The Intimate Illustrated Portraits of A.E. Kieren

He's like a courtroom illustrator for life.

by Presented By Espolón
03 November 2015, 3:45pm

In 5,000 years, if future civilisations knew nothing of the width and breadth of modern human emotion but the work of illustrator A.E. Kieren, we'd be lucky. Partaking in what he calls "sketch journalism," the New York City-based artist specialises in live sketching the human moments happening around him, on the train, in bars and restautants, or on the street. He draws quickly, operating on instinct to catch "you-had-to-be-there" moments of his subjects doing everything from chatting to waking to staring into space. "I am fueled by the live experience," Kieren tells The Creators Project. "Whether that is fashion, music, comedy, or bizarre cabaret."

When he's not operating as a courtroom illustrator for the world, Kieren has a few ongoing projects that twist his craft. His Celebrity Portraiture series reimagines the likes of Steve Buscemi, Cate Blanchet, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in his watercolor-meets-comic book style, which is most heavily influenced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Egon Schiele, J.C. Leyendecker, and Francesco Clemente. Humans of the year 7,000 will better understand our deification and relationship with celebrities—as well as their own humanity—by looking at this set.

Heartworms is a dissection of the inner monologue, juxtaposing vivacious characters with the pithy observations, questions, truths, and half-truths that bounce around our heads. Thoughts like "I'm dissapointed in your lack of irrational jealousy over me," and "You are perfect in every single way. Except that you don't exist," chew through the heart like, well, a heartworm. Our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandkids will know our insecurties and passions better because of this series.

The Style Report captures Kieren's perspective on fashion—both our obsession with trends and the power an evocative outfit can have—in Kieren's dark and colorful style. Bearded ladies, tall-booted men, tight pants, and pearls all find a home on this page. One shirtless man sports a unicorn horn, and another wears a stuffed animal as his entire outfit. The artist is like a collector, gathering these beautiful oddities into his psyche and spitting them out as "precious and unique snowflakes" who all feel alive with stories to tell. Arching over all of his work is a comforting acceptance of the societally unaccepted. He obliquely endorses the LGBTQ community, and is compassionate toward the unloved, the unstable, the sad, the lonely. 

The Creators Project talked to the artist about his work, how he developed his style, and what he's up to now.

The Creators Project: How would you describe your style to someone who had never seen your art (and couldn't just check it out on their phone for some reason)?

A.E. Kieren: I would describe myself as a classical watercolorist and inker. Most of my work is done from life whenever possible. 

What fuels you?

I am fueled by the live experience! As much you-had-to-be-there as possible. Whether that is fashion, music, comedy, or bizarre cabaret. 

What's in your artistic toolbox?

First of all, I carry a literal toolbox with me when I go on-location. It is a wee black metal tool box with a handle and latch. In it I have a couple jars of liquid watercolor and a jar of black sumi ink. I use cheap chinese bamboo brushes, a speedball pen and ink quill, and a pentel refillable watercolor marker. I do everything liquid, no pencils. Erasing is for wimps.  

What was your first art / design job?

My first paid art/design job was probably an individual oil painting that I sold for $800 at my graduation show when I finished my four-year degree from College for Creative Studies. I thought I was rich. 

When did you realise you were going to be an artist?

I think I realised I was going to be an artist fairly recently. There was still doubt as to whether I would ever be successful up until mere months ago! I'm feeling fairly confident these days though. 

What was your biggest breakthrough in defining your style?

My biggest breakthrough in defining my style certainly came when I started getting hired to sketch in the jazz venues. I made so many discoveries so rapidly about how to generate effects quickly in the field, and I took those things with me to the studio.  My inking style is very much based on the splashy, jittery style that was a result of working in imperfect conditions (drunk and in the dark).

Who are you biggest visual artist influences?

My biggest visual artistic influences are certainly Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Egon Schiele, J.C. Leyendecker, and Francesco Clemente.

Who are your biggest non-visual artist influences?

My biggest non-visual artistic influences would be Punchdrunk (the creators of Sleep No More) and Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22.

Do you have any collaborators that stand out in your memory as having influenced your practice?

A collaborator who strongly influenced me is Raelyn Hennessee, who was the first person who hired me to sketch for live experiences (and it was her idea, frankly). Everything I'm doing these days is descended from those first couple jobs she gave me sketching at parties for a crisp hundred dollar bill. 

Do you ever get bored of drawing people? Or is every face unique and exciting?

I do not get bored of drawing people. We are all precious and unique snowflakes. 

What do you hope to accomplish with your work? How will you leave your mark on the world?

I have a lot of ambitions that I want to do with my work. It would be great if a publication like, say, VICE, would pair me with a writer to go cover something counterculture (like a modern-day Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman). I'm waiting for the call from National Geographic to go sketch indigenous tribes in the Amazon. I would like to tour with a big pop act like Lady Gaga or Adele and then publish a lavish sketch journal about life on the road. I want to sketch the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders (there is a precedent for this, Robert Weaver was embedded as a sketch artist with JFK's campaign). Those are just the first couple that come to mind. 

Do you have one work that you're really proud of or is particularly exemplary of your style?

One piece that I am particularly proud of is my most recent poster for Julia Haltigan's recurring cabaret Ann Bond featuring Luther and the Missing Lynx. Its glamorous, its pin-uppy, its about musicians, it was done in the studio but utilises everything I've learned in the field, and the earth tone palette is very ME. I gave the original to Julia's father who is also a fantastic musician.  

What's next for you as an artist?

Next for me as an artist, I can still always be found at the Refinery Hotel on Thursday evenings sketching while the jazz band plays from 8 to 11 pm. On Saturday, October 24 I will be sketching during the daytime as part of Entertainment Weekly's EW Fest. I also sketch as part of a monthly comedy show at Eastville Comedy Club, the next one of those is Wednesday, November 18.

See more of A.E. Kieren's work on his website.


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A.E. Kieren