Illustrator Illuminations: Keith Campbell

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In our ongoing series to highlight the great artist who create the amazing cover art of MG novels, we had a chance to get to know the talented Keith Campbell. His work has been on a number of MG covers, as well as PB, but you may have seen his work in the Newberry Award winning book FLORA & ULYSSEYS.

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Middle Grade Mafia: Keith, when you get hired to illustrate a book cover and/or interior art, what is the first thing you do?

Keith Campbell: At that point I’ve already read the manuscript to get a general sense of the mood and character of the story.  So after the contract is inked I return to scan the text for references that might have an impact on the illustrations. These might be descriptions physical (she had red hair, it was a jagged mountain), or non-physical that still require a visual interpretation (she had exuberant hair, it was a mysterious mountain).MGM: When you are creating these illustrations, how much direction do you get from the art director or editor?

KC: That depends on the project. If it’s one of my own authorship, the publisher’s input is more practical than creative: does the protagonist look age appropriate for the readership?  Do the illustrations conflict with the text?  Is the visual communication clear and unambiguous?  Beyond that usually no one’s going to question my interpretation of my character.

If I’m illustrating the work of another author, there is usually more extensive input from the art department in all aspects of visual interpretation.  More, the publisher will often invite the author to comment in the development stages (especially on character design) and sometimes on the sketches too.  But the details get ironed out by us visual types; too many cooks and all that…

A MGM: I see on your website that you have also illustrated picture books. How was that different from working with middle grade novels?

KC: Currently I’ve illustrated more picture books than middle grade.  As their name suggests, they require a lot more, well, pictures!  They rely much more heavily on visual communication, a fact the industry recognizes by crediting author and illustrator equally.

Traditionally picture books would be more labor intensive than middle grade; more illustrations, larger format, almost always color. But with the rise of the graphic novel and hybrid middle grade/graphic novel that is no longer always the case.

MGM: Are you represented by an agent or art rep? If so, where and how did you meet?

KC: I came to this industry quite late and very consciously.  After years languishing in slush piles as an aspiring author, I turned to my drawing skills in the hopes of gaining entrance to the publishing fortress as an illustrator.

After a little education it took me about a year to build up a body of work large enough to call myself an illustrator.  Utilizing SCBWI’s Resource Library to identify appropriate recipients, I mailed a promotional postcard blast to various art directors and illustrator agencies.  This is one of those rare instances where low-tech is superior.  A physical postcard of your artwork is essentially a sample of the finished product.  Moreover it has a life in the real world, hangs around on desks or pin boards, gets passed about.  Hey, even crumpled in the trash it can catch an eye!

At least it worked for me.  That first postcard blast (the only one I’ve ever had to do) got me a two book deal with Kids Can Press and – to answer your question finally – my agent Lori Nowicki of Painted Words (www.painted-words.com).

MGM: Keith, how would you describe your style?

KC: Left to my own devices, I definitely list to the Gothic.  Edward Gorey, Tim Burton and Nicoletta Ceccoli are the most definitive influences on my signature style.

I’m also a great lover of the cinematic and in another life might have pursued a career as a movie art director.  You can see that most clearly in my latest picture book The Mermaid and the Shoe where I use dramatic perspective and negative space to convey a sense of grand scale and (hopefully) magical imagery within a relatively small format.

But remember that I am fairly new to this and I’m still developing as an artist and hungrily embracing new aesthetics divergent from my own.  I’m a huge fan for example, of Austrian illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger.  Her clear alpine colors are exquisite and her unexpected compositions pure genius.  The graphic quality of Japanese art (particularly woodblock prints) also attracts me.   So you can expect to seem some of these influences in my upcoming projects.

MGM: Where did you get your artistic training?

KC: Actually I didn’t.  Apart from a few life drawing classes I’m self-taught.  As a high school senior I chose university over art school.  It’s a decision I still question.

I did however, graduate with a Masters in art history and my exposure to art theory – composition, the effect of light and color on emotion, general visual story-telling – is certainly being put to use now. Moreover, college essays and dissertations help to develop a vocabulary and clarity of written communication that have stood me in good stead as an author.

MGM: Do you enjoy creating art for yourself when in between projects or to take a break from projects and if so, what type of art do you choose to create?

KC: The last several years have been all about establishing this new career.  Any spare time I had early on (there is none now) was dedicated to the kind of experimentation (with materials, techniques) that most artists do at art school.  My pre-career portfolio consists of illustrations without stories that reflect the most successful of these experiments.  I’ve had the time to add only a few of these in the last two years.

At some point I’d like to get into fine art portraiture; large oils with the graphic simplicity and delicious texture of the Post Impressionists (think Gaugin, Van Gogh, Klimt).  With seven books in the works however, it might be a while.

MGM: What is your favorite media to use?

KC: I started with colored pencil because the learning curve was a relatively shallow one.  I’m also an unusually tidy artist who doesn’t like to make a mess!  But it’s a pretty laborious medium.  Most people working with colored pencil are doing so as fine artists on individual pieces, rather than busy illustrators undertaking the many images demanded by each project.  I quickly discovered that watercolor under-paintings helped to speed things along, establishing dark tones much more quickly.

This combination remains the backbone of my technique.  I still love the potential to create hard line or no line and everything in-between, the possibilities for correction and the slightly grainy texture reminiscent of 19th century photography.

But as with the influences I mentioned above, I am eager to try out some new techniques and media.

MGM: Would you share a little about your process with us?

KC: I start with the manuscript and a search for visual prompts.  Then I turn to visual research.  What on earth did we do before Google Image?  For every project I wind up with a hefty collection of jpegs: cute aliens, vintage teddy bears, antebellum plantation homes, boys’ sneakers, you name it.  I prefer to avoid generics and work instead with specific examples (or a mashup of); it helps to establish character and plausibility.

Sticking with technology I then “sketch digitally”.  I use 3D modeling/animation software to create and pose characters of my own design.  It’s much like having virtual models; it helps to keep proportions consistent and permits me to establish dramatic perspectives that would be incredibly laborious to construct manually.

Using this “digital sketch” as a rough guide, I draw over it in pencil, introducing the character and quality of my own line.  Now I have a 2D drawing and might choose to cast aside realistic proportions or perspectives in favor of graphic considerations.

At this point I’m concentrating on content, composition and book design (or layout if you like).  After those are approved I detail the drawing with clothing, facial expressions and objects, communicating as much content as I can to the art department.  One more edit to tweak those details and I’m left with what becomes the under-drawing for the final art.  Voila!

MGM: Where do you like to work or what is your studio space like?

KC: Like many other illustrators I have a home studio, aka an unused bedroom.  Prior to a later addition to my house it was the master, so I have a fairly luxurious amount of space and storage.  The room is at the back of the house, and nestled into the north side of a steep hill.  Light then, can be scarce in the winter but a couple of large skylights have helped with that.  And it looks over the garden which is nice.

As I said, I’m not into chaotic, crowded spaces so a couple of times a week I do a thorough and comprehensive tidy up; everything returned to its corresponding drawer, cupboard or container.  Afterwards, you might be hard pressed to imagine anyone living there, never mind an artist working there.

MGM: Fun Question: Do you have a favorite snack to nosh on while you illustrate?

KC: Not so much a snack as a beverage.  I live in California but grew up in Scotland, and like many natives of the British Isles have a taste for tea.  I consume several steaming cups a day (much of it decaffeinated for reasons of physical and emotional well being).

Thank you, Keith, for sharing your art and your process with us. To see more of Keith’s art, you can check out his website, follow him on Twitter, and go to his Facebook page.


One Comment

  1. What a treat to read! I’ve done a number of illustrated books–as writer–with Candlewick, and they are so respectful of both author and artist. (“Cody and the Fountain of Happiness”, illustrated by the illustrious Eliza Wheeler, pubs this coming April.) I thought the interplay of art and text in “Flora and Ulysses” was brilliant and original. Thanks for the behind-the-scenes peek.

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