We interviewed Kevin-John back in 2014 and figured it’s time to catch-up and see what his latest projects have been!
WDW Hints: Last time we chatted in 2014, you were getting ready for the official release of “Flowers and Figment.” You have completed many beautiful pieces for Disney since then, could you tell us about them?
Kevin-John: I have completed a couple of Haunted Mansion pieces to celebrate the 45th anniversary. “The Hat Box Ghost” was my first piece for Disney and it continues to be a really popular piece for both Disney World and Disneyland.
I also created a piece called “As The Tombstones Quake.” That was a little bit of a different piece for me in terms of style. It was more of a stylized character version of the gravedigger (the cemetery character from the Haunted Mansion). It’s kind of a fun “Scooby Doo-style” of art. I always loved those original Scooby Doo cartoons from the 60s when I was a kid. They had beautifully painted backgrounds and I loved the colors that they used. This piece is an ode to the artists on that series.
I then created a “Headless Horseman in Liberty Square.” Again, this focuses on some of my favorite parts of Disney and the parks. I love Liberty Square. It is probably my favorite place in all of WDW. What better than to have the Headless Horseman riding on his horse, flaming pumpkin in hand, wielding the sword down the street in Liberty Square. When I started going to WDW as a guest, one of the things I would always do is look for anything that had the headless horseman in it (t-shirts, coffee mugs or artwork) and I think in 10 years of visiting WDW I found one piece. It was a t-shirt at the Halloween party in 2004. That was all I could find. So I felt there was a gap there that needed to be filled and I was happy to do it with this painting.
I then continued to focus on kind of the dark side of Disney, as I love to do. I visited the Hollywood Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios, my second favorite attraction after The Haunted Mansion. I love story behind this attraction. I love the melodramatic music that plays as you make your way up to the tower. There’s nothing spookier than going to a place that’s been shut down – doors shuttered to history – and then being able to visit that place as a guest there and peer into the world as it looked in the 1930s. I am completely fascinated with that idea. I love to spend time at the tower and look at all of the details. Naturally, that was one of the pieces that I had to pursue. Again, there really wasn’t a lot of Tower of Terror art in the parks. So it was one of those things that I felt there was a need for so I created this piece called “If You Dare.” It features one of the bellhop characters beckoning you onto an elevator. He’s holding up your key to room 13 in one hand and he’s got your luggage in his other hand. He’s kind of giving you that foreboding glare almost with a Norman Bates type of grin. I really love the mood that it strikes and the fans have really responded to the piece. The original was in the gallery at Disney Springs for only 3 days and before it sold for $5000. I was just at the gallery again today signing a couple dozen of the limited edition giclees as they are really selling fast. I think this piece is going to become a real fan favorite.
From there, I took a step over to the lighter side of Disney again. If you know anything about me, I love all things “Tiki”. Over and above my passion for classic horror films and Halloween, the dark side of Disney and anything spooky, I love the tiki culture. And that starts with the Enchanted Tiki Room. I know that there has been a lot of art created that features the interior of the Tiki Room meaning the birds and some stylizations of some of the tiki gods, but I hadn’t really been able to find any official Disney art that had been created featuring the exterior of the Tiki Room. I wanted to include that beautiful and kind of exotic looking area over in Adventureland. So my charge with that piece was to invite the viewer in and kind of give him or her the feeling they had just crossed into Adventureland from one of the other parts of the park and it is dusk and tiki torches have all been lit and they are welcoming you and leading you back through the piece. The tiki torches repeat and lead you back through the piece visually. This was an enormous piece in terms of undertaking because of the amount of detail in the art. I worked on it for over 300 hours, which included the original painting, the concept sketches and study leading up to the creation of the original art. I was very pleased that it was in the gallery less than 24 hours. They hung it up and the next morning it sold for $6,000. That just occurred within the last couple of weeks so we have about 120 days or so before the limited edition giclee and prints are available for retail sales. I think those are going to come out sometime around June or July 2016. I am really excited about that piece becoming available to the public.
WDW Hints: Which completed piece is your favorite so far and why?
Kevin-John: It’s always my last piece; the piece that I just completed. And the reason is because with every piece that I produce, I try something a little bit different in terms of technique. I improve rapidly with my art. You can compare two pieces that were done back to back and see marked improvement with the younger piece. I’m always trying to improve my art and the downside of that is my style does change. There are artists out there that established a style 10 years ago and every piece of art that they do looks identical. You can’t tell the difference between a piece from 2006 and one from 2016. My changing style is a result of me trying to improve the work as I go and I hope that the public responds to that. It is also why my most recent pieces are my favorite. It has less to do with subject matter than it does the amount of improvement that has taken place in the piece.
WDW Hints: What projects can we look forward to seeing in 2016?
Kevin-John: This is going to be a very exciting year for me and it already has been. Of course, I’ll be producing more art for Disney this year. I would like to do at least 3 more pieces for Disney. On the docket right now is a Pirates of the Caribbean piece. I’m really working on refining the concepts for that. I think we have narrowed it down to the skeleton helmsman. He’s the skeleton that you see right before you take the drop down the waterfall at Walt Disney World. Other than Disney art, I have my own series of art that I sell independently to my fans. Kevin-John fans are not just strictly Kevin-John Disney art fans, but they have broadened. I have been creating art for nearly 29 years now and I’m just starting my 3rd year with Disney, so I continue to create Kevin-John brand artwork.
Currently, one of my projects is a full series of Tiki-themed art, which is one of my passions. The tiki culture is becoming very hip again and I am working on providing cool, funky art for that genre. Over the past year and a half, I’ve done some straight paintings of tiki gods, tiki birds (parrots), beaches, palm trees, sunsets, things that are tropical. These paintings help refine a style for this series and what I really have come to find with my paintbrush is that I love to do still-life paintings of tiki scenery. You might have a tiki mug with a nice fruity garnish on top sitting on a table as you overlook a beautiful sunset and palm trees. It’s kind of that escape to paradise and that is my direction. I want that piece to hang on a wall in your home or office and you can look at the piece and really escape and live that tiki lifestyle for a little while.
Certainly my sports artwork continues to be a focus, as it has been over the past 25 years. Pop culture art mixed with some of the horror film art I have created. I am also starting to explore aquatic lifescape art. I just did a painting of a great white shark that we are developing into a line of products. We are negotiating with a couple of retail partnerships to handle the distribution of Kevin-John aquatic life art. It’s also important to note that if you are a fan of Kevin John art, you can commission an original in any subject matter that you would like. I’ve provided a lot of that over the last quarter century- Disney themed, pop culture, personal themes (your family or home).
WDW Hints: Are you allowed ‘free reign’ when creating Disney art, or are you assigned a specific theme or character?
Kevin-John: The only kind of direction that Disney really gives me is that they really want me to concentrate on the experiences in the parks. My strength is stylized realism. I’m not a character artist, so I stay away from that. There’s enough of that artwork out there. I know people will say “but, you painted Figment”. Yes, but he is a park character specifically. I don’t think you can depict all of Epcot without the official/ unofficial mascot of the park. Again, he’s part of the park experience. But you won’t really see me painting Donald, Mickey and Minnie too often. More so, I will focus on idealizing the experiences you have in the park, such as seeing the headless horseman trot down the street in Liberty Square during Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party or the experiences at the Tower of Terror and The Haunted Mansion. I’m also very excited for Star Wars Land and to see what I’m going to be able to do with that. That is as much direction as they give me. I really have free reign to create the pieces that I feel will do the parks justice and I feel that the public will respond to.
WDW Hints: What are the “rules” about drawing or painting Disney characters with intentions to sell the piece?
Kevin-John: Let’s talk about for the company: If we are talking about Kevin-John creating art for Disney, I kind of stay away from the character art. There are pretty strict guidelines that have to be followed for the artists that do handle that. Even with the Kevin-John Disney art (the park art), there are fairly strict guidelines. I’m not going to do anything in my art that’s going to reflect poorly on the brand that we love so much. These are Walt’s parks and we want to make sure that they are always seen in the most appropriate light. There are always reviews and approvals that the art will go through to make sure that the rules are followed.
In terms of creating Disney character art to sell: If you are not a Disney artist, it’s a huge no-no. I hear it a lot and it always baffles me. I will have artists, young and old, send me emails or messages with their Disney art attached inquiring “What do you think of this?” or “What do you think of my painting of Mickey?” They always preface it by saying they are huge fans of Disney. However, they are stealing from the company that they profess to love so much and that baffles me. Many don’t realize that it’s illegal. Those images and those characters belong to Disney. They are their intellectual property and whether you are a fan or not, you are creating images based on those character’s properties. Without being under contract with Disney, like I am, then you’re breaking the law. It’s just wrong.
WDW Hints: Who do you receive your Disney-related assignments from?
Kevin-John: I have one person that I answer to with Disney. It’s not so much that I receive the assignments, but more of me coming up with the concept and sending it to him. Then those concepts go in front of a review board. They take a look at it and give it a critique (yes, no, maybe, change this). Then we can go ahead and move forward to the refined sketches. From there, those are approved again and we move to original art. After original art is complete, then it is approved for final submission (for sale and for reproduction).
WDW Hints: Have you ever been asked to do an assignment that you didn’t want to do? Did you do it or turn it down?
Kevin-John: Being that I work for myself (I own my own company), there have been times when I’ve been asked to be involved with projects that I didn’t believe in. For a number of reasons I didn’t believe I them- maybe it wasn’t subject matter that I felt my brand should be a part of or a case where the money wasn’t right. I do this for a living and I have certain rates that I do charge for my art and if the budget does not allow for Kevin-John rate, then unfortunately we have to say no to the projects. There have been projects where I thought my style of art wasn’t right for it, not often, but there have been those opportunities. For example, I’ve been asked to illustrate children’s books before and there always a limited budget for that and the authors are so in love with their story that they oftentimes have a very specific vision in terms of what they want to see on those pages and I say to them “I wouldn’t tell you how to write the book, don’t tell me how to illustrate the book. If you want me to do it for you, then the illustration is going to be done my way. “ This is because I understand how the visual flow should look. I understand composition and oftentimes they do not. So, there have only been a couple of those situations when I’ve taken those contracts. Then of course, there’s always the problem of time. I work 70 hours a week. I’m in my studio constantly with long hours and long days and there are only so many projects that can be done within that time. I’ve had to turn down projects because I couldn’t fit them in to the schedule to meet their deadlines. I schedule work about 6 months in advance so I know what projects will be on the drawing board. If you come to me now for something that needs to be done in 3 weeks, it’s not going to happen so I’ve had to turn down a lot of projects because of time conflicts.
WDW Hints: What is the next piece we will be seeing in the parks and what was the inspiration behind it?
Kevin-John: The piece literally on my drawing board right now is the pilot piece for the tiki mug series. It’s a beautiful sunset at water’s edge with a beautiful tiki mug in the foreground and a big garnish in it of cherry and lemon and a tiki umbrella. There will be a mid-century modern candle in the foreground. It’s a really nice piece. That’ll be done within the next week. After that, I’ll really begin to sharpen my pencils on the creation of the Pirates of the Caribbean artwork that was previously mentioned.
WDW Hints: Now that you have been working with Disney for a couple of years now and you have a large fan base, how do you feel when you get recognized while visiting the Disney parks?
Kevin-John: You’ll have to remember that I’m going into my 29th year of creating art professionally. I’ve always been fortunate to have a really decent fan base. I was 17 years old when I issued my prints publicly. I’ve always been one to do showings and signings and be in the public in terms of getting my work out there and promoting it and I’ve always been recognized for my art when in public. Back then, it was in my little hometown. Then when I started doing sports art on a national scale, every time I would go to a big sporting event or show, I was recognized at that point for my sports art.
The Disney fan base is vast and large (like the sports fan base). However, it’s not as segmented as the sports fan base is. The sports fan base is very segmented depending on what team or sport you cheer for. Disney is all love. It’s global as well. I have fans in other countries now. It doesn’t even seem to be real that people in the UK, over across the ocean, are hanging my work in their homes and they know my name. Previously when I would visit the parks as a sports artist, I wasn’t recognized as much and I could kind of ease into the crowd and get away. But that’s not the case anymore. It’s wonderful. I don’t look at that as a negative at all. I look at it as a positive thing. I love my fans. I have always made time and will continue to make time for my fans. If you see me in the parks, and you want autographs or photos, or a little doodle, be sure to get my attention or come say hi. I absolutely love that. For me, it’s one of those things that makes Disney that much more magical. There have even been times where my girlfriend and I have been in the parks and I see a couple of kids and I’ll do a couple little character doodles and introduce myself to them. I say “I’m a Disney artist and I just want to give you a little bit of magic today” and leave them with signed doodles. I can imagine a young Kevin-John in a Disney park and having this love for Disney and for art and someone like a Mark Davis or a Robert Crumb coming up to myself and doing that. I would’ve lost my mind. So I’m always cognizant of those opportunities to create magic. I’ve been so very blessed to be able to create for Disney and if that means that I’m able to create some magic for some guests, I am willing and honored to do that. If you follow me on Facebook, which a lot of my fans do, you know that my favorite place to be in the whole of Walt Disney World is at Trader Sam’s. There haven’t been any times where I’ve been in there and not been recognized. I’ve made some great friendships with folks that I’ve met at Trader Sam’s. There are special things that I do at Trader Sam’s for my fans. So if you ever see me at there, make sure that you come introduce yourself and let’s talk a little bit and then ask for that “something special.” It’s pretty cool and the fans seem to love it.
WDW Hints: Is there anything else you would like to mention to your fans?
Kevin-John: I think the important thing to know is if you’re not strictly a Disney fan or if you’re interested in other Kevin-John art and becoming a collector, there are lots of opportunities. I cover a wide variety of subject matter with my art and commissioned pieces. You can visit my website at www.kevinjohnstudio.com.
Editors Note: A big thanks to our writer Crissy for transcribing this entire interview from an audio file! Special thanks to Kevin-John for taking the time to answer all of our answers with great detail ~ it’s much appreciated!