Illustrator Kevin House: ‘Life is too interesting and projects are too varied to stay in one visual comfort zone’

Kevin House is a digital illustrator and logo designer based in Victoria BC. He has over 28 years’ experience in the design and illustration fields. After spending years in top-level design studios and advertising agencies in Vancouver and Victoria, since 2006 he has been running a successful freelance illustration business with clients from around the globe.

Kevin is an early adopter of Affinity Designer and you may already recognise his work from our Affinity Designer Workbook. In this interview, he tells us more about himself, his typical working week and his proudest moment so far.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Kevin House aka Kevin Creative or Retrograde on the Affinity forum. I’m an illustrator living on the west coast of Canada. I work from a small, home-based studio. I primarily work in digital vector and I am also an award-winning logo designer. I love where I live, I’m surrounded by easily accessible nature and a vibrant community which feeds and inspires my work.

You have over 28 years’ experience. What originally made you want to become an illustrator?

I have been drawing since I was a kid. I’ve always enjoyed creating my own personal version of reality starting first with pencil and charcoal (that sounds so ancient) then progressing to paint and finally to a full digital workflow in the 90’s.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Besides the satisfaction of a successfully completed piece, I enjoy the journey a project can bring. The journey of discovery from the first initial thumbnail idea right through to the final client approved illustration or logo. Often that journey can take a few sideways tangents that will either take you to a nice surprise or take you to a challenge you weren’t expecting, but ultimately once overcome takes you to a higher level of satisfaction having made it through and feeling the better for it.

How would you define your style?

One thing that makes me a bit different I suppose is that I don’t really stick to one specific style. Life is too interesting, and projects are too varied to stay in one ‘visual comfort zone’. I like to mix it up, to keep things fresh and I enjoy the challenge that comes with that. There are certain commonalities that do occur or crossover in some of my work, but I don’t intentionally set out to stay on any particular path style-wise. Having said that, I am recognised somewhat for my isometric work, but again even within that I would argue there are varying stylistic differences.

What would you say is your proudest moment so far in your career?

I had the opportunity a few years back to design the official logos for the New York Racing Program’s Belmont Stakes event three years in a row. The race, if you’re not familiar, is a part of the annual American Triple Crown national circuit which includes The Preakness and the Kentucky Derby horse races as well. Quite a prestigious and highly visible exposure for my work. One of my three logos even presided over the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. It’s always a special thing to get an opportunity to play on a national stage like that, but really any time any of my logo or illustration work can make a difference in someone’s life or to bring attention to an important matter or help right a wrong, I am proud. I’ve been very fortunate to have done a lot of work for education, historical, cultural, science and learning sector clients over the years.

“It’s always a special thing to get an opportunity to play on a national stage like that, but really any time any of my logo or illustration work can make a difference in someone’s life or to bring attention to an important matter or help right a wrong, I am proud.”

You’re an early adopter of Affinity Designer. What made you want to start using Affinity apps?

Being always on the lookout for new tools to help me communicate my ideas, it was back in 2014 I believe when I first came across Affinity Designer. Right away I saw the potential of being able to work in both Vector and Pixel Personas in one application as a breakthrough and something I was pretty excited about. I also liked the fact that here was a new, serious player on the scene with some original and refreshing ideas of how a vector application could be. The non-subscription model was appealing as well, and Serif’s timing was impeccable in that regard. Since 2014 I have kept developing my Designer skills and have since picked up both Affinity Photo and Affinity Publisher along the way as perfect companions for most of my work.

“Being always on the lookout for new tools to help me communicate my ideas, it was back in 2014 I believe when I first came across Affinity Designer. Right away I saw the potential of being able to work in both Vector and Pixel Personas in one application as a breakthrough and something I was pretty excited about.”

What’s your favourite feature in Affinity Designer?

As mentioned earlier and it can’t be overstated, the ability and ease of working in both vector and pixels in one application is game changing for the type of work I do. To be able to paint texture or to apply shading inside of vector shapes using effects and/or brushes, combined with the ability to edit or change those shapes at any time allows for a whole new level of possibilities. The grid and snapping system are very robust, customisable and just work as expected, which is saying something. On another almost subconscious level there is an overall smoothness and deftness to the application that is really nice. When you spend hours and hours on a project you really appreciate something that feels solid and is working with and not against you.

As far as features or things I’d like to see make it in to Designer someday would be the ability to distort elements with some sort of non-destructive, preset editor where users can choose from a list or create and save their own presets, a quick flip horizontal ability to quickly check the composition of an entire file and the ability to easily isolate and work on solo elements or groups. The current solo feature seems to me to be more of a solo preview mode and doesn’t easily allow users to work as a fully independent solo mode would.

How do you plan your designs before you start drafting them?

Usually the client will have specific needs or requirements that will dictate the general direction of the project, often with client supplied reference or information. Good clear communication and client accessibility is the key to any successful project. Nine times out of ten I will start the project by generating ideas with pencil on paper. These can be loose sketches, slightly tighter sketches or in rare cases more polished but still conceptual ‘digital sketches’. Experience has taught me that it makes sense to have clients sign off on the concept before any digital work gets underway. This keeps things loose and flexible and allows for easier changes or further explorations or course corrections to be made.

Describe your typical work week.

A normal week will usually comprise of two-four different on-going projects in various states of the process. I am lucky to have a loyal base of clients that return pretty consistently for work. Depending on the nature of the project, the work can range from consumer packaging, UI icons and corporate branding to full blown complex illustrations or large advertising campaign series. When one project is out on proof, another usually comes back in for revisions or completion. In any given week I can be found sketching, scanning, estimating, painting, searching for reference, reading or learning about other artists, invoicing, uploading or promoting my work on social media, etc… Because I do work in a variety of styles, I have a wide range of different types of clients. That keeps it interesting and they keep me busy.

What would you say is the most interesting project you have worked on?

One recent series that comes to mind and that took me way outside of my usual range or comfort zone was a series of 30 illustrations I did for a TV show on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) here in Canada called “Moosemeat and Marmalade”. The show pairs up two chefs, one an experienced Indigenous ‘bush’ chef, the other a high end culinary ‘London’ trained chef.

My assignment was to illustrate images for a web-based companion piece for the show exploring traditional and contemporary First Nations hunting techniques for a sort of online “Field Guide” being developed by my client. Not only have I never hunted in my life and the subject matter not something I had any experience with, but the client was looking for something quite realistic in style and very different to my normal range of stylistic work. Fortunately, at that time I had been experimenting in Designer with just this sort of ultra-realistic approach. I had recently returned from a trip to Venice and was playing with recreating some of the old master painting techniques in Designer that I had seen in the galleries that caught my eye. So, over a frantic weekend I quickly worked something up similar to what they were requesting and fired off a proof of concept to the client. Luckily for me it was a hit and I went on to create a large series of ultra-realistic illustrations consisting of traditional tools, hunting strategies and prey.

The client has since come back for another round of traditional tools for the series. This assignment and Designer’s tool set allowed me the confidence to explore a whole new world of illustration for me that I am eager to do more of.

What drew you to working isometrically?

Working in the isometric style started many years ago and I’m not really sure what drew me to it in the beginning. I did find however by sticking to a structured grid format to be sort of creatively freeing. I know that probably sounds strange but by having to adhere more or less to a grid you are challenging yourself to come up with new ways of depicting the elements and shapes you need for a successful composition within this isometric structure. This self-imposed or limited framework makes it actually easier not to stray off into unnecessary or timewasting creative side trips. As a bonus, the grid dictating the placement and positioning really gives the work an internal compositional consistency, while at the same time allowing for a different sort of exploration and expression I probably wouldn’t attempt or discover in a non-isometric piece.

It can be a challenge sometimes to find the right angles to depict what you need to but very rewarding once you do and Affinity Designer’s recently added isometric panel and excellent isometric grid system makes it easy going from a setup and workflow point of view.

‘George and the Dragon’ created by Kevin House for 100 Days. 100 Commissions.
Do you always work in your studio or do you have other places where you create?

90% of my work is done in the studio. Sometimes on holiday I will bring work to sketch on or to brainstorm new ideas, but mostly everything takes place in the studio.

How do you get your ideas?

With client work, usually but not always, the general direction of the brief is pretty honed in by the time they reach out to me. However, I will often need to come up with alternate variations or entirely new concepts depending on the client and the job at hand. The immediacy of the web for concept generation ideas or inspiration along with relevant books and magazines, provide ample possible opportunities for helping to nail down a variety of creative directions. It really depends on the type of work that is needed and the turnaround time. There’s really no substitute for time spent doing the work it takes to create something worthwhile.

‘Madame Butterfly’ created by Kevin House. You can also find this tutorial here on Affinity Spotlight.
What type of brief or project do you enjoy working on most and why?

There are certain types of logo projects that I like to do and the same goes for types of illustration. It’s derived from that feeling of a definitive sort of eye pleasing satisfaction that I get from particular styles of work. With logo work it tends to be the simpler, bolder and more graphic in style that is appealing to me. Whereas with illustration I’m attracted to rich colour schemes and fairly complex (lots going on) compositions. I am admittedly pretty easily distracted, hence the many styles I tend to work in. So, I’d say my preferences change often on what I look for in a satisfactory project and what I’ll try to bring to it. I think it’s this sort of endless exploring that brought me to Affinity’s doorstep in the first place.

Lastly, what are your top three illustrations and why?

In no particular order:

  • Aboriginal Business Quarterly cover. I just love the colour scheme and overall subject and composition of this piece. Especially that plane with those skiis!
  • Wine Cellar. This was a commissioned tutorial piece by Serif for their Affinity Designer Workbook. Tutorials are a ton of work, but definitely in this case it was well worth it. The idea for this piece had been kicking around for quite a while as just a sketch based on an M.C. Escher type of impossible spatial composition. When I had the chance to finally bring it to life, I was pretty excited.
  • Bummer. This was a fun idea straight out of my head. It was an early Designer piece where I was just starting to explore the pixel painting features of Designer, especially for the hair.

You can find more of Kevin’s work on his website, Behance and Instagram.

You can also check out Kevin’s ‘The Eyes of a Butterfly’ tutorial here on Affinity Spotlight.