a wonderful interview!
    I really enjoyed reading it through.

  3. That Alice painting is gorgeous, Carmen. Many blessings on your future book projects - God has given you quite a talent.
    Thanks for the link to my blog in your sidebar, Elena.