A glimpse into the life of an illustrator - Interview with Kathleen Jennings

Friday, 30 August 2019

Yesterday I posted about two new historical crime novels coming out from Corella Press - don't forget to check out the giveaway for your chance to win a copy of Millwood Mystery or Bridget's Locket! One thing which fascinated me about both covers was the detail in the illustrations, so today Kathleen Jennings is here to share some insights about her creative process (and a few book recommendations too!)

How did you first get into becoming a book illustrator?

I always planned to be a writer, but I was working as a lawyer and a translator and had a lot of hobbies, so made myself pick the ones I could do, would do, and wanted to do every day. Drawing made the cut, because I could at least draw a smiley face. I started doing a weekly illustration challenge and putting it on my blog, and Small Beer Press found it. The first book cover I did was for them, for Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales.

What does your creative process usually involve?

The publisher or art director usually tells me the sort of direction they’d like to take. If possible (and it isn’t always) I read the book. Then I make a series of thumbnail (small) sketches to show different ways I could illustrate the cover or internal pictures. The publisher chooses one and I refine it to a more detailed pencil sketch. When that is approved, I do the final piece of art. It could be cut out (as for Corella), or drawn with a dip pen, or another technique. When that final piece is approved, I usually scan it in and clean it up on the computer, and sometimes I add colour then.

If people like seeing that process, I sometimes put posts about it up on my blog: tanaudel.wordpress.com.

Do you have a favourite work that you've made to date?

I do really like this whole design for Corella. It is a circular design, all in one piece, and it feels like lace. 

Small Beer Press published Kij Johnson’s The River Bank, a sequel to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. I had a lot of fun with that project, learning to see through (my favourite Willows illustrator) E. H. Shepard’s eyes, and I am still very proud of it. It’s a great book, quite apart from the illustrations: fun and nuanced and respectful and new. 

I also did a scratchboard illustration of the colour scarlet (with digital colour) for an art exhibition. I can see, now, where I could have improved it, but I enjoyed getting all the references in. But I can’t pick just one work — I love playing in all these books! 

What are the best/most challenging aspects of designing a piece?

Drawing violins and pigs: these are both quite difficult. But mostly the challenge is the best bit: being limited by the book, the genre, the shape, the technique, the deadline, and then climbing around in that frame to make something that pleases me and the publisher and that works as a picture. But because I am a writer and a storyteller and occasionally do academic research, I also really enjoy climbing around someone else’s story and commenting on it, ornamenting it, supplementing the story with hints and allusions. 

I have an Australian Gothic novella, Flyaway, coming out from Tor.com next year. I wrote and illustrated it, and it was quite tricky! I’m used to bouncing off someone else’s thoughts; it was odd being constantly in my own head.

What advice do you have for other people looking to forge a career in illustrating?

Draw a lot. Put it out there regularly. Be professional. Be generous. Make connections outside of just artists: be friends with writers and typographers, publishers, agents and translators. 

And learn and accept criticism and work hard: but also try and find what you like, and do that well — if you do it long enough it could become a new style, and there are some excellent illustrators who just work with stick figures, or dots. If you can learn to communicate and tell a story, you’re more than halfway there. 

Look after your back.

On the bookish front, what have been some of your top reads recently?

I’ve been judging a book award and the winners haven’t been announced, so I can’t tell you! But let me see: 

Oh, I just read Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike, an enchanting little murder mystery where two friends in a detective club in an English boarding school in the 1930s end up investigating a murder. 

Stevens was one of the keynote speakers at the Diana Wynne Jones convention in Bristol earlier this month, and so I also reread Howl’s Moving Castle so that I could give a talk about contract law in it. If people haven’t read it, or have only seen the (very good) Studio Ghibli movie, it’s a wonderful fairy-tale novel — whip-smart and based on a John Donne poem. 

And I picked up another copy of one of my favourite books in a second-hand store in Bristol before I came home (always have multiple copies, the better to lend them out again!). It is W. Grahame Robertson’s Time Was, a collection of reminiscences of his friendships with people like half the Pre-Raphaelites, and Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry! Gentle and wistful and funny and full of artists and actors and Edwardian bohemians.

You can check out more of Kathleen's work on Redbubble and her online portfolio. She also has a Patreon for people wanting her monthly calendar design and other behind-the-scenes content early!

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