"I aim to express the essence of a subject."
Ken Karlic split his creative life into three areas—graphic design, painting, and teaching. First, he is a professional graphic designer. After working in a few design studios, and in-house in a museum, he went freelance in the early 1990s. He worked freelance over the next 20 years, until ultimately, after reconnecting with a former college classmate, together, they created the studio called Splice Design Group. At Splice, they create print and exhibition catalogs, logos and brand identity, websites and interactive, and exhibition graphics for cultural institutions, museums, and corporations. Their clients include the Guggenheim Foundation, Standard and Poor’s, Smithsonian Institution, and Art in Embassies (US State Department).
Next, he paints in watercolor and in oil, in the studio and plein air (or on location without the aid of photographs). His work is typically cityscapes and urban landscapes, in sizes varying from 6x9 inches up to 40x70in. He also participates in a number of competitive Plein air events organized in various parts of the country, including Maryland, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. These events include traveling to a different city, staying in a host house (often a beautiful house in a wonderful location), painting intently for up to a week, and finally concluding in an exhibition with sales and awards. In addition, he is represented by several galleries in the Mid-Atlantic region, where he has been included in exhibits from group to solo, on a limited or on-going basis.
Lastly, Ken Karlic teaches an introductory class on the Fundamentals of Graphic Design at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and he is in his second semester there. He also taught watercolors on a weekly basis recently at a private studio in Stevensville, Maryland, and now teaches the occasional watercolor workshop.
Ken Karlic is originally from the southwest side of Chicago, born in 1963. The area he grew up in was very blue collar, and heavily industrial, with factories, railroad tracks, and an airport all within a few blocks of his house. When he was young, he of course played in and among these areas, some of which were abandoned—it was a kid’s paradise and a parent’s nightmare.
Ken Karlic grew up with his two older brothers, and he was raised by his mom and grandmother, as his parents divorced when he was very young. Ken Karlic had a tough childhood, as there wasn’t much money to do things. His mom worked multiple jobs and wasn’t around much, but she instilled a strong work ethic in Ken Karlic. His grandmother was always available to offer a lot of emotional support.
Ken Karlic remembers drawing as a young child, mostly in pencil, and later in pastels. He was reasonably good, but he didn’t have any focus, or training, nor did he have a feel for what to draw. At that time, when he was approximately 10 years old, they used to paint Christmas scenes on their large front window using inexpensive tempera paint. The windows were painted from inside, and the view from outside eliminated any imperfections. Neighbors took notice of his work, and over the next several years, Ken Karlic began to paint windows for family and friends.
Art was nothing more than a hobby at this time and for some time after, as his real interest and focus was sports. He started playing football in 5th grade, and was more of a jock rather than an artist at that time, thinking this was his future. Ken Karlic did well, playing various positions over his eight-year career, and even received scholarship offers to high school. He ended up studying in the neighborhood, and attended a Chicago Public High School. Unfortunately, it was at a time of forced busing and desegregation in Chicago. He was unable to avoid the racial tensions prevalent throughout the city, as the busing created an environment of racial intolerance, as well as the annual race riot. Despite these issues, all was well with his sports plan, until Ken Karlic’s career ended in his senior year of high school, as a result of a series of injuries.
Ken Karlic’s interests in art peaked after his football path was eliminated. He originally was going to attend college at the Illinois Institute of Technology to study architecture. At the advisement of a family friend, he applied and was accepted to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It was the right decision, as he went away to college and this was an eye-opening and growth filled experience. It was at UofI that Ken Karlic received his first training in art and design, and his interest in art continued to grow. However, after 1.5 years in an architecture program, he realized his attraction was drawing architecture and not designing it. He changed majors briefly to painting, and received rudimentary training, and then to graphics, where he ultimately received a BFA.
After graduation, Ken Karlic was going to move where a friend was taking a job. His offers came from Los Angeles and Washington DC, and he accepted a position in Bethesda Maryland. He moved to the east coast, and took a job in Baltimore. A few years after settling, he was working in-house at a museum as Design Manager. During this time, he incurred a lot of overtime, which allowed him to take time off. Ken Karlic began to travel extensively throughout the southwest US and Europe. It was during these vacations that he drew and painted. He experimented with a few media, and ultimately selected watercolor as the best portable medium for him.
It’s in painting these small travel sketches that Ken Karlic developed a passion for watercolors which continues to this day. He has been painting watercolors seriously for approximately 10-15 years, and he now is integrating with oils into the mix.
Ken Karlic’s paintings give us a perplexed vision that reminds us daily of the reality we live in. That no matter how cloudy it is, it exists without giving up. The details of his art give us a hopeful vision towards something more lasting. Something that although not necessarily tangible, it’s as real as the air we breathe. What Karlic gives us is a dose of feelings that come to light with each of his paintings. His artworks provide us with memories of a faded past that stirs in us an array of feelings, thoughts, dreams and hopes.
Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it.
A. I refer to my work as sophisticated chaos, where a structured drawing gives way to an expressive painting to create a beautiful mess. My paintings have a basis in the representational but often dissolve into varying levels of abstraction. I often apply pigment directly to the page, and use water to wash much of it away. My approach often includes marks, scratches, drips, and splatters which all become part of the final piece, creating a very physical presence. In the end, I may end up spraying and scrubbing more paint off the surface than I leave on. My techniques were developed and honed as a result of experimentation over several years.
Q. Tell us about some of the highlights of your artistic career.
A. I’ve been fortunate to be published by several sources, including interviews with PleinAir Magazine, Voyage Chicago, Fine Art Today, and The Art of Watercolour. The most memorable was with the art supply manufacturer, Daniel Smith Watercolors. I was invited to create a step-by-step that would be distributed to their global client base. I chose to think big, and created an almost six foot painting in watercolor, using almost 40 colors including a special line of metallics. I hired a photographer friend who shot the action, and I came away with a number of stills and a fantastic video. The feature exists on the Daniel Smith Watercolors website.
Q. What role does the Artist/ Painter have in society?
A. I think the artist/painter has many possible roles in society. At a very simple level, artists are entertainers, seeking to delight the eye. At a higher level, artists often challenge, enlighten, provoke, stir emotions, elicit action, ask questions, and more.
Q. What’s your best childhood memory?
A. Scoring touchdowns in football.
Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?
A. I wanted to be a football player.
Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?
A. At about 5-6 years old, I remember seeing an advertisement to an art school in a magazine,
and one was asked to draw a picture of a donkey head from the ad. I remember drawing a
great donkey head.
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. I’ve been interested in art as a hobby for most of my life. About 10-15 years ago I
got more serious about it, and continue to.
Q. What does your art aim to express?
A. I aim to express the essence of a subject.
Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. At times, I feel I sacrifice my serenity, as for me the creation of a work can be a struggle or a challenge to translate an idea into a reality.
Q. Who are your biggest influences? Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?
A. For me, Instagram is an amazing resource, as I can follow artists from all over the world.
A few artists whom I find inspirational are Joseph Zbukvic and Chien Chung-Wei in watercolors, Jeremy Mann and Tibor Nagy in oils.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. The making of art is a solitary experience, and can be lonely. I have a few trusted friends that we share work and feedback via text, and sometimes paint together in the studio or
Q. Apart from art, what do you love doing?
A. I have a teenage son whom is interested in classic cars. For years, we’ve driven my 1973 El Camino to auto events.
Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?
A. I try to make, and like to see, work with a level of ambiguity. When suggesting and not defining, a work of art involves the viewer more.
Q. What does 'success' mean to you?
A. In art, I consider success to be having the freedom to pursue and create to your vision. The circle is completed if the work connects with a viewer/collector.
Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?
A. For me, painting is a metaphor for life—there are struggles, but if you continue to stay focused and solve the problems in front of you, things will work out.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?
A. Keep the faith / the first time I heard it was on a video from watercolorist Joseph Zbukvic.
Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?
A. Trust yourself.