Submit Saturdays: Illustrator Kellen Hatanaka on retaining your personal style when working on commercial projects


16 July 2016
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6 minute read


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Freelance illustrator Kellen Hatanaka lives and works in Toronto, Canada, and has a clean, pared-back style to his colourful and fresh-looking images. Having worked as a designer initially, Kellen now spends the majority of his time building his illustration portfolio as well as working on commissions for clients including BNP Paribas, Absolut Vodka and Reader’s Digest among others. Here he chats to us about how his style has developed over the years, his process and how compromising too much for a client can weaken the work.

How did you start out as an illustrator?

I went to school for illustration, but when I graduated I wasn’t sure that it was something I wanted to pursue. The focus of my programme was heavily on editorial illustration, which I think was the best way to learn, especially for conceptual development, but I didn’t see myself only doing that. At the time I was also interested in design so I ended up working as a designer at an agency. I learned a lot and met some great people through that job, but ultimately working in an agency environment wasn’t for me.

I wanted the opportunity to focus on my own artistic practice, both private and commercial. It was important for me to have the freedom to create work that I was interested in and take on a wide variety of project types including illustration, design, murals, fine art, prints and products.

What is your process when creating an illustration?

I think my process is pretty standard. The first step, and most important part of the process is the conceptual stage. Sometimes the concept comes to me right away, but often this is the most difficult and time-consuming part of the process. 

It’s important to me to approach an assignment in as unique a way as I possibly can. Once the conceptual direction is set I work on some rough sketches to get the subject matter and composition worked out. Depending on the project I will get to work on the computer or start painting, drawing, paper-cutting, etc. In any case the piece usually evolves while I am working on the final.

How would you describe your style?

My style is simplified, bold and graphic. Shape and colour are definitely the focus of my work. I used to try and create super clean pieces, but now I am really interested in lines and shapes with a bit of a “wobble.” When I am drawing characters I like to try and convey their emotion or personality through their body language, which is important because I don’t tend to draw faces.

I think earlier on in my career and in school I had more major influences, but now I would say that my influences are just a collection of anything and everything I see on a daily basis. I find inspiration in art, design, furniture, skateboarding, music, clothing, found objects and other random things that I come across. I was also very fortunate to meet some super talented people in school that I am still very close with today; Adrian Forrow, Markus Uran and Jim Mezei are definitely influential people. Those guys keep me sharp.

How do you adapt your style to suit a client or commercial project?

In the past I used to worry about how my work fitted with a particular client or project, but over the years I have learned that it’s best not to compromise. I think this is important for two reasons. The first is that compromises lead to weaker work. When you try to be something that you are not, you can’t expect to deliver your strongest work. It’s not good for the artist or the client.

Secondly, I decided to work as a freelance artist because I wanted to create work that made me happy and excited. The kind of work you put out into the world is the kind of work that you should expect to get. Earlier on in my career it was important to get as much work as I could. Now it is much more important to me to get the kind of work and clients that I want to have. I won’t put a bottle of liquor in a piece for a more conservative client, but all in all my approach stays the same whether it’s for a corporate client or a beer festival.

Can you tell us more about the series Sport? What aesthetic choices did you make for the series?

The Sport series came out of my love and interest in sports. Beyond just playing and watching sports, I have always been fascinated by the mythology of sports. The logos, uniforms, stories and players all informed the work in this series. While I was working on the Sport series, I was very interested in creating pieces with a focus on clean, graphic shapes.  My goal was to simplify the subject matter as far as I possibly could before the pieces became abstract.

A lot of the work was done on the computer and I was taking advantage of the ability to create extremely clean shapes and lines. Since then I have become increasingly adverse to the precision of the computer. I prefer the loose, organic feel of the pieces that I create with painting, paper cuts, etc. so my work has evolved. I still focus on simplified, bold shapes, but now I consciously execute those shapes in a more crude, organic manner.

What did you enjoy about creating a website for your illustration work?

It’s definitely rewarding to see all of your work together in one place. I often forget about projects I’ve done in the past so it’s nice to go back and rediscover those pieces. I also really appreciated how easy it was to get the type of website I wanted using Squarespace. 

What was your process when designing your site?

Most of the time was probably spent gathering and curating my work. My goal from the start was to have a clean, minimal site that didn’t distract from my work so there wasn’t a whole lot of design that went into it. The pieces I selected for the site are my favourite pieces and one’s that reflect the type of work that I would like to continue to get. I tried to keep the amount of work to a minimum while still communicating to potential clients all of the disciplines that I work in.

What do you have planned for the rest of the year?

I’ve got a few mural projects coming up which I am excited about. I’ve spent a lot of time lately on digital-based client projects so I am looking forward to taking some time to focus on my own studio practice. I will be working on some paintings and sculptures over the next year and hope to grow my gallery presence.

If you host your work on a Squarespace website and would like to be featured as part of this series of articles, please head here to learn more and get in touch.

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About the Author

Rebecca Fulleylove

Rebecca became staff writer at It’s Nice That in March 2016 before leaving the company at the end of 2017. Before joining the company full time she worked with us on a freelance basis many times, as well as stints at Macmillan Publishers, D&AD, Dazed and frieze.

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