Illustrating Life: Kyle Hilton
by Paul Wolf
Kyle Hilton considers himself a regular guy.
Like other Jacksonians, Hilton goes to the office each day, ready to take on the task at hand. Except, his hands animate life as an illustrator, bringing magic to the mundane or the political or the latest pop culture hit.
As a kid growing up in Byram, Hilton could not have imagined this: a client list that features The New York Times, TIME Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, Entertainment Weekly, Variety and Esquire, among many others.
It is from his second-floor office on the corner of State and Duling that Hilton creates drawings of famous people, how-to diagrams for books and technical illustrations for clients all over the world.
“I didn’t know my plan,” Hilton recalled, graduating high school and heading to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he was an editorial cartoonist for the school’s Student Printz. “I think I was thinking I’d end up doing some sort of graphic design.”
Working for toy designer Tommy Teepel of GRIN Design in the hub city, Hilton drew the diagrams for Teepel’s inventions. “He saved my butt and gave me a first start.”
When Hilton and his new wife, Kate, moved back to Jackson for her master’s program, he worked at Books-A-Million for a while “making coffee badly.”
While building a portfolio of illustrations, Hilton began to notice a more cohesive and mature feel to his aesthetic. He illustrated paper dolls of characters from his favorite television shows, like Arrested Development.
Tumblr fans shared them, which led to a friend who had a contact at Paste Magazine who wanted to write about the dolls.
Vulture.com wanted Downton Abbey paper dolls, Hilton’s first real paying gig in 2011.
“As soon as they posted them, they blew up on the internet,” Hilton recalled. The New York Times wrote about them in their art section.
“I was like, ‘Okay, that’s amazing. But it’s just a random fluke.’”
The New York Times Magazine came calling, wanting small portraits in the same style for the magazine. That turned into another job. Then portraits for Time.
“All of a sudden, I had a portfolio with goofy portraits I had done in my apartment with portraits I had done for the New York Times I could put on there. And that felt like a pretty good way to start.”
Art directors move from magazine to magazine, and with them, they take Hilton’s name.
“They remember who was fast and easy to work with,” he laughed.
Still, an email in 2016 from an art director at Little Brown Books came from out of the blue. “She said, ‘We’re working on this and auditioning a few illustrators. We want these how-to diagrams for magic tricks.’”
It wasn’t unfamiliar territory. Hilton had previously drawn diagrams of magic tricks for another publisher.
“And I’m looking through the brief, in the middle of my audition, and noticed ‘NPH’ discretely on the page.
It was an audition for the one-and-only actor, magician, producer and singer Neil Patrick Harris’s book 2018 book, The Magic Misfits.
Then it was like, ‘That’s a lot of pressure!’ I wish I wouldn’t have seen that.
Hilton got the part for spot illustrations, which he called “a blast,” adding, “I’m very proud of it.” Hilton is also the author and illustrator of his own book, Art History Paper Dolls (Chronicle Books, 2014).
Another factor that makes Hilton easy to hire? He tries not to rock the creative boat.
“Hopefully, I am still easy to work with,” Hilton said. “Anything you want to change, I won’t fight you on it.”
Hilton does have standards, though.
“In the last three years, I realized, you can take whatever comes your way. But, I try to look at it like actors do: it’s the jobs they don’t take that builds their identity. It’s when you say, ‘I’m glad I’m not working on that other thing and missing out on this one.’”
Over the last six and a half years, Hilton counts himself “steady” in his work.
There’s always that little voice, though, that tells him he will have to get a “real” job the next year.
“It’s like, ‘This month worked out great, but I may be back at Books-A-Million (next month),’” he laughed. “I’m still making it up as I go.”
It seems yet another email or call from a national client would be old hat by now. But that’s not the case.
“It’s always a thrill,” Hilton said. “I just did portraits for the Wall Street Journal for the first time. I see it and think, ‘That’s my stuff, and I was working on it in Jackson, Mississippi.’”
Hilton said he likes being able to live in a place like Jackson, where the pace is normal. He shares the same neighborhood with artists like Electric Dagger’s Jason Thomas, fellow illustrator Ginger Williams Cook and eccentric gardener Felder Rushing. Yet, he can walk into Lemuria Books and pick up a paper, and, there it is, his latest work.
“It’s a fun little secret thing. Or, at least it feels fun — and not real at the same time.”
See our spring 2019 issue and Hilton’s front-cover illustration here.