Kim Fleming has always been passionate about creating visual content for children. Her specialty is children’s books, but her illustrations can be found in many different places, from children’s games to greeting cards. She enjoys working traditionally, and creates her illustrations using watercolor, pencil, and lots of love.
Kim illustrated Something Very Sad Happened: A Toddler’s Guide to Understanding Death (August 2016). We recently caught up with Kim and heard all about her illustration processes and how to sensitively and beautifully capture grief and sadness and illustrate such a difficult topic.
What led you to become an illustrator? I loved drawing and art from a very young age. In pre-school, I would always choose the art activity, in high school I took a slew of art classes every weekend, and in college I studied everything from animation to photography. I guess it was obvious that I would end up in a creative field! My first “real” job was animating characters from children’s games, working with characters such as Arthur and Madeleine. I was a “tweener,” meaning I drew all the “in-between” frames for the real animators who drew the keyframes. I learned an incredible amount in this job, and I think this is where my love for creating visual content for children began. I later moved to Melbourne, Australia, and fell into the world of children’s book illustration by answering an ad in the newspaper! I have never looked back!
Tell us about your process. I love to dive straight into illustrating a book, even before I’ve decided what the characters are going to look like. Often when I read a manuscript for the first time, I have all sorts of images popping into my head, so I like to get those down as quickly as I can. Even though I will explore many ideas for each page, I find that my first idea is often the best. So, I sketch very, very small thumbnails to get the basic composition of each page.
These are often just shapes and blobs, no details added at all, meant to show emphasis and placement of objects, making sure I’m leaving room for the text in my illustrations, and to have a variety of poses and perspectives throughout the book. Once I am happy with the thumbnails, I draw them bigger and bigger with increasingly more detail.
In the case of Something Very Sad Happened, which is a very sensitive book, the expressions of the characters needed to very closely reflect the emotions in the story, so I took great care with this. After I am happy with the sketches (and after any requested changes from the editor) I get to paint! I paint in sections, and in this case the color was painted fairly flat, with shadow and other details added using graphite pencil. I also enjoyed adding some splatters and paint drips. Then the images are scanned and they are on their way to the publisher to be laid out into book format.
What was fun or surprising about the illustration process? Despite the sorrowful subject matter of Something Very Sad Happened—dealing with the death of a loved one—it was actually a fun book to work on. I wanted the illustrations to reflect one’s state of mind when submerged in grief. Nothing seems right or real or matters at all, except for your sadness. So we came up with the idea of using a limited color palette in the background for the majority of the book, and I used lots of splatters and drips to elicit the feeling of walking through a painting, through a surreal landscape. At the end of the book when the text becomes brighter and more hopeful, the colors start to come back into the backgrounds, until the final image, which is full color. This was a surprisingly fun way to work, and I think it helped to bring even more depth to the story.
How were these illustrations created? What materials did you use? These illustrations were created solely using watercolors and graphite pencil. I use Winsor and Newton Cotman watercolors on Arches paper.
What was your favorite book as a child? Do you have any favorite illustrators? I can still remember some of my favorite books as a child: Put Me in the Zoo by Robert Lopshire, Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman, Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak, and as many books by Richard Scarry as I could get my hands on. It’s fun because I’m now reading new editions of the same Richard Scarry books to my son.
I have many favourite illustrators, most of them Australian as I really “discovered” the wonderful world of children’s literature after moving to Melbourne. So, Shaun Tan, Alison Lester, Jude Rossell, and Elise Hurst are all Aussie favorites. I also love Jon J Muth, Catherine Rayner and David Wiesner to round it all out.
Thanks, Kim! —ke