Karin Celestine lives in a small house in Monmouth, Wales. In their garden there is a shed and in that shed is another world. The world of Celestine and the Hare. Karin taught children about art, chemistry, numbers, crafts and magic, but they are always drawn back to the Shed, where they bring to life creatures of all kinds using only wool, observation and the power of imagination.
When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator?
I never really did! I kind of fell into it by accident though I do have a story written in infants school saying I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I started selling my sculptures but instead of just saying here is a badger for sale, I would make up a story about them, saying they made great coffee, which is why they are up all night. The stories to go with the pictures turned into books and the illustration came about.
How long does it typically take to make a page or cover for a book?
For me it is quite a long process. I first of all have to make the animals which can take anything from a few hours to a week or two to make. I then have to make any accessories for them and then photograph them in situ. The location has to be found, which can take some time too and then wait for the right weather, or season even and set up the animals and accessories and take the pictures. I take a lot of pictures and hope that one of them is good enough. Sometimes I have to get inventive such as taking a picture in the freezer. I try to plan my books around the seasons they are illustrated in now, but that makes the schedule quite slow sometimes. My next book can’t be out till 2024 because I need to take the photos in the summer this year.
What’s your favourite piece of art equipment?
I love my wooden felting needle holder. I have had it so long now that it has worn and has a beautiful patina on it that feels lovely to hold.
Do you have a favourite colour scheme, if so what and why?
My colour scheme is one of nature, and that is always my favourite. I have a huge soft spot for blues which often are seen as too dark for children’s books but I do push for them sometimes.
Who were your inspirations when starting out?
My inspirations come from books I read as a child, I am half Swedish and I was surrounded by stories of trolls, woods and nature. John Bauer graced my walls and I loved his world so much. The Moomins, Firmin and Postgate are a huge influence, E H Shepherd, Arthur Rackham, Kay Neilson. All those stories of animals who could talk and had lives alongside ours. That was the world I inhabited and one I felt I should be living in. That is where my work comes from, that liminal world between real and fantasy. The middle, not one or the other is where I am most comfortable and where my inspiration comes from
Do you have another job beside being an illustrator, if so what?
I am also an artist and author. Most of my work is making the animals that feature in my illustration. I sell those and then write the stories for them too.
what do you do to overcome a creative block?
The best thing is to have a rest, go for a walk, take some time away. That is always my way of overcoming the block. It is usually because I am tired and not giving myself time and space to get some inspiration. I have a couple of artist friends who are great at bouncing ideas and sparking new thoughts if I walk or chat with them. Otherwise sometimes if you need to push through, I make something I already know how to make, something mundane and simple and that can get me going.
Do you have a favourite piece in your portfolio, if so could you share it and talk about it?
My favourites change all the time but my current favourite is Grandmother Badger who will feature in my next book. She is made of a place. I walk in some woods near where I live called Buckholt woods. I love those woods and found an old badger sett there. I wanted to make every part of her from the woods, it became a bit of an obsession and labour of love. I picked nettles, processed them into fibre and made her a shawl from them. She is spinning nettle fibre on a seed head picked from the woods. Her basket is woven from brambles collected there, her necklace dandelion stems from the entrance. Her shawl is decorated with copper castings of acorns, leaves, fir cones etc all collected in the woods and then moulds and casts taken. She is of her place.
Panda in his boat is another favourite, because it was the first book I illustrated and the sea and sunset were perfect and there’s such hope, gentleness and sense of adventure.
What was your first book related project?
My first was my first book. I was given a contract for 3 books but the first book I wrote and illustrated was paper boat for panda which is number 2 in the series. I had to put Small Finds a Home as number one as small is found in that one and he appears in the second book.
What type of media do you prefer to work in and why?
I work in photography and sculpture because that is what I do and I can’t think of any other way to work! I’d love to be able to draw as some of my ideas would be so much easier to draw than try to make and photograph but that’s how it is! I wanted to illustrate lots of baby water voles playing in the river, with armbands, rubber rings etc, but I just can’t do that when I am photographing felted animals in a real river! I have to change to the illustration sometimes to fit was is possible. In the Wish Gatherers, I asked Tamsin Rosewell to paint the skies and backdrops for the story which were then blended by Graffeg with my photos as I just could not photograph a mouse looking up at shooting star!
Do you have a playlist you like working to? If so do you want to share it?
I’m afraid I don’t. I like to work in quiet, or if doing really mundane building up bodies etc then I listen to podcasts. I am a fan of Ologies.
Do you have any rituals when working?
Not really, I find it hard to settle in the morning when I arrive at my shed so I have a routine of lighting the wood burner, putting the kettle on it, and making a flask of tea for the day. (I got fed up drinking cold tea) By the time the kettle is boiled, I have stopped faffing and can sit and work.
Do you have a favourite artist outside of the world of books, if so who and why?
Oh I have so many. I studied history of art and could tell you one from each era of history.
My aunt took me to see an exhibition of Emil Nolde and he has stayed with me as one I return to and one I have on my wall (print only sadly). His passion for painting even when banned, that he switched from oils to watercolours so they couldn’t be detected in his basement, that he used watercolour like oil, his sense and boldness of colour.
Did the books you read as a child influence your work?
Hugely! I’m half expecting cease and desists from the grave! Apart from the ones mentioned above, Pippi Longstocking and Astrid Lindgren were a big influence and books such as Tom’s Midnight Garden, where things aren’t what they seem, that magical moment when the clock strikes 13 and you find that other world.
Has your illustration/art style changed over time?
It has changed in that I have got better at making the animals and photography over the years. My love of folklore has developed more and I prefer to make more of the magical folklore type creatures than the funny ones, though I still do both.
How closely do you work with the author on developing the illustrations for a book?
Very closely as it is me! I have only ever illustrated for myself so far, except for a stop motion I did for someone once.
If you could illustrate any classic book which would it be and why?
Wind in the Willows because of the animals in it, though I’m not sure I’d be able to get away from the illustrations I know so well.
Which illustrated books in the last year have you loved?
Jackie Morris and James Mayhew’s Mrs Noah series is just wonderful. Harry Woodgate’s grandad’s camper,
If you can please tell us about your latest project and if not your last project.
My latest is number 3 in the Tales of the Turning year series. The Lightbringers, and Wish Gatherers being one and two.
This one is set in summer and I am making the animals for it now, ready to photograph in the summer. I also have to finish writing the story too! It has the biggest cast of animals so far, so a lot of work to do but I am excited for how it will turn out.
Do you have any events on in the near future?
I am a bit of an introvert creature, like a woody in the Moomins, so I tend to hide away in my little shed. Also living in Wales means I’m not near a lot of places. So, non planned for the near future.