Author-Illustrator Spotlight: Nicola Killen
|© Nicola Killen
Oct. 16, 2020
We are pleased to feature author-illustrator Nicola Killen and her recent picture book, THE LITTLE KITTEN (Simon & Schuster/ Paula Wiseman Books 2020). Enter to win a copy!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write and illustrate for children.
I live in Cambridge, England, which is where I grew up too. I usually work in a rented studio space I share with a painter and a printmaker, but at the moment, like lots of other people, I'm working at home (and trying not to make too much mess). I used to design greeting cards for a living, but found myself becoming more and more interested in children's literature, and building up a sizable collection of picture books. When I found out there was an MA in Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, I started to work towards building a portfolio for my application. And when I found out I'd been accepted, I was really thrilled! This was the start of my journey towards writing and illustrating for children.
Congrats on your recent picture book, THE LITTLE KITTEN. Tell us about the book and what inspired you.
Thank you! THE LITTLE KITTEN is the third adventure for Ollie, a little girl with a love of nature, who first appears in THE LITTLE REINDEER. The character was originally inspired by my best friend's daughters, who had been trying on their new reindeer onesies when I was visiting in the run up to Christmas. They looked so cute, I made a sketch of them when I got home, and months later when I was experimenting with painting in black and white, I used the sketch for inspiration.
In this story, Ollie and her cat Pumpkin find a little kitten shivering under a pile of leaves. The three are soon happily playing together, but when Ollie realises someone is looking for the kitten, she knows she has to help him find his way home.
I was so excited to work on an autumnal book featuring Ollie as it's such a beautiful season, with a colour palette that really fits in with the earlier books. When I was developing the story, I wanted to include hints of Halloween, and as Ollie already had a pet cat, it seemed natural that she would be in a cat outfit this time! Luckily I started working on the book at the beginning of autumn, so I visited a couple of parks near Cambridge to draw trees and watch leaves blowing around in the wind, and this gave me lots of ideas for the story. One of them even had a display of pumpkin and squash in their glasshouse which was very helpful! The book has die-cut windows to look through and highlights of copper foil too – I have to say a big thank you to the designers and production staff at Simon & Schuster for making this happen.
Was your journey to publication as an author-illustrator long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
I worked as an illustrator for several years before I moved back to Cambridge to start the MA, but once I embarked on the course it was a fairly short and sweet journey. Half way though the course we took a trip to the Bologna Book Fair in Italy – it was an incredible experience to see the vast halls full of children's books from around the world. Our tutor had kindly arranged a few appointments with publishers who were willing to meet us and look at our work and surprisingly, two of the people I saw were interested in the dummy book I'd taken. So I signed my first book deal while I was still studying. I know I was incredibly lucky that my first story idea struck a chord!
What is your preferred medium/illustration process?
I enjoy experimenting with different media depending on the project I'm working on, but for these books, I paint in black ink using stencils to define the areas I'm painting.
|© Nicola Killen
I'll add more layers of ink to build up tone and print some details using hand-cut rubber stamps, before monoprinting linework over the top using liquid acrylic.
|© Nicola Killen
|© Nicola Killen
Once the black and white artworks are finished they're scanned, and then I add the touches of colour digitally. I usually listen to audiobooks while I'm painting as they keep me focused!
What projects are you working on now?
I'm just starting on a new adventure for Ollie which I'm very excited about! I'm also illustrating a collection of poetry at the moment which is something very different for me – it's challenging but in a good way!
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same advice you'd give to aspiring author-illustrators?
One of the things I would like to go back and tell myself is to be patient. I've learned over the years that just because you don't hear from someone immediately about a project doesn't mean they're not interested. Often there will be lots of meetings they'll need to show your ideas at, and people are very busy.
I'd also say to keep learning as much as you can. I try to go to talks given by other writers and illustrators to find out more about their processes, and even the most established and successful of them are constantly trying to learn new skills and improve what they do.
And don't get dejected if a project you really believe in doesn't get picked up by anyone. It may just be the wrong time, the wrong publisher, or just not quite right yet. I think most authors and illustrators have many, many ideas and stories which never get published – I know I do.
This is definitely the same advice I'd give to aspiring author-illustrators!
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
When I was at school I sang in a rock band (and had the hair to match)!
Where can people find you online?
My website is www.nicolakillen.com
Facebook: Nicola Killen Illustration
Nicola Killen has always loved drawing and still likes nothing better than taking her sketchbook out and about to draw all her favorite things: animals, trees and ceramic figurines included! She designed cards before starting an MA in children’s book illustration at Cambridge School of Art, and since then she has been working on her own books, including The Little Reindeer, which was called “an original and entertaining Christmas story with its own understated charm” in a starred review by Kirkus Reviews and “magical” by Publishers Weekly. The Little Reindeer was named a Horn Book Holiday High Note. Nicola Killen lives and works in Cambridge, England.
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