ARTIST OF THE WEEK: KEL BELTERNovember 24, 2017
High contrast, bold lines and touching details litter Kel Belter’s illustrations. Based in Seoul, South Korea, Belter explores identity, vulnerability through her graphic art-style drawings and uses her work to connect to people. We talk to her about self-expression, femininity and literary characters…
Have you always been interested in art?
When I was young, I was drawn to art because it made me feel connected to other people. Whether that was painting, theatre, fashion, poetry—interacting with art gave me the sense that there were people who understood me and who had this amazing power to create beautiful, expressive things. That seemed like the greatest gift in the world: to make others feel. To make people forget reality for a moment and just appreciate beauty. I think that’s why I was motivated to create my own art. It’s a both a mode of self-expression and a way to share with others.
How did you get into illustration?
I began illustrating more seriously in the past year. Although I’ve always enjoyed drawing, I never took art classes and always focused more on writing as my creative outlet. My degree is actually in Creative Writing and French Literature, not any kind of visual medium. But when I was studying, writing became more of a chore than something that was purely expressive. I never really broke out of my writer’s block, so I started to illustrate as an alternative method of storytelling. I’ve found that I feel less constricted with what I draw versus what I write. I can create something very personal, but because it can be interpreted in so many ways, I have a sort-of safety net. For example, I could illustrate something that stems from emotional pain without saying, “I’m hurting” directly. Instead, it becomes open for the viewer’s interpretation. It’s not just mine anymore; it belongs to whoever is looking at it.
How would you describe your style?
My style is high-contrast, and I lean towards black and white. Sometimes I’ll include bright accents, especially red. I also tend to incorporate surreal aspects into my illustrations, which is why I tend to illustrate in more of a graphic art style rather than a purely realistic style.
What sort of themes do you like to explore in your work?
I definitely draw a lot from my inner world, and usually my illustrations come from a pretty personal place. Maybe that’s why I usually draw women in some state of displacement. Femininity, beauty, culture and relationships are definite themes across my work. Whatever I’m feeling at that time, whether it’s anxious, loving or frustrated, ends up on the page in some way. I’ve used negative experiences, times where I felt powerless or alone, and turned them into images that invert those experiences. I make them into something empowering instead. For example, one concept I’ve drawn from before is: “Don’t ruin yourself.” It’s something that a lot of women hear. Or, at least, it’s something I’ve heard in my life: the expectation to be beautiful in a specific way. I felt like I was always told that I needed to do XYZ to be pretty: to diet, don’t get tattoos, don’t cut your hair, dress like this…it was a lot of pressure. I like to turn those disempowering ideas on their head.
When creating a new piece, what inspires you?
I’m inspired by the people around me, my dreams, novels, photographs…it could be anything. Lately I’ve been interested in images of Korean women from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, especially factory girls and “Western Princesses” (military sex workers). I find these women’s stories fascinating and would like to explore their narratives through illustration. In the past, I’ve used literary characters—like those in Murakami’s “Men Without Women”—to bring the female characters in those stories from the background to the foreground. Other times, I’ll just see someone move in an interesting way, and I’ll want to capture that expression through a drawing.
Can you tell us about your creative process?
Once I have a concept, I’ll take that and create maybe 5-10 very basic pencil sketches. From there, I’ll choose one preliminary sketch that I like and gather references. I create a lot of my own references myself. I have a huge mirror in my apartment, so I’ll take a few photos posing in various ways to get the anatomy right. (That’s why if you look through my iPhone gallery, it’s actually pretty embarrassing!) From there, I’ll make an ink drawing on paper, then import it into Procreate or Illustrator and draw a cleaner, more detailed image digitally.
What are your favourite materials to work with and why?
My favorite materials are COPIC multiliners in various weights, COPIC classic markers, a Pentel brush pen, iPad and iPencil. I try to experiment with different materials because it keeps things interesting and lets me experiment. For example, when I create COPIC marker sketches, I use a lot more color and depth than usual. I’d like to experiment with oil painting too and see what that does to my style.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given, about art or otherwise?
Trust. Trust that the right opportunities will come to you, and that if you are following your passions and creating things that you enjoy, others will feel that too. I remember telling a friend earlier this year that I was really unsure of the future and didn’t know what I was doing with myself, and he just told me, “You do know.” He was right. Having that kind of trust in myself is what propels me forward, motivates me to take risks, and keeps me ambitious.
What do you hope people will take away from your work?
I hope that people will recognise some part of themselves in my work. Sure, I intentionally put a certain feeling or idea into the images I make, but I don’t necessarily want people to feel or think the same way I do. What I like most about illustrating is that the viewer can interpret it however they want to. Maybe they can even recognise themselves there. I think that’s more powerful than anything I could tell them to take away.
Currently, I’m working on a zine with the art collective I helped found in Seoul, Those Girls. Following that, we’re planning a collective exhibition that celebrates female artists. Additionally, I’m working on a little exhibition of my own in 2018 and on creating bigger, narrative pieces that could be transformed into a collection of graphic short stories.