Isaac Klunk: Drawn to Children's Illustrations

Toledo Local Features  |  09/30/2010 7:00 am

Picture yourself in a stuffy classroom, the teacher droning on about photosynthesis or sub-atomic particles or Greek architecture. Watching the clock is a fruitless task. You turn instead to the margins of your notebook. First a few lines, then a circle. For many of us, our pen and ink universes never became more than a silent testament to extreme boredom. For Isaac Klunk, his drawings live on in the real world, turning his talent into a career on the verge.

"This is something that's been on my mind recently," he said. "I was working in North Baltimore this past weekend doing caricatures at a company picnic and there was this kid who was sort of standing behind me and watching what I was doing and he was just going gaga over what I was doing. He was like 'Whoa! That's so cool that this guy can draw.'

It's something that comes second-nature to Klunk, who's passion for drawing led him into his love of children's illustrations and the type of sequential art that might be found in comic books. This Toledo native finished his degree at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2008 before settling back into his hometown. Like many children, drawing and comic books were always at the top of his interests, but not until reaching the threshold of adulthood did he decide to take his hobbies to the next level.

"I got interested in illustration because I realized it sort of combined the things I loved about sequential art with the things I loved about art generally," he said. "As a teenager I was really into sequential art, particularly Daniel Clowes' Ghost World. It had a really big influence on me when you're at that age where you're trying to figure out where you want to go to school and what you want to do with your life. And I remember thinking 'Wow, this is really amazing.' At the time I was really into writing and this was sort of a perfect way to combine writing and art, the two things that I was really passionate about."

He explained illustration lets you be narrative with your art, combining elements of storytelling with the ability to draw attention to a single image. What results from this sort of focus is a hyper-detailed image that is able to tell a story better than words might. A slightly upturned corner of a character's mouth, a broken bottle in an alley, or even a puddle: All speak volumes to the atmosphere Klunk aims to create.

Klunk's attention to detail won him several awards throughout his career, including those from the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Associated Collegiate Press. Aside from contributing illustrations to magazines and businesses, perhaps his biggest break came in the form of a children's book by an author from North Carolina. Titled Cheeky's Tales: Cheeky's Security Blanket, the book follows the journey of a Great Dane and the lesson she learns with the loss of her favorite collar. Klunk worked closely with the author and her vision for the story, deciding on the type of facial expressions and nuances his drawings could lend to bring the dog to life on each page.

The world of children's illustration is more than just kid stuff. Klunk said there are plenty of illustrators that have a broad appeal to readers of all ages. There are too many for him to list individually, but a few stick out in his mind as being the most interesting.

"The kinds of children's books that I am most drawn to are the ones that have appeal to adults as well as children. Where the Wild Things Are is absolutely one of my favorites, and Chris Van Allsburg's work, like Jumanji. Stuff that's in that vein, that they're targeted towards children but adults can still very much appreciate them as well."

It's that sort of balance Klunk strives for. When he isn't lost inside the cartoon worlds he creates, he's doing caricature work at The Toledo Zoo and for private functions.

"When it first started out it was a way to pay bills and get fairly steady work, but after a while it was like 'Wow, there is a lot that you can do with this and you could really take this to another level.' And now, I love it. It's definitely the most fun job that I've ever had," he said. His caricature work melds nicely with his love of cartooning and illustration, and he is always looking to improve upon his craft. He even traveled to a caricature artist conference where days of workshops and meeting with artists helped him better hone his skills.

"Being there for just a week was probably worth as much as months of art school. Being around all these professional artists, all sorts of people at different stages in their careers. Just being exposed to some of these people who've been in this industry for a decade, at least. It's really inspiring to see these people who can produce such amazing work and can do it so quickly and seeing all the different forms caricature can take," he said. Now wrapping up his second season at The Toledo Zoo, Klunk took what he learned back home and applied it to his own work.

Caricature work is fairly self-explanatory for the general population, and yet, there are some that just don't understand the object of the genre: To exaggerate features of a person's portrait. Most sit down with Klunk with this thought in mind and are generally pleased with the end result, but others can be hard to please.

"You can never really tell what someone wants when they come to get a caricature. I think most people hopefully get the idea from the plethora of samples on the wall of what we do. Sometimes it's what you'd expect and people are upset because you drew their chin too big or something. Sometimes people come in and they want something really crazy and funny and other times they come in and they want almost a straight-on portrait," he said. Unlike those rare individuals who don't seem to grasp the concept of a caricature, many appreciate and marvel at what Klunk is able to whip up in a matter of minutes.

"I just get a kick out of hearing people who aren't artistic talking about how wonderful it must be to draw, because I don't think about it in those terms. It's kind of the way I think about people who are into music. I really enjoy it, but I don't know anything about it. Something that you're not really familiar with, but it seems sort of magical in a way," he said. It's a magic that Klunk saw early-on and stuck at long enough to make a career for himself. Many enjoy drawing, but he says it takes a special kind of person to see their talents through.

"There's definitely things that I could offer as advice, like keep practicing and stick at it. That's really the number one thing. If you're interested in something enough, you can make it happen. People told me if you can't see yourself doing anything but art for the rest of your life, then that's what it takes to be an artist."

*All images courtesy of Isaac Klunk

For more information on Isaac Klunk's work and to find out how you can hire him for your next freelance job or event, visit