Recently, I had the good fortune to interview high-end retoucher Kelly Robitaille to get her insights on retouching and learn how she’s built her career and skills as a high-end retoucher as well as getting her advice to those who want to build a similar career.
Known for her “Whimsy Waifs” artwork depicting doe-eyed characters, Kelly has been hard at work as well, building a reputation as a high-end retoucher. Her client list includes well-known photographers such as Brian Bowen Smith and Mary Ellen Matthews among others.
As a young child, Kelly grew up always drawing and painting under the guidance of her grandmother, who was a big fan of the legendary art teacher Bob Ross. Studying graphic design in school, she started out working as a logo designer for a small company before moving on to another, where she got to combine her design skills with shooting some photography and falling in love with Photoshop.
“I love photography, but there is something about bringing a picture in and working on it in Photoshop, creating something artistic, that sucked me in.”
Creating Art She Loved Led to More Clients
For Kelly,creating art she loved, her Whimsy Waifs series, and sharing it on social media wound up leading to a career as a high-end retoucher. Seeing her images on Instagram led photographer Brian Bowen Smith to reach out to her to work on his images.
As she tells it, late one night, while browsing through her stream in bed, she got a message on Instagram from Brian, asking if she would like to work with him. After exchanging a couple of messages, she spoke with him on the phone while trying to contain her excitement.
Step Outside of Your Box!
The retouching work she did for Brian brought her to the notice of other well-known photographers, such as Mary Ellen Matthews, of SNL fame, and Brian Edwards, the president of MGM’s TV division.
Reflecting on the way her career has grown, Kelly says: “When you have a good, positive attitude, staying humble, knowing it’s the client’s work, really helps push the positivity and helps people to want to work with you.”
Kelly attributes her willingness to step outside of the box and try new things as key to her getting noticed as a retoucher: “I stepped outside of my box and did something different without worrying about what other people thought of it. That got me noticed, and things started snowballing. Good things happen when you branch out and express yourself.”
Respecting Client’s Vision Is Key!
While Kelly says she feels lucky to have been able to get the attention of clients she loves working with, she does acknowledge getting to this point took a lot of work and dedication to pushing her abilities and skills as a retoucher: “If there is something I’ve never done before, I’ll work my ass off to figure it out in a way that suits us both!”
One of the biggest points Kelly emphasizes in talking about how she works with clients comes down to respecting the relationship between a retoucher and their client. Remembering that in the end, it is the client’s vision that matters the most is key. “If I were a photographer hiring a retoucher,” she says, “I would want to know they respected my art. If I sent someone an image to retouch and they were constantly doing their own thing, it would not draw me to work with them more. You have to be accommodating!”
Retouchers Form a Supportive Community.
As she has built her career retouching images for high-profile photographers, one thing Kelly says has impressed her is how willing other high-end retouchers are when it comes to offering support and trading tips and techniques: “Every time I’ve reached out and asked for help, everyone has been so accommodating and has offered to help in any way they can.”
For those who want to build a career as a retoucher, Kelly recommends remembering that a positive attitude and getting to know other retouchers will help you build the supportive community that will help you grow and achieve your ambitions: “The retouching community has been very accepting and willing to share. No one is taking pie off my plate; there are a lot of jobs out there if you’re willing to do the work.”
When asked what is key to her continuing to learn, she says following and observing the work of other retouchers, keeping her finger on the pulse of the retouching community and being willing to take feedback have been critical to her growth as a retoucher.
Finally, she says developing an eye for detail, being aware of everything happening in an image is what separates average work from high-end work. Clients appreciate working with someone who brings this awareness to their work, helping to make the images they work on look as good as possible while bringing the clients’ vision to life.
Images used with permission from Kelly Robitaille and Brian Bowen Smith