In the studio with Karl James Mountford
last updated 12 October 2022
For this months installment of In the Studio, we caught up with Karl James Mountford to talk all about his debut athour-illustrated picture book The Circles in the Sky (Walker Books), which published this Autumn.
As this was my first ever picture book that I’ve written and illustrated, it was creatively INCREDIBLE to feel fully in control of the art. I had a pretty clear idea of what I was aiming for from the offset, even if it has changed or developed since the beginning of the whole project.
From the off, I knew I wanted a few things for the artwork to do, based on the topic of the story, being grief. I wanted the artwork to be warm and colourful in muted tones. It plays such an important part in the telling of the story that the world in the book is contrasting to the characters, which are mainly in various hues of black and white.
The characters, for me, are intentionally made to look like they aren’t a part of the world, even though they are set amongst it. This was a little nod to the phrase ‘ We’re just guests on this planet - passing through. I like that saying, it strangely comforts me. In my head, it sort of takes the pressure off all of us in a way. What I mean by that is, that we don’t need big houses or materialistic stuff, the next smartphones etc. All that stuff is sort of useless for the soul in the end, as we can’t take it with us. And this pretty long explanation is why the characters are contrasting to the world they are set in.
In terms of the general look of the world in the book, it appears very busy. The land never sits still and is rarely flat( not that I’m against flat lands but the book is about loss, it’s complicated and for me, the artwork had to reflect that ever-changing feeling, visually. I’m a big fan of screen printing and woodcuts ( if I’d had the time and patience I would have liked to make this whole book as screen prints) But I think this digital screen printing-like method has been way more efficient.
Each spread is only made up of 4 - 5 layers digitally. So we’ll have all the red tones on one layer, then the greens, the crossover elements like trees or water, skeletons, the suns and moons etc and finally the animals.
Making the work is similar to screen printing woodcuts. I work in blocks of colour which I reduce and add texture. I then overlap colours in and with the opacity tool, which then makes more colours than the originals. It gives the work a sense of depth and keeps the eye wondering as you look over the page. Or I hope it does.
I typically work in limited colour palettes, I just find them pleasing. I like that limiting the colours gives you a restriction, which makes your brain have to figure out how this piece is going to work. And when it starts to click into place, it’s such a weird yet wonderful satisfaction. I still live under the rule of my old college tutor, who always said ‘come back to it’ having fresh eyes or rested eyes on a piece of artwork you are making, helps to see its faults. Which is never a bad thing.
I quite like some of the ‘faults’ though, I have a lot of geometric shapes throughout the book such as land made of triangles and diagonal lines. None of these shapes are accurate. I do this purely because I don’t want it all to look too clinical. It has a wonky charm..sort of.
I also distress the images in places, a lot of this was to create a sense of old and new, past and present.
In the spread here where Moth tells Fox about the tale of the Circles in the sky, I had to really work on how to show this, I had an alternative idea for this page of the book where it was mirrored and showed the dead bird on the left and not on the right. It was nice but it didn’t quite land ‘the moment ‘ I also had to draw a line under the way I drew the world. For example, the trees go past the page to create a divide between night and day, the sun and moon. It took me a few tries as well to get the colours to work, as there isn’t a colour in this palette that typically works for a night sky. In the end, green had to be the colour for this as red felt too angry at least with the colour green the sky felt somewhat calmer. Which it needs to at this point in the story. As it’s the tipping point for how the story plays out.
To work with Karl, please get in touch with his agent, Freddie.