Illustrator Spotlight: Kelly Murphy

Hey guys. Welcome to the first Illustrator Spotlight post of 2013! I’ve been contacting lots of artists recently about taking part and was very excited when the talented Kelly Murphy replied saying she was happy to answer some questions about her work! Kelly has illustrated a lot of picture books and book covers, but it was the cover for Behind the Bookcase by Mark Steensland that first caught my eye. For those of you particularly interested in learning about the process behind illustrating a book cover, or thinking about going into illustration yourself, Kelly gives some great advice and insight below, as well as a glimpse at her early sketches for the book.
Looking at your website, you’ve working on a lot of book covers and picture books. What was your favourite project to work on?

It’s difficult to pinpoint which project I have enjoyed the most. Most of the time, projects run several months up to several years. I can say that by the end of every project, there is a real desire to clear the desk and send the art along to it’s next destination. When I start packing it up for shipment, that’s when I start to get a bit nervous and want to keep reworking them. I enjoy projects for what they are: Picturebooks are a chance to really push my color and chapter books are to really celebrate character. Behind the Bookcase was one of my more beloved books to work on because it allowed me to show my darker side.

Behind the Bookcase: Early Book Cover Design

Behind the Bookcase has quite a Coraline feel to it – can you tell us a bit about the concept behind the design, with the tree-like shadows morphing into the title?

I summoned all of the memories of dark, but not horrifying imagery I had experienced or seen. The first sketch version of Behind The Bookcase lacked that special mystique or strangeness of composition, so I scrapped those weeks worth of work to start in a new direction. A lot of my influence came from Kay Nielsen’s work, which is so dreamlike and bold with composition. I made sure to have his images around me as I thumbnailed. As far as the trees, I drew them exactly how author Mark Steensland had described them. Their long sinuous shape only seems a natural fit for a forest of shadows. A gentle rustle may make it looks like ribbons in the wind. I was so excited when the art director approved one of me sketch concepts for the text. The designer told me the tried endlessly to match the look of the sketch with a typeface, but it was near impossible. They encouraged me to create the text. I’ve been  long time lover of the calligraphy and the hand drawn letter, so this was a perfect chance to really blend image and text as best I could.

Behind the Bookcase: Early Book Cover Design

How much freedom do you have when working on a book cover? Behind the bookcase has internal illustrations as well – did you get quite a specific brief for each artwork to work from?

It all depends on the design team. Sometimes, they have a more specific focus for the look of a cover, especially when marketing has a say. For instance, palette of a book can be influence whether or not the book is geared for boys or girl. Target age also plays a big role into the look of the cover. In my experience, editors and art directors give minimal guidelines to the cover creation so that the illustrator will not feel forced, but rather open to make their magic happen. I believe I had over thirteen different cover sketches for Behind The Bookcase. In regards to the interior illustrations, no direction or guideline was made. It was left up to the discretion of the illustrator to pick out the key moments for each chapter. Reading through, I made sure to underline or note phrases that popped forward, or had really lively imagery. I also try to include one sort of spot subject to highlight. I believe the agreement for the book listed that I did thirty interior illustrations, but I was so excited I bumped up the illustration count to fifty!

Was there one image in particular that gave you some trouble?

It wasn’t one image in particular, it was more specifically look of the whole book. I was so glad that I trashed the first version of the book. It was very stale and too straight forward.

How did you get into illustration?

I always like to think that illustration found me. I feel as though my work grew into an illustrators realm. Like most children, I was obsessive about making my imagination come alive through drawing. School days passed by much quicker with a crayon in hand. As time progressed, and most children developed a lack of confidence with their drawing, I stayed immersed, finding a sort of comfort within that world. It continued into high school, being shy was easily matched with having a head in a note book scribbling away. Once in college, I made sure to keep my options open to all majors, but eventually it was illustrations versatility of medium and objectives that I fell in love with. After those years, I came to understand that my work had a natural narrative element that eventually seemed destined for stories. After four years of art school, I was able to finally have a goal for my work: Make stories and characters come alive.

Do you write your own book as well as illustrating others?

My confidence is low when it comes to writing. My first book published was self authored and illustrated. I have a few book ideas floating around, but it takes so much time for me to muster up the courage to show my ideas to others. I’ll get there eventually!

Can you tell us about your creative process? How you work, how you get your ideas down, the revision process, what media you work in etc

I first start with an obsessive amount of sketching, particularly character sketching. I grab an reference material I may need and make sure to have my desk surrounded with it. Eventually, those characters become firm, and I am ready to show the publisher. After getting the go ahead form them, I then take the next task of fine tooth combing the text, looking for all the tiny details that become essential to the look of the book. This is the same process for a 32 paged or 300 page book.  Starting with tiny thumbnails, I flesh out the pacing and general composition of each image. The thumbnail is lose enough in detail, but captures key compositional elements. Instead of trying to redraw those thumbnails, I scan them in, enlarge them, then print them out at 50% and start to draw right on top of them. I typically try to work in pen, because it makes me less nervous or tentative. If I have a pencil, I find myself erasing or creating a weaker line. If I make a mistake, that’s why white-out exists! Often I even cover mistakes with piece of paper and glue stick.

Any advice for aspiring illustrators?

I have LOADS! In addition to my freelance work, I’ve been teaching for over eleven years now. In regards to your own work, you have to not only enjoy what you are doing, but you have to involve what you love or inspired by into your own work. Anyone can create a portfolio based off the marketing successes in this business. But home long will that last? There is an emptiness to that type of approach. After my second or third year in art school, I slowed myself down when looking and reacting to those pieces of art that gave me goosebumps. I really looked within to try to discover WHY I liked those images, not necessarily what a book or art history is telling me. I came to discover I really loved deeply atmospheric images that had lush value structure and evoked a certain mood. I made it my mission to make my artwork operate on that same wavelength. I’d also recommend aspiring illustrators to be not only persistent, but self evaluate from time to time. Establishing a portfolio can take time, and introducing your work to the publishing world can take even longer. Persistence is necessary, but you also have to be able to listen to feedback and process what will make your work stronger. I’d be lying to say that as an illustrator you should only make personal work and never care about the concerns of your audience. In my opinion, you must be able to balance the sense of self and the needs of the audience in order to be a great illustrator. There have been times where I’ve nearly walked away from the life of an illustrator. I quickly return apologetically because there is nothing in this world I rather devote a life’s work to.

Click on the thumbnails to see some of Kelly’s illustrations and early rough drawings for Behind the Bookcase
Many thanks to Kelly Murphy for taking the time to answer these questions in detail and for happily supplying some of her drawings.
You can check out all her other book covers and picture books over on her website.
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