A Peek at the Creative Space of Ken Min

Joining us today for Creative Spaces is illustrator Ken Min (pictured at left in his last officially sanctioned photo). Ken’s debut picture book, Hot Hot Roti for Dada-Ji (written by F. Zia) was recently published by Lee and Low Books. From the publisher, 

Aneel’s grandparents have come to stay, all the way from India. Aneel loves the sweet smell of his grandmother’s incense, and his grandfather, Dada-ji, tells the world’s best stories.

When he was a boy, adventurous, energetic Dada-ji had the power of a tiger. Hunh-ji! Yes, sir! He could shake mangoes off trees and wrangle wild cobras. And what gave him his power? Fluffy-puffy hot, hot roti, with a bit of tongue-burning mango pickle. Does Dada-ji still have the power? Aneel wants to find out—but first he has to figure out how to whip up a batch of hot, hot roti.

Overflowing with family, food, and a tall stack of fun, Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji is sure to warm the heart and tickle the tummy. Hunh-ji! Yes, sir!”

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-Ji earned a starred review from Kirkus who wrote, “Min echoes the narrative’s exuberance with bright, blocky acrylic scenes of an Indian family in Western surroundings. . . . A natural for reading aloud, laced with great tastes, infectious sound effects and happy feelings.

You can learn more about Ken by visiting his website and blog at kenminart.com.

And now let’s step into Ken’s studio! 

(The Ken Min disclaimer: “Some aspects of this photo-documentary may have been reconfigured or cropped so as not to portray the inhabitant as a possible candidate for the show Hoarders.”)

A friend gave me a large light box that can be propped at different angles. As I draw and refine my sketches, the box has become an invaluable tool. But, since it’s so big, I also tend to just do all my drawings on it because there is nowhere I can set it aside.

Describe your workspace.

I work primarily out of my bedroom in an apartment, which I share. So, “cozy” would be a good word to describe it. But I like the fact that I don’t have to commute to work like I used to back when. Don’t have to brave that LA traffic.

Because space is rather limited in my room, the box also doubles as the place I paint. I drop my painting board on it but to keep the board from sliding off, I use a couple of erasers to hold it in place. It’s an odd arrangement, but it works for me.

Describe a typical workday.

I’m generally up by 7am. From there I like to read the newspaper. Yes, “paper”. I like the feel of printer’s ink on my fingers. I’m rather old-fashioned that way. Need to keep up with my sports teams, the entertainment page, and comics. (Oh, Cul de Sac, you kill me.) I’ll stretch and exercise after that. (If I don’t work out then, it’s a lost cause, as the day gets long.) Afterwards, I’ll have breakfast while surfing the net for a bit; catching up with emails, favorite blogs, Facebook, etc. I try and get the art part going by 10am. If I’m painting, I can really focus in and keep at it till around 6pm. (Minus lunch around noon) After dinner, if there is something I didn’t complete for the day, I’ll come back to it then. The next day–lather, rinse, repeat.

The tools of the trade. My painting pan, brushes, water cup, color pencils, pens (if I need them), sharpener and my favorite cup that reads, “My 2 favorite teams are USC and whoever is playing UCLA”.

What media do you use and which is your favorite?

I like working in traditional medias. Acrylics and color pencils being my favorite and my primary tool right now. I’ve dabbled in watercolors and some gouache but I keep coming back to acrylics.

Lately, I’ve been doing color work on a graphic novel for a friend, which is going to be published by Chronicle Books. Here, I’ve had an opportunity to “paint” using Photoshop, which has been an interesting experience. Just getting a feel for what I can do on it (and of course, loving to delete mistakes without ruining the whole piece). It’s been fun and I can see why a lot of people gravitate towards it, but I still like getting my hands dirty and having an actual, original “hardcopy” at the end of the day.

The computer station (when I need it)
1. The laptop and monitor
2. One will rarely ever find a picture of me. If there is a camera about, I go the other way. Recently a friend made a birthday card of me as a sort of paper doll with different moustaches to affix to it. This is the “Capt. Hook”.
3. Post-its. Lots of post-its. I write lots of notes to myself and being a visual person, I need to ‘see’ my notes around me. None of this having to reach for some electronic organizer to look up memos. I would just forget to read my organizer.
4. My trusty wacom tablet. Going strong for 10 years now.
5. A lampshade I need to paint for a charity event. If anyone has any suggestions on subject matter, I’m open to it.
6. A check! Now I can pay the rent. Woohoo.
7. Mom
8. My scanner. Which also doubles as a nightstand for my nightly reading material.
9. Invariably, I have a lot of reference material around me. Here is a stack of comics for color ideas on the graphic novel I’m coloring.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

Hmm, this is kind of a hard question for me. I don’t know if I really have 3 favorite things per se. My biggest pleasure comes from my collection of books. They are a great source of inspiration and reference for me. If I’m having a hard time coming up with a composition, I’ll look at some books to spark an idea. Or if I’m having a hard time thinking of a color combination, I like to flip through a book. It’s also nice to be able to scan the shelves and then light up on a title that I might not have looked at in awhile, but remembering that there might be something in it that will inspire me.

What I could do is name 3 of my favorite books. One would be George Shrinks by William Joyce. It is because of this title that I really started looking at what was happening in children’s literature today and it made me think that I would like to work here. The next would be my treasury of Ezra Jack Keats’s stories because I came across this book and it really gave me ideas on how I would like to approach my art–the clean lines and textures playing within the color fields. The last would be any copy of a “Calvin & Hobbes” book for its humor, sentimentality, interesting compositions, and characters.

Book addiction?!? What book addiction?
A close up on my children’s book collection. This area probably constitutes 80% of what I have.
Another angle on them. If anyone recognizes a favorite title, sound off.
This set of books represents the ones I keep near my table. When I’m writing, I like to read a book to get my head in the right mind space. Some just have pretty pictures of a mood I like to achieve.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

When faced with a particularly daunting piece or just something I haven’t totally figured out but know the first few steps, I like to say a little prayer to myself. It calms my nerves and collects my thoughts.

One of the artists that inspired my style is Charley Harper and I found these game pieces with his images on them. It’s like that match game where the tiles are upside down and you have to guess and match the same two images. Anyways, I like having them nearby to look at for color ideas.

What do you listen to while you work?

I don’t imagine you get this answer very often, but I like to listen to sports talk radio during the day. I’m a big sports guy and like to keep up with how my home teams are doing and what the scuttlebutt is going around. (Does this kill any “art cred” I might [or might not] have had? 🙂 ) Tho, on weekends when I’m working, I will play music from iTunes. My favorites lately have been Pete Yorn, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis, Shawn Colvin, Liz Phair, and because she sparked a good painting groove some time back–Belinda Carlisle. (Yeah, I’m that old.)

A lot of files of story ideas, postcards I’ve collected of friends & art I like and yes, that is a VCR. (I’m really that old.)

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

I’m not a huge snack person while I’m working, but I will say I prefer salty snacks compared to sweets. So chips, pretzels, etc. are good. And water . . . why do I feel as if I just described myself like an inmate?

Little known fact, it actually does get cold in LA. Enough so that I will break out the space heater to keep my toes warm. (And yes, those are more books. Really, I don’t have a problem . . .)

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Once I get going on a painting, I can find myself in a zone. It’s a great place to be in. There’s no sense of “time” and the rhythm is smooth especially if the art is going well.

One of my favorite children’s book illustrators is William Joyce. This is a print from the dinner scene in A Day with Wilbur Robinson. I’m also a big comic book guy and this is an ink drawing done by Darwyn Cooke.

What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?

I guess, finding an interesting composition. It’s got to tell the story–simply–first, but if it can have an interesting angle or perspective to it or a creative solution, so much the better. In fact, I would say, the composition needs to be the most thought out and the tightest aspect of your piece. If not, than it’s a lost cause before it’s even begun and the end result will generally reflect that. I probably spend the most amount of time with the sketch (or rather, numerous sketches) finding it and refining it cause that, to me, is the whole battle. Once you have a really good line drawing in hand, the rest is easy as pie.

Some fun knick-knacks from around the room. And no, these items are not microscopic in size if compared to that paper clip. That paper clip is 13″ long.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

When I started out learning about the children’s book market, I met some people who were also new to the field. We formed a critique group where we would share our projects and story ideas. I’ve known them a long time now and we all have an easy (and rather silly) rapport and I think it would be a pleasure to share more time with them. (Tho, I don’t know if we would get any work done. 🙂

What is the best piece of illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?

This thought probably was directed more towards the children’s book field as a whole, but would also apply to a career in illustration. While attending one of the SCBWI Summer Conferences, I sat in on one of Steve Malk’s workshops and he said a lot of great things but the two that I remember best are, “Be patient, don’t get discouraged” and “Enjoy the ride. Your passion will carry you through. Good things will happen.”

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13 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Ken Min”

  1. Lisa Yee

    Ken, this place is far too neat. Does it always look like that, or did you do a clean sweep before the photos? Be honest.

  2. Laurie Young

    Great questions! It's always fun to see how another artist works, and I feel better knowing I am not the only person hoarding, um, I mean, collecting books.

  3. ken

    lisa- i call it "organized clutter". i try to maintain orderly stacks, but i can never get it to look perfectly clean and laid out. and what the pictures don't show are the boxes of books just out of view 🙂

  4. jaime

    I am glad no one is asking to see my studio. It is a scary place. We should have a book war to see who has more. (I don't have a problem either.) Also glad to see Fin's Motors making an appearance on this post. That place is really reliable, as long as you don't come during naptime.

  5. Anonymous

    You're my *favorite* children's illustrator. I relate to the toes heater, the VCR, and your thoughts on composition- i LOVE yours- it's always PERFECT. Great reading about your worksite. Did you catch the Borders going out of business sale?! =D can't wait to get Hot, Hot Roti…and get you to sign it.

  6. Chris Evans

    Hello Ken. Just found your old biz card: "Ken Min Illustrator For Hire." So Googled you and viola! Remember Crown Books? Remember the 1988 World Series!? Go Dodgers! Delighted seeing you wrapped in the art world. Here's to you Ken. Warmly, Chris Evans. P.S. Love the Gatsby baseball jersey, AND with Babe Ruth's number.

  7. Miguel Galindo

    Hi Ken, I was wondering if it is not too much trouble, could you take a couple of photos of your light box from the side and back view, I have a very similar table, but it can not be put on an angle, and I would like to cpy the mechanism of yours and adapt it to mine, if this makes any sense.


  8. Anonymous

    hey chris and miguel

    drop me a line so i can touch base with you.

    chris- would love to catch up.

    miguel- i can send pictures.

    email me at ken@kenminart.com