Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 15, 2017

Illustrator Saturday – Kim Kurki

Kim Kurki has been working as an illustrator since graduation from Kutztown University in May 1980, BFA, magna cum laude.

From 1980 to 1984, Ms. Kurki held full-time art department positions at a stationery/gift company and then a screenprinting company. Freelancing since 1985, her work has been published and distributed world-wide on fine art prints, decorative tins, greeting cards, packaging, and various paper products. A partial client list includes Schiftan, Inc., The Scafa/Modernart Group, Keller-Charles of Philadelphia, CLEO Inc., CR Gibson Co., Marcel Schurman Co., Paramount Cards, and Current Inc. Recent work includes commissioned fine art illustrations for Merck & Co. Inc. and illustrations for several publications produced by Yankee Publishing, including The Old Farmer’s Almanac. For over 8 years, she wrote and illustrated for National Wildlife Federation’s Your Big Backyard magazine creating a monthly column which features birds, animals and plants that children can find in “their own backyards”. Her first book, “National Wildlife Federation’s World of Birds: A Beginner’s Guide”, has evolved from that collection of work.

In recent years, Ms. Kurki has created artwork that expresses her personal vision: a “sense of wonder” about the natural world.These realistic watercolor impressions of nature depict botanical subjects, wild plants, and natural environments. Many of these paintings/drawings have been accepted in juried exhibitions.

In addition to her own work, Ms. Kurki designs stained glass panels for Bill Osler of Osler-Kurki Studio Stained Glass in Penns Park, PA. Their work can be seen in numerous public buildings and private residences.

Here is Kim discussing her process:

The first book that I wrote and illustrated is “National Wildlife Federation’s World of Birds: A Beginner’s Guide.” It evolved from an 8-year gig writing and illustrating for NWF’s Your Big Backyard magazine. Each month, my page, called “Explore the Big Outdoors,” introduced children to the wonders of nature that they could find in the world around them. Topics included birds, mammals, insects, wildflowers, reptiles & amphibians, and other fascinating phenomena. Here is the process to complete a page; in this case, it’s the Pileated Woodpecker.

Using books, magazines, and other sources, I researched the bird, and took lots of notes. I looked for the most interesting facts I could find.

Once I digested all of that info, I made lists of keywords that might work in the poem and made quick sketches of concepts that I found particularly interesting. The magazine is for ages 3-6, so my 5-year-old brain came in handy to determine which cool facts to include.

The poem came next – 4 lines that I felt would describe the bird’s most interesting and obvious trait.

For the title, I searched through many fonts to find a typeface that expressed the woodpecker’s personality, appearance, or activities.

Using many reference photos, I made preliminary sketches to organize and map out the cool facts that I wanted to include. Using banners, arrows, vignettes, and decorative borders, I presented the unique and important characteristics of the bird. I like to think of this as my “antique advertising” style.

This is the pencil sketch with the desired layout. I taped the printed poem into the bottom banner, scanned the drawing.

I printed it out so I could choose my colors using markers.

The final art is ink & watercolor. I transferred the drawing to hot press watercolor board, tracing it down with homemade graphite paper. Using Rapidograph technical pens in 3 point/nib sizes, I inked the drawing first and then “colored in” with watercolor. I’m a pretty good “colorer.” I won a “Best Coloring” award in 2nd grade.

Here is the printed magazine page.

So after 8 years of creating “Explore the Big Outdoors,” the series had run its course, and I had 94 pages that I owned the rights to. Hoping to publish the whole collection as a book, my friend/agent found a publisher who thought it was best to separate the pages into categories (i.e. birds, mammals, insects, plants, etc.) and it was determined that a bird book would be the first in a series. Out of the 94 pages, only 17 depicted birds, so I had to research, write and create artwork for the remaining pages of an 80 page book. Each 2-page spread would consist of the “main bird” on the left page, and the right page would flesh out more info about that bird, plus feature info about similar species, whether found in North America or in other countries around the world. Here I am holding my book, National Wildlife Federation’s World of Birds: A Beginner’s Guide.

How long have you been illustrating?

I have been illustrating for almost 40 years, since graduating from college in 1980.

What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

My 10th grade chemistry teacher, Ivan Kayser, hired me to paint a property sign as a gift for his landlord. He was living in a carriage house on an estate in Bucks County called Fox Briar Farm. I painted a whimsical fox and hand-lettered the name. I think this was during my college years or shortly thereafter. He also commissioned a “fantasy portrait” of him and his wife walking through a magical woodland. I remember there were teddy bears pictured that represented the happy couple. Ivan has been a cheerleader for my art career ever since I decorated our 10th grade chemistry classroom with a wall-sized, illustrated Periodic Table of Elements (in puns!).

What made you decide to become an illustrator and study at Kutztown University?

I always did well in elementary school art class, but I was usually still working on the “drawing part” of an assignment when the other kids were finished coloring theirs. I was asked to do bulletin boards, report covers and programs for events. I made lots of greeting cards for friends and family, so becoming an illustrator seemed like an appropriate career. I chose Kutztown, mostly, because of its rural and geographic location – far enough from home to live on campus and close enough to return home easily. KSU also had a curricula that included all the areas of study that I was interested in. I was an Advertising Art major, which was later renamed Communication Design. I completed all of the Illustration courses available and then was able to plan my own assignments for an Independent Study program, so I concentrated on more Illustration. Beginning with the graduating class of the year before me, 1979, KSU began to develop a great reputation for its art program. I witnessed this first hand when later working in the field, as I had the opportunity to review the portfolios of KSU grads who were applying for jobs where I was employed. The best ones came from KSU and Tyler School of Art, which, ironically, was my second choice for college if I had wanted to live in the “city.”

Do you think your job working in the art department at a stationery/gift company and a screen-printing company helped develop your style?

I think I had already developed a linear, stylized look that could be either whimsical or realistic, but having to adapt my ideas to the products in the stationery/gift market and the production parameters of screen-printing certainly stretched my capabilities as an illustrator and designer. The 4 years I spent as a full-time employee gave me enough professional samples of my work to put together a portfolio to show for freelance assignments.

How did you connect with Merck & Co., Inc. and have them commission your fine art?

A stained glass colleague, Mark Beard, had fabricated a piece for Merck’s Chemistry building at their facility in West Point, PA. He had been commissioned by a corporate art consultant, Mary Alice DeVirgilis, who had the responsibility of placing art in various buildings on that campus and other Merck locations. The head of the Chemistry department had an interest in alchemy, the medieval practice that lead to modern chemistry. Mark’s stained glass panel depicted some alchemy symbolism, but the chemistry head wanted some sort of chart that listed ancient elements. Mark recommended me to do a fine art illustration because he knew that I was good at hand-lettering. He put me in touch with Mary Alice, and I came up with an idea of a sort of antique map document to organize the names of the elements and other symbolism of alchemy.  (see images: Alchemy Chart) This was the start of a 5-year relationship with Mary Alice and Merck. I was commissioned to do artwork for several other buildings, including two illustrated 3-panel timelines for the Training division and the Research division, a series of botanical drawings depicting plant sources for some of their pharma products, a tile wall mosaic, and stained glass panels for the Research division.

Did you knowingly decide to illustrate books that would be interesting for kids?

I think I have always wanted to illustrate children’s books, having a great interest in fantasy and the magic of nature. My whimsical style seemed appropriate to illuminate my “sense of wonder.” I collect illustrated books and the ones for children can be so beautiful AND fun.

How did the National Wildlife Federation see your artwork and offer you illustration work?

As a freelance illustrator, I was constantly sending samples of my work to potential clients. I had/have a subscription to National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick magazine (for ages 7-12) since the 1980s (I was in my 20s). I love the stories and the articles about nature, and the photos are great reference material. They also used illustration, so I sent a sample kit to the Art Director. She liked my work but felt it wasn’t quite appropriate for Ranger Rick. She did, however, feel that their magazine for younger kids (ages 3-6), National Wildlife Federation’s Your Big Backyard, might be a good match for me, so she gave my sample kit to that Art Director. That started an 8-year gig with Your Big Backyard, doing a monthly column called “Explore the Big Outdoors.”  National Wildlife Federation later endorsed my book, “World of Birds,” allowing me to put their name in a banner on the cover.

Were you always interested in wildlife creatures?

Most definitely, and not only creatures, but plants (wildflowers) and other things in nature. Most of my childhood was spent outdoors, exploring woods, fields, and wetlands around my home. Some of my favorite backyard buddies were frogs & toads, turtles, bunnies, lightning bugs & butterflies, and I enjoyed discovering wildflowers and mushrooms. Trees were fun to climb and offered peaceful sanctuary or a magical retreat.

What was the first book you illustrated?

The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden-Fresh Cookbook. I did the cover and interior illustrations.

How did that come your way?

I had been sending sample kits on a fairly regular basis to the Art Director of The Old Farmer’s Almanac (Yankee Publishing). I really felt that my style was appropriate for their publications and I guess I was persistent enough to convince the AD, Margo Letourneau, to give me a try. My first project was the cover of their Every Day Cookbook, which later provided the format for the Garden-Fresh Cookbook. For about 10 years, I have had an ongoing relationship with Yankee Publishing, creating illustrations for a variety of their publications, including The Old Farmer’s Almanac (see images: OFA Astrologer’s Garden), the OFA Garden Guide, and the OF Almanac for Kids.

Have you won any award for your work?

Yes, I have won several awards over the years, the 2 most significant being for my work for Your Big Backyard magazine: 2009 Association of Educational Publishers (AEP) award for Best Department/Column in a Preschool Publication AND for my book, “World of Birds:” 2014 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award – Gold Medal for Best Nonfiction Publication – Animals/Pets.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Ink & watercolor (Winsor & Newton) on Crescent hot press watercolor board. I have used Rapidograph technical pens forever. I also like to use colored pencil to achieve subtle shading.

I’m definitely more of a drawer than a painter.

Has that changed over time?

Not so much, although sometimes I won’t ink the drawings and choose to delineate detail with just pencil for a softer look. Also, I’m trying to loosen up a bit with perhaps more expressive backgrounds and less detail.

Are you open to illustrating self-published picture books from writers you don’t know?

Yes, if I like the subject matter and feel that my style is appropriate for it. The potential author has to have “done their homework,” researched the market, and be familiar with the steps it takes to organize and produce a book. I have been approached by individuals who have an idea, but they haven’t even written the manuscript yet.

Have you illustrated any book covers?

Just the 2 cookbook covers for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, a math book cover for Continental Press, and my own cover for “World of Birds.”

Has your work appeared in any children’s magazines?

Besides the extensive work I did for Your Big Backyard magazine, I have illustrated Sunday school publications for Westminster Press and Presbyterian Church USA.

Would you like to write and illustrate a book for children?

I wrote and illustrated “National Wildlife Federation’s World of Birds: A Beginner’s Guide” for 7-12 year-olds. It’s the first in a series and I hope to follow up soon with World of Mammals, Plants, Insects, etc.

Do you have an Artist Rep. to represent you? How did you meet and how long have they represented you?

No. My “agent,” who arranged the publication of “World of Birds,” is a long-time acquaintance/friend with extensive experience in the publishing industry, having worked for Barnes & Noble and Sterling Publishing for the last 40-plus years. He doesn’t look for work for me, but he can present my proposals to those of his connections which may be appropriate.

I did have a licensing rep years ago, but she is deceased. She was able to license several of my images from my stationery/gift experience to be used on other products. I met her when she was the Art Director for the Franklin Mint. I had sent her sample kits which she kept on file, and when she left the Mint to become a licensing rep, I became one of the artists that she represented.

Has exhibiting your work ended up getting you commission work or book contracts.


What other types of things do you do to find illustration work?

Besides all of the sample kits that I have mailed out over the years, I used to go to trade shows to get a look at what companies were producing and where I might fit in, and I would also peruse their catalogs online. To be honest, when I was writing and illustrating “World of Birds,” I didn’t have time for any other illustration projects, so I kind of stopped looking. Since its publication, I have been busy promoting the book at events for nature centers, environmental groups, libraries, adult groups, and schools. I still get assignments from Yankee Publishing and I also have stained glass commissions. If the opportunity arises, I refer potential clients to my website and my Facebook Author/Illustrator page. I also have a presence on LinkedIn, but probably not as comprehensive as it could be.

Do you visit schools to talk about wildlife and your artwork?

Yes, and that is where most of my energy is going these days. I have been doing assemblies in public and private schools. I have several Powerpoint slideshows that have the basic premise of “Exploring Nature is like a Treasure Hunt,” describing the wonders of nature that you can find in your own backyard. Obviously, since my book is about birds, I talk about our feathered friends, but also about nature in general, sharing fascinating facts and my collection of natural artifacts. I also have been tailoring my program to meet the needs of the students, whether they are studying something specific such as natural habitats or embryology, or using nature as inspiration for writing or visual arts. For older students, I can include a discussion of how my book happened and the importance of putting energy into whatever you are passionate about.

In the fall, I’ll be doing a family program at the Michener Art Museum which will focus on “Magic in Nature” and how the natural world has inspired my most creative work.

I did a couple of STEAM Expos (science fairs), a variation on the STEM curricula, including “A” for Arts, and I’m also expanding to adult groups, discussing native plants and how to attract wildlife to your backyard.


How did you get interested in doing stained glass?

I began dating a guy who had separated from his wife. They had started a stained glass studio together 13 years earlier. She was the designer and he was the fabricator. When it was determined that they would not continue to work together, I stepped in. I had never considered designing for stained glass, but my linear style seemed appropriate for the medium. After adjusting to the limitations of drawing for leaded panels, I had to learn a whole new palette based on the interplay of light and colored glass. I also learned to paint on glass to achieve detail (such as the petals in a flower or features of a face) using pigments that we fire in our kilns.

Do you have a studio set up in your home?

Yes, I have kind of taken over the house which is relatively small. An upstairs loft is my main studio with my drawing table, computer, and shelves of books. An adjacent room used to be a guest room, but now is home to my light table and shelves of more reference materials. The living room is part office and provided the extra space I needed to spread out my materials when working on the bird book. The stained glass studio is a separate building.

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

My craft at the moment is developing, scheduling, and doing presentations, so when I have an event coming up, that is my focus. In that category, things are slowing a bit for the summer, so when I’m not doing glass or professional gardening, I hope to concentrate on a few book ideas to “keep the ball rolling” in nature publishing. As a self-employed person, my work is my life and though I have myriad lists of creative projects and marketing responsibilities, the priorities change from week to week.

Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?

Always. For nonfiction topics, I love to do research and probably spend too much time collecting reference materials. Once I saturate my brain with information, the ideas kick in and take shape. I use my own photos as well as images I find in books, magazines, and online. For the bird book, I loved searching for the most fascinating facts that I could find.

For fiction/fantasy topics, I do take pictures of natural environments as a starting point and then my imagination fill in the blanks. I will also use references for accuracy in depicting natural phenomena that I want to include.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Having a website as an online portfolio is much more convenient than mailing out sample kits. My FB Author/Illustrator page has provided a platform to share what I have been doing with those that are interested. E-mail is also a valuable tool for quick and direct communication, whether it means sending assignments and sketches back and forth to an Art Director or reaching out to a vast list of potential clients.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

No. I use Photoshop Elements to scan and size images and maybe adjust for darkness and lightness, but I do not manipulate my artwork digitally.

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?

No. Everything is hand-drawn.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

Now that I seem to have established some credibility by having a book published, paths are opening up which feel like a direction that I have been following all along. My creative vision has always been to encourage a “sense of wonder” in kids of all ages, whether it’s through more books, programs, or whatever develops. I hope I am remembered as the crazy nature lady who convinced kids to go outside to play & explore & learn to love nature, ultimately growing into adults who respect nature and have the means to protect it.

On the other hand, a career dream might be to doodle for a living…

What are you working on now?

My next book, whether I traditionally or self-publish. I’m not going to elaborate, but you know it will have something to do with nature.

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

Nothing that I haven’t already mentioned.

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

Develop your creative vision and let it guide whatever you do. Think about WHY you create art, not HOW. Where does your inspiration come from? Explore your passion. Your perspective of the world is unique. If you feel strongly about something, people will notice, and you will communicate. Work hard, accept necessary changes, follow through, and keep moving forward. Take walks, pet your cats and/or dogs, and every once in a while, eat your favorite snack.

(Can you say Cheetos?)

Thank you Kim for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of Kim’s work, you can visit her at her website:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Kim. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Gorgeous work, Kim!


    • Thank you, Pat! And also, thank you so much for making the connection between Kathy and me. Your feature was wonderful to see!!


  2. Kim, your work is exquisite! Thank you for sharing here. I really enjoyed it! – Dow


    • Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. It was a fun process!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kim, your work is so vivid and detailed, I just love it! Absolutely stunning 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing this with us, ladies 😀


    • I really should add how appreciative I am that you (and other illustrators) take the time to really share process and personal path. It’s SO fascinating and inspirational. So much to admire 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you! I found it fascinating to organize the journey through Kathy’s perspective. And I enjoy other artist’s “stories” as well.


  4. Love you watercolor work! Thanks for sharing your process.


    • Thank you. I guess I don’t use watercolor in the traditional way. I like to “color” and it works for me!

      Liked by 1 person

      • What do you mean traditional way?


      • Well I guess I understand


      • I guess I think that, traditionally, watercolor is usually a very spontaneous medium, and in fine art, you take a chance every time you apply a wash or a mark…it’s more like you are painting by the seat of your pants, so to speak. My watercolor use is pretty tightly controlled. I’m good at staying in the lines. This isn’t always a virtue…I have been told to “loosen up.” 😉


  5. I enjoy reading posts featured on Illustrator Saturday. Thank you Kim and Kathy…thank you for the inspiration!


    • Thank you! I find that I do get inspired by other artists as well. Our journeys are so varied, but we all share creativity.


  6. Kim, you’re one busy lady, but Kathy’s blog post today said they’re looking for an illustrator of realistic animals for a book of David L. Harrison’s poems. I instantly thought of you!


    • Donna,

      So did I.



    • Thanks for the lead! I sent a message to David…we’ll see what happens.


  7. Congratulations Kim. Great article. Small world connection. Dee and I have become friends with Bill Ternay.


  8. I love Kim’s realistic and highly detailed illustrations!


  9. your illustrations are absolutely stunning, amazing and so beautiful! I can’t get over what a great artist you are. I actually saw my 1st Pileated Woodpecker this past weekend. Keep up the great work.


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