Meet Kathleen Jennings, a Brisbane, Australia-based illustrator and writer who creates playful, fantastical worlds and characters. Most recently, she has illustrated Kij Johnson’s upcoming book The River Bank, which will be out in September via Small Beer Press.
Check out our interview below to learn more about Jennings’ literary interests, artistic process, and the work she currently has up in the gallery!
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, recent projects, etc.?
I was raised mostly on a cattle property (aka a cattle station) in Western Queensland, Australia. It wasn't incredibly remote, but far enough from town that I did most of my schooling through School of the Air (over-the-radio schooling using a Royal Flying Doctor radio) and spent the last two years at a boarding school. I then went to the University of Queensland in Brisbane, where I still live. I didn't study art – I studied English literature, German, and Law, and practiced for a while as both a translator and a lawyer.
I've always drawn and written, but when I was working as a lawyer I decided to make a point of drawing every day (using the website Illustration Friday as a source for prompts), as well as putting something on my blog every week. It was through that – and contacts from writing circles – that I got my first book cover job from Small Beer Press, with whom I still frequently work.
I've always worked on the literary end of science fiction and fantasy publishing for adult readers (more grown-up books need pictures!), but lately I've been moving into young adult and children's books. Kij Johnson's The River Bank is coming out from Small Beer Press this year, and I’ve also been working on upcoming projects within the publishers Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster.
I've recently spent six weeks in the USA, attending the Illustration Master Class at Amherst and Nico Delort's workshop at Light Grey, as well as Readercon in Boston and publisher visits in New York, so I'm just setting up my studio again now.
What does your workspace look like? What creates the perfect creative space for you and your practice?
What it currently looks like is both predictably untidy and unnervingly not a cascade of paper for once. I currently live alone, so my studio is usually set up where the living/dining room would otherwise be. I had some friends house-sitting while I was travelling, so I had to tidy it all up, and then I bought a new sit/stand desk that I can (hopefully) also use as a drafting table. I'm just getting properly unpacked again as we speak.
The perfect creative space for me and my practice is in the middle of everything. I like being surrounded by life – sometimes I'll do thumbnail sketches at the café or bar, and I love rambling with a sketchbook. I know more people in my usual haunts now, though, which makes it harder to concentrate. I also like being surrounded by other people quietly working, so sometimes I will round up a few friends and we'll set a timer and work between conversations.
If I could do anything to my house I would put a deck on the front so that I could see and wave to my neighbours while working there.
What is your typical process when approaching a piece? Do you have any favorite resources or materials?
Most of my work is based on stories written by other people, and all of it has a strong narrative basis. My first step is to get a handle on the story presented to me. I'll read the manuscript while making little visual notes – drawing on a printed copy, flagging up a book, or taking screenshots if it’s digital (which ends up being the most unwieldy of the three). If it's a new story, or my own version of a fairytale, then I'll draw my way into it more – sketching characters into costumes or turning events into interesting compositions.
Pinterest is very useful for rounding up references and inspiration, even if I don't refer back to them when working on the final piece. I don't usually draw from a reference directly, but I do spend time drawing references until I feel out a visual shorthand I can use. I try to work out the quirks of the animal or the tailoring or the line of movement which expresses a particular vehicle. Then I can use this to more usefully do my own thing.
An indirect type of research is reading a lot of old non-fiction – memoirs and obscure older histories. They capture the human idiosyncrasies of their subjects and writers so beautifully and are a reminder to put that into my illustrations, as well as being a frequent source of stories of high adventure and romance. Regency memoirs and early aviation anecdotes are my current favourites. For the same reason, I like to go out and about sketching people walking and working. It gives me a visual library of motion and expression.
My favourite tools are fairly simple ones – black paper and a knife, a dip pen and ink, scratchboard, pencil and a faint tint of watercolour, flat digital colour. When I'm sketching from life, I use markers so that I have to draw confidently and commit.
Can you tell us a little bit about your current work up at Light Grey?
Light Grey invited me to bring art to the gallery when they heard I was visiting Minneapolis. I was already travelling, but fortunately I had just attended the Illustration Master Class in Amherst, Massachusetts and had also left some illustrations with Small Beer Press the last time I passed through. So my current work at the gallery is a mixture of work from this recent trip and forthcoming publications. The work includes ink and wash illustrations I have done for Kij Johnson's new book The River Bank, which is coming out from Small Beer Press this year. It's a genuinely delightful sequel to The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame , and I highly recommend it. It was a delight to draw.
There are also a few gouache pieces I worked on at the Illustration Master Class in Amherst this June – a relatively new technique for me – and some cut paper silhouettes. One of those silhouettes is an illustration from Light Grey's TOBEYOU exhibition, and is about growing up on fairytales in western Queensland. The others are bats, because they're so much fun to depict.
Oh, and if it's still up, I have several watercolour pieces in the Wanderlust exhibition: illustrations for a fairytale based on Light Grey's Iceland residency, which I attended last year.
Your work seems to draw a lot from fairy tales and fantasy, what draws you to these themes? Are there other themes or subjects that you find yourself consistently drawn to?
I've always liked fairytales. It was probably the illustrations that first drew me in – beautiful ones from an Italian publisher, if I recall. But growing up in the country, surrounded by trees, fairly isolated and with rather primitive technology at the house, the stories seemed to seep into reality more than they might have otherwise.
Fairytales are also a wonderful vocabulary (almost an alphabet) of storytelling among people who know them. You can use fairytale elements to build entirely new stories; images that work as independent pictures and narratives for viewers and readers who are new to them. But once that audience becomes aware of the depth of history and the ongoing conversation that is happening through all those layers of tellings and retellings and reimaginings, there is a splendid depth and resonance you can access.
I also find myself drawn to Regency stories and history. There's a wild energy and a sly delight in their communication and a very particular visual vocabulary associated with that time, and the possibilities of clothing and drapery within storytelling are generally attractive to me as an artist. I also love the adventure and romance of the early stages of many technologies (railways, aviation, etc), although as I don't like drawing straight lines I'm still working out how to incorporate those elements into my art.
What are some of your favorite fairy tales, and why do you feel like they're so strong?
Sleeping Beauty and the Seven Ravens/Swan Princes school of stories are two to which I frequently return. Both have a lovely balance of action (birds, questing sisters, twining vines, seven-league boots) and beauty. Tam Lin, for the sheer energy and malevolence and bold efficacy of the story (my Iceland illustrations are for a story that draws in a lot of Tam Lin themes, as well as a bit of Cinderella).
But the one I come back to most often is Little Red Riding Hood. There are so many versions and nuances in that story – [Charles] Dickens constructed the sprawling, gorgeous Our Mutual Friend around them, and I refuse to believe it wasn't deliberate. The paths of needles and pins, the washerwomen helping the heroine in her flight, the balance of threat and safety: I think it is a very useful tool to use when keying in emotion in a story (whether drawn or written).
Who are some of your favorite artists, or favorite pieces of media right now?
You're making me pick favourites? There are so many amazing artists out there, and many of them friends! But for resonance with my own storytelling sensibilities, I really love Rovina Cai's work – an intense beauty, but never saccharine, and with a constant sense of movement.
Most of the books I've been reading recently haven't been published yet, so here's an old one (apart from Our Mutual Friend): Time Was: The Reminiscences of W. Grahame Robertson. He was a Victorian/Edwardian theatre set designer and friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, and it's just charming as well as being fascinating for artists and dramatic types.
Is there anything significant or process-changing that you've learned recently?
Yes! Stacks of things – I've been on a six week study tour, after all. But one of the many lessons I learned was to commit to an angle and push it further: Choose a particular emotion for a piece? Go over-the top. Want to play with scale? You're not playing nearly enough with it. Identify a compositional weakness? Try doubling-down on it. It was a theme at several of the workshops and conversations I was part of. I'm naturally inclined to compose safely, so I consider myself challenged!
Can you talk about any of your upcoming projects? Anything you’re working on that you’re really excited about?
Many are still on the quiet. However, I'm completing an MPhil [Degree] on Australian Gothic literature, and I'm illustrating my written project for that. I'm looking forward to getting those images together: I'm going back to my old home town and also to Hanging Rock (as in: Picnic at) as part of the research. There's a Hokusai and a Dior exhibition on in Melbourne at the same time, so I'm planning sketching trips with some of my art and writing friends.
I'll be able to announce some big projects for several young adult novels soon, and I have a few projects on foot with British and World Fantasy Award winning author Angela Slatter, as well – we work together a lot.
I also have a number of smaller projects on foot through my Patreon, mostly focused on the monthly calendar I illustrate.
Do you have any dream projects that you’d like to work on, either personal or commercial?
I'd love to be turned loose on Pride and Prejudice or Time Was or Harriet Wilson's Memoirs or Cold Comfort Farm – or some new classic-to-be, like Naomi Novik's Uprooted or Megan Whalen Turner's Thief series – to simply draw my way chattily through it, catching the movement and humour and humanity. Oh, and to illustrate a theatre set, like [Edward] Gorey's designs for Dracula. Or illustrate a published script for a play, e.g. Liz Duffy Adams' Or, and do the art for a board game... so many things.
I'd also like to spend more time officially drawing at events. I've been the Artist at Large at the Brisbane Writers Festival and got hooked – it would be great to be engaged to formally sketch people at work or having fun at, oh, an exhibition or air show or behind the scenes at a theatre.
Anything else you’d like to add? Where can people find your work?
You can find my portfolio at kathleenjennings.com and my blog at tanaudel.wordpress.com. I'm on Patreon at patreon.com/tanaudel, and am tanaudel most places, including Twitter, Instagram, Redbubble and Spoonflower.