Illustrator Kathryn Rathke’s Iconic Illustrative Icons

Bob Dylanby Lynn S. Schwebach

Observing my favorite artists’ works on the Web soaks up hours of my time. I rationalize this pastime as “research.” I also love typing in long-tail searches such as current popular illustrators working today to retrieve hundreds of links where I find my favorite illustrations – and illustrators.

While researching a few weeks ago, I came across some illustrations that knocked me flat – those with Kathryn Rathke’s name appearing beneath the images. Her portraits, especially of authors and musicians, capture the look and personality of our most celebrated cultural icons.

I found my breath – and legs – and immediately asked Rathke for an interview. She was kind enough to grant me a few minutes of her time by answering questions through e-mail.

Tell me about yourself. When did you start drawing? Have you always loved art? Did you always want to be an illustrator? Where did you go to school/college?

I have always drawn. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I took as many life-drawing classes as possible. I had no idea where it would lead, but I knew I was good at it, and I loved it. I did not actually set out to be an illustrator though. After graduating I switched gears dramatically and got an MFA in set design. I did keep drawing, however. While pursuing my MFA, I was also an art director at the University’s newspaper. I moved to Seattle and became a professional set designer, but it was never a great fit. When friends from the newspaper days moved out here and started the alternative weekly The Stranger, I happily contributed illustrations whenever I could. Eventually I realized that I preferred drawing to set design, and I segued into full-time illustration – a much better fit.

Why did you become an illustrator over a fine arts artist or a graphic artist?

I like an assignment, not a blank canvas. That was part of the draw to set design – having a script with which to work. I do miss the excuse to throw myself into Shakespeare. But I will never be a fine artist, and I haven’t the training or design sense for graphic arts.

Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett

What is your creative process? What software do you use? What hours do you work? Do you work at home?

I sketch in Adobe Photoshop and finish in Illustrator. I have a home studio, and I work obsessive hours. Sometimes I take a tablet and laptop to friends’ apartments to work in a communal setting.

What equipment do you use?

I use a small Wacom Cintiq and an Apple iMac.

Who are your favorite illustrators? 

Al Hirschfeld, Tom Bachtell, Christoph Niemann, Gluyas Williams, William Steig, Arthur Rackham, Gwynedd Hudson

Who or what inspires you?

German theater (Achim Freyer); 60s Polish posters

How do you feel about the “business” of illustration today?  What does it take to be a successful illustrator? 

Joan Didion
Joan Didion

Portraits are my niche or specialty. I have no idea how more general-content illustrators make it! Work obsessively.

Do you have a “bucket list” of things you want to do or see? If so, what are they?

No, not really. I used to want to be Achim Freyer, but you need a collaborative team that is crazy and German – not an easy find in Seattle. So I try to stay creative and interested in life. That may sound small but it is a big challenge, especially when you work by yourself.

What is something about yourself that no one knows?

I can’t tell you – then it would not be unknown!

If you could go anywhere in the world for one month, where would it be? And why?

I would live in Berlin where I would be asked to create freaky masks for serious, thrilling theater.

See more about Rathke and her illustrations at Kathryn Rathke.

Links to Rathke’s favorite illustrators: Al Hirschfeld  Tom Bachtell  Christoph Niemann Gluyas Williams  William Steig Arthur Rackham Gwynedd Hudson 

To see some of my illustrations and paintings, visit Schwebach Arts, and my Etsy shop.

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