In the Works with James Kelly, illustrator and graphic designer

Capital City Weekly


Editor’s note: Regular readers of the Capital City Weekly will recognize James Kelly’s work from his many illustrations of poems in our reader-submitted feature, Writers’ Weir. We’re fortunate to have James as a graphic designer at the Juneau Empire and Capital City Weekly and excited to share more of his work with readers.

First, the basics: what kind of work do you do? Any favorite projects?

I’m an illustrator and graphic artist. I specialize in logo design but some of my favorite projects are coming up with cool homebrew labels. I’ve worked with some great people over the years and each design is so drastically different than the next in style and in taste — it’s challenging and keeps me creative.

Do you have any particular creative routines or habits – favorite spaces to work in, times of day, materials you use, music you listen to, etc.?

Setting the scene is a must for me in order to get the creative juices flowing. I’m a very organized person and in order to get into the creative mindset I have to eliminate all distractions. Distractions like the daily to-do list, grocery shopping, laundry and wrapping up house projects. When all this is said and done I can relax and let my mind wander. I can work just about anywhere, but my favorite place to create art is in my garage. It’s the best room in the house and I like working amongst the bicycle wreckage from previous bike builds. I’m a night owl so I put on a pot of coffee, dim the lights, play some ambient techno and start sketching. I’ve found that working with music that has lyrics is a huge distraction for me because sooner or later I’m drawing what the song is singing about (not always what I’m going for). So I veer towards ambient techno instead. It gets me excited to create and it’s always fun to have a dance party of one. Good bands to check out would be M83, Botany, Ulrich Schnauss, Washed Out, Haring, and of course Tyco.

How much art do you usually get done in a one-day period?

I always try and do something artistic every day, even if it’s as little as sketching out a few ideas in the ol’ sketchbook. As finished pieces, go it takes me a good part of the day to do just one piece.

How do you balance your creative life with your day job?

It’s a struggle for sure but it’s very important to remind myself that I make art because it’s fun, no pressure. The moment you make art your full time job your mindset changes and most of the time the magic is lost. I’m about quality over quantity so I try and not overcommit when it comes to commissions and not overbook myself so that I’m spread out thin and feel pressured to get a piece done prematurely. I try to wrap up big art projects on the weekends largely due to the number of consecutive hours it takes. I leave the conceptuals to the weekdays so I can go to bed relatively early and am not dragging at work.

What do you find inspiring?

Cartoons! I try to make it a point to get up early enough before work to curl up on the couch and watch a few episodes of Adventure Time or Rick and Morty. I’m inspired by how random cartoons can be in defying gravity and logic. I try to bring this to my own body of work. For me life is far too serious and being able to break the rules of physics and bend the realm of reality is exciting.

What are you working on now, and when do you hope to finish it?

Currently I’m working on a new sticker line of Ewoks for my side business “Decaffeinated Designs.” I started this venture in 2011 and have been doing this to keep my creative side active in the slow winter months. I don’t want to spoil the surprise but look for them on my Etsy store ( this spring. (Editor’s note: Decaffeinated Designs’ Facebook page is

What advice have you heard (either directly, from someone you know, or indirectly, from reading or otherwise learning about another artist) that has been beneficial to you? Separately, do you have any advice for other artists?

One of the best mantras I’ve adopted comes from cartoonist and illustrator Jake Parker: “finishing a thing is way more important than having something that’s perfect but not finished. One of the best ways to learn how do to something is to actually go out and do it. If you want to draw comics, go draw a comic. If you want to illustrate a picture book, go illustrate a picture book. The key thing there is that you do it and the most important part is that you finish it. What’s important is that you have the ability to take an idea from start to finish. If you’re worried about perfection, and you’re worried about being good, you’re going to hate whatever you do perfectly now a year from now, because you’ve moved on and you’ve gotten better… The world wants and it needs people who finish things. Remember that. Part of becoming an amazing artist is having the ability to finish something.”


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