Jim Kay's Moving Ink Illustration from Award-winning book, 'A Monster Calls'

Posted at 12 pm on July 23, 2012 by

Posted in: Character Illustration, Ink Illustration, Reviews

Alone, they are already haunting, moving images, but this series of illustrations are part of the larger work that illustrator, Jim Kay did for the book, ‘A Monster Calls’. It’s a project for which he developed the visual style from the ground up, resulting in a emotional illustrative language that is unique to the book.

The work has received high recognition, becoming the first to win its illustrator the Kate Greenaway Medal for book illustration, the same year the author, Patrick Ness, won its sister prize, the Carnegie Medal, recognising outstanding literature for children or young adults.

As regular followers of Ape on the Moon know, we love to find out how artists navigate their projects, so we were excited when Jim was willing to give us a truly in-depth look at how he did it. He tells us about how he evolved the work, his inspiration and even how his living environment became a factor in the process. Have a read, a look at the animated trailer and some development sketches, too!

My name is Jim Kay and I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator for the last five years. I work predominantly in children’s books, occasionally providing work for editorial and advertising too.

I don’t tend to approach a commission with a particular style in mind, it’s simply a case of scribbling down first responses in a manner that seems appropriate for the text. I like to chop and change techniques, ideally trying something new with each commission. This can lead to all sorts of problems; experimentation is fun but by its very nature prone to more failures than successes, and throwing 80% of what you do in the bin is somewhat stressful when deadlines are involved.

A Monster Calls was one such commission. I was extremely nervous about working on this particular story; the manuscript was so strong, so moving, I wondered if it should be illustrated at all.

It was a conscious decision from the beginning to leave the physical appearance of the lead characters ambiguous, as not to deprive the reader of their own personal translation of the book. I didn’t have much confidence in my own line at the time, so I tried anything that would help create the images for me. I collected hundreds of random marks, smudges, mistakes from wherever I could find them. I inked up any materials I could lay my hands on and put them through the press.

After a couple of weeks, I had amassed a large quantity of paper scraps, each with an individual splatter or mark on them. I hung these on the walls in my house, and started to assemble them into shapes and images. If you look at these things every day, you start to see recognisable patterns in them; like Rorschach ink blots they make their own suggestions.

Some of the images relied heavily on the impressions made from old breadboards, which I inked up and ran through a press. The numerous cuts and scratches print a wonderful ‘noise’ of delicate marks, and this combined with monoprints and collagraphs gave the images an injection of something extra, an element of something uncontrolled. 

The physical conditions I was living in also affected my work. The flat was usually much colder inside than out, and that winter was one of the coldest on record for Edinburgh, frequently going below zero indoors. I couldn’t draw anything with particular detail for long periods (my hands were too cold), which encouraged me to use big brushes and more energetic printing techniques.

At the time of working on A Monster Calls, I was watching a fair number of black and white movies, everything from Nosferatu to the Ladykillers, I think that helped. I always think of illustrations as a still from a movie; it reminds me that the camera can be anywhere, the lighting doesn’t have to be straight forward.

I’ve always been a bit embarrassed talking about techniques, if I’m honest, as I’m not one of those artists that knows a great deal about the different types of pressed papers, the quality of different paints. I’ve tried all sorts, but I tend to forget everything I’ve learned, and so each commission is like starting from scratch again.

I’ll use anything that makes a mark; whether it’s tester-pots of paint picked up for a few pence each in a hardware store, or fancy ‘artist’s quality’ watercolours. I quite like the way cheap materials break up and fail on paper, or poorly-inked linocuts produce fussy textures; it’s the little mistakes that I’m interested in, again because it feels like it’s not actually me making the image.  

Straight after ‘A Monster Calls’ I started working on a children’s pop-up book of insects, which was a complete contrast – bright and cheerful. I think that’s important, keep mixing it up.

(Above: unused development design.)

© Jim Kay, 2012