Tracing the artistry of Kyle T. Webster

By CHRISTINA COOKE
Special to Go Triad
, January 8, 2009

Kyle T. Webster does not take lines lightly. He knows the position, curve and thickness of the marks matter, and he’s not willing to settle for one he doesn’t like. It’s a Friday afternoon, and the Winston-Salem illustrator is working on a cover for Remodeling magazine at his computer. His assignment: to depict the current state of the remodeling industry. On the screen before him, the figure of a contractor strides confidently up the street into a neighborhood, a cap on his head, a clipboard in his hand. “I want him to look happy but not gleeful,” Webster says, drawing, erasing and redrawing the line of the man’s mouth. “Hopefully when it’s done, it’ll produce some feeling, some emotional response from the viewer,” Webster says. “It won’t just be a guy walking through a neighborhood.” Since quitting his full-time graphic design job in September 2006, Webster, 32, has launched a highly successful freelance illustration career. His drawings frequent the covers and pages of publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly and the Utne Reader. In recent weeks, Webster has produced illustrations for articles on winter training in Bicycling magazine, Black Friday in The Washington Post and the presidential election in The Guardian. The figures in his drawings are dynamic; they punch their fists through glass ceilings, thrust their arms up in hoorays, sprint out of burning buildings, kick, leap and dance. “What I do is pretty clean; it’s not grungy or painterly,” Webster says. “For the most part, the line- work is doing the heavy lifting.”

DRAWING LIKE A MADMAN

Growing up, Webster and his twin brother, Collin, often collaborated on the pages of their “Star Wars” coloring books. As Collin crayoned in the robes of Darth Vader and Princess Leia, Kyle added aliens, storm troopers, clouds and buildings to the backgrounds of the scenes.

“As a kid, I always knew that I wanted to be an artist,” he said. Webster was born in New York, but he lived in Pakistan, Singapore, New Jersey, Cyprus and Taiwan between kindergarten and his senior year of high school. He and his brother studied at the international schools where his parents taught and as a result, had access to strong art, music and drama programs. Webster first made money with his artwork during high school in Taiwan, when his friends in a band, Lycanthropy, asked him to create a cover for their album. He drew the members of the band as werewolves and, in exchange, received the equivalent of two weeks’ allowance. “Something clicked for me,” he said. “I realized you can make money at art.” Today, being able to draw for a living is something that Webster says, “I never take for granted.” Michael Ananian, one of Webster’s drawing professors at UNCG, remembers Webster as an innately talented artist. “He can draw like a madman,” Ananian said. “Really, he was the sort of student that caught on so quickly I only had to tell him once about a concept, and he understood it.” During college, Webster focused on fine art, principally drawing human figures from life. “You can tell when you look at his drawings that he knows the structure of the human body and how to knit the various parts together in a convincing way,” Ananian said. “That’s opposed to somebody who is merely copying a picture of the body or a figure from observation.” Webster designed Web sites for an advertising agency in Greensboro for five years after college and then did graphic design work for ShapiroWalker Design in Winston Salem for three. He quit his job, however, after he developed stomach problems, and the doctor blamed stress. Unemployment gave him the “miracle cure” he needed, he said, and opened the door for a career in freelance illustration. Webster’s first instinct was to send his work to national publications. A month after quitting his job, he contacted The New York Times Book Review Art Director Steven Heller, asking him for a critique of his portfolio. Heller told Webster he was not yet good enough to work for big-name publications. “It’s hard to swallow the notion that you’re wasting everyone’s time and you’re not as good as you think you are,” Webster said. But Webster followed Heller’s advice. He spent a year sending his work to smaller publications — mostly weeklies and state and regional magazines — while he improved his style. “The biggest thing I overcame was my own impatience,” he said. “I’m so glad I took the time to work on my stuff until I was able to compare it to other artists on a national stage.”

AT THE DRAWING BOARD

Webster listens to 1930s and 40s radio broadcasts while he draws. He gets especially excited when the “Dragnet” police drama comes on and will sometimes stop conversations to recite show jingles along with the announcers.

Listening to the old-time radio programs puts him in the zone, he said. “It tells my brain, ‘Time to work.’” Webster is a slight man with dark eyebrows and a head shaved bald. He often wears jeans and, at home during the day, socks but no shoes. His office is on the second story of the house he shares with his wife, Sonja, and newborn daughter, Hermione. It’s a light-filled space with hardwood floors and shelves of neatly stacked art books on subjects such as Norman Rockwell, Gustav Klimt and Hellboy. Though Webster sketches ideas in the blank book he keeps open on his desk, he draws final products on his computer screen using an electronic tablet and cordless pen. Having drawn all his life, he does not have to labor over angles, look up pictures for reference or think about how to draw things like heads or hands. He works fast, sometimes producing four to five drawings in a day. “It’s nice, having drawn so much, I just draw stuff,” he said. Webster has a knack for producing celebrity likenesses and can capture Donald Trump’s comb-over and Liv Tyler’s pout with dead-on accuracy. “I like doing that stuff, but I want to be careful not to be pigeonholed,” he said. He prides himself on the originality of his ideas. He recently spent a week trying to come up with a fresh idea for a BusinessWeek story about the bear market’s affect on corporate law firms. “I was just so sick and tired of seeing cliché images for the bad economy, like the Monopoly man pulling out his pockets, broken piggy banks and stuff like that,” he said. He ended up producing an anxious-looking lawyer at a desk in a dark office, the silhouette of a bear shading the lighted door behind him. “Trying to come up with something original was really hard,” he said. Pete Morelewicz has never met Webster in person, but has worked with him more than three years at the art departments of the Washington City Paper, USA Today and currently, Remodeling magazine. “You can throw the guy anything — an entire draft of a story, or just a little nugget, like ‘This is about the psychology of selling nails’ — and he just runs with it,” Morelewicz said. “I try to call him as often as I can without my editor noticing.”

NEW PROJECTS FOR A NEW YEAR

It was in 2008 that national magazines and newspapers started contracting with Webster on a regular basis. This year, he hopes to build momentum with those publications and pursue some projects of his own. Webster recently collaborated with author Andy Horner to produce the first graphic novel in a series of 12 called “Light Children.” The book tells the story of a group of orphaned children filled with light, rather than blood, who live in an underground world. “I spent ages working on it,” Webster said. “That one little book took two years, and that was me working at night to do it.” He recently started another graphic novel of his own, “Catana,” which he describes as “an epic tale of romance and adventure” starring cats in feudal Japan. The protagonist is a cat warrior who returns home after many years to find an evil cat villain terrorizing the village farmers. Webster wants the comic to be cinematic, slow-paced and deliberate, with action that explodes and is over, as opposed to the more violent BAM-POW stories that dominate the market. He hopes his book will appeal to girls as well as boys. “There’s nothing too violent about about sword- play between a bunch of cats,” he said, adding that cats, by nature, will be capable of pulling off cool fighting moves, like hanging from tree branches by their claws and grabbing things with their tails. He hopes to finish the first story by April, in time for a comic convention in Charlotte. “It’s a purely personal project,” he said. “I’m not getting paid for it, so I’m just going to have fun with it.” In both his professional and personal work, Webster is constantly developing his style, especially his use of color. He’s recently discovered he can unify a drawing by outlining the figures with a hue from the drawing’s palette, like navy blue or maroon, rather than black. “You discover things with every new drawing,” he said. “You have happy accidents.” At his computer, Webster redraws the horizon line on the cover of Remodeling magazine, then fiddles with the placement of tree branches in the top right corner. “Now I’m in the right place, and I have to stay here, that’s the big challenge,” he said. “It’s always going to be a game of improvement.” Christina Cooke is a freelance contributor. Contact her at xtinacooke@yahoo.com.

View Kyle T. Webster’s work at the following Web sites:

  • Webster’s Web site: www.kyletwebster.com.
  • Online portfolio of work: www.illoz.com/kyle.
  • Daily figure doodles: www.dailyfigure.blogspot.com.
  • Graphic novel Web site: www.lightchildren.com.
  • Rap-style video about graphic design, search “Original Design Gangsta” on You Tube.

FUN FACTS ABOUT KYLE T. WEBSTER

  • Hobbies: Origami, tennis, playing the saxophone and guitar, dancing with his wife, especially the salsa and rumba.
  • Best card trick: Asking a person to sit on 10 cards, then making three more appear under their buttocks (taught to him by a professional magician).
  • Favorite place to travel: The Tuscany region of Italy.
  • Favorite comic: “The Adventures of Tintin,” a Belgian comic starring a newspaper reporter.
  • Biggest artistic role model: American illustrator Gary Kelley
  • Favorite person to draw: Donald Trump

Read the original on the Triad Style website here.

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