In our Industry Interviews, we ask one of our Shillington Teachers to interview a creative they admire—this can be a friend or someone new from across the creative spectrum. This month, Shillington New York Teacher Tessa Canon chats to Kelly Castor, an artist and illustrator based in Kansas City, Tessa’s hometown.
Tessa is a graphic designer and illustrator based in New York City, originally from Kansas City but has also lived and worked in Dublin, Ireland. She started her career with a fellowship at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, in an office in the middle of the Arizona desert. Her passions in design lie in branding and illustration.
Kelly, likewise, is a graphic designer and illustrator based in Kansas City. For her day job, she works as a Senior Designer on the Creative Marketing team for Hallmark Cards. She is also a freelance artist on the side, creating beautiful illustrations for both clients and for herself.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your current role?
Hello! My name is Kelly Castor, and I’m a Senior Designer for Hallmark Cards. I’m currently on the Creative Marketing team, creating social and blog content for multiple channels—our blog Ideas & Inspiration, and Hallmark’s Instagram, Pinterest and Tiktok.
Tell us about your design/illustration journey—how did you get to where you are now?
I earned a degree in Graphic Design with a minor in Art History from Missouri State University. During my senior year, I discovered a passion for illustration while taking an illustration class, which led me to incorporate my lettering and illustration into my work.
After graduation, I struggled to find a job that aligned with my interests and portfolio. I eventually landed a job at an agency where I was surrounded by talented coworkers who became mentors. This experience led me to a position at Hallmark, where I first was designing cards, then found my way to the social media team. On the social team, I plan blog content, create DIY projects, direct photoshoots and craft illustrations and lettering for social posts. It allows me to lean into my hybrid set of skills and experiment with trend-forward ideas and content.
While the corporate world is fun and keeps a roof over my head, I’ve always had to create outside of it. I think this is what made me grow and learn the most, and led to some really fun freelance projects, like a book cover!
What’s your process like for a typical illustration project at Hallmark?
With Hallmark, illustrations can be applied to so many different products—we have cards, stationary, home and gift products, and then there is social media. Most of what I’ve made in the past 5 years has been for social media, so I always think in that frame-set. The concept has to be read fast on a phone while someone is scrolling, the colors have to stand out in the noise and most often it will incorporate some sort of editorial.
When I go to start an illustration, there is a brief or a request form from the designer and it will have things like color palette, editorial with suggested line breaks, research examples and size requirements. Because these projects have a fast turnaround, I rely on using the Procreate app on my iPad. Things are sketched out first for general composition and concept, and I keep that brief pulled up on the side to make sure I’m hitting the right tone and style, as well as making sure everything is spelled right. I’m always worried I misspelled something!
From there, I really have to dig in and focus. In a lot of my work, I rely on color blocking general shapes first to figure out the right shape for things. There’s usually 20 layers of things and I’m constantly tweaking color to get the right amount of contrast. After I feel good about the composition, I start to add my details and textures. Sometimes this means redrawing something with a different brush or adding in a masked texture file, and maybe I’ll redraw the lettering a few times. It’s a lot of tinkering! I tend to overthink everything. For Hallmark, having clean layers with well defined parts and pieces is very important. We upload art to an internal database and it’s free for other designers to use. If your file doesn’t have clean and usable layers, it will be frustrating on their end to apply the artwork to the product. It’s also helpful as an illustrator to keep things organized so that moving things around if needed can quickly be done.
After I’m done drawing in procreate, I typically move things around a few pixels or so in Photoshop and make sure I’m happy with color. Then it’s sent to the designer!
Tell us about any personal projects—how they came about and if/how they influence your day job’s work.
Balancing my day job with personal projects has never been my strong suit, but when I look back, I can see how they’ve helped me grow and shape my illustration style.
I get inspired for personal projects through exploring new mediums, buying new tools, or traveling out into the world to see new things. In 2018, after a long vacation in Japan, I was inspired to create artwork about my experience, which made me more comfortable painting with acrylic gouache and experimenting with different color combinations. This timing also paired with my access to Procreate, so I was very motivated by new tools and new mediums. The growth from that time was so helpful for my work at Hallmark. It gave me more confidence to call myself an illustrator and motivated me to seek out mentorship opportunities with experienced artists. Additionally, I started infusing more of my lettering and illustration skills into Hallmark’s social media posts.
Lately, I’ve been feeling the need to shake things up and try new things. I took a couple of beginning wheel classes at a local ceramics studio and felt the excitement of learning something new again. It was refreshing to be bad at something and to challenge myself to improve. It’s been a great way to take a break from my day job and avoid burnout. I’m not sure how this will influence my work, but it’s been a nice break and has given me a renewed excitement for creating.
I have realized that personal projects should be worth my time and make me feel excited about creating, and this ceramics class does exactly that.
I LOVED your Japan series by the way! How do you fight feelings of discouragement when you can’t seem to make something good (if that ever happens!)?
It happens all the time! When I feel discouraged about my work, I find it helpful to seek out feedback and support from my creative friends and coworkers. I will show them what I’m working on (rough sketches and all) and ask for honest feedback. When you don’t have a teacher to critique your work, you don’t always see where you need to improve! Additionally, I love to ask about their work. It’s so helpful to see how others make, how they paint, what their process looks like and see that journey from start to finish. I often ask peers and mentors about their work process or to even see their files—that can lead to new inspiration.
Another tactic I use to fight discouragement is to step away from my work and take a break. Whether it’s going for a walk or getting a good night’s sleep, coming back to a project with fresh eyes can help me identify what needs to be changed and find creative solutions.
Finally, I try to avoid looking at social media. I have gotten really down on myself in the past with comparing my skills to others. Instead, I remind myself of my own past work and that I’ve solved problems before. I can do it again, and I’ll keep getting better!
What advice would you offer to recent grads starting out in the industry?
There really is time to get to “your destination”. It may feel like if you don’t get this job or that job right out of the gate, you’re not on the best path for your future. But, you have the time now to explore and make mistakes and grow. And there’s truly room for everyone. You may experience other designers and illustrators getting opportunities you’re not, but there’s always room for you too. Also, keep a sketchbook.
Finally, give us five words that describe you and your creative style.
Bright, playful, graphic, fun and colorful.
Huge thanks to Tessa for chatting to Kelly! Make sure to follow Kelly on Instagram to keep an eye on her latest work (and follow her dogs Fern and Suki too, they’re the best). If Tessa and Kelly’s conversation has left you feeling inspired, take a look at Shillington’s graphic design course—you could become a graphic designer in as little as three months.
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