Kirsten Sims is an illustrator based in Stellenbosch painting charming scenes in which her signature, long-limbed, offbeat characters go swimming, visit a circus, site-see or throw lavish dinner parties and picnics that you wish you could attend. Recently Kirsten collaborated with Anthropologie on an illustrated 2015 calendar and created the cover for the summer issue of Ecotone journal. Currently, she is working on a children’s book about a polar bear called Henry.
In addition to her freelance career, Kirsten exhibits work, teaches illustration to high school students, and is completing her Honours degree in Illustration at Stellenbosch University.
How would you define your illustration style and how have you developed this over time?
I would define my style as gestural, theatrical and exaggerated. I’ve been drawing for as far back as I can remember; I started creating these stick characters years before I knew what illustration was. They were these funny long limbed, long necked women who looked as if they belonged to a particular story but always stood alone.
At the Stellenbosch Academy I had a lecturer who really helped me develop a sense of storytelling in my work which gave those characters more of a context. At the same time I learnt more about collage and gouache – two mediums that I have come to love. I’ve given myself a lot of time to hone my style and find my voice.
The thing I am constantly working on is the art of capturing gesture with as few brush strokes as possible – it’s exciting when I get it right.
What role does storytelling play in your work?
I sometimes feel like a stage director – I create the backdrop, set the mood and tone and then introduce the actors. Actors in my stories aren’t always people – trees and houses and boats and dogs make great characters too. Sometimes the story happens accidentally and other times I am quite deliberate. It’s fun for me to see how much of a story I can tell in a single image, and once I combine the image with its title, what new dynamics are added. I guess that is where I am more an illustrator than a painter – the text is very important to me.
Where do you look for daily inspiration?
Obviously my own personal experiences and observations play a big role but I also watch a LOT of movies and read a lot. I’m sure everything I watch and read has an influence on me.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I enjoy being dramatic on paper. I enjoy creating new images. I enjoy making people smile. I enjoy the freedom to be a little critical and outspoken about the world and all its silliness…
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and triumphs you’ve enjoyed in your career so far?
It was my choice after graduating to find ways to keep doing what I loved – at the time that meant not working in an agency, which was a bit of a risky move. So I became a part time illustration teacher to stay alive while I gave myself time to experiment. Working for myself is a choice and a challenge every single day. Above doing the actual creative work I have to be my own PA, marketer and accountant. At the moment it is a challenge just to juggle my way through a day as I am doing a postgrad in illustration, teaching part time, freelancing, exhibiting and working on personal projects. But it will be a ‘triumph’ when I have my postgrad degree knowing that I achieved it despite having only a quarter of the available time.
I suppose being able to share my pictures with people is a vital part of being an illustrator, so every time I can exhibit my work or have my stuff featured in blogs or magazines that is a triumph.
What have you learned along the way?
As someone who works from home I’ve learned that creating structure for myself is really important. Getting up, making my bed, eating breakfast, getting dressed and then trying to structure my work hours. Otherwise I so easily get sucked into a cycle of strange patterns. That doesn’t mean I don’t still love working at night when the world is dark and strange, I’ve just realised that even the tiniest bit of routine is actually really important for creativity. I’ve learnt that music can make just about any project bearable and most importantly I’ve learned to respect what I do enough to say no to people who expect me to work for free.
Beauty is…found in strange, absurd and mundane places.
Powerful is…being able to choose what I want to do every day and how I want to spend my time. A lot of people don’t have that kind of freedom.
When do you feel most powerful?
When I can express myself. It is greatly empowering to be able to express and share my opinions through art. It can be something as serious as a whale being caught in a fishing-net or as silly as a peanut butter flood or a date with humpty dumpty. It doesn’t really even matter what the pictures are about, the mere fact that I can perform my own personal dramas on paper and share them with other people is empowering.
Where do you visualise yourself being in the future? // Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
Wherever I am 10 years from now, I hope I’ll have a few picture books published by then…my own little cottage, a proper studio, a dog, and an unlimited travel budget.