Okay y’all, forgive me if I fangirl a bit as I introduce this post. See, Karl Kwasny (he pronounces it KWAHZ-nee), the illustrator of The Year of Shadows, is an amazing—A-MAZE-ING—artist. Exhibit A: His Tumblr. Exhibit B: His website. Exhibit C: Uh, refer to exhibits A and B, and keep doing that, ad infinitum. When Simon & Schuster Art Director Lucy Ruth Cummins first showed me Karl’s portfolio, and I learned that he could be the illustrator for The Year of Shadows, I honest to God looked something like this:
Karl’s art is such a perfect combination of tenderness and darkness, of charm and strange, that I immediately knew he’d be the perfect illustrator to help bring Olivia, her ghosts, and the haunted Emerson Hall to life. I feel so grateful and excited that he was able to come on board and bring his exquisite aesthetic and jaw-dropping talents to the pages of my second book. Read on as I ask Karl a few questions about his life, his process, and his experience with The Year of Shadows:
1) Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? What made you decide to pursue art as a profession?
I think so. Well, I always wanted to do something creative, at least. When I was younger I loved drawing, but it didn’t seem realistic to pursue illustration as an actual career. I felt like I needed something a bit more reliable. So, I tried out a bunch of different subjects at university. I tried creative writing, journalism and film studies before settling on something.
I ended up studying graphic design. I’m glad I did, too, because I think it’s given me a solid foundation for doing this sort of work, but deep down it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I needed to give illustration a proper shot, otherwise I’d regret it. So, during my last year at uni, I started trying to get freelance illustration work. I sent out hundreds of emails to art directors at all sorts of companies. Most went unanswered, but some of them responded. And of the ones that responded, some resulted in work. Gradually momentum picked up, and my skills slowly started to improve.
It can be extremely discouraging when you’re starting out as a freelance illustrator – you just have to be persistent and never give up.
2) What's a typical day like for you? How many projects are you working on at any given time? Do you work on multiple projects a day?
That depends very much on the day. One of the trickiest things about freelancing is managing your workload. Early on, work was quite scarce and I needed money, so I had to accept pretty much every job that came my way. Sometimes I’d accidentally overload myself and have to work crazy hours to meet the deadlines. Other times, there would be no work at all.
Over the past year or two (since I moved to New York, basically), things have really started to pick up. Jobs have started coming in more consistently. But I still had my old “accept every job” mindset, and as a result for the first half of this year (when I was working on these illustrations,) I was extremely overwhelmed. I was working on 4 or 5 jobs at the same time, and it became a game of negotiating deadline extensions.
So, I guess I adapt my schedule to whatever I’m working on at that point. I usually prefer working late at night – for some reason it’s easier to get into a good creative mood then.
All sorts of things, really. When I was working on this project I listened to a lot of classical music, Shostakovich in particular. Some of his stuff sounds quite experimental, like something you might find in a horror movie. I even snuck a little portrait of him into one of the interiors.
I find New York architecture quite inspiring, particularly around Park Slope, which is where I live at the moment. There are lots of buildings from the late 1800s with lovely ornamental embellishments on them. One of the Year of Shadows interiors has Park Slope-style apartments in the background.
I also watched movies that were set in or featured a concert hall, so I could get a sense of what sort of layout the Emerson might have.
As far as other artists go, I have a lot of favourites. In terms of brushwork, I like Charles Burns, Craig Thompson and Daniel Clowes. I’m also a big fan of Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Arthur Rackham, Aubrey Beardsley, Franz Von Bayros, Tony DiTerlizzi, Lane Smith, Peter Brown, Brett Helquist… I could go on.
4) The cover of THE YEAR OF SHADOWS is gorgeous. It perfectly captures the story's sense of mystery, wistfulness, beauty, and eerie adventure. How did you come up with that cover image? Did you go through several drafts involving different images and characters?
Thanks very much! I’m glad it turned out so well. The only requirements were for the title to be in a cursive/script style, and for Olivia, Igor and the ghosts to be featured. I came up with around six thumbnails of different options, and gradually we narrowed them down and decided on one. The publisher really liked the idea of having the dual staircases, and it works nicely because it creates a sort of a frame around the characters.
It was quite a collaborative process, actually. I worked on the background, the type and the characters as separate images and composited them together in Photoshop. Lucy Cummins (the art director) came up with the border design, and I illustrated those little corner flourishes. Lucy was great to work with, and she did a fantastic job of putting the whole thing together.
5) What was the most challenging aspect of working on THE YEAR OF SHADOWS?
Well, the main challenge at the time was that I had loads of other jobs to work on! I really wanted to do an amazing job on Year of Shadows because it had become quite dear to me, but doing it well involved spending 20+ hours on each of the interiors, and I didn’t really have that time available. So I kept missing the deadlines, and I felt bad that I wasn’t able to work faster!
6) Do you have a favorite character in The Year of Shadows? What about a favorite scene? Tell us a little about your choices and why they are your favorites.
I think the answer to that question has changed throughout the different versions of the manuscript. One of the best things about getting to work on a project like this is to see the process of a story being developed from start to finish. Earlier I quite liked Igor and I found Olivia to be a bit moody, but by the final version she had really developed into a three-dimensional character you can empathize with. So, I’d have to go with Olivia now.
As for favourite scenes, the first thing that comes to mind is the whole sequence in Limbo, or the scene when Olivia and Henry share with Tillie & Jax. (Limbo is one of my favorite scenes, too! Karl’s illustration of it is gorgeous, and probably my favorite—and that’s saying something, as they’re all stunning. I can’t share it with you here because I don’t want to spoil Limbo for you, but trust me—GORGEOUS.)
7) Out of the illustrations you created for The Year of Shadows is there one that was particularly challenging? What about one that was especially fun, or one that you're most proud of?
The one where Olivia and Henry are sitting on the catwalk was pretty difficult to get right. It looks simple, but the poses were frustrating.
I like how the Limbo illustrations turned out, particularly the one where Olivia is flying with the origami cranes. It was a last-minute decision to include that as an illustration, and I’m glad we did because it’s a meaningful part in the story.
It’s a fun read! It’s got mystery, adventure, some spooky stuff, and it’s very heartfelt. You wrote a lovely story, and I feel incredibly honoured that I had the chance to bring it to life. [Thank you, Karl!]
9) I adore the lettering you created for The Year of Shadows title. How is your process for creating lettering different from illustrating? Do you prefer one over the other?
Designing typography is more of a relaxing process for me. I usually just loosely sketch the general letterforms and build them up, erasing what doesn’t work and keeping what does. Also, you don’t have to worry about poses, lighting, architecture etc.
10) You're a native Australian but you currently live in New York. What do you miss most about Australia? What do you like most about New York?
I used to live in Manhattan, but I live in Brooklyn now – in Park Slope, a few blocks from Prospect Park. The atmosphere is definitely a lot friendlier here. I don’t know if I could pick one favourite thing about New York. Maybe home delivery. Seamless blew my mind when I first found out about it.
I miss my friends and family, and just miss Australia in general. I think you need to travel in order to appreciate where you’re from. I know I certainly used to take it for granted.
11) And, on an at-first-glance-silly-but-not-really-silly-at-all note: Are you Team Zombie or Team Unicorn?
I’ll think I’ll side with Team Unicorn because I’m a bit sick of zombies at the moment.
Good choice, Karl. Excellent choice. (We might have had words had you picked the other side.)
Readers, I hope you enjoyed learning more about Karl, his artistic process, and the illustrations of The Year of Shadows! Don’t forget to fill out the Rafflecopter form below for a chance to win a copy of the book!
Her mother left, her neglectful father -- the maestro of a failing orchestra -- has moved her and her grandmother into his dark, broken-down concert hall to save money, and her only friend is Igor, an ornery stray cat.
Just when she thinks life couldn’t get any weirder, she meets four ghosts who haunt the hall. They need Olivia’s help -- if the hall is torn down, they’ll be stuck as ghosts forever, never able to move on.
Olivia has to do the impossible for her shadowy new friends: Save the concert hall. But helping the dead has powerful consequences for the living . . . and soon it’s not just the concert hall that needs saving.