Artists We Love: Theodore Key

INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr


We chat to Cape Town-based creative and illustrator Theodore Key about his journey into drawing, advice for up-and-comers and what his future plans are.

Tell us about your illustration journey? 

I started drawing right from toddlerhood, there wasn’t much else to do at that age other than spit up my porridge. I decided to keep the habit (drawing not spitting up porridge) as time went on. I was also a really shy kid so I continued drawing in school while everyone else was making eye contact. I studied graphic design at the University of Pretoria, I wasn’t much good at Design, haha, but I did get into cartooning and illustration during that time. I would often race through my design work so I could draw silly cartoons. It was during that time that I decided to become a freelance illustrator and venture into the world of children’s book illustration as well. 

What illustration styles inspire you? 

I love expressive and humorous illustrations that are somewhat uncanny. Gary Larson was my first hero in drawing when I was in high school, loved his absurdism and his sense of weight and consequence that he captured (if his characters fell off a cliff they wouldn’t bounce back up like the Wile E Coyote). In terms of kiddies books, I loved Richard Scarry as a child and still do. 

These days my favourite illustrator and writer/illustrator of children’s books is by far old William Steig. He captured the human condition and existential absurdity so well. His freewheeling and clumsy lines were incredibly explorative and playful. He also regularly sympathised with the ugly, misunderstood and frightening characters in his books and cartoons, that’s something I love. Other illustrators that I love are Jean Jacques Sempe, Glenn Baxter, Michael Sowa and Edward Steed, they all make me laugh. I follow some great contemporary book illustrators on Instagram as well. Freya Hartas, Ksenia Bakhareva and Olga Demidova come to mind. 

What do you prefer, commissions or your own ideas? 

Oh definitely my own ideas, I love to play with my own thoughts and feelings through drawing. Though I must say I love drawing people’s pets as well. Give me a whacky-looking spaniel or wiener dog any day. 

What does a regular day look like for you? 

Wake up, play with the cat. I then faff about until midday doing admin and listening to music. I usually work in the afternoons and early evenings, then I head out at night because it’s important to see humans if you work alone. Every now and then I will draw ambient scenes after midnight when the world is quiet, it’s very meditative. 

How do you incorporate humour into your work?

If there is something funny or awkward about a character then I am immediately endeared to it, so I basically redraw characters and scenes until there is a daftness to all concerned and I feel a familial kinship with them, haha. I love playing that game with animals that I wouldn’t naturally cuddle up to, like crocodiles. I guess I also try to make sense, through humour and drawing, of things I feel or thoughts that roll about my head. Often these things are serious business but I try to make myself laugh about them on the page because that gives life’s concerns and incongruencies a softer more charming edge, if that makes sense? I find humour works best when it interplays or even becomes indistinguishable from other emotions. So that’s what I will try consciously do, mix ‘em up. So for instance, humour with melancholy or humour with empathy, the taboo or the macabre. Humour certainly amplifies when it occupies strange places. 

What is your preferred medium?

Pen and ink with watercolours. 

Anything you struggle with drawing? 

Bicycles are so hard to draw! Hands are a classic headache… and meerkats. 

Do you have a favourite drawing?

Hmmm, tough call, but this one does come to mind.

Theodore Key

What advice do you have for people who want to get into illustration? 

Buy a small cheap sketchpad and no eraser so that you aren’t worried about spoiling good paper or ‘fixing’ anything. Then draw whatever captures your fancy. If your take the pressure off you will have fun and want to ask the sketchbook out on a second date. 

In terms of making a career out of it. I would say don’t be shy to ask other illustrators for advice (we are all always learning from each other). Also, focus in on what makes your way of thinking and drawing unique as that is, after all, what will make it stand out to publishers and clients. 

What are your future plans?

  1. Find the dog with the perfect bark
  2. Finally finish making my first 3 self-authored books. 

See more of his illustrations at theodorekey.com.

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