The Illustrious Kevin Cornell

by Articulate

Kevin Cornell’s illustrations have a remarkable capacity to evoke childlike emotion, even in adults.

Philadelphia based illustrator Kevin Cornell is prolific. Animations, editorials, comics, and conceptual art. All done with a dedication to craft that borders on the obsessive.

Kevin Cornell: I have to draw every single day. If I don't draw every single day I go crazy. I broke something in my brain where I think I get dopamine hits when I draw. And that's what keeps me drawing. I'm a drawing addict maybe.

In the past several years, Cornell has turned his focus to children's books. First illustrating other's projects, and more recently writing his own. The form presents a unique conundrum. Be interesting enough for the parents, and succinct enough for the kids. In practice this means bringing home a compelling story in 1,200 words or less.

Cornell: It's a very satisfying thing when you arrive at that perfect, perfect little story that you can't take anything away from.

But when it comes to constructing that perfect little story, Cornell says it's better to treat the moral like icing on the cake than the main ingredient.

Cornell: There's just going to be those inherent lessons in the actions that the characters take. You find 'em, you find 'em after and then you can lean a little away if it's starting to feel like oh this could be about finding an inner strength or this could be about that, but if you, if that's your goal it just comes off as heavy handed usually.

The same principle of discovery over design applies to his creation of characters.

Cornell: You are running experiments with them in it and seeing how they behave in those experiments.You spend a lot of time in their head.If you're in their head while you're drawing it, I think you make the right decisions and this is the part about illustration that probably, I don't know if people realize it as much how much of a storytelling task illustration is just in designing the character. The clothes that they wear, the way they're standing, that's the stuff that comes out during even in the final stages of making a book. You're discovering stuff about the character when you're doing the final art for a book and some, you might, you'll come across something you'll be like this doesn't seem like something they'll do. They shouldn't be wearing that shirt, they should be wearing this shirt. That's the process that's fun. That's what I like doing. That's what keeps me going. That's why I want to work on new things, is to discover that character.

But there was plenty to discover in Lulu's Mysterious Mission, the third in Judith Viorst's series about the adventures of a spirited young girl. The first two were illustrated by Lane Smith.

Cornell:  When I got the manuscript for Lulu, I was reading it and I was like oh this is a, it was a genuinely funny book. I really enjoyed reading it. It's one of those books where you're like “oh, I have to draw this. I will do this for no money.” The Lulu character was interesting because I had to take what Lane had established and then translate that to my own world, to something I could render. He uses a lot of shapes, so my job was to take these characters and you know they have an oblong head, and I have to make that oblong head work in a 3D world and it has to work in a real environment. I have a lot of interest in expression, in the character, so I put a lot of work into making that face communicate correctly.

AJC: This capacity to make lines on a page emote, that's a huge gift.

Cornell: Yeah!

AJC: That's it, that's the thing right?

Cornell: I guess yeah. I'm just tapping into something that's already built into a human being. When you take two things that are dots and you put an opening there, you know the human turns into a face and then even just slightly tweaking it a certain way, like humans work really hard to see expression and to connect with something. If you can't get someone to connect with something, you're doing something terribly wrong. You know because humans really want to do that. So I don't feel like I'm doing anything unique. I just perhaps do it a little easier, or it maybe it can come through my hand a lot quicker.

And though Kevin Cornell is driven by a constant desire for improvement, he's learned not to try fixing the past.

Cornell: I try to not revise stuff. It's very difficult because it's very satisfying because you see a problem and you're like oh, I could totally fix that now. It's five years later, I know how to draw that, but it's something I try to avoid especially because every time you revise you lose that heart of the drawing, the soul of it. That first bit that pours out of you, there's usually something in there that you kill when you start to revise. So the trick of it really is like what I spend all my time doing is trying to find that fine place where I can make it look good so then I'm happy with it, but I haven't made it look plastic and too perfect. There still needs to be things wrong with it. You spend a lot of time overworking something, and then peeling back the layers from it 'cause you went too far.

AJC: And for the viewer, is there a peeling back of the layers in terms of what you've put in there?

Cornell: I want the art to have depth. I want people to be able to go back and find new things. A lot of times it is just a process of you know you do the first pass and then you go back and you see what else you can tweak, what you can take out and put in things that might not be noticed, ever, but they're there and you know they're there and it attaches you to that drawing.

AJC: Is there always something in there for you, then?

Cornell: Oh definitely. There's no way to finish it unless, unless I like it.

AJC: Most entertainment for children is not meant for children. Are you aware of your role in that?

Cornell: Yeah, definitely. I'm writing as much for the parent as I am for the kid. I mean it's an interesting trick to make something that appeals to both of those sides. It has to be sophisticated and simple at the same time. The amount of time that I spend putting something in there for all kinds of people, that probably doubles the amount of time trying to make sure a drawing can work for anyone looking at it.

Kevin Cornell is quick to acknowledge the part that good fortune has had in his success. But it would seem that the harder he works, the luckier he gets.

I do what I do every day and I can do it because I love doing it. That goes a long way but it doesn't change the fact that I am constantly doing it, constantly practicing, and constantly refining what it is that I can do on a dime for someone. When luck calls, I can always be ready for it.