Creative Interviews - Karen Swartz

Karen is a multi-disciplinary creator, whose work spectrum successfully encompasses a wide range of traditional, digital, and industrial design tools to produce a refined and stunning series of creations. Her interview gives us a fantastic look behind the show table and into her studio efforts.
Karen Swartz's great show table layout.
Karen, thanks so much for doing this interview. So let's start off with the general aspect of Illustration. When did you know this was what you wanted to do?

I always made art, but I didn't really realize it was something I could pursue as a career until I was 16ish. I was really into watching anime and playing games like Final Fantasy, and I decided I really wanted to design characters- This shifted as I did more illustration for classes and discovered that I also really loved visual storytelling, creature design, and decorative borders.

You're a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design. What drew you to that particular school?

Of the places I applied, I think it was the school that showed more of what I wanted to do as examples of student work. There was quite the focus on storytelling, character design, and commercial art there. I knew I didn't want to do fine art for sure.

Do you feel that the curriculum you went through helped provide enough guidance for the art career you have now?

It certainly helped, but there was a lot I learned along the way. I often feel like I made up a job by going to conventions, and putting my work directly in front of customers to find out what they responded to, and what worked. In my classes we were taught to approach self promotion in a very different way, and while that worked for some people, it didn't really work for me. 

After college I also found that I really like developing products with my partner that incorporate my artwork, so that has been quite the adventure of trial and error.

How long have you been doing Illustration professionally?

My first real paid freelance job was in 2010 I think, so technically it's been nine years. There's been a more consistent flow in the last three to four years though, since I started going to conventions more.

I have students and people at shows ask me this, so I like to ask this of my colleagues. How long did it take for you to find your particular visual style?

It's still growing and changing all the time, but I was probably trying different things out all the time until around 2015 ish. I've been making a concentrated effort to get better at art for about fourteen years, so it really took around ten years before I had a decently recognizable style. My advice is to just focus on improving and trying to do good work. Don't stress about style. It will find you as you try different media and stylistic choices. It's not bad to emulate your favorite artists' stylistic choices or work processes.
[Left] Journal cover done with the Glowforge. [Right] Digital illustration "Owl Guard".

Your style has a two immediate themes that are constants. The natural world, and a celebration of light, with color coming in as a strong third. What drew you to these particular themes?

Huh! You know I hadn't even consciously considered a celebration of light as part of my style but you're right! It's a main focus, and something I've been working to improve on over the past few years. I suppose it's that color and light have the ability to make images feel spiritual and emotionally charged in a way that appeals to me. I love the natural world because it never tries to be anything other than what it is. There are also so many things in the natural world to which humans have assigned symbolic meaning.

Can you tell us what artists held inspiration for you in your illustration style?

I'm inspired by a lot of different things: ancient artwork by the Egyptians, Mayans and Aztecs, 15th century illuminated manuscripts, Impressionist landscapes, the works of Haida and Tlingit tribes, and book illustrations by Jan Brett, James Gurney, and Ivan Bilibin. I also love late 1800's book cover design.

You use a multifaceted approach in mediums on your works. Is there a medium and/or substrate that you do favor over others?

I started out as a water colorist, but I'm slow as molasses with a real brush. I switched to digital painting in recent years, and can achieve a similar look and feel to my watercolor. I also love making things with wood and laser cutting.

Your art has an immense richness in it's textural and graphic quality. The patterns, are they something you plan out along with the main subject matter, or do you figure them out as you go along and the work evolves?

Thank you! Sometimes I add patterns to liven up large swaths of space in an image that might otherwise be uninteresting, and I often don't plan them in advance- they sort of evolve with the image as a whole. Border patterns are generally a decision I make in the thumb nailing process since they affect the composition, but sometimes the patterns filling it come later.

You work as a children's book illustrator, what are some of the most important things you’ve learned while working in this particular field? I ask this because sometimes there is a perceived notion that this is one of the easier art careers to get into, and I find that to be quite the opposite!

I would say it's not harder or easier than other types of book illustration. It still relies on visual storytelling, and because most children's books contain a limited amount of text, the visuals are exceedingly important.

Do you have a creation or project of yours that identifies as your favorite, or one that you are most proud of?

I'm probably most proud of my armored bird illustrations, especially the Assassin Wren. I have a number of sketches in that theme, and I'm slowly painting all of them as personal pieces.

You attend comic and art shows. What have you thought of the large proliferation of shows over the last decade?

I'm so grateful that there is this culture of conventions and "con artists." Selling my work at cons has allowed me to experiment, learn who my audience is/ what resonates with them, and to connect with other artists on a regular basis. It also frees me from needing the approval of an art director to publish my work. I get to call all the shots, and as long as I'm paying attention to what my customers like/ want, things go pretty well.

Your show booth setup is super pro on point. What are some things you remember do do and prepare for when setting up for a show?

  1. Keep everything in the same place- wash tablecloths right after a show and put them with the con stuff. (I forget this one till the last minute way too often)
  2. Take inventory and restock/ order supplies as soon as possible after a show.
  3. Print labels or make a stamp with my website and e-mail- put them on the backs of every single product.
  4. CHARGE DEVICES: always bring a fully charged POS device (phone, etc.), extra battery, charger
  5. Bring snacks and bottled water: I don't like to leave my table since I'm usually vending solo, so having something to eat and drink is vital.
  6. Make sure to have change on hand for cash sales
  7. Look up the sales tax % for the location of the event- some events are great about putting that in a vendor handbook, but sometimes they don't know.
  8. Take a photo of the booth at every event: I often change up my display to see if I can fine tune it, so having a record of what I've tried in the past is really helpful.
              For people aspiring to work in illustration, what sort of advice would you give?

              I can only speak from personal experience, so I would encourage aspiring illustrators to snag booths in artist alleys at conventions. It's how I really got my start as a professional independent artist. My favorites are Furry conventions, because of the focus on animals, and the vibrant arts community.

              Do you feel that the commercial art industry is beginning to better understand the importance of roles and ideas that women can accomplish?

              I suppose it is in comparison with early illustration which was pretty male dominated. In college if I remember correctly, there may have been more women in my classes than men, but it was pretty close to 50/50.

              We live in a time where the advent of an immense amount of creative people now have virtually unlimited reach via social media networks. Some artists believe that we live in a time of overexposure, that a lot of the curtain to the creative process has been pulled back to an almost detrimental effect. Do you feel that it's been more of a positive or negative change to have that sort of access for the general public to encounter exposure of an artist and their works with?

              I think exposing non artists to the process of making art and helping them understand that they can commission custom work, etc. is never a bad thing. If people understand what goes into making a piece it increases the perceived value of the artwork. It's also incredibly important to make artwork accessible by producing lower priced prints or some other object that a patron can buy if they like your work/ want to support you, but only have $5 to $20 to spend. (I think of prints/ bookmarks as big business cards.)

              I really don't think we've hit even full exposure to the public by a long shot. I frequently have people ask if/ how I made everything at my booth. They might have a surface awareness of fine art from festivals, but the general public aren't very exposed to illustration/ sequential art.

              Okay so into some just for fun stuff. If you had to pick your favorite two movies, what would they be, and why?

              Disney's "Tarzan" (animated): The story always brings me to tears, and I adore the expressive motion of Tarzan and the gorillas that the artists captured. Also the songs are catchy as heck.

              "The Secret of Kells": It's based on medieval manuscript illuminations- such a feast for the eyes, and the sound design is killer.

              Mac or PC preference? And why?

              PC because that's what I grew up with, and I'm used to the Windows UI.  I used Macs in college quite a bit, but never really liked the interface as much.
              Karen Swartz's computer workspace.
              When you're in the zone creatively, do you enjoy working with music or any kind of background noise going on, silence, or are you indifferent to the outside surrounding ambiance? Do any of those sorts of things come into play for you in your studio/workday?

              I switch between music and audio books. When I'm in the planning stages for a piece I only listen to music, since my inner dialogue doesn't let me also pay attention to an audio book. I definitely think better and stay more focused with music or a book playing in the background.

              What sort of music?

              In the early mornings I prefer ambient video game soundtracks, Celtic, or string music.

              From about 11 AM on I switch to a book or music by Janelle Monae, PSY, Caravan Palace, C2C, techno dubstep remixes of video game music, and the "Bad Lip Reading" Youtube channel. Mainly fast tempo, upbeat, sometimes very repetitive or silly music. 

              I keep a playlist of songs that make me feel pumped up to work, and put that on if I'm feeling unmotivated. (The key here is I also just start working- not wait for the music to fix my mood.) Sometimes playing the same "pump up" song on repeat for an hour is helpful too.

              What other artists, current or historical, had profound influences on you? 

              Stephanie Law inspires me to try to be a little more loose with parts of my images. (

              Evan Dahm's comics with their analogous color schemes, solid background/ character design, and fantastic visual storytelling are also an inspiration. (

              At times I also emulate N.C. Wyeth's handling of water/ waves and light/ shadow.

              If you had the chance to work on a dream project, what would that be?

              It used to be illustrating a tarot deck, and now I've done that! So maybe for my next big dream project, I'd like to make a 2D side-scrolling game sometime in the future.

              You seem to be a fan of sci-fi/fantasy, do you prefer Star Trek or Star Wars, or... other?

              Everything fantasy/ sci-fi is wonderful! I really enjoy all of the alien and creature designs in Star Wars, but I've watched some Star Trek too and enjoyed it.

              This is my own curiosity question I like to ask of people in general, and have brought into my interviews. What is your favorite dinosaur, and why?

              It's a pterosaur, but Tapejara is my favorite. It's right in line with my love of horn bills.

              Most creative people I know appreciate and enjoy museums, looking to them for inspiration. Do you have any would you recommend or that are your favorites?

              I love museums with great ancient art exhibits. I think my favorite was at the MET when I visited New York City. Aside from ancient art, I mostly prefer illustration, animation, and video game art to fine art. There was a little museum of Illustration in New York too, but I haven't been to any others.

              Do you have a favorite video game/series and/or creator?

              I'm a huge fan of Elder Scrolls games starting with Oblivion. As a kid I also really enjoyed the Spyro games.

              Okay, so into the realm of books, is there a book or series you've read, that inspired you or recommend?

              I love Garth Nix's Abhorsen series. In short it's about good necromancers, and the imagery of the charter/ magic in that world is just beautiful- Spells are made up of charter symbols that glow (so it was definitely an inspiration for me).

              This is something that I know a lot of people working in the creative industry deal with. Do you have a method to balancing life between your career and down time for yourself?

              I'm not very good at this, but I try to stop working when my fiance, Justin, gets done with work. As long as I get up before 8am, I feel ok stopping around 5pm. I often continue to run our laser cutter during down time unless we both really need some quiet.
              A Darisa Tarot, the Kickstarter page.
              You recently successfully funded "A Darisa Tarot, The Lomisht" through Kickstarter. Very exciting and congratulations! Was this your first foray into doing a Kickstarter?

              Yes, it was my first Kickstarter, but my friend Draque handled the campaign on the site. I made all the art and helped design the campaign visually.

              Justin and I want to run many Kickstarters in the future for our own projects.

              What information would you pass along to any other artists wanting to fund something through Kickstarter?

              These are all things I learned through experience:
              • Plan and order everything you need before launching. 
              • Plan out a $ goal that won't make you pay for anything out of pocket if possible. It's better to not meet a realistic financial goal (and not be on the hook), than to set the bar too low and have to put in more of your own money to make something happen.
              • Don't use a webcam for the video!
              Talking a bit of tech now, I picked up a wonderfully made little wood ornament from, with an Otter (I love it!) you at the Happy Little Craft Show. You spoke about using your Glowforge to make some amazing looking journals and signs. The Maker movement is a fascinating thing. What led to your decision to do the work you do with your Glowforge?

              A bit of misfortune and luck.

              Justin and I joined Tech Shop when they were open in St. Louis in 2017- really at the coercion of a friend who gave me a free laser cutting class. Before that I was only doing 2D art, undercharging, and my sales were sometimes limited by how much wall space my customers had. After playing with the lasers for a while, Justin and I thought we should try laser etching a book cover, since bookbinding has been a hobby of mine for years. Our current journals evolved from there.
              The Glowforge in action.
              When Tech Shop suddenly closed their doors (with no warning) we joined a local makerspace, Inventor Forge, and got trained on their lasers so we could keep producing stock. Then, luckily, our next event went well enough that we could buy a Glowforge before their pre-order period ended (we could just afford that discounted price). We knew we wouldn't have the machine for months, so we kept working out of the maker space until it arrived in March 2018. The Glowforge has been a game changer for us. It's slower than larger, more powerful lasers, but we can run it all day at home. 

              Karen, thanks so much for taking the time to be part of my interview series! 

              So for people that want to follow you on social media or find some of your creations for sale, where would they go?

              Thank you! My handmade journals and prints are here:, and my Twitter handle is @kstalenshi.

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