When two students met in a Californian classroom, it heralded the beginning of a marriage that would evolve into husband-and-wife illustration team Kozyndan. Adrian Sandiford discovers what it's like to achieve commercial and artistic acclaim with your other half.
For some people, work can become a refuge from a nagging spouse. For the two members of Kozyndan, work is their spouse. These LA-based illustrators are actually a husband-and-wife team: Dan and Kozue (although she prefers to be known as Kozy) Kitchens, hence 'Kozyndan'. It's safe to say that this is one job interview where the outcome was never in doubt.
The pair met while studying illustration at California State University, Fullerton (from which they graduated in 2002). "We actually met in painting class," Dan recalls. "I saw her from across the room and, in classic fashion, she caught my interest immediately. We were friends for about a year until we started dating. We've pretty much been inseparable since then. Although it wasn't until we'd been dating for two years that we made our first piece of art together."
That first piece of art was created back in 2001. Since then, the happily married couple has built a reputation based on intricate drawings of cityscapes, all of which feature whimsical characters and adopt a playful tone that reflects Kozyndan's tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating attitude. Their pictures also tend to develop into impressive, stylised panoramas.
"We usually start by picking a location and taking a bunch of reference photos," says Dan. "Generally, they're based on real places. Then Kozy starts drawing the background on a long piece of paper. She usually works really small. A completed panoramic may eventually be printed five metres long, or more, but her initial drawing is only about 16cm tall. She does little planning. She just lays out all her reference shots, does a basic rough, blocking off where the buildings will be, and then goes in with a thin pencil to create a final detailed background drawing." And while Kozy works on the cityscape, it's Dan's job to start developing the interesting characters that will eventually inhabit it.
"We talk about what kind of ideas we want, and then Dan fills pages in his sketchbook with characters and situations," Kozy explains. "When I finish the drawing, he scans it in alongside his own sketches. He then starts to place the characters into the background using Photoshop, to figure out where they'll be positioned. We print that composite out and I trace over his characters, giving the images my own style."
Although Dan insists that Kozy often removes the ugliness from his characters, his wife disagrees. "I keep some of the ugliness in sometimes," she says. "I will then add more characters of my own. We scan these in and Dan composites them into the background to form the final drawing. This file is put on two computers and we both start painting in Photoshop, just using the Brush tool. We keep painting for weeks until everything is filled in. Then we eventually start to join the files together."
A few final details - shadows, for example - are added before Kozyndan makes adjustments to the overall colour of the image. Such intensive work is standard for a Kozyndan project, with a big piece often taking up to four weeks to complete. The duo's complex panoramas often mix reality and fantasy, while the finished work itself blurs the boundary between traditional fine art and commercial illustration.
As a result, Kozyndan's work - be it two giant robots fighting in the River Tyne or Japanese businessmen commuting to work dressed as schoolgirls - has found its way to places as diverse as the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and the cover of a Weezer album.
Kozyndan's impressive portfolio also includes album covers for John Mayer, Daedalus, Lyrics Born and The Postal Service; exhibitions in Los Angeles, Houston, Toronto, and London; editorial illustrations for Colors, Tokion, Giant Robot, XLR8R, among others; and advertising work for companies including Nike and EA. If all that wasn't enough, Kozyndan also sells its own posters, T-shirts, books and shoes.
Creative pillow talk
It seems incredible, then, that Kozyndan claims not to actively seek out new business. "It just comes to us," says Kozy. "We get a lot of offers for commercial work and exhibitions, most of which we have to turn down for one reason or another."
Dan's alternative take on the matter is that Kozyndan has unknowingly established itself as a personality, "as though us being a married couple making art together is our 'gimmick'. I believe that this makes us stand out from other artists in the industry as much as the type of work we make."
Not only do the two illustrators not actively seek out work, but they also claim not to have any set process when it comes to approaching new projects. "We just sit around and talk," says Dan. "A lot of our ideas come from conversations we have when we're in bed." The playfulness that's a key component of Kozyndan's work then sneaks into the couple's responses.
"We get drunk and start fighting," Dan continues. "Kozy has a vicious right hook. She'll pound a few ideas out of me, then I'll zone out while Kozy makes beautiful art."
"You always say that," laughs Kozy. "It's not true, though. You do work, too. At least this time he didn't say that he plays video games, downloads porn and chats online while I do all the work. We don't really have set processes, we just sit around and think."
Kozyndan's clearly loving banter negates the idea that there could be problems when working as a couple. "When we disagree, it usually results in something better coming out of it," explains Kozy. "We could be sitting there pissed off at each other while drawing something that is far better than either of our original ideas."
"You have to be a certain kind of person to work with your spouse," says Dan. "We're pretty mellow, accommodating people, so we don't ever get too wrapped up in our own egos. Oh, and we can take sex breaks whenever we want."
But sex isn't the key to the couple's drive. Instead, Dan cites the excitement of travelling around for exhibitions. With work finding its way into galleries around the world, the illustrators spent almost a third of 2006 away from their Santa Monica home in Australia, Japan and the UK. It's the perfect opportunity for Dan and Kozy to take stock of what matters most to them.
"Humans are destroying this planet. The greed of those in power will get the best of us all," says Dan, with uncharacteristic seriousness. "We really want to see as much of the natural world as we can before it's gone. To us, travelling is more important than our artwork, so we use our career to travel at every chance we get." The duo even go so far as to decide whether to take a show or not, based on whether they want to visit the country it'll take place in.
It was presumably the allure of the Northeast that encouraged Kozyndan to get involved in the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art's Spank The Monkey show in Gateshead. "It was an exciting experience," says Kozy. "We did a piece for the exhibition that was set in the area around the museum. It was a funny piece, though in some ways a bit critical of the local culture, so we didn't know what reaction to expect."
"We knew we were outsiders making observations based on just a short time in the area," adds Dan. "We never take our work seriously, so we don't worry about it coming off as immature or outright wrong, but in that setting we started to think about those things and were actually nervous about it." But there was no need to worry. After the show opened, the couple received loads of emails from locals saying how much they had enjoyed the piece.
So did the positive reception to the Gateshead exhibition make it the most enjoyable project Kozyndan has worked on? "I like making our own work the most," Dan admits. "Our own ideas don't fit in well with selling products, so not very much of the commercial work we're offered really excites me - most art directors just ask us to do watered down rehashes of our previous work, which is one of the reasons we tend to turn down so much." Perhaps this explains why Kozyndan chooses to steer clear of many commercial projects...
"I guess I agree," says Kozy, "but I really enjoy working on album covers. I love music. It's an inspiration in my life. We generally only take on album covers if we really like the music. The clients are usually more open for us to do what we like."
The illustration itch
Thanks to Kozyndan's line of products and shows, Dan and Kozy Kitchens make a good enough living to be happy together. And they don't need to take on as much illustration as they once did. Maybe that'll change in the future. "Sometimes we just get in the mood to work," says Dan, offering a glimmer of hope to advertising directors across the world. "We just get the itch for illustration and then we'll randomly say yes." It seems then that - for Kozy and Dan, at least - marriage has become a refuge from the nagging nature of work.