Kolja Kähler, Software Engineer and Artist

The most important thing I want to capture in my art is the personality and spark of life in a portrait or character. I am interested in catching a moment, an impression. For storytelling, it’s important to have clarity in expression and make an emotional connection with the viewer. Much like programming is a way for me to understand aspects of our world, drawing has a similar function: through observation and making marks, I get an understanding of the subject, its “essence”, that will bring it to life on paper.

My name is Kolja Kähler, and I am – after more than 20 years in the business – a veteran software engineer with a research background in 3D graphics. I’m currently freelancing, working on UI-related projects in the automotive industry. I live in beautiful Munich, Germany.

I chose my job because programming and computer science always appealed to me. Solving logic puzzles in a constrained environment, structuring abstract concepts into clever algorithms that you can run on a real machine – it was like magic to me since I got my first home computer; it is my comfort zone up to this day. I find pleasure in thinking about architecture and program design – embarking on a new project feels like building roads and bridges over vast, unknown territory, with a vague moving target at the horizon. I’ve specialized in computer graphics early on – seeing algorithms produce beautiful visual results is very rewarding and fascinating. Also, this branch of computer science tapped into my desire to gain a scientific understanding of the physical world – implement lighting equations or fluid simulations correctly, and you get a realistic picture or animation as confirmation.

These days, most of the software development I do is more mundane UI work, but I also find joy in finding out how to make a user experience enjoyable and intuitive. Many of the issues there boil down to effective communication – I consider code a form of communication between developers; It’s not purely functional, but has to be readable by other team members and express intent (if elegantly written, source code can be as intriguing as good literature). So you see, I am still in love with programming after all these years. I consider it more of an art form than engineering.

I was born in Berlin, Germany – I went to university and got my first job in my hometown. I went on to do a PhD in the field of 3D computer graphics (facial animation). This was a fantastic time, where I met many excellent, bright people in our institution and all over the world at conferences. I discovered a love for writing scientific articles. I didn’t want to stay in academic circles, so I moved to Munich to work on special effects for movie productions. Over time, I moved on to work on general architecture and UI for various consumer entertainment products (such as asset management and video editing), and finally joined the automotive industry (in Munich, there is almost no way around automotive!). I was both interested in getting an inside scoop on the future of mobility, and more pragmatically, in a combined 2D / 3D UI framework that I then helped architecture and develop.

Outside of my job, I love drawing and painting. I always had a strong preference for visuals, but being a decidedly technical person, I naturally went on to program images, animations, and games. Only in my early twenties did I become seriously interested in learning how to draw – but lacking any mentor who could help me get started, I did it “the engineering way”: by attempting to work my way through a book with hundreds of drawing exercises on shapes, perspective, shading, etc. This had nothing to do with the wonderful works of art I saw in illustrations and movies, but I deemed it necessary to do the chores first. Needless to say, this was an immensely exhausting and frustrating experience! I gave up after a few months, deciding I just “didn’t have the talent”. So I stayed on the technical side.

But every time I watched a new animated movie, checking out the latest rendering technologies, there was always this itch – I realized what made me laugh and cry wasn’t the technology, it was the story and the artwork, the mood, the expressive animation. Alas, not my turf.

Fast forward to about 5 years ago, when I was taking a sabbatical from an increasingly routine job. At some point, rummaging through my old stuff, I rediscovered those old drawings from 20 years ago. They didn’t seem so bad after all! But I still felt the blood, sweat, and sheer frustration … now, what if I tried again, but just focusing on what was fun? So I did. Always being most interested in characters, I started with sketching simple Manga figures, which quickly got me into comics. With renewed enthusiasm, I started drawing animals, people, my surroundings … this time, it worked. I was hooked.

Since that time, art has been taking up more and more space in my life, to the point where I decided to go freelance, so I could better divide my time between software work and drawing.

My artistic influences don’t readily show up in my own work; they function more like beacons reminding me of what I find worthwhile and attractive. I love comics and graphic novels (Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, Guarnido’s Blacksad series, and Rocket Raccoon by Skottie Young), Japanese anime (Ghost in the Shell, and pretty much all Studio Ghibli features), animated movies in general (I love the old Disney classics, but also the refreshing look of the recent Into the Spider-Verse movie). I am something of a sci-fi nut (starting with 2001: A Space Odyssey, all things Star Trek and Star Wars, and the timeless Blade Runner). When it comes to fine art, the impressionists are my favorites, especially the Russian take on the movement, and other painters like William Turner or Joaquin Sorolla. Plus, there are an incredible number of great artists and art teachers on the Internet these days, from which I am learning an awful lot (e.g. Nathan Fowkes, Stan Prokopenko, Aaron Blaise, and Toni Infante).

My favourite things to draw are people and animal characters, in a story context. I sketch as much as possible from life, but also from photo reference or just from imagination. I’ve always been more interested in shapes and gestures than complex rendering. Of course, environments are pretty important to give your characters a world to live in. So I practice urban sketching whenever I can, and I do enjoy travel sketching a lot – much more than taking photographs.

I also love doing portraits – there’s so much beauty in a face, and capturing a lively expression is a never-ending challenge in observation. Even though some of my work there is fairly realistic, I try to look for ways to simplify, stylize, and emphasize. Recently, I’ve started to get into anthropomorphic animal portraits, which are a ton of fun and motivates me to learn animal anatomy.

I love both traditional and digital art. Because I spend my work life entirely in virtual realms, there is immense joy in the haptics of rubbing charcoal into paper with my fingers. Also, watercolor continues to teach me a lot about letting go and accepting happy (or not-so-happy) accidents. I experiment with different mediums, such as pen & ink, ball pen, colored pencils, markers, watercolors, gouache, charcoal and pastels, often mixing them freely. More complex, layered paintings (such as many of my portraits), I tend to do digitally. Digital offers infinite malleability, and can help to make bolder strokes, since you can always undo.

My artistic process depends a lot on the subject matter and the medium. In urban sketching, I usually just put down lines in ballpoint pen or ink directly, then add color. At other times, I will start with a loose pencil sketch (or a really tight one, if I want to make sure I get some tricky detail right). Especially when working digitally, I typically experiment a lot, so the process tends to be different every time. Sometimes I wish I had a more streamlined workflow, as I learn a lot by playing around. Happy accidents are part of the experience – just as well as mistakes. “Failing forward” has become a favorite expression.

My favourite art piece would be my first major comic story Clara & Pong (http://clarapong.com). I started out with weekly short strips revolving around my two main characters (a tech-savvy young woman and a red panda). After a year, I felt ready to tackle a larger sci-fi story. I had no idea just how big that project would turn out to be – it took almost three years from the initial script, the resulting book now packing exactly 100 pages! I am very happy with how the story arch held up over all that time and the improvement in my drawing skills.

The more I got into the story, the more the characters became alive and started to act on their own behalf in their world – I had a few magical moments here, probably similar to what a writer experiences when working on a novel. One becomes an observer recording the events that play out on stage, with sometimes surprising twists that you didn’t see coming!

I am currently preparing to get it printed, and am also planning to translate it to English (it’s in German only, so far).

I have many future goals with my art. Frankly, with more experience, it can actually become harder to find out where to go – as abilities and knowledge of the art space increase, you might paradoxically feel more disoriented than ever as everything is interesting! It takes a conscious effort to find the things closest to your heart, and to let go of other things. For me, it seems pretty clear I want to focus on characters and story. Another big driver is exploring a possible synthesis of my passions for writing software and for drawing. For instance, I’ve started experimenting with forms of interactive illustrations and storytelling. I’d love to take my comics to the next level and add interaction and game elements. Another path I want to explore is getting back to my roots and integrate 3D graphics into my art, and experiment with character animation.

I did publish a demo illustration with interactive elements in a web browser here: http://koljakaehler.de/2020/01/09/interactive-illustrations/.

As I started to learn more about how artists in the industry work, I’ve found a number of surprising connections and similarities to what I know from software development. For instance, I was very surprised to learn that art is a problem-solving activity, too! A concept artist may be given the task of designing a vehicle within given constraints until tomorrow, or a visual development team has to figure out the right shape language and mood for a movie. There are also common character traits, such as typically rather introvert people nonetheless working in teams, or considerations of “style” in the produced artifacts (I have written a longer blog post on the topic here: http://koljakaehler.de/2019/09/21/resonance/).

There is always more than tech. Given that interdisciplinary teams are becoming more prevalent these days, I have met surprisingly few colleagues who also avidly pursue creative interests. I do believe that is partly due to an unspoken cultural divide: you can only be good at either technology or art, but they don’t mix. If people successfully combining their multiple facets can share their experiences with the world, others can be encouraged to follow these examples, for a richer personal and professional life.

My advice to aspiring artists is to ignore the urge to approach things systematically and ‘technically correct’ for a while, but be playful! Motivation and enthusiasm are key. Start by drawing something you can geek out about – furry animals, space ships, Manga babes? Go for it! There are plenty of tutorials on any topic out there to get you started. Shamelessly copy from your favourite artists, experiment with anything that leaves a mark on paper. Make bold mistakes. Once you decide to get more serious about drawing and painting, you’re embarking on a life-long journey. You will have to get a solid foundation at some point. Build habits, connect with peers, do everything in your power to keep passion and fun alive.

For any artists or aspiring artists living in Munich, this is a big city with numerous meet-ups and life drawing possibilities. I joined a comic-artist roundtable last year, where we still have regular virtual meetings. Even though there are plenty of art communities on the Internet, I find that interacting with real people is generally much, much more personal, uplifting, and helpful. On social media, being confronted with a never-ending stream of output from the world’s best artists can be very disheartening to a beginner. In contrast, you can count on a ton of support from a group of people you actually meet over a beer (or two). Also, you may more easily get involved in local art-making events, keeping your enthusiasm fueled.

To check out Kolja’s web page for more information, as well as links to his comic, Instagram feed, and an art gallery, be sure to check the following link: http://koljakaehler.de.

  • Show Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *