interview - mr kellie strøm
Monday, February 16th, 2009

SCAMP recently gave a mention to Kellie Strøm and his excellent book, Sadie the Air Mail Pilot. Following up on that we have an interview with the man himself where he talks about how, using models, photoshop and traditional techniques, he created this distinctive style.

- You currently live in London, but you have an Irish passport. Tell us about your Irish Roots. (where you lived, when you left, where did you study sort of thing)

My mother was from Galway, and my father Danish. I was born in Copenhagen in 1967, but we moved back to Ireland when I was three, to Jenkinstown in Co. Kilkenny. My father worked at the Kilkenny Design Workshops for some years. Later, my mother had a handweaving business in Kilkenny for a while. My teenage years were mis-spent in Galway, and I then did a foundation course in Dun Laoghaire art school. Well, I never actually finished that course, but anyway.

After leaving art school in 1988 I started hawking my wares to newspapers. There were a couple of years of sleeping on friends' sofas and living in bedsits, with no phone of my own, not a very professional approach. I'd turn up at a newspaper office with pencil, set square, brushes and ink in my coat pockets, and if there was work, often do it on the spot.

At the start I was mainly working for In Dublin magazine and The Sunday Tribune, also a bit for The Irish Times. There was a bizarre stint at The Irish Independent too. Later I did a lot for The Sunday Business Post, as well as bits and pieces elsewhere, like a bunch of logos for Hot Press.

- Why and when did you decide to become an illustrator?

When I was very, very young, before I could write. I remember once my parents got a big roll of newsprint for my brother and I to draw on. I drew a story on a long piece from this, which was taped up on the bedroom wall. As I couldn't write, I drew rectangles under the pictures, spaces for adding words later on. I remember taking the whole thing very seriously. I was probably about four years old.

I remember when I was seven earnestly telling my father of a plan to write, draw, and publish my own books, and sell them at the top of the road. My failure to carry out this project haunted me for years.

- Can you tell us a little about where the idea for Sadie the Air Mail Pilot came from and how you got it off the ground (so to speak)?

The project has a long history behind it, starting as an idea for a comic when my friend Jakob Stegelmann was an editor at a Danish publisher in the late 1980s. Another Dane, Nikolaj Sherfig, had a go at writing it, and then Irish writer Stephen Walsh, a friend from Dun Laoghaire art school, wrote a script. I drew roughs for about half of it, and then other things took over, and the project languished on the shelf.

Years later Stephen, Jakob and I had a go at developing these characters and their world for an animated feature. More scripts were embarked upon, discarded, storyboards begun, designs refined. The Irish Film Board spent some development money on it. Really, though, the project had become over-complex and unfocused.

The notion of a picture book started as just one part of our plan for taking over the world, but became a way of boiling down the project to its essentials, a cat, a plane, and letters to deliver. Out went the master criminal and sidekick, the flying police force, a million inventions and complications. The whole long history of this was of getting caught up in the world around the main character, getting obsessed with all the other characters and ideas and ignoring the centre of the story, or stories as it went through so many changes. Looking at the book now, that process could still be taken further. Sadie could still be simplified, strengthened, and brought more to the fore.

- Where do you begin when faced with a huge project like Sadie?

Well the Sadie book was a bit unusual, because of its origins. I went through five dummy versions to get to the final story. There was a lot of to and fro with my editor, David Fickling. The limit of 32 pages was very demanding, especially as the book was very much about telling the story in pictures. I wanted to see everything.

The books I've been working on since have been much smoother, starting with a written text, but with the pictures already in my mind as I write, along with the consequent breakdown into pages. The next stage then is a dummy. I like to do a quite detailed dummy, solving as many of the problems as possible, or at least discovering as many of them as I can, as early as I can.

When the final Sadie dummy was agreed, I went on to doing very tight pencils. There was a big issue of information overload with that book. For most of those images I managed that by using overlays, drawing various characters and background sections on separate pieces of paper on a lightbox, or over sepia printouts of completed portions of the drawing. I had also constructed 3D CG models of Sadie's plane and the post office building, and made physical models of the weather station interior, and of Knuckle Peak. There was also a very rough clay model of the mountains around Sadie's city, and I used soft toys and cardboard cutouts of some characters, and a cardboard model of the plane to help work out issues of staging and scale for some images.

The various bits of drawings were pasted together in Photoshop and then printed in light yellow-brown onto heavy watercolour paper for painting in acrylic. For most of the Sadie book I painted quick half-scale colour roughs as a guide.

On the book I'm doing at the moment, the process has been much less complicated, pencilling straight onto the final sheet of paper. Only in a couple of instances on this one have I run into problems and had to get tracing paper and carbon paper out.

- Who are your favorite children's book illustrators?

The ones that still seem strongest are mostly the ones that had an effect in childhood, and with all of them it was about creating a world, not just decoration of a text, or a rendering of known reality.

From childhood, obvious names but no less powerful for that: Maurice Sendak, Tove Jansson, Richard Scarry, Pauline Baynes. Some more obscure names: Ib Spang Olsen, Carl Hollander. A few later pleasures: Vilhelm Hansen, the picture books of Garth Williams, and Tibor Gergely. Amongst friends, Aidan Potts, Ted Dewan, Helen Cooper, Ian Beck, Alastair Graham. I visited Chris Riddell in his studio once, and he showed me his sketchbooks - a frightening talent!

- What was your favorite book as a child?

I couldn't name a favourite, but one that was memorable, perhaps because it was the only Moomin novel we didn't own and I had a vivid impression of reading it at a friend's house, was Moominpappa at Sea. I bought it later as an adult, and it completely lived up to my memory of it.

- What is the best thing about being an illustrator?

When a picture is working, flowing, and the outside world falls away. That's very much a minority of the time, but it's great.

I have always felt wary of the word illustrator. It implies being a servant to the text, and the work I like the best goes beyond that. I used to prefer to describe myself as a cartoonist for that reason. I once heard Sempé and Quentin Blake discussing this. They both preferred the French word, dessinateur, but if you call yourself a drawer you're liable to be misunderstood.

- What good advice do you have for people who want to be illustrators?

On the economics of this business, I still haven't figured it out. My book projects don't pay for the time they take, and I can only make it work by doing film and TV design work as well. At the moment I'm way overdue doing some stuff like that.

The years of newspaper work were exciting but stressful. The periods where I was just churning out a formula were the least rewarding, and the times where I was intent on re-inventing the wheel with every commission were much more beneficial for my development, but left me exhausted.

The ideal would seem to be to develop a personal style that is flexible enough not to be inhibiting, but is not so stressful. The difficulty with having extremely show-offy stuff in the portfolio is that people want more of it! And being too flexible means one can end up a visual Jack-of-all-trades without a strong recognisable identity. I think perhaps that too often I've tried to second-guess the needs of a client, rather than maintain my own identity in commissioned work.

Maybe in my next life I'll know how to do it.

- What's your next big project?

Right now I'm finishing a book for a Dutch publisher, Het zeemans-ABC (A Sailor's ABC), completely untranslatable, but if you are planning on running away to sea with the Dutch merchant marine it'll be just the thing. After that I have a couple of english language picture books in the works.

- We really appreciate you taking the time to do this

It's been a pleasure, thanks for having me!


Illustrations, from the top: sample drawing for the Sadie book showing an earlier character design and rendering style, sample painting of Sadie showing final design and style, final acrylic on paper painting for page 9, working drawing for page 9 combining CG and hand-drawn elements, working drawings for page 17 based on a cardboard model interior, final acrylic on paper painting for page 17, concept art for the SciFi Channel miniseries Tin Man, painting in progress for Het zeemans-ABC.