Interview with Kirk Parrish

How old were you when you started drawing?

Gosh, I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. It seems as though I’ve always had an active sketchbook going. And of course, it doesn’t hurt when your mother is an artist as well. She’s always pushed me towards the creative end of the spectrum. She does these wonderful coats-of-arms and that was an initial inspiration to start my own artwork.

When did you first focus on illustrations?

I think, around 2006. I was at a crossroads with my artwork and just wasn’t sure which direction to navigate towards. I’ve always loved picture books and that’s when it kind of ‘clicked’ and that I’d try and take a stab at it.

What was the first person/place/thing you illustrated?

Ha, I’m not sure I’ve got a definite answer to this. Again, I’ve been drawing my whole life. But, growing up in the 80’s and 90’s I was pretty much inundated with great cartoons. What I saw on TV would naturally spill out onto the drawing board. I’d draw anything from Ninja Turtles, Disney, Batman, to Transformers. The list goes on…

What is your educational background?

Growing up I had always wanted to attend art school to study animation. Just to focus all my efforts into the arts and be surrounded with like-minded students would’ve been amazing. Naturally, art school isn’t cheap, so it just wasn’t in the deck of cards. I didn’t want to be in my 40’s and still be paying off student loans. So I attended a local Jr. College which had a great reputation for their animation program. After a brief Internship in Florida with the Disney Company, I came back to Seattle to finish my AA. After this, I got accepted into a two year course at the University of Washington, focusing on writing and illustrating children’s books. I never wanna stop learning and even today I’m still taking art classes online. Learning is fun!

How did it contribute to your artwork?

Well it gave me direction. I can’t say my education helped hone my style in any way, but it definitely allowed me to focus my efforts on a single goal – the goal of illustrating picture books for a living.

Where do you get your inspirations?

Inspiration can come from anywhere. I love character design so just the act of people watching is always an entertaining activity. I can’t underestimate how important it is to study other artist as well. There is just so much to learn and can be learned from only taking the time to really look at artwork that came before you. I love Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Eyvind Earle, Mary Blair, Milt Kahl and about a million other artists out there. Of course live-action movies and animated films are a great inspiration as well. I’ll sometimes carry a little pocket sketchbook with me and just draw what I see. It’s like I always have this little voice that keeps nagging at me if I’m not being creatively productive. It’s actually a little annoying, but it keeps me on my toes and never satisfied with my work.

When you were selected to illustrate The Pepperoni Palm Tree, what was the first character you drew?

Frederick was the first. I just knew the Palm Tree was gonna be a big challenge because I hadn’t the vaguest idea of what it should look like. The style of the artwork was up in the air. Jason did such a wonderful job penning the book and I remember reading it the first time and just thinking the story was very much like an old 1940-50’s Disney animated short. The kind they don’t really make anymore. I strove to capture a bit of that nostalgia and tried to inject it into the illustrations.

There is a lizard that appears on most of the pages of The Pepperoni Palm Tree, what gave you the idea to add him to the story?

I was searching for a simple way to really get the reader involved with the artwork. So much time is spent creating each page and I really wanted the audience to feel immersed and not just flip one page after the other. I’ve always loved Handford’s ‘Where’s Waldo so the idea of searching each page for a common goal is something I wanted to infuse into The Pepperoni Palm Tree. My first idea was a colorful parrot, but that would’ve stood out too much. Naturally a lizard provides all the camouflage one needs.

The Map is quite clever, is there something we as readers show know about the meaning of the map?

The map is a map, simple as that. When starting on it, I really knew I needed it to be very detailed and just plain fun. It’s the very introduction to the book and I wanted the reader to be knocked on their butt and be prepared for the world they’re about to enter. Jason and I knew we absolutely needed to highlight the locations mentioned in the book, so they’re there. My thinking was, “If I were Frederick, what would I see along my journey to the beach?” Plus, I just wanted to expand the island with native aborigines, ancient ruins, giant volcanoes and hidden coves. It was extremely fun to flex my creative muscles and come up with the surrounding world. And of course I just had to put Frederick in the tree house!

What were the challenges of drawing a tree as a main character? How did you approach showing the emotion of the tree?

Well for starters, I’m not sure how many palm tree designs I went through before Jason and I agreed on a single design. The character designs are always a fun hurdle to climb, but designing a tree that displays emotion is something outside the box entirely.The Pepperoni Palm Tree needed a distinctive silhouette and absolutely needed movement to help sell his mood and range of emotions. Relying solely on facial expressions to get your point across is a very cheap shot. When somebody is sad, you’ll notice their mannerisms are being affected as well.

Everything in the story gets dark and a little scarier when Frederick leaves, how did you approach that and accomplish it through illustration?

Changing the color pallet from the bright, saturated sunshine to something colder and darker was my main goal. You’ll notice in those pages when Frederick leaves, the sunshine is also absent from the story. In place of the smiling Frederick and the friendly lizard are scary banana trees and a hostile group of monkeys. Everything was a complete opposite for The Pepperoni Palm Tree.

When children of all ages read the book, what do you hope they ‘take away’ from the drawings?

When I was young, I’d read about Max and his strange encounters with the ‘Wild Things‘, it always inspired me to draw my own creatures. Kids are smart, very matter-of-fact and they know whether they like or dislike something almost immediately. So if a child reads the book and likes the illustrations, I really hope it would inspire them to draw, just as I was inspired by the books which I read as a child.

Recently, the authors read the book to preschoolers and one girl in the class who never chooses to draw asked the teachers if she could draw a picture of the Pepperoni Palm Tree. The teachers were moved and excited that she actually wanted to draw. Did you ever think you would be inspiring others to draw and illustrate?

This goes hand-in-hand with my last answer. I don’t think I ever expected this, but I certainly hoped my artwork might have that affect. It’s a wonderful thing to hear, and I only wish I could see the result. Art is extremely subjective and not everything will be for everyone, but I’m very happy that few have taken a liking to my work and were inspired enough to sit down and create. That’s the best.

Anything you would like to add?

I’m always creating more art and if anybody is interested in keeping tabs with my latest goings on, you can visit my site at www.KirksArt.com. Thanks for the time!