Life in our Foothills October 2023 – “I Just Draw What I See” – Illustrator Kevin Sprouls, creator of the Wall Street Journal’s hallmark portrait style

Published 2:59 pm Monday, October 30, 2023

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Illustrator Kevin Sprouls might be known in the Foothills area for breaking out his bagpipes in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or being an occasional drummer in the Rich Nelson Band, but he’s best known for being a Society of Illustrators Gold Medalist and introducing the hallmark portrait style to the Wall Street Journal in 1979. 

Kevin, now of Tryon, worked on staff for the Wall Street Journal from 1979 to 1987, where he was in charge of the in-house artists at the newspaper. During his time at the Journal, he hired and trained the artists in the hallmark portrait style, also known as a “hedcut,” an old newspaper term. 

The hallmark portrait style is a unique style of drawing used by The Wall Street Journal to create half-column portrait illustrations. The drawings are made up of tiny dots and lines and are designed to look like woodcuts from old newspapers. The phonetic spelling of “hed” may be based on newspapers’ use of the term hed for “headline.” 

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Kevin approached the Wall Street Journal with some ink dot illustrations he had created, and the front page editor felt that the drawings complemented the paper’s classical feeling and gave it a sense of stability. 

“My first boss was long-time WSJ editor Lynne Mapes, and he gave me a shot at the time they were looking to create an art department from scratch,” Sprouls says. “When they added the new section, they gave us a lot of newer and more interesting subject matter. As Assistant Art Director, I was in charge of the in-house artists at the Wall Street Journal, which numbered four or five staff artists and two to three part-timers.”

A front page illustration drawn for the Daily News

Kevin’s style is notable for its high level of detail and traditional, engraving-like effect. His work has been featured in the Smithsonian magazine, a web exhibit of the National Portrait Gallery, and a major exhibit celebrating Columbus Day, which was mounted in Grand Central Terminal, New York, in 2005. He was the portraitist for the popular Infiniti “Drivers” ad campaign, which appeared weekly in the Wall Street Journal. In addition to various corporate and advertising projects, Kevin’s recent work has appeared in Worth, Forbes, Runner’s World, Sports Illustrated, Time (International Edition), Euroman and Esquire magazines. Recent book projects include the Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures, The Art of Demotivation, The Executive’s Almanac, and The Anthology of Really Important Modern Poetry. His work is featured and discussed in Matthew May’s latest book, The Laws of Subtraction. His pen is housed in the Newseum in Washington, D.C. 

Originally from New Jersey, Kevin and his wife Roe, a poet, potter and retired professor from Stockton University, relocated to Tryon from Newbern, North Carolina, about four years ago after quickly searching the top ten cities to live in North Carolina. The parents of two grown children made one visit to Tryon and felt no need to visit the other nine. They quickly fell in love with their neighborhood and neighbors and the hiking trails at the Blue Wall Preserve and Pearson’s Falls. 

As for his musical background, he says, “I picked up the bagpipes when I was 40, and my son was 12, and we learned it together. However, he is a much better bagpipe player. I already had a background as a drummer. And I’ve played drums with the Rich Nelson Band on occasion.”

Kevin works comfortably and patiently from his home studio, often with the family Jack Russell, Birch, comfortably seated in his lap. His studio is filled with beautiful art created by him and other artists, including his daughter, a children’s book author and illustrator, and even a pair of paintings from his Uncle’s Italian restaurant in New Jersey. 

An illustration showcasing the rise in automation in the modern workplace

“It’s always a challenge getting a likeness. I just draw what I see,” Kevin explains. 

He uses photographic references for most of his work except for the conceptual drawings, which he pulls from his imagination. Kevin has used the same style of pen for years, one with a 1 mm width to produce his unique pieces. 

An illustration showcasing both his intricate style and vast imagination

“I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid, and I went to art school at Tyler School of Art, part of Temple University, to get away from home, and it was probably the easiest school to go to.” The summer after graduation, he went to work for Dow Jones, the owner of the WSJ.


Many headline-making people or things have crossed his drawing board over the years. Presidents. Currency. Cars. If it was in the news, he has probably sketched it in his distinct and easily recognizable style.

An engine drawn for the Saturn Car Company

Kevin has been prolific in the freelance illustration world, contributing to advertising, publishing, editorial, and corporate projects. 

As a Society of Illustrators Gold Medalist and the man behind the hallmark portrait style, Kevin Sprouls’ impact on the world of illustration cannot be overstated. His unique style and incredible attention to detail make him a sought-after illustrator across numerous industries. His work is instantly recognizable and always impressive, whether it’s a portrait of a president, a foreign currency, or the engine of the latest automobile. 

Currency is one of the countless subjects Sprouls has drawn over his career