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27 April 2011 @ 02:10 am
The Unicorn's Tale with illustrator Kelly Murphy  
I admit, I'm a unicorn girl. When I was in 6th grade I drew unicorns all over my notebooks and even tried to do a report on them when my class was doing a unit on "Endangered Animals." Part of the reason I wanted to become a children's book illustrator was the idea of painting unicorns for a living sounded like a fairy tale come true.

Well, I have yet to do any unicorn books or illustrations of my own. So, after reading The Unicorn's Tale by our own RL LaFevers I was filled with envy and admiration for the illustrations by the extremely talented Kelly Murphy. The book is the 4th in Lafevers' Nathaniel Fludd series, where a young boy accompanies his aunt all over world to take care of mythical beasts (and have great adventures!). In this latest installment, young Nate and Aunt Phil are off to save a unicorn (be still my heart!). Not only is the story great fun, the illustrations are perfectly and beautifully matched. Having a book where the words and the illustrations compliment each other so completely is a feat more unusual than one might think and Robin says it best:
When my editor first began talking about illustrators for the Nathaniel Fludd books, I knew from the minute I first viewed Kelly's website that she was The One. Her old website homepage was a map, and Nathaniel Fludd came from a long line of explorers and cartographers. Then when I learned that her favorite books were atlases, I knew that we had found the perfect illustrator for these books.

That feeling only grew the more Kelly worked on the project. Her sketches of Nate captured every bit of his uncertainty and vulnerability. Her sketches of the beasts, of Greasle, of their exotic locales, have all exceeded my wildest dreams. I often wonder if she sneaks inside my brain when I¹m not looking, so eerily has she captured my own vision.

Kelly Murphy (illustrator) and Robin (author)

With such high praise, I thought it'd be fun to hear from Kelly, herself. Kelly and I actually went to school together back in the 'ol days (but after the days of unicorns). Her career has skyrocketed since our days of wandering around the Rhode Island School of Design--where she now teaches. Not only has she illustrated the Nathaniel Fludd Series, she has illustrated numerous picturebooks including Hush, Little Dragon and her own Boll Weevil Ball. Award-winning and well-admired, Kelly is also co-founder and creative director of Shybird Studios.

But, of course, it's the unicorns I wanted to know the most about. So, Kelly graciously agreed to answer some questions about The Unicorn's Tale!

What kind of research did you do to make the art for this book? What was the most interesting thing you discovered while researching?

The great part about this ongoing series is definitely the research. When I first started reading R.L.'s manuscripts, the settings really felt 100% fantastical, and much to my surprise, all of the places are REAL! With the Unicorn's Tale, I was floored to read more about the dense forest area in Brittany France called Brocéliande. The very same forest that is talked about with many of the Arthurian Legends. Supposedly, it's the same place where Merlin is entombed. I found myself looking at many books and images of this legendary forest to try and get the overall atmospheric setting. With it's diffused light, and deep green lushness, the unicorns world quickly started to take shape.

Obviously, the second great discovery in the book are the beasts R.L. features. I'll whole heartedly admit to being a totally unicorn nerd since I was five years old, but I did not realize the different breeds that existed, particularly... the Indican. I was able to look at old manuscripts and tapestries that featured some of these creatures, and adapt my own style to those description more widely known. The Guivre is now one of my most loved type of dragon! With its big eyes and silly attitude, I wouldn't mind on of them being stuck down my well.

How different is it illustrating a series then it is for a stand-alone book? "Masterpiece" vs "Nathaniel" for example.

There's a new challenge as each book comes along. With the series progression, I ask myself, "What can I bring NEW to the table?". In Nathaniel Fludd's case, it's incredibly easy since R.L. changes her focus of setting and character with each book. But beyond that, I want to open up the characters for a more personal/emotional connection. For instance, I really wanted to show the more tender side of Aunt Phil, or Nate's building courage after each adventure, and his determination to find his parents. It's all very subtle, but offering close ups and spots that focus in their exact expressions hopefully offer more into the mind of the characters.

How much the illustration change from idea-sketch-to finish?

Kate O'Sullivan (editor) and Scott Magoon (art director) at Houghton Mifflin have been amazing! They are so incredibly supportive with suggestions. As shown in the images, I tend to thumbnail incredibly small, so as to get the large shapes in the composition. This also helps me see the pacing of each image from one to the other. From rough thumbnail, I then start to pull out the more important details and focus a bit on the value structure, which I believe to be the real mood setter for the Nathaniel Fludd images. Mostly, it's viewpoint and composition that change the most.

In the most recent Nathaniel Fludd novel, which picture is your favorite and why?

My favorite has to be the inside of Mr. Sylvan's house. I love adding small details, such as the kinds of chairs or the style of fireplace. In order to get the best viewpoint in a house, such as Mr. Sylvan's I actually enjoy drawing out a sort of blue print layout of all the architectural elements. I was able to travel to a few different areas in France with my husband and his family, and I loved the open windows that allowed warm sunlight to shine in. In New England, we need thick screens on the windows at all times. Too many mosquitos!

Do you prefer illustrating picture books or novels? Are you thinking of writing your own novels someday?

Picture books and novels are really very different experiences. I love both of the equally, but will admit that picture books are EXHAUSTING, mainly due to my process of painting. Typically, painting a whole picture book takes me at least six months. Not just six months working every other day; this is day in and day out painting. I love painting lavish colors and transparent glows, though. Chapter books offer a fresh breath of air, allowing my work time to lessen, and letting me be more playful with my drawing style. I feel that I can almost be a bit more playful with media and level of sophistication of character, too. After a few months of black and white work, I am ready for another picture book. Goodness... writing novels? Me? Well... I can't say it's ever been an itch I've wanted to scratch, but I do have a few picture book ideas rumbling around in the ol' noggin. I really want to get back to writing and illustrating together. It's all on the list of things to do!

Is there a mythical beast that you are hoping Robin will have Nate meet next? Why?

Holy smokes... I have SUCH A list! Griffons: because they are AWESOME and so strong looking! Kitsunes: a type of shapeshifter that commonly diguises itself as a fox. Thunderbirds: because any giant animal that can cause thunder and lighting HAS to be fun to illustrate. Last but not least, the Kraken: because the sea is so immense, who knows what might lurk in its depths!

What was the weirdest thing you ever had to change in an illustration?
One time, I was actually asked to make a boy's sword BIGGER and the ogre MORE SCARY. It was the best change I ever had to make. Typically in children's publishing, I am being asked to reign in it. This time, they wanted more, and I was ecstatic! I kept re-reading the email.

Zombie or unicorn?

UNICORN ZOMBIE!!! That best would be ravaging!

Ha ha! Well, while a Unicorn Zombie would be ravaging, I think we can all agree that Kelly's work is ravishing--especially in The Unicorn's Tale! Thanks so much for the interview, Kelly!

natalieag on April 27th, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC)
I've been wanting to read this series. And hearing about the illustrations has made me really want to start it. It's going to the top of my list. Thanks.
ebooraem on April 27th, 2011 08:57 pm (UTC)
I adored MASTERPIECE, and the illustrations were so perfect for the book. I haven't caught up with Nathaniel yet, but now I really have to.

I love the house interior illustration, too---mostly because of the perspective. We're on the ceiling! How cool!
A Deserving Porcupine: eggmanrockinlibrarian on April 27th, 2011 09:26 pm (UTC)
Oh, I was just searching the 'net for a good illustration of a Kraken an hour ago! I won't need it anymore by the time Nate might encounter one and Kelly might draw it, but I'll root along anyway for that because I'm sure the results will be closer to what I want than any of the pictures I actually FOUND....
anesbetanesbet on April 27th, 2011 11:14 pm (UTC)
What a treat to hear from an illustrator! And not just any illustrator, but someone who can draw anything a Beastologist might possibly encounter!

I love hearing about how artists work. When I was a kid, I used to watch my incredibly talented friend Sharon draw all sorts of little people and critters, and it was truly like seeing magic in action. Thank you so much, Grace and Kelly, for this interview!

ninacrittenden.blogspot.com on April 28th, 2011 12:16 am (UTC)
What a fantastic interview! I am excited to read about all of Nathaniel Fludd's adventures and I an such a HUGE fan of Kelly Murphy and her gorgeous artwork!!!
mguibordmguibord on April 28th, 2011 01:04 pm (UTC)
Wow- great interview! Kelly's work is so beautiful- and I would love to see her interpretation of a unicorn-zombie!!!
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on April 29th, 2011 01:01 pm (UTC)
Great interview. And beautiful, beautiful drawings.

Very impressive.
lauramc on May 3rd, 2011 07:12 pm (UTC)
I love all the drawings. I wonder how the internet (websites, blogs, social media sites) and the rapid changes in e-publishing changes the concept of a project for an illustrator? You all have such lovely visuals you might choose to post. I hate to say "for advertising purposes" or "as support materials," because these don't really get at what I mean. I guess I'm trying to say, do you see what you put up on your website or elsewhere as companion art to, say, a paper publication?