71 Anita Kunz

Anita Kunz is an award winning painter and illustrator from Canada. She has painted magazine covers for Time, Rolling Stone, GQ, Vanity Fair, Business Week, Newsweek, The AtlanticSports Illustrated, The New Yorker, and many others, as well as the covers to over 50 books. Anita teaches illustration at the Smithsonian and Corcoran Universities in Washington D.C. She has been featured in many design magazines such as Communication Arts, Idea, and Creation. She's won the Hamilton King Award, the JEH MacDonald Award, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal of Honour, and two lifetime achievement awards from Applied Arts Magazine and the Advertising Club of Toronto. She served as a juror for the Spectrum Illustration Awards. She has two honorary doctorates, from the Ontario College of Art & Design and the Mass. College of Art & Design. She was named one of Canada's 50 most influential people by the National Post. In 2003 she was the first woman and the first Canadian to exhibit her art in the Library of Congress, in Washington D.C. In 2007 she gave a TED Talk about her art. In 2017 she was inducted into the American Illustrators Hall of Fame. She's a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts and an Officer of the Order of Canada (their highest civilian award). And she's a brilliant painter with a keen and delightful sense of humor.

'Self Portraits with Facial Hair'

Anita Kunz was born in Toronto and grew up in Kitchener. As a child, a major influence was her uncle, the illustrator Robert Kunz, who taught her that illustration could carry social messages. Other influences include Sue Cole, Richard Mills, Marshall ArismanIan Pollack, and Ralph Steadman. Anita talked about her love of art as a child in this interview with Stephanie Chefas (Platinum Cheese, 2013):

"I’ve been making art all my life. For me it’s second nature, just another way of communicating. I was brought up to be a polite little girl and never to make waves. But somehow it seemed acceptable to be vocal, violent and controversial with my work, so that’s where all my emotions went."

Anita earned her degree from the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. Right after, she started applying for commissions to all the major magazine publishers, and started getting work. A breakthrough was her 1982 portrait of Ray Charles for Westward Magazine (see below). After 30 years, and with the decline of magazine publishing, Anita has moved more in the direction of fine art, infusing her sense of humor with the stylization of Flemish painters, such as Rogier van der Weyden, to create fantastic portraits of people and animals. As she explains in this interview with Guy Badeaux (2011):

"I actually like silence. Or the CBC radio. I used to watch CNN all the time in case Time Magazine called with a tight deadline...I needed to be very up to date with politics, but now as I'm working on my own work, I don't want distractions. Plus listening to the news all the time really stressed me out!"


Anita describes her process thus (Chefas, 2013): "I start with a quick pencil sketch but don’t become too obsessed with it . . . that allows me to be a bit more spontaneous with the finished painting. I work layer over layer with watercolours and acrylics. It takes time, and I know it’s finished when I just can’t look at it any more!!"

'Elvis Island'

In this interview with Lloyd Harvey (Inside the Artist's Studio, 2010), Anita talks about focusing her work on social and political issues:

"Well I think that as artists, we have the opportunity and responsibility to contribute culturally to all sorts of discussions. There are so many things going on in the world to comment on! And we all have unique perspectives. In a democracy we all have freedom of speech, and as artists our speech happens to be visual."

She gives this advice to art students, "It really just has to do with tenacity and hard work. There’s really no formula other than that. The harder you work, the better an artist you become! Malcolm Gladwell states in his book ‘Outliers’, that most successful people become so after 10,000 hours of work. That rings true to me!"

She adds for Robert Newman (AI-AB, 2015):

"I’ve actually compiled a list of eight tips for students. I usually go into a lot more detail but here they are in a nutshell:
1. Work hard
2. Embrace self doubt
3. Remove toxic influences
4. Nurture your uniqueness
5. Not working can be just as important to creativity as working
6. Stop trying to be perfect
7. Be kind and stay humble.
8. Remain a student for life."

When not working, Anita loves the outdoors - hiking, skiing, camping. She also loves to travel, and educate herself, attending TED Talks every year.

'Lady with Pearls'

Anita Kunz was kind enough to answer an exclusive interview for this blog, so here are the questions I put to her:

1. One of your greatest childhood influences was your uncle, Robert Kunz. He was an illustrator who used his work to help educate children. Could you talk more about him and his art, a little more in depth? Do you have a favorite work or two that you remember as a child?

“He worked as an illustrator and his motto was “Art for Education”. He drew filmstrips, illustrated books and provided educational material in the form of art for school children. He also painted oil paintings , made stained glass windows, architectural friezes, and was an early environmentalist.  He died when I was 13 and all of his work burned in a fire, so tragically I have nothing left of his, except out of print books that I find occasionally.”

2. You have said that you want your art to help contribute to discussions on important social topics. Do you ever consider your work to be political, and what do you say to those who feel art shouldn't be political?

“Oh yes my work is always political. Everything I do in life as a secular woman is political, especially when I make art about social or political topics. If people don’t like political work then they shouldn’t make political work.”

3. One topic you've illustrated is global warming. As a Canadian, I'm curious if you've seen a change in the weather over time? Here in Slovakia, we've received dramatically less snow just in the last decade. I remember wanting a snow blower when I first came here, and just when I had saved enough to buy one - the snow pretty much stopped.

“Yes of course I think we are all affected in the form of more extreme weather patterns.  I’m listening to scientists who are calling the alarm on how this will affect us in the future and it’s not good.”

'John Belushi'

4. Your art shows a wonderful and largely positive sense of humor. I'm curious how you developed this, what you consider funny, and if your humor ever got you in trouble?

“Oh yes I’ve been in trouble quite a lot! I try and remain positive and humour can actually be quite subversive in trying to transmit an idea through art.”

5. Lately you've steered your career away from editorial illustration and into gallery fine art. I'm curious what you see for the future of illustration and for figurative fine art?

“I’m doing gallery work and also working on two books at the moment both of which will be released next year. When I was a younger editorial artist it was normal for us to have a lot of creative freedom with our ideas. More recently we are being told exactly what to paint by editors and I feel much more limited, so I’ve started to create self -generated work. It’s really the only way to make art for which I am the sole creator. I’m not sure what will happen. We have far less autonomy and far more censorship. Print is being eroded in favour of the internet, so that’s a big difference. Illustration will morph and change but nobody knows how. And regarding figurative work,  I’ve always used the figure to express ideas. It’s just what I’ve always done. Seems to be a better way to more easily express ideas.”

6. What do you think about Post Modern art? Do you consider your work to be Post Modern?

“I don’t think my work is mine to categorize. That’s up to the critics.”

'New Toys'

7. One bit of advice you give to art students is to remove toxic influences. I'm curious if you could be more specific?

“It’s hard enough to make art without listening to the little negative voice that we all have. We need to surround ourselves with good things. Good art, good music, good food etc. Life is short and there’s no sense wasting time with things that drain our energy.”

'Lyre Lyre'

8.  When I made my list I was surprised to find so many figurative and portrait painters. I hadn't set out to do that, I just found these kinds of works most powerful and moving. I realized, in literature we take it for granted a book will be about people, but in art we don't. But, it's hard to react on an emotional level to such an extent without the drama of characters posing, looking, and acting. I worry if I've been too exclusionary or narrow in my selection process and I'm curious how you and other artists on the list feel about this. 

“Well I think most illustrators use the figure to express ideas, so you’re correct there. We as illustrators all strive to make work that’s understandable and relevant.”

'That Vision Thing'

9. If you could own any artwork, what would it be and why?

“The Van Eyck altarpiece in Ghent because it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

'Silent Night Endless Fight'

10. What do you say to someone who thinks art doesn't matter?

“Well then I guess they will have to stop reading books, watching TV and movies, and stop doing anything that has been visually designed because art permeates everything we do.”



'Fill 'Er Up'

'Happy Trails'

'Newt Gingrich'

'Nelson Mandela'

'Stephen Hawking'

'Charles Darwin'

'Ray Charles'


'Alicia Keys'

'Tayler Swift'

'Justin Bieber'


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