Nate Kitch’s work is easy to spot. The 26-year-old illustrator’s cartoons, which frequently appear in popular publications such as The Guardian, The New Scientist and Time Out magazine, have a unique signature style which is instantly recognisable.
Kitch, a Southampton Solent University illustration graduate, specialises in digital collage. His designs, which feature stitched-together faces, distorted images and the frequent presence of colourful bulbous noses, don’t exactly paint the most aesthetically pleasing image at first sight. But, when combined with a mix of bold colours and clashing patches of grey shadow, you’re greeted with witty illustrations unlike anything you’ve probably ever seen before.
“Collage is my thing,” Kitch says. “If I stopped doing collage I probably wouldn’t be able to make the work I do and I don’t think people would recognise it as mine.” Indeed, much of Kitch’s work derives from his clever use of textures; shapes and patterns are married with layers of images, often old photographs but also hand-drawn objects, cut-outs from magazines and pictures sourced on the internet.
“I tend to find images and textures and scan them in and have digital libraries of them, then I’ll browse through them and find expressions that I think work well,” he explains. “99 per cent of the time the image needs a person in it so I’ll look for an expression that works or a pose and then I’ll work around that really.”
José Mourinho is made up of around 10 different images sewn together
Kitch calls himself a “magpie for old photos”, collecting physical images from a range of real-life sources as well as online for his work. “I’ll go on eBay and bulk-buy magazines and half the time they don’t turn up and I have to go for a refund, and I’ll go to car boot sales. I’ll also look on the internet and try and find photos that I can use.
For copyright reasons, Kitch tends not to use images of celebrities for the figures in his work. Instead, he finds abstract figures that he’ll sew together, moving body parts around and manipulating faces with noses, eyes and ears from different people. The result is a brand-new image which makes the original feel like a distant memory. Kitch’s portrait of former Chelsea Manager José Mourinho is made up of around 10 different images sewn together like a jigsaw, his nose, eyes and ears all taken from different people.
The next step involves playing with levels and colours in Photoshop, layering images together and adding different textures to produce his mixed media creations. It is these techniques which make Kitch’s illustrations so humorous and mesmerising, forcing their audiences to attempt to make sense of the different components and try to deconstruct each piece of the puzzle in order to decipher what’s going on.
Kitch’s pride in getting things wrong is refreshing. He believes that mistakes have evolved his work and developed his signature style. “Sometimes I’ll make a mistake and put someone’s arm at a weird angle and I’ll kind of like it, in fact, it’s more interesting than how they looked before,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m quite open to making mistakes and trying new things in my work because when you’re doing it everyday you do sometimes get bored of what you do. I’ll write little notes like ‘press this button on Photoshop that was good’ and ‘remember when you did the arms, think about the arms’.”
It was through experimenting during his degree that Kitch developed his digital collage style and gained himself a prestigious Association of Illustration (AoI) Award for New Talent after submitting work from his final year project. He recalls working on a piece about jazz musicians, specifically on a favourite musician of his named Albert Ayler. “As I was tracing him I thought ‘what would it look like if I just cut him out and stuck him on the image?’” Kitch remembers. “So I just cut him out and stuck him on the image and thought, oh that’s pretty good, and from then on, I thought this is definitely the way I should work.”
Unimpressed by his own sketching skills, Kitch found an additional bonus in discovering that he could “put people in and put figures in without having to draw them” because “like that they look awful”. Even his own popularity and success is a surprise to Kitch; he is humbled when I compliment one of his most recent pieces.
Following his graduation, he worked on the front desk at a National Trust watermill trying to earn some money while starting his illustration career. He would sit behind a till, taking tickets and telling people “the mill’s through there” while “emailing art directors at the same time”.
He never let on that he was juggling a part-time job as well as his fledgling illustration career in order to appear as professional as possible. As increasing numbers of commissions were requested, Kitch reached the point where “work was coming in so much I was basically not there even though I was there at the job”, he says. “I was sort of rushing off into cupboards and getting my laptop out and doing work and doing sketches at the same time.” He laughs, explaining, “I got my first ever Guardian job when I was working there, it was a two hour turnaround and I did it in the cupboard at work.”
sometimes you’re shooting in the dark
Kitch has moved on remarkably from the time when he was producing illustrations from inside a cupboard; he has been producing regular illustrations for The Guardian for the last year and a half. He describes the whole process from commission to production to publication: “For The Guardian I usually have six hours to produce and send in an image,” he explains. “By lunchtime the brief comes in and by 6 o’clock you have to have your illustration filed and ready to go for the website and to print that night.”
It sounds fairly straightforward, however “the article often hasn’t even been written or the writer’s writing the article while I’m trying to illustrate what they’re writing about”. This isn’t an easy task when a subject is so vast: “sometimes you’re shooting in the dark because they might be talking about Europe but that’s massive. From what context are they talking about it? From what perspective?”
Consequently, Kitch has had to learn to adapt his work quickly. By mid-afternoon a solid piece of writing should have been sent through and from then on until the deadline it’s a process of “roughly sketching an idea out as quickly as you can and then if they like that, trying to polish it up and make it more into a collage and much more like how the finished product would look in an hour or two”. From then on he just needs to have the confidence in himself and his work for the final deadline.
Luckily for Kitch, his style of work allows him flexibility, the digital-based element meaning he can create and modify images fairly quickly. He laughs when explaining how often art directors ask him questions such as “can you make the background red, is that difficult?” because all it requires him to do is press a button and change a layer on Photoshop.
Producing high-quality work for top names and companies is important to Kitch and comes with additional pressure. “The Guardian is a really big client and I’m so happy to work for them and I don’t wanna muck it up for them, they don’t wanna print something that’s garbage.” Despite this pressure, Kitch is confident that what he has produced for the broadsheet is “some of the best work I’ve ever made and the stuff I feel most happy with” and the constant stream of commissions he receives from the newspaper confirms that.
Yet some commissions are more difficult than others. Kitch explains that often, particularly for political pieces, he has to reign in his views on certain subjects. This can prove problematic at times when his own political perspective differs to that of the writer or publication he is working for. He recounts a commission he received from The Guardian for an illustration to accompany an article which spoke negatively about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: “that was hard because I really, really like Corbyn and I really didn’t necessarily believe in what [the writer] was saying.”
Kitch believes that the best way to approach such a situation is to see it as a good challenge, and try to reach a happy medium. What he doesn’t want to do is “create insulting images or slur someone with an illustration”. Having said that, Kitch has boundaries and would find it difficult to produce work for “anything political leaning right or quite strongly centred” such as the politics section of The Telegraph because its stance is just too distant from his own.
The same response would apply to being asked to produce something he believed to be morally wrong, whether he was to be paid for it or not. He explains, “You have to think that your name’s going to be attached to something, it’s your reputation. No matter how much something is going to expose my work or how much someone is going to pay you for it, there are boundaries.”
Despite having to follow briefs and approach commissions from a fairly neutral moral or political stance, what remains of the illustration is down to Kitch’s imagination. Where does he get his inspiration? “I don’t really switch off. It’s not a job where I go do my illustrations and then that’s it, it’s the end of the day”.
He carries a sketchbook around with him so if an idea hits him he is able to capture it instantly. Anyone can be his inspiration, even London commuters. “I did a talk in London and on the train home I was sat around loads of businessmen/bankers, all wearing suits, their sleeves rolled up, headphones in, typing on their laptops and picking their nose thinking no one can see them, even eating their earwax.” He continues, “I’m like, ‘this is revolting’ so I just drew it, drew these really angular people with hunched over necks.”
Oh, the lighting on that meatball is really good
The illustrator is always on the look out for ideas from everyday life, even in the most seemingly mundane situations such as “literally taking a photo of something and going ‘oh that’s a nice red, I really like the red’, buying books, reading books, watching films and analysing scenes and concepts.”
It can also be catching a lyric from a song or deconstructing a nicely laid out living room and figuring out what makes the composition so interesting. He “daydreams profusely”, often looking to his own thoughts for inspiration. “I might be feeling melancholic or down for example and I try to capture that feeling.”
A less serious side to his work often comes with the sourcing of potential images online to use in his collages. He laughs as he recalls producing an illustration for a humorous Time Out article about Valentine’s Day written by Isy Suttie, who plays Dobby in Peep Show. Kitch created a scene with two diners seated at a table eating meatballs and spent hours on Google searching for the right meatball to use in the piece while uttering words such as “Oh, the lighting on that meatball is really good.”
But his favourite illustrations, although challenging, often draw upon the themes of science or psychology. More specifically, Kitch likes dealing with subjective themes like memory and loss because “it’s boundless”. In contrast, “if someone says draw a car, you draw a car, what kind of car, what colour is it, but when someone says draw memory, that’s really hard. Memory is subjective. It’s how you interpret it.” The same can be said for Kitch’s illustrations.