• September 2014

The Secret Passages of Children's Book Illustrator Keith Gordon Campbell

By Michael Gibbs
Illustrator and Designer, michaelgibbs.com
Art Director, The Inkandescent Group, LLC

Here’s how Keith Gordon Campbell’s slightly twisted path to becoming a book illustrator is described online.

“Keith Gordon Campbell was born in a steamy, equatorial place with wildebeest and other disorderly creatures. But he was promptly packed off to spend his tender years on a damp and salty island nation in the Far North, where wild winds rattle your windows and turn your umbrella inside out.

“In the shadow of a looming black castle, Keith was educated in an old, turreted school with ghosts and secret passages and stuff. There he learned to love all things ghoulish, ghastly, and rather Gothic. He wasn’t one for chasing after balls or playing leapfrog; he preferred even then, to find quiet corners where he could write peculiar stories and illustrate them with quirky characters.

“Later, he attended an even older university (though with less turrets) and graduated with a master’s in art history. That, it turned out, wasn’t a terribly practical trade (in fact, it’s not a trade at all), but somehow or other (he could never quite explain how) it turned him into an interior designer—in California, where, when your windows rattle, it’s not because of the wind!

“But Keith never could stop thinking up stories and pictures to go with them. They kept piling up inside him, ’til he realized that if he didn’t get them out, he would certainly burst. So after a ton of classes and submissions and teeth-gnashing and hurled dinnerware, he finally managed to convince someone to make him an author/illustrator.” (From the Kids Can Press bio of Campbell.)

Campbell is the illustrator of “Flora & Ulysses” by Kate DiCamillo, “Tea Party Rules” by Ame Dyckman, and is both illustrator and author of “Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters” and “The Mermaid and the Shoe.”

Scroll down for our Q&A with Campbell to learn more about his art, life, and what it took to bring his anthropomorphic characters to life.

Michael Gibbs: First, tell us about “Flora & Ulysses.” How did you come to land that great gig?

Keith Gordon Campbell: Kate DiCamillo is an author of some renown, so I’m sure Candlewick, the publisher, was very concerned with finding the right illustrator for her latest release. I believe the art director, Chris Paul, took to the Internet to rifle through sites where artists like me are represented (such as my agency painted-words.com).

My awesome agent Lori Nowicki called to inform me that Candlewick was interested in me for a project, but could I create characters “without bug eyes”? I quickly drew the same boy multiple times with myriad eye options. The next day I was offered the job.

Michael Gibbs: Your style is so playful and unique. How would you describe it?

Keith Gordon Campbell: Illustrators must adapt their style to the readership and mood of the project, from cute picture books to adventurous or spooky middle-grade novels. So it’s a little difficult to find adjectives that apply across the board.

Left to my own devices, however, my aesthetic definitely lists to “the dark side.” Even my sweetest work contains an element of diabolical mischief.

“Human” is another word I’d use to describe my style. With action, pose, and facial expression, I strive to communicate the human condition with a visual language we can all understand.

“Cinematic” would be the other common thread. By repeating bold elements or employing dramatic perspectives or simplified compositions, I’ll often attempt to create an image that may be highly graphic or highly magical, but either way be visually arresting.

Michael Gibbs: What do you love most about being an artist?

Keith Gordon Campbell: It’s maybe a slightly predictable answer, but I love to draw. Being an artist quite simply means that I get to do what I love every day … and get paid for it. Isn’t that what we all want?

Michael Gibbs: How has your style evolved over the years?

Keith Gordon Campbell: Like many artists I’m sure, I had my “genesis” influences, those that inspired me to do what I do; in my case Edward Gorey and Tim Burton. But the longer you’re around and paying attention, the more wonderful artists you discover, and you’ll often find yourself falling for an aesthetic quite divergent from your own.

Lisbeth Zwerger is the perfect example for me. She’s among the most gifted illustrators ever. I’m particularly fond of her imaginative interpretations, clear alpine colors (she’s Austrian), adventurous composition, and use of negative space. I drew on all of that for the illustrations in “Tea Party Rules,” and I think you’ll see more of it in the future.

I haven’t been at this for terribly long, so I’m looking forward to embracing new influences and experimenting with new techniques.

Michael Gibbs: Is there an important lesson that you have learned that you could share with other artists?

Keith Gordon Campbell: Some art is solely about self-expression. And that’s fine.

Some art—including all illustration—is about communication. So I say to those in the business of storytelling: It’s not how you say it; it’s what you say.

Your mastery of a particular medium, your style, and your skill may all combine to produce a lovely thing. But if the artwork does not engage viewers, if they can’t empathize with it, if it doesn’t move them, then it is a lovely thing without a heart. It is not an effective communication.

I’m not minimizing the importance of developing your craft. Everyone loves a virtuoso performance. But never let style sidetrack substance. Remember what it is you’re trying to say.

Michael Gibbs: What advice do you have for budding artists hoping to make it as book illustrators?

Keith Gordon Campbell: Given that Be Inkandescent magazine is for entrepreneurs, I think it’s highly appropriate here to remind folks that the illustration of children’s literature is part of an industry.

Yes, publishing firms are generally peopled by the educated and discerning, but they are not art galleries or museums. They have bills to pay. Big ones. And as such, they have no choice but to cater to the marketplace.

So get to know that marketplace!

The publishing industry is about volume sales. And volume sales equals the general public. Is what you create something that the general public will buy? If not, figure out a way to re-package it in a way that still expresses what you’re all about, but is more accessible.

The more realistic and practical you are about your product, the quicker you’ll find a buyer for it.

Michael Gibbs: What has been the most fantastic moment of your career so far?

Keith Gordon Campbell: I confess that I’ve enjoyed receiving several industry awards. I’m a self-taught artist, and as I said, haven’t been at this for long. As such I’ve labored under a certain sense of inadequacy. Winning such awards has helped to allay the fear that my work suffers from a lack of training or appears amateurish.

But if I had to pick one moment, it would be the one in which I learned I was to illustrate Kate DiCamillo’s new novel. I was already a huge fan. We haven’t touched on the fact that I’m also a writer, and that I have literary as well as artistic heroes. And Kate was a fixture in my pantheon.

Reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, was a milestone in my decision to pursue this career more aggressively. My first book was not even in print when I landed the gig, so it was a major break for an unknown illustrator and ardent DiCamillo fan.

Michael Gibbs: What do you hope your legacy will be?

Keith Gordon Campbell: Gosh. Legacy is an awfully big word isn’t it? I’m not sure I can answer that without sounding a bit pretentious.

I hope that my drawings and stories attract kids to books. And, having lured them in, I hope they help to produce new readers, new lovers of literature. I hope those new readers become interested in the stories of people other than themselves, learn to identify with those people, and come to understand that fundamentally we are all the same.

Michael Gibbs: What haven’t you yet done that you still want to do?

Keith Gordon Campbell: I want to publish my own middle-grade novel. I have one in the works, and fingers crossed, it’s an ambition that may soon be realized.

Michael Gibbs: What are you most excited about doing in the years to come?

Keith Gordon Campbell: I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be one of the few who love their jobs. Every day I write. Every day I draw. And I get paid for it.

Quite honestly, my ultimate life goal was achieved several years ago when I finally broke into this business. So while it doesn’t sound earth-shattering, I’m most excited about the years to come containing more of the same. It’s all good.

For more information about Keith Gordon Campbell, visit painted-words.com.

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