We talk visual note-taking, comics, and turning a hobby into a full-time gig.
This article is the first in the ‘Visual People’ series, a weekly Q & A devoted to profiling visually in-tune folks who work in a diversity of industries: chefs, teachers, interior designers, cartoonists, from all over the place. Fellow visual hobbyists: Adjust your lenses, and listen on. Creativity ain’t just for Picassos.
SM: So, let’s start with the basics! Robert Keder: Who ARE you?
RK: My name is Robert Keder. I’m a freelance illustrator (in a broad sense) working in Venlo, the Netherlands (born and raised!). My company is called Keder – Creatie & Illustratie, which translates into English as ‘Creation & Illustration’, as I offer more creative services, like animation projects, graphic design and other visual solutions that I haven’t found a hip description for yet.
SM: And you’re 6 hours ahead of me, as we established earlier!
RK: Living in the future!
SM: The services you offer are *highly* creative, and unique. Would you describe Venlo as a place with a thriving community of illustrators like yourself?
RK: Not exactly! But I’m happy about that, as it gives me some wiggle room.
SM: I have to say, your English is very good! Having a knack for languages makes sense because it requires ‘having a good ear’, which is probably why you’ve found your footing in creating ‘visual notes’ for business meetings. Speaking of: How do you describe it when you pitch it as a service?
RK: When I pitch to companies, I’ve come to call it ‘visual notes’, as I try to grasp the concept of what someone is talking about and turn it into a drawing, usually with a joke thrown in here and there. Due to the short time span, it’s often more a case of responding to certain words or phrases and going for the image that comes up in my head.
SM: How have your visual notes been received by companies? What’s the reaction?
RK: My notes are usually received very well! As I do it more often, I’m adapting my sketches to each situation, so I’ll usually write down a key word or phrase at the top with a little ‘joke’ underneath. I try to let that speak for itself as I show them off; often, it’s a couple of seconds of silence as people process the drawings, and then, one by one, they usually start laughing!
SM: What’s the drawing process like for you in these scenarios? Take notes, draw later? Or do you sketch in the moment?
RK: I take my laptop and Wacom tablet into the meeting and start drawing right away. Usually, I’ll connect my laptop to a screen if there’s one present, and show off the drawings I’ve made up to that point.
SM: Why the Wacom tablet in particular?
RK: The Wacom tablet kind of emerged naturally. I borrowed a Wacom Bamboo from a friend when my old tablet crashed and burned, and it blew my mind! After working with the Bamboo for a while, I decided that buying a professional Wacom tablet for myself was a justified investment. That’s also how I rolled into the world of creation and illustration. The benefit of my Wacom Intuos is that it has pressure sensitivity, so if I vary pressure, it changes how the lines work. I’ve been drawing all my life, but there is such a huge difference ever since I developed my ‘digital workflow’. I have no formal background, since I studied (creative) communication, so I’m piecing together the rules by looking at other artists.
SM: You mention digital workflow. When it comes to materials, do you prefer digital art to the traditional pen on paper?
RK: I enjoy both, but I prefer the speed and benefits of digital art for client work. Since I’m self-taught, I never got around to really experimenting with the traditional tools. Digital is very quick, and it has all the tools I need to get the ideas out of my head and directly into the form it needs to be. When I got my new laptop, I also bought the Kyle Webster Megapack, which are digital brushes for use in Photoshop; they mimic many traditional tools (like watercolour and gouache) but without the messy office and the hassle. They also made my line art and colour work more vivid since they give it a certain texture it previously lacked.
SM: How did you get into this kind of work, and in a broader sense: How did illustration become your whole career?
RK: It kind of ‘grew organically’ in spite of my total lack of planning. I have been drawing since I was a kid, making comics in class that ridiculed teachers (Don’t tell them though! I already got caught once). In middle school, I would get obsessed with things like Dragonball Z and my video game of the moment, and would turn that into unplanned action comics, drawn in ballpoint pen, for my dedicated audience (consisting of my best friend).
SM: An audience is an audience!
RK: Later, when social media became a thing, I would often post some drawings I made or some dumb sketches. So, in that sense, I’ve always established my ‘brand’, which in this case is: ‘that guy who’s always drawing’.
SM: This one is for my fellow illustration hobbyists: What comics, cartoons or artists acted as good learning tools for you?
RK: I used to read a lot of Willy Vandersteen’s Suske & Wiske comics (Spike & Suzy in English), Tintin, Garfield, and a Dutch comic called Dirkjan. I think anything that held my attention long enough for me to try and imitate it was a good learning tool. Because I’m good at ‘absorbing’, I learned a lot from imitating and translating them into my own bootleg stories, since it required an understanding of a medium’s deeper layers. But, I’ve always had the desire to create something new. So when Pokémon became a thing, I would invent all kinds of new creatures that were not Pokémon, of course, but my own Original Thing That I Invented And Was Different Enough To Not Be Considered Stealing©.
SM: Speaking of Pokémon, and your own freelance projects, let’s talk animation. What platforms do you use to animate, and how did you learn the craft?
RK: I’ve enjoyed cartoons all my life. At some point, a friend introduced me to Newgrounds.com, where many people were making their OWN animations. I learned that they were making them in Flash, but a friend got me some other software (I think it was Ulead GIF animator or something similar), and that was my first real introduction to animation and the concept of ‘frames’.
SM: How have you made a living with animation?
RK: An acquaintance knew that I was drawing, and he asked if I also did animation. I said “I’ll learn it if you can set me up with Adobe Flash”, which he did, and using it I animated an ‘explanimation’ for his company. I learned the hows and whats of the program by diving in, way over my head, and then grasping for bits and pieces as I struggled to stay afloat in the project. This was a big kick in the right direction, as it opened the door for more unofficial odd jobs. Eventually, I was getting more contracts like this, and I wanted to make it ‘official’ since I was always worried that the, uh, TAX SWAT would bust open my door and shoot my money. After getting some good advice from my family [and holding various day jobs for years], I registered my own business at the start of 2015 since I was fortunate enough to be getting new client work regularly.
SM: Tell me more about the big tasks of setting up your business and establishing your new ‘creator’ brand.
RK: In regards to becoming an illustrator, I decided I wanted a more creative life around the time I bought myself the Wacom tablet. I used the financial buffer I had built up to really invest in learning how I work best, becoming more efficient and trying to get more stable business out of it. I also rented an office space.
SM: Artists can easily become isolated. How do you connect with other creative people and stay engaged with them, either online or in person?
RK: A friend once approached me to become a volunteer for TEDx Venlo; it has been a great way of meeting new and interesting people, and remaining in touch with some local creatives, particularly photographers and graphic designers. TEDx has also been a way of showcasing my drawing, as I have been illustrating each talk for a couple of years now. But a BIG factor has actually been Twitter. I originally made that to promote my company, but I decided to just use it to follow interesting artists and, sometime in 2016, by coincidence I bumped into one of my old DeviantArt buddies on Twitter, Ygor Speranza, who is now a Brazilian game developer. Connecting with him introduced me to Twitter’s game-developer world, and eventually led me to get into pixel art.
SM: I would call that a positive social media success story!
RK: It really is! I went ‘viral’ a tiny little bit once, but that paralyzed me more than anything else (viral on the scale of a ‘slight cough’, rather than full-scale influenza).
SM: What advice do you have for people just starting out in illustration, who want to make it more of a full-time adventure?
RK: That’s a good question, and the specifics will vary from person to person, but big things that work the best in the long run are:
- Tell people what you do. Use your specific medium or discipline as a means to communicate something. Also: Listen. Open up your ears and mind and absorb what you can, not only in illustration, but the world in a broader sense.
- Following diverse people on Twitter and reading their stories has taught me a LOT about the advantages I’ve had in my life that allowed me to get an education, be healthy, and be able to support myself, and I intend to pay it forward.
- ‘Follow the Thread’: Follow something that interests you all the way to the next version of it. For example, making fast, funny drawings eventually led to me to illustrating at TEDx talks, which also led to other visual note-related assignments. This also applies to figuring out the broader concepts behind something. Why do I like this thing? What broader feeling does it fulfill for me? What other things do this, in other disciplines, for example?
- ‘Show Your Work’: People will know what you do if you let them know what you do. And one of these people might have a use for it, or might know someone else who has a use for it the next time they see it. And that same thing goes for when you have trouble figuring things out for yourself: People will be able to help you if you dare to ask for help. The right person is closer than you think, and that little line you cast by asking for it might lead to a life-altering spool of yarn.
SM: Personally, I am inspired! Thanks, Robert.
RK: Thank you for interviewing me! It was a nice chance to reflect on my own path so far, and I hope some readers will find something useful in here.
Do you know someone who leads a visual life, and should be featured in this series? Are you a visual creator and are dying to discuss your work? Yes? Good. Tell us about it.
*This conversation has been adapted in order to get to the nitty gritty of the interviewee’s life, work, and creative process. A special Thank-You to Robert Keder for donating his time, know-how, and giving his permission to use his images for the purposes of this article.