Windows into Illustration: Jim Kay
Jim Kay’s intensely evocative black and white illustrations for his 2012 Kate Greenaway Medal winner, A Monster Calls, are full of darkness and ambiguity, mirroring the emotional turmoil of the written narrative while affording the reader space to create their own mental images. It is a boldly experimental style that Kay developed in response to the text. Here Jim Kay explains the technique and thinking behind one of the illustrations of the Monster.
I couldn’t believe my luck when I was asked to illustrate A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Not only was the manuscript astonishing, but I was working with the wonderful Art Director Ben Norland at Walker Books, who gave me the freedom to pretty much try anything with regards to the appearance of the illustrations. I was very nervous about working on the book at first; in fact I wasn’t even sure if it should be illustrated at all. The story has a wonderful connection with the reader, but does this without relying heavily upon description of the main characters. It was clear from the beginning that the illustrations would have to embrace that sense of ambiguity, in order not to deprive the reader of their personal translation of who the characters are.
I like working in black and white, it gets straight to the point. The light reveals, the darkness conceals, and by working from effectively a black canvas, I could slowly illuminate the important elements and hide the rest. For most of the illustrations the reader is doing the work; they see the basic forms and shapes, but Conor’s face, and the Monster’s features are ultimately left to the imagination.
As I mentioned earlier, I was somewhat apprehensive about illustrating this text. I had a crisis of confidence to start with, and didn’t have any faith in my own draughtsmanship. I did anything I could to avoid actually ‘drawing’ the illustrations. I went through my entire house collecting any bits of scrap paper with random paint and ink marks on; any object that could hold ink and physically fit through a press was printed. Within a couple of weeks I had amassed a library of splats, misprints, and impressions on paper. I discovered that old breadboards produced wonderful textures when inked up and printed, that salt made interesting patterns when sprinkled in black paint. I pinned these haphazard pieces upon the wall and started to see images in them, as one might see pictures in Rorschach ink blots. It felt like someone else was creating the illustrations, which certainly took the pressure off me. I either physically or digitally assembled these fragments and used them in my images. I think this gave the illustrations an indistinct quality that helped to keep just enough distance between them and the reader.
The illustration here shows the Monster sitting on a small outbuilding in a garden. The Monster may be familiar to people as ‘The Green Man’, an ancient and somewhat mysterious character, half tree, half man. When the Monster was aggressive I made him far more tree-like, but in this particular instance he is resting, and therefore more human. This scene (which stretches over several pages) was inspired by Goya’s monoprint ‘The Colossus’. I wanted that same sense of weight and gravitas. The streetlights behind the monster provide the quiet clash of the ancient and modern, the tiny bird a sense of scale, and the weathervane with the hare – well that was just for me.
The composition deliberately uses a lot of dead space. This emphasises the contemplative mood of the Monster, who is pressed up against the right hand edge, somewhat alienated from the reader. Empty space is a useful tool in composing illustrations, and can speak as loudly as a page filled with action. There is a beautiful painting by David, ‘The Death of Marat’, which employs darkness to fill almost half the canvas. The painting wouldn’t be the same without that expanse of dark paint, looming over Marat’s figure.
A Monster Calls (978 1 4063 3934 5) by Patrick Ness, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, illustrated by Jim Kay is published by Walker at £8.99 pbk. As well as the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, it has won the 2012 Red House Books Award and the UKLA Book Award.
Books for Keeps readers may be interested to know that prints are available of this image and of two others from A Monster Calls.