Keith Robinson – Q&A

Keith Robinson

Keith Robinson

My work is informed by a love of nature, myth and history, all of which can be found in abundance where I live, on the Devon-Dorset border. The beautiful landscape of the West Country, the stunning scenery of the Jurassic Coast and the wilds of nearby Dartmoor provide a constant source of inspiration.

I’ve been a freelance illustrator since 2001, but I came to it the long way round. After graduating in graphics and illustration in 1992, I worked as an animator on some of the earliest digital media productions for clients around the world. In 1995 I joined the BBC and was part of the R&D team that developed the Corporation’s first website. I later founded Codename, an award winning media production company, before I finally returned to my first love and picked up my pencils in earnest again.

I live with my wife and two children, near the pretty seaside town of Lyme Regis, on the south coast of England. When I’m not working I enjoy hiking, camping, fossil-hunting, playing the guitar and rummaging through second-hand book shops.

Keith can be found here:
Website: keithrobinson.co.uk
Twitter: @RobinsonKH
Instagram: @keithrobinson_illustration

When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator?

I’ve always loved drawing, but I started taking it seriously when I was about 15. My art teacher arranged for me to do work experience at a graphic design studio and it dawned on me that I might actually be able to make a living out of art. I went to art college to study graphic design initially, but I soon realised illustration, especially children’s illustration, was what I was really interested in, so I switched to an illustration degree.

How long does it typically take to make a page or cover for a book?

It can vary a lot, depending on the brief.

I’ll start by producing roughs – which for a cover might take a day or so. These will then go to the publishing team for approval and there will usually be one or two rounds of revisions before everyone is happy to go to final art.

Then a cover might take anything from a couple of days to a week or more, depending on how complex the illustration is. Interior illustrations tend to be black and white. (I work in middle grade and young adult publishing rather than for picture books) so they are usually much quicker – half a day or a day. But again, they will have been through a round of roughs and revisions first.

What’s your favourite piece of art equipment?

A few years ago I finally invested in a Wacom Cintiq pen display, which changed my life! (It’s like a big screen that you can draw directly on with a pressure sensitive pen.)

I do love a good-old dip pen, brush and a pot of ink, though.

Do you have a favourite colour scheme, if so what and why?

Not one in particular. I’ll choose a colour scheme that’s appropriate for the project and helps evoke the atmosphere and feeling I’m trying to convey. Sometimes it’s an intuitive process and sometimes I’ll plan it all out – but usually a mixture of both. I’ve noticed I often tend to use analogous colours (which are close to each other on the colour wheel) combined with contrasting accent colours.

Who were your inspirations when starting out?

As a kid I loved classic sci-fi and fantasy art. There was one image in particular, Jade Sea by Roger Dean, which I had as a poster in my bedroom. I’d really loose myself in it and it made me think, I want to learn how to do that!

At art college my eyes were opened to a whole world of art and artists – too many to mention. But it was around that time that I discovered the work of Dave McKean, who remains a constant source of inspiration.

Do you have another job beside being an illustrator, if so what?

I teach illustration to foundation-year art students, one day a week.

What do you do to overcome a creative block?

I’m not sure I believe in creative block as such. I prefer to think of it like anything else – you have good days and bad days. There are definitely days when I seem to have lost the ability to draw! The thing is, you just have to turn up and put in the hours, regardless. I think it was Picasso who said, inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

Do you have a favourite piece in your portfolio, if so could you share it and talk about it?

Northern Lights

Northern Lights

I don’t really have a favourite piece. There are things I like about all of them and things I wish I’d done differently. (There’s also plenty of bad work that isn’t in the portfolio!)

An important piece for me was this mocked-up cover for Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. This was personal work – I loved the book and wanted to set myself a project to try out a new way of working that combined traditional and digital techniques. It ended up being something of a turning point as I’d been struggling to make work that I was happy with up until then. This piece has also been good to me, as it’s led to quite a few commissions.

What was your first book related project?

Ha! That would have been at primary school. I remember there was a competition to write and illustrate our own ‘books’. I worked really hard on mine, and was sure I’d win, but my best friend came first! I was pretty jealous of him at the time, but I must have got over it because were still best mates. And besides, his book was better than mine.

What type of media do you prefer to work in and why?

These days I mostly paint digitally using Photoshop, which has freed up my work no end. The ‘undo’ button means I can work in a much looser way – if I make a mark and it goes wrong, I can always try it again. But I often combine it with elements and textures painted traditionally, which I scan-in and incorporate into the digital painting. I love ink, watercolour and gouache. There’s always that random element in the way they behave – the way ink will run into water for example – that can’t really be replicated digitally. So combining the two gives the work a more organic feel.

There’s also a very practical reason for working digitally, in that it’s much easier to make changes if the client requests it!

I have all sorts of playlists, depending on how I feel when I’m working. Sometimes I need something ambient that will sit in the background and help me concentrate, but other times I might need an energy boost from a few banging tunes! I find that quite often a project will take on its own ‘soundtrack’ that somehow suits the mood of the illustration.

Do you have any rituals when working?

Apart from a large mug of coffee and a period of procrastination in the morning, not as such. I have a process though (which I’ve decided the procrastination is part of.) I start by doodling loose thumbnail sketches, which are largely unintelligible to anyone but me, until I’ve formed a clear idea of what I’m after. Then I’ll gradually refine these sketches through several iterations, gathering reference materials as I go, to help me draw specific details. Once I have a finished sketch that I’m happy with, I’ll use it as a basis for a grayscale rough to work out the tonal values, and a colour rough to work out the palette. I’ll then continue to work into this colour version to arrive at the final artwork.

I’m usually quite excited about a piece I’ve started working on, but if you could plot it on a graph, it would be a U-shaped curve that starts with ‘this is going to be the best thing I’ve ever done!’ quickly sloping down to ‘this is actually quite hard’, bottoming out at ‘this is rubbish’ and then climbing back up to ‘Oh that’ll have to do’!

Do you have a favourite artist outside of the world of books, if so who and why?

It’s hard to single anyone out, there are so many. Van Gogh is high on the list though. His work speaks for itself, he was a truly great painter and an astonishing colourist, but I love his letters as well. They reveal the real person behind the clichéd tortured artist image. He was a deeply humane and sensitive person (albeit a difficult one as well) who struggled to overcome debilitating and often frightening mental health problems. The popular image is of Van Gogh painting in some sort of crazed frenzy, and while there might be an element of truth in that, he created so much beauty in spite of his illness, not because of it. I think his life is heroic for that.

Did the books you read as a child influence your work?

They definitely stirred my imagination and made me want to visualise the fictional worlds I loved so much. In that regard, books like Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, The Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin, Watership Down by Richard Adams, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame were all hugely formative.

I loved the illustrations as well. Pauline Baynes’ Narnia illustrations and her covers for Tolkien’s books, and E.H. Shepard’s illustrations for Wind in the Willows made a big impression on me. I didn’t really know who they were at the time, I just loved the pictures, but they remain among my favourite illustrators and have been a big influence over the years.

Has your illustration/art style changed over time?

Yes, massively – as it should do of course. Drawing is a lifelong learning process, and it took a long time for me to arrive at something I was happy with. I’m far more comfortable with my process now, but hopefully my work is still evolving, as there’s always something new to discover.

How closely do you work with the author on developing the illustrations for a book?

It’s actually quite unusual to have direct contact with an author while working on a book. This is something that tends to be mediated by the publishing team. I do love building relationships with authors though. This often happens after the book is published, but if it’s a book series it’s nice to have that ongoing relationship when illustrating subsequent titles.

It’s also lovely to collaborate with authors on personal projects. I’m currently working with a brilliant writer on something very exciting, which I really hope will see the light of day eventually.

Jade Sea by Roger Dean

Jade Sea by Roger Dean

If you could illustrate any classic book which would it be and why?

I’ve adored The Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin since I was a child and would love to illustrate them. The renowned illustrator Charles Vess beat me to it though, with the most gorgeous fully illustrated anthology, published in 2018.

Which illustrated books in the last year have you loved?

Oh, there are lots. It feels like such a golden age for illustrated books. A few I’ve loved have been; Tyger by S.F. Said, illustrated by Dave McKean, The Worlds We Leave Behind by A.F. Harold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold, Crushing by Sophie Burrows, Raptor by Dave McKean, The Circles in the Sky by Karl James Mountford, and The Hideaway by Pam Smy.

I’ve just ordered Shuna’s Journey by Hayao Miyazaki (of Studio Ghibli fame) which has just been published in English for the first time, which I can’t wait to read.

If you can please tell us about your latest project and if not your last project

I’m just finishing illustrations for a book called Jodie by Hilary McKay, which should be coming out in May, published by Barrington Stoke. It’s a wonderful ghost story. Eerily atmospheric, with a great twist, but tender, kind, and funny as well.


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