Kathryn Rathke Illustration Essay

by 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.

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? 

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 BachtellChristoph Niemann Gluyas WilliamsWilliam Steig Arthur RackhamGwynedd Hudson 

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

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Kathryn Rathke


I am a full-time illustrator based in Seattle. I see each new illustration job as a unique challenge: a puzzle that combines representation with just the right quality of line. I find myself with more and more portrait commissions these days, but I also love drawing animals, flora: really just about anything with organic substance!

A few of my favorite and most notable commissions:

- columnist portraits for Newsweek/Daily Beast

- the opening and closing credits for Warner Bro's 2006 Charlotte's Web

- the new Wendy (in conjunction with the team at Tesser Ad agency)

- the poster art for Todd Solondz's Palindromes.

- all the regular contributions I make to Intelligent Life Magazine (cultural sister to the Economist, and my absolute favorite magazine!)

- further clients:  NY Observer (covers), Vanity Fair (editorial), TimeOut NY (editorial), The Evening Standard (columnists' portraits), Time.com (editorial), Village Voice, Food & Wine, O Magazine (regular contributor of spots), Brooks Sports (portait of Warren Buffet), Storey Publishing (for books about dogs and gardening, so fun), James Patterson (I drew all of the children of his famous fictional detective; what a hoot!), Penguin Books (Alice in Wonderland), The Stranger (best paper in the Northwest), Make Magazine, Smart Money, Progressive, Rolling Stone, Boston Globe, Financial Times, Welt am Sonntag. I have also taken on many smaller commissions for individual clients.

My Process

I do everything digitally from my studio, working the occasional odd hours to accommodate different time zones (I have many clients in UK, Germany, and Switzerland, so I am accustomed to checking for messages during breakfast). Once we have established the job brief and business, I work pretty rapidly, sketching in Photoshop and then finishing up in Illustrator, to deliver vector files in a timely fashion. I am happy to keep in touch with email or skype, as need be, to make sure my clients and I have a really good understanding. I enjoy my work, so I tend to obsess until I get it just right.

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