Illustrator & author Melissa Castrillon shares her creative process

In conversation with illustrator Melissa Castrillon.

She graduated from the Cambridge School of Art in 2014 with a Masters in Children’s book Ollustration and since then has been a full-time freelance illustrator & author. Castrillon works work on picture books, book covers, surface design alongside personal print projects.

How did your illustration technique develop? Where do you get your ideas and inspirations from?

The way I produce my work for books is a mixture of traditional hand drawn and digital colouring & compositing. So basically I try and create each image as I would a screen print, with a limited colour palette and drawn in B&W layers with a mechanical pencil. Each layer is then scanned in and digitally coloured in Photoshop as a series of single colour layers, e.g. 3 B&W layers end up being red, blue & yellow on the computer. I then layer them over each other in Photoshop and it will (hopefully if I’ve planned it well) make a full image.

I developed this way of working from my discovery of the wonders of screen printing when I was doing my MA (2011-2014) The Cambridge school of art has an amazing print room with everything you could wish for, etching, letterpress, lithography, Riso printing and screen printing – which I was instantly drawn towards. It forced me to think of an illustration as a limited number of colour layers which could magically produce a whole image. This restriction on colours & layers which came with screen printing was actually incredibly liberating and I began thinking in patterns and layers when creating my work.

I then adapted this process for client projects by colouring the layers digitally, this freed me up if I needed to make changes, but meant I could keep the screen printed aesthetic. My inspiration now comes from many sources- textiles, ceramics, nature, travel, mythology, fantasy, and lots and lots of reading.

The restriction on colours & layers which came with screen printing was actually incredibly liberating and I began thinking in patterns and layers when creating my work.

Melissa Castrillon

How do you typically start a book cover project?

Unfortunately I don’t always have the time to read the book before I illustrate the cover for it, so I will make sure I get a thorough brief from the publisher detailing the story, what objects, characters, setting & other imagery is included in the book. Plus the key imagery which dominates the story so that I can get a clear feel of the atmosphere, which intern impacts the colour palette and overall design. I will then play around with key pieces of imagery from the book and play around with putting it into fun, exciting & original compositions.

With reference to a recent book cover project, can you briefly talk us through the creative process of designing the cover? How do you create mood and atmosphere in your work?

I often try and use colour to portray the mood and atmosphere of a book, for example purples and blues for magical and dark narratives work well. Using a limited palette with maybe one colour in different hues like I did for the His Dark Materials covers can often help create a more classic and timeless feel. Colour is definitely a useful tool!

One of my most recent covers was the new gift edition of ‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman, and with this cover as well as being a mega dream job! I felt the pressure to make it perfect, so I had to bury that thought and just get on with doing the job.

I first figured out what imagery I wanted to make the most dominant and then play around with that, and that was the armoured bear. I played around with the shape of the bear and how it can work on the cover format but also how the title and author name can fit and not battle for space in the design, all the elements have to be considered throughout and work as a cohesive whole. The colour was already mapped out after speaking with the publisher so it was quite fun to have that decided and then have the challenge of how to make that palette work and compliment my design. Sometimes having pre-set parameters can be enjoyable but obviously not all the time.

How do you decide on which key plot lines / themes within the story to illustrate? Is the process of working with the publisher very collaborative?

The process for me isn’t enormously collaborative with the publisher. I prefer to get given a detailed run down on imagery in the book and sometimes they will provide images of other book cover which convey a similar atmosphere they want for the book. This can be very helpful, but I also have to put up a barrier so I don’t get too influenced by them. After that I pretty much fly solo until I send them roughs (often a selection of 3 designs) and then they will give me feedback and which they prefer.

Sometimes I will choose one main piece of imagery to use on the cover and incorporate the things as small sub-imagery/decoration around the main design. I choose the main piece of imagery which tends to exemplify the story the most and also provide me with the most interesting composition- so a mixture of those two tends to equal a book cover I’m happy with. For example with Laura Rubys ‘Bone gap’ and the large bee hive, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and the armoured bear, Monica Kulling’s Mary Innings Curiosity and the ichthyosaur fossil.
Other times I use lots of imagery to create a montage of the key elements in the book such as Michelle Harrisons 13 Treasures and Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Kite Rider.

At what point in your creative process do you start thinking about colour palettes?

I love deciding on a new colour palette and it can sometimes direct the design of the cover, such as with the Bone Gap cover, this cover works because of the dark purple creating the negative space for the main imagery and title. Other times it can be suggested by a publisher such with the Philip Pullman cover. When illustrating reissues like those books, keeping close to the original colour palettes can keep the original atmosphere and nostalgia of the books. Other times the help of a wonderful AD can help find the right colour palette and colour balance for a book. A Pinch of Magic took a little while, with help from Jenny Richards at Simon & Schuster UK to get to the right place.

I would encourage others to be brave and email publishers directly as well as using social media platforms and book fairs.

Melissa Castrillon

How did you typically approach publishers when you were first getting started?

Before I had an agent I would be be pretty bad at approaching publishers, but I did get a book deal by approaching a publisher at the Bologna children book fair back in 2013, so that definitely a great way to meet publishers – at book fairs & face to face. I tended to advertise my work online through all the possible platforms such as tumblr, pinterest, facebook- this was before instagram existed. And promoting your work on social media platforms kind put up a barrier between you and audience which helped with me because I wasn’t confident in my work at that stage and felt anxious about emailing publishers. what i didn’t realise was that publishers also use these platforms and can find your work, which what happened to me when I got my first ever commission when an AD at Simon & Schuster US found my work on pinterest, but I would definitely encourage others to be more brave than i was and email publishers directly as well as using platforms and going to book fairs.

How involved are your illustration agents in securing these types of projects for you?

Very involved in securing these cover projects for me, I’m really lucky to have such a wonderful agent Helen Boyle and be part of the Pickled Ink agency’s family. They are very nurturing and really want you to do the work you love and that will push you forward. The have an expansive list of publishers they are regularly in contact with and promoting us too. I have got all but one of the 18 book covers I have illustrated through my agents.

Competitions are not only good for the winning potential, but also to have a written brief and deadline to drive you forward, and to get your work seen by judges who will have a foothold in the industry.

Melissa Castrillon

For creatives who are interested in working with paper craft / narrative illustration can you give some advice on how to get into the publishing market?

Make the work you want to be employed to do. You can do this by setting yourself personal briefs, where you produce a piece of narrative illustration that you would love to be commissioned to do. The more work you have which you love and are able show publishers then this will increase their interest and will show them what your capable of.

Another way is to study. I was lucky enough to do an MA in children’s book illustraton which really has an amazing foothold in the industry and gives you the opportunities to get your work seen by publishers and provides you enough knowledge to go out there at the end of it and get the work you want.

There are other amazing schemes such as PICTURE HOOKS, they’re based in Edinburgh and provide access, opportunity and development for emerging picture book illustrators. And not forgetting amazing competitions such the FOLIO SOCIETY who every year have a book illustration competition where they present a past title and you have to design a new cover and some interior illustrations, a winner will then get the opportunity to have their entry published. These competitions are not only good for the winning potential, but also to have a written brief and deadline to drive you forward, and to get your work seen by judges who will have a foothold in the industry.

Extracts from this interview appear in Illustrating covers: The Insiders Guide‘ published on Digital Arts, February 2020, written by Lisa Hassell.


Posted on Apr 2nd, 21 by | Twitter: @lisahassell

Founder & director of Inkygoodness, Lisa is a published writer and arts journalist, focusing on creative business, graphic art and illustration and design education. Her words regularly appear in Computer Arts, Creative Bloq, Digital Arts and IdN.

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