Artist Interview: Kirsti Wakelin

The artist interview series continues this week with my good friend, Kirsti Wakelin. She is a talented graphic designer, an illustrator of numerous children’s books, and is highly skilled at drawing and painting.

Read on for more about Kirsti and her work.

Painting at Yesnaby, Orkney. (photo by Darren Carcary)

Tell us about yourself:
I am a designer and illustrator. I dabble in a few different disciplines – a product of the times I guess, and my desire to constantly try new things. I studied graphic design and illustration and have worked as both for the past 14 years. My work within those fields is pretty diverse as well.

How long have you been an artist and how did you become one?
I have always been artistically inclined. My grandmother is a painter, so my artistic inclinations were nurtured and supported from the beginning. I drew constantly as a kid. And I had (and still have) a keen interest in nature and animals so that was my primary subject matter–usually animals chasing down and eating other animals. Lots of foxes and wolves, and terrified and bloodied deer. I liked to keep it real.

Even with that set-up, I didn’t set out for a career in the arts, however. I didn’t actually know there were options for arts-based careers other than being a painter–which is weird and a little dull on my part because I had no end of access to illustrated books. But I was aware that being a painter wasn’t the easiest living, so I focused my attention on sciences in high school, intending to go to vet school or into forensic entomology. Science, death and insects were a killer combination for me at the time. But first year college found me recovering from academic burnout, and I accidentally walked past the studio arts room when I went in to pick my courses, and that proved to be irresistible. After a year of mucking around with general arts classes, I was accepted into the Graphic Design and Illustration Program at Capilano College (now IDEA at Capilano University), not even knowing what graphic design was.

picture book illustration | rough drawing & final illustration detail

Do you work full time or part time as an artist? If part-time, what do you do to support yourself?
Depends on what you define as an artist. I don’t identify as being an artist. Or at least, I’m uncomfortable with the term on some level, in relation to myself. Not to say illustration isn’t art – actually, I’m not going to open up the art vs illustration debate. But I don’t feel that doing it makes me an artist. And I don’t really think the work I’m doing qualifies yet. Also, I think it’s that the work I’ve been doing most recently is client-driven–while the decisions I make are my own, they are influenced to different extent by outside forces–so I think I’m reserving the term artist for (hopefully) when I’m able to make work that is purely driven by my own whim, and feels legitimate enough (to myself) to be defined that way. I’m fully aware that I probably contradicted my earlier statement. Also, I might change my mind about the whole thing next week, or next month, or next time we talk. I don’t actually care much about the solidity of definitions, I just go by what feels right at the time.

Identity design work-in-progress.

Short, uncomplicated answer: I support myself with design and illustration work. And I support my picture book illustration work with my design work and my more commercial illustration. I paint when I have the time (rarely). I do sell pieces sometimes, but never intentionally. I rarely, if ever, exhibit. I’d like to change the selling part. But first I need more time to make the work…and I’m working on that.

What are some of your favorite materials to work with?
I love a 3B pencil and a non-precious sketchbook. I adore paint. Watercolour and I have a love hate relationship. I go back to it constantly even though I find my inability to work well in it incredibly demoralising. When I travel, I try to do as many on location paintings as I can. And I dream of having the (financially comfortable) time to get back into a nice, big oil painting so I can putter endlessly. A have at least two series in mind I’d like to take a crack at.

Old and St Andrew's Church, Montrose | on location, Montrose, Scotland, watercolour, 7"x10"

Right now, I’m really enjoying digital work as well–though with a real connection to traditional mediums; I don’t like digital-looking digital stuff, I just don’t feel a connection to it. I’m working on a picture book that I’m colouring in Photoshop. It’s opening up all sorts of possibilities that are closed to me through the nature of certain mediums, and my inabilities to bend them to my will. And it’s taught me a lot about colour in a very short time. At the same time, it’s making me want to get back into using paint again. Even though it’s digital, there are still happy accidents. And I find that pretty delightful.

Reflection | oil on canvas, 4'x4'

Tell us a bit about the process you go through to create your work:
Rumination. Research. Procrastination. First Stab. Creative dismay. More rumination (could be mistaken for procrastination). Diving in for real. A series of creative crisis. Breakthrough. A lot hours in the studio. A lot of missed weekends and sunny days. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Conclusion. Sometimes, celebration.

Where do you find inspiration for your work, and what keeps you motivated?
There are very few things I look at without thinking about how I’d go about drawing it, or mixing that colour, where that reflected light is coming from, or trying to commit the image to memory for later use. I’m motivated by the frustrations I have with my inability to draw and paint how I want to, which is also the same thing I’ve found paralysing in the past – though, I think now that I’m older, I’m over that. I’m now totally ok with knowing I still have about 850 crappy paintings or drawings to make before I turn out something good. I’m motivated by ticking time. I feel like I’m getting to the party kind of late, and I need to catch up. I’m also motivated by knowing that this is it, this is the only thing I’m half good at, so I better put my head down and keep going. Commit.

Other than art, what are you particularly excited about right now?
I’m writing part of this from Kaua’i, so in the immediate picture, I’m pretty excited about waking up in the morning (hopefully to some dry weather) and taking my morning coffee down to the beach as I have done for the past week, to watch the humpback whales, and, if I’m lucky, see the large pod of spinner dolphins that have been feeding just off the beach near the place I’m staying. I’m also super excited to get back into the water and do some snorkelling. I’m a bit obsessed with the snorkelling – it’s been pretty poor weather here (thunder, lightening, 80km winds, torrential downpours, flash flood warnings, highway closures, road wash-outs, palm fronds falling like missiles) so it’s not super warm but I’ll stay out in the water watching fish until I’m shaking with cold. They’re just so incredibly beautiful and varied and mesmerising. Everywhere you look, there’s something different.

Anole, photographed in the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kaua'i.

In the big picture, I’m pretty excited to see the light at the end of the tunnel of a very long project that has consumed my life for the last few years. I’m excited about getting my evenings and weekends back. Having the time to get outside in the sun and explore my city again. To have free time. Catch up with friends and family. Get active. Putter in the garden. Do a bit of travelling. Purge my closet, clean my studio. Rethink work and what I’ve been working at.

Where can people find you both online and offline:
A general collection of work is at
My book illustration is here:

One thought on “Artist Interview: Kirsti Wakelin

  1. filmgoerjuan says:

    Great series, Rachael. I didn’t know she was headed towards the Sciences before switching over to the Arts! Although I’m sure she would excel at anything she put her mind too, I’m glad she chose a path that allows her to share her creativity and expression with us.

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