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Kam Mak

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Kam Mak photo

What inspired you to design for stamps?  Or how did you end up designing your first stamp?
It was one of my professors from my art school who had just illustrated the Marilyn Monroe commemorative stamp. I was at awe at what he had done. It was he and his painting that inspired me that maybe one day I would be given a chance to illustrate a stamp for the USPS. But at that time it was just a dream.

My first commissioned stamp for the USPS came around the Spring of 2005. I received a call from one of the USPS contracted art director Ethel Kessler, who asked me to illustrate a set of stamps to celebrate the fish koi. I did two paintings on the subject of koi, but the koi stamp was never realized. Instead, the USPS released the koi paintings on April17 2009 as a pair of post card stamps.

What design methods do you use, especially when you have to consider the final scale of your work will be quite small?
In the koi and the Lunar New Year stamp series, I used my favorite medium of choice, oil painting on traditional gesso panel. I did run into few problems with my first koi painting. I enjoyed adding all those details of the koi into the painting. But I discovered that many of these details disappeared and filled in when reduced to the size of a stamp. With the advice and experience from Ethel Kessler, I corrected the painting so that the details were not lost when it was scaled down. I gained a lot of knowledge from this first painting, but I ran into a similar problem with the first painting for the Lunar New Year stamp series. In this painting, my subject was a bunch of red lanterns hanging next to each other. Again, when it was scaled down, people at the USPS felt that the definition of the red lanterns got lost. One response was that it looked like a bunch of “tomatoes”. I was willing to redo the painting, but luckily Ethel Kessler was able to crop close into my red lantern paintings and allow the red lanterns to be read clearly when scaled down.

28 cent stamp with two illustrated fish, one yellow and one orange
Stamp designed by Mak
©All Rights Reserved
United States Postal Service

How do you determine your subject or, if the subject is assigned by USPS, how do you determine how to design for that subject? 
With the koi post card stamp, the USPS came up with the subject of the koi, however I also showed them sketches of fancy goldfish. I was hoping they would do a series of stamps on goldfish. But, it did not happen. So the koi was it. I had to do a lot of research on the koi. I manage to find two Chinese businesses in Chinatown that kept a 200-gallon tank with beautiful large koi and I based my two-koi paintings from the koi on these two from the tank.

I learned that there are two ways to view and admire the beauty of these fish. One is to view them from the top or from the side. I chose my composition of the koi by viewing them from the side.

The idea for the Lunar New Year stamp also came from the USPS. In fact, I am not the first artist illustrating this series. I am the second artist to be invited to illustrate the second series of Lunar New Year stamps. I had to come up with a concept for the new series; off course, I followed the previous series and utilized the animals from the Chinese Zodiac to adore the stamp. Since the Rat is the first animal in the series, I did many sketches of the Rat. But I never felt it worked for me. The lunar New Year is so much more than an animal from the Chinese Zodiac. So, with the encouragement from my art director Ethel Kessler, I decided to go with my heart and incorporate many of the Lunar New Year elements that I grew up with during this festive holiday as my concept for the second series of the Lunar New Year stamp.

a 41 cent stamp with red Chinese lanterns
Stamp designed by Mak
©All Rights Reserved
United States Postal Service

How does your style affect your final design, or how is your style reflected in the final design?
Because I love putting a lot of details into my paintings. I constantly have to remind myself to hold back from adding too much, I also try to put more contrast into my painting so that the final design will be so much more effective when scaled down.

What advice would you give to young designers? 
My advice to young illustrators is that you have to have the passion to do what you are doing. In my case it took many sacrifices and hard work for me to be a good illustrator. Then, also being lucky helps as well!

Why do you love designing stamps? What’s the best part about designing stamps?
I love illustrating stamps because I love painting period. The stamp gives me a platform to express that and more. In the case of the Lunar New Year stamp, the illustration allowed me to share my beautiful Chinese culture with others and that was great. I have also met so many wonderful and interesting people through illustrating these stamps.

What is the most difficult thing about illustrating/designing stamps?
In the case of the Lunar New Year series, I find the most difficult part is how to come up with an idea that is universally accepted by all the people that are involved in the process of creating the stamp and the intended audiences. I am always very nervous when Ethel Kessler shows my sketches or the final paintings to the stamp committee. I never know what the response will be.

I was also very nervous about how the Asian community acceptance of my concept for the Lunar New Year series. I felt I have to at least live up to the first series of Lunar New Year Stamp. I want the Lunar New Year stamp to be enjoyed by every one and that is a huge and difficult task.

Kam Mak’s Biography

Kam Mak was born in Hong Kong. His family moved to the United States in 1971 and settled in New York City. His interest in painting was awakened through involvement with City Art Workshop, an organization which enables inner-city youths to explore the arts. Mr. Mak continued to pursue his interest in painting while attending the School of Visual Arts on a full scholarship, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1984.

Mr. Mak’s works has been exhibited at the Society of Illustrators Annual Exhibition, The Original Art show (dedicated to the best of children’s picture books) and in a one-person show at the Brooklyn Public Library. He has illustrated over 200 paintings for book covers, magazine and editorial pieces for such client as, HarperCollins, St. Martins Press, Random House, National Geographic, Time magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Times. Mr. Mak’s most recent art has graced the second series of the USPS lunar New Year stamps and also a new postcard stamp for the USPS adored with the fish Koi will be release in spring 2009.

Mr. Mak’s most recent book My Chinatown: One Year In Poemsreceived a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and is about a little boy growing up in Chinatown. My Chinatown was the Parent’s Choice 2002 Recommended Award Winner by the Parents’ Choice Foundation .The Dragon Prince, published by HarperCollins won him the Oppenheim Platinum Medal for the best children’s picture book of 1997, and the National Parenting Publication Gold Medal for the best children’s picture book of 1997. Mr. Mak was awarded a gold medal for the cover art for The Kite Rider and silver medals for the cover art for My Chinatown from the Society of Illustrators 45th Annual Exhibition in 2003. He also won the Stevan Dohanos Award from the Society of Illustrators (awarded to an artist in recognition of his or her artistic excellence). In November 2008 Mr. Mak was awarded The Asian American Dynamic Achiever Awards of OCA-Westchester & Hudson Valley Chapter, for his outstanding accomplishment in the arts.

Mr. Mak is an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology as well as guest lectures at many of the public schools and institutions. He is currently working on a series of personal paintings inspired by imageries found in Chinatown that have move him since his childhood. In some of these paintings, he is incorporating the use of egg tempera; it is a painting process that uses egg yolk to bind pigments. He resides in Brooklyn with his wife and one son and one daughter.

Kam Mak’s Stamp Illustrations

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