October 6, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #158: Nicola Killen

'Tis the season for spooky and scary, but that doesn't mean sweet doesn't have its place! I was so excited to catch up with Nicola Killen about her latest book in the My Little Animal Friend series The Little Kitten. You'll notice, of course, that I waited until Nicola came out with a book about a cat to talk to her (true to form, you might say!). Enjoy our long-awaited chat!

About the book: 
Ollie and her cat Pumpkin are out frolicking on a beautiful fall day when they come upon a tiny kitten shivering in a pile of fallen leaves. Ollie warms the kitten up and the three become fast friends, but when Ollie sees "Lost Kitten" posters hanging on the trees in the forest, she knows she has to help her new friend get home. As Halloween draws nearer, magic is afoot, and Ollie's good deed is rewarded in an unexpected way.

Let's talk Nicola Killen!

LTPB: I’ve been waiting for you to get a cat into the mix, and it’s so perfect that The Little Kitten is out in time for Halloween! How do you choose what to focus on for each book in the My Little Animal Friend series? What do you feel like each new book offers you?

NK: I'm happy to hear you're excited that a cat has made it into the series! The process has been different for each book so far. The Little Reindeer started off with a black and white character I painted while experimenting with new techniques. I then developed a wordless board book around this character, and gradually this expanded into a full-sized picture book.

For The Little Rabbit, I started by working on some different spring characters to see what would work well in a seasonal color palette. My two favorites were the rabbit and Ollie dressed in a little chick raincoat, but as you know, the bunny won through!

I had already painted Ollie running in a cat onesie while holding a pumpkin for Halloween 2017, so it seemed like the natural choice for an autumn book, especially as her pet cat had already appeared in the first two books. So I painted some new cat samples but I never considered picking a different animal! I started working on this book just as autumn started here in the UK, so I was able to see all the colour changes and leaves falling as I thought through the story ideas.

Each book offers me the chance to take a different season or time of the year and try and weave Ollie's sense of wonder and love of adventure into the story.

LTPB: What can you divulge about the design of this book? The orange foils, the die-cuts... How involved are you in adding these details? How do you choose which details to highlight in each new My Little Animal Friend book?

NK: I was very excited to work on this book as I felt from the start that the autumn colours would really stand out from the black and white artwork. The foil colours are selected by the brilliant designers and production team at Simon & Schuster. On the first two books the designers also drew the foil guides, but this time I did it as there were some quite detailed leaf shapes to pick out. There's a limit to the number of pages which can have foil, so I think it's important to highlight the magical moments of the story. 

The die-cuts are something I plan once I have written the story. Each one has to work across two double-spreads so sometimes they're quite tricky – I draw out detailed, full-sized roughs before I paint the artwork so I can check everything works at this stage. The board book which became The Little Reindeer had a die cut on every page which was a bit of a headache!

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

NK: I paint the artwork using black ink with watercolour brushes, using cut paper stencils as guides. To get the lighter greys I dilute the ink, and gradually build up layers until it has the right tone for the picture. Some of my older brushes give the most interesting textures, especially when I keep them quite dry. I then add detail by monoprinting linework over the top using liquid acrylic and a dip pen. 

I love working in this way, especially as the whole black and white image comes together on a single sheet of paper. I listen to audio books while I paint which keeps me really focused! The artworks are then scanned, before I add the touches of colour digitally.

Usually when I start working on a brand new story or character idea, I like to experiment with different media to see what suits it - this experimenting is part of what I enjoy about my job!

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

NK: I'm just starting work on a new Ollie adventure – it's in the very early stages where I make very scruffy storyboards which wouldn't make sense to anyone but me! I then develop these to a state where I can show them to other people, with clearer pictures and typed text. I have included part of one for The Little Kitten to show you how they look at this stage.

I'm also illustrating a book of poems for children which has been written by someone else – it's a very different project for me but unfortunately I can't share any more at this stage, sorry.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

NK: This is such a hard question as there are so many amazing illustrators to choose from! I adored a couple of books by Quentin Blake when I was little: Snuff and Lester at the Seaside, and I used to look at them over and over again. He always adds so much humour and detail into his illustrations so it would be great to see how he would add extra layers to my story through his pictures, and hopefully make my life seem much more interesting! 
A million thanks to Nicola for talking to me about her perfectly seasonal book! The Little Kitten published earlier this year from Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books!

Special thanks to Nicola and Simon Kids for use of these images!

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