An Interview with Cartoonist and Illustrator Kelly Duke

C3PO-ME by Kelly Duke
Kelly Duke
Kelly Duke

TreeHouse was recently able to speak with cartoonist and illustrator Kelly Duke, whose art appeared as part of the ValleyCrest Art Show we reported on last week (see here for that post). Be sure to keep reading after our interview to check out images of Kelly’s amazing work and learn a bit more about his history and connection to the art world.



TreeHouse: Your work contains a fair number of pop culture references. When you were creating these strips and illustrations, did you primarily use current events as your inspiration?

Kelly Duke: Absolutely. But can think of very few cartoons that don’t rely in some way on cultural references. Note too that my works were all drawn in that period before personal computers and the Internet. Cultural references came from a relatively small number of communal sources such as movies, television, or print media. I could rely on images drawn from those sources being readily identifiable in a cartoon context.


TH: Explain to us a bit about your process in creating these pieces. How did you initially begin? Did you usually work on one piece/strip at a time or many of them at once?

KD: It was far more complicated than that. First of all I was attending college and working part time during most of that period. As such I would have to fit any drawing time into my over-arching work/eat/sleep/study/class schedule. Assignments from The Poly Post would require that I find time to meet a publishing deadline. Fortunately the paper was only twice a week in that era. Post assignments required that I grapple with a theme suggested by the paper or fill space with a work or a montage of works) centered on a theme of my choosing. Lastly, I had to allow for those moments when someone, something, or event struck me as cartoon-worthy and I would need to act quickly before my muse took it away.

My finished copies were all produced on drafting vellum with technical pens. For the strip I would have a pile of pre-made four panel blanks. I would start by sketching ideas on tissue for layout and proportion then refine those through tracing on to the vellum. My first pass on the vellum would use a non-repro blue pen. Then I would ink the final copies. Once the ink was sufficiently dry, I would shade with gray felt-tip art pens in lieu of an ink wash. The technique was clean and easy, but tough on the nostrils.


TH: You’ve mentioned to us that it’s been quite a while since you have created work like the cartoons and illustrations you had on display at the recent ValleyCrest art show. What would get you to return to this type of illustrating now? And if you did start again, what subjects do you think you would tackle?

KD: The prime ingredient would be sufficient time to sit and draw. While art it is not necessarily a perishable talent, one gets rusty and needs to get back into a groove. And I would like to explore different techniques. Understand that I did most of my early works with Rapidograph technical pens. Those pens are really designed for straight line drafting with consistent line weights. They lack the expressiveness of a quill pen or a brush. I would love to have some time to experiment with either of those tools. I would also need to learn how to do a better job of drawing women. I just never got that quite right.

As for inspiration; one cannot help but be inspired, at least in a cynical way, by what passes for celebrity, fashion, conspiracy theories, an over-reliance on technology, perversions of political rhetoric, ethical failings or leadership ineptitude, and a pervasive general indifference to our environment. There is no shortage of material in that regard  I would probably try to resurrect some of my cartoon strip characters, update them a bit, give them an identifiable real world setting, and try to craft some general plot lines around their lives into which I could weave timely / topical humor and cultural references that they could evoke or respond to.


TH: What do you feel is the correlation between your early interest and talent in cartooning/illustrating and the field of landscape design that you chose to make your career? How have those skills come into play throughout your career?

KD: Well, first of all I need to clarify that my career path has been one of a Landscape Cost Estimator. As such, my success is predicated on understanding the designs of others so that I can reasonably estimate what it will cost to build those designs. Having some artistic talent helps me in interpreting and understanding a designer’s intent in the absence of fully developed plans and specifications.

Otherwise, the two fields have not crossed paths much. There are times however: (1) in college I took a class of Landscape Architecture for non-Landscape Architecture majors. The class featured lectures and exercises often led by different L.A. faculty. One exercise in rendering, led by Rodney Tapp demonstrated the difference between shade and shadow which was an epiphany for me that profoundly influenced my cartooning when I switched to gray art markers to add depth to my sketches through shading in lieu of using ink pens and tedious cross-hatching techniques. (2) I occasionally use my sketch techniques to explain construction concepts to designers in a common graphic language.

Beyond that, my cartoons have more often been for my own merriment. If others have enjoyed them, well then that was even better.




Kelly Duke
Kelly Duke

Kelly Duke grew up in the south east corner of Apple Valley, California. The area was then, and remains today, a somewhat bleak patch of the Mojave Desert where, as a youth, he had to make his own entertainment. Duke’s entertainment of choice was art. Largely self-taught, Duke had little formal training beyond occasional public school classes (try finding one of those these days), and eventually a couple of courses at UCLA Extension under respected and prize winning illustrators, Matt Wuerker and Nancy O’Hanian.

Duke considers himself to be a “Closet Cartoonist.” He has sketched and cartooned and played at illustration since his earliest school days. The work posted here is part of the body of work created while attending California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, California where he insinuated himself into the staff of the campus paper “The Poly Post.”

Duke confides: “Cartooning accomplished two things in my life. Acceptance of my work by peers increased my self-confidence. At the same time, it also allowed me the security of being able to comment on a broad spectrum of topics in relative anonymity.”

“Cartooning for the Post forced me to take a more structured approach to cartooning and illustration in order to match art to stories and to complete projects on schedule,” says Duke. As for his media of preference, the majority of his efforts have been pen and ink shaded with gray-toned felt art pens. He has occasionally dabbled in pencil and has experimented with scratchboard.

Duke’s day job is to oversee a team of Pre-Construction Cost Estimators and Project Managers at ValleyCrest Landscape Development where he has worked for close to thirty years. “Cost estimating is a very schedule-driven profession, which leaves little free time for art,” says Duke. Nonetheless, the recent mounting of a retrospective of his college work at ValleyCrest Design Group’s annual Art Exhibition has sparked interest in returning to the drawing board.

Other than that, Duke likes long walks on the beach, kittens, poetry readings, classical music, and hot cocoa by the fireside.