Meet Kirsti Beautyman, a rising star whose first picturebook, The Mist Monster, has been longlisted for this year's Klaus Flugge Prize.
Kirsti graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2016 with a degree in Illustration and was offered a place on Picture Hooks, the prestigious Edinburgh-based scheme providing opportunity and development for emerging picturebook illustrators.
Kirsti's work earned her the title of Picture Hooks illustrator of the year for 2017-18 and she has since illustrated books for several publishers, including The Mist Monster for Scholastic.
My grandma worked in nursery schools – she was actually the regional manager of a whole group of nurseries, so I had the largest picturebook selection ever! And when I was older and stopped reading picturebooks, I always kept them because I loved the artwork. When I was very little, I didn’t know what an illustrator was, but I used to say that I wanted to draw books!So this has been a long ambition?
It’s always been in the back of my mind. Sometimes when you’re in High School or University, wanting to make a picturebook and be published can seem like a very ambitious dream, perhaps because there’s no direct path.
I went to university in Edinburgh, where I spent most of my time printmaking. It was more about the process than where I fitted in terms of product, and I wasn’t sure which kind of illustration would be best for me. When I got to my final year, I was plate-spinning my way around everything, thinking I’d quite like to do this and that, but I’d spoken to Vivian French about the Picture Hooks Mentoring Programme that she helps run every year with Lucy Juckes, and I was wondering whether to apply for it. I hadn’t focused on children’s book illustration, but I had always written stories and I was making them into little zines, but I had no real idea how to turn my ideas into a proper picturebook, or where to even start. So it seemed as if the programme could be a good idea.What were the zines about?
One was about an alligator that loves people so much, he eats them up for dinner.… there were loads of little silly stories! But there was one that was a bit longer – it was based on the town of Kielder in Northumberland, and how it was flooded to create a reservoir. It was meant to be a children’s story but it turned out way too sad. It even makes adults cry!
I self-published it when I was in my final year, and it was printed by a company and perfect-bound. But mostly I was just printing and handbinding things myself.
How did you get onto the Picture Hooks programme, and what happened next?
Applicants had to submit three narrative pieces showing the idea for a story, so I submitted an early version of Penny and the Mist Monster. I went through the interview rounds and got chosen for the scheme and was partnered with illustrator Helen Stephens.
When I started working with her, the first thing we did was to go through my current portfolio and look at what I’d already done and any ideas I’d had, and that was the one we homed in on.
Originally the book was called Ivy and Nathaniel, and the pictures were very different. Penny looked like a fully-grown woman and the Mist Monster was actually terrifying, he looked like he was made more out of shadows than mist!
So what kind of changes did the book go through from that early point?
The changes were mostly around character development. We didn’t work so much on the story, we worked more on the ways I was drawing children – when you go to art school you don’t really draw children, you get loads of opportunities to draw adults, but it’s kind of frowned upon to draw children, and it can be quite hard to find children you’re allowed to draw. You can’t just go into a park and start drawing people’s kids!
So I’d been drawing children as mini versions of adults, where their heads were in proportion with their bodies, as it would be with an adult. But this doesn’t really work unless you’ve also got an adult in the picture for contrast. And anyway, as Helen pointed out, children have got huge heads – they don’t alter that much between childhood and adulthood. She made me look at how other people draw children. And then I had to keep ageing Penny down and down until she hit five or so. Her head kept getting bigger and bigger and I was thinking “she looks like a Power Puff girl!” But I got to the right place in the end!
Did the story change a lot, too? How did that work?
It stayed pretty similar, to be honest. When Alison Green kindly offered to publish me, we had a day when we worked on the story. I’d never written a book before so we had to tweak certain things and add scenes so that the narrative flowed better for a picturebook.
I did a storyboard for the original version which was exhibited in the Picture Hooks exhibition, and in that version the children met multiple other mist monsters. I had an entire village of them! They all had names and they were based on different parts of the garden and different woodland creatures.
"The story was basically about Penny’s adventure through the garden, and how the garden could be this massive world when you’re a little kid with a big imagination..."
There was even a monster that dwelled over the top of the pond, like fog! But they all got stripped out and we ended up with just one mist monster. I was a little worried about having only one monster that disappeared, because I thought it was maybe a little too much like The Snowman, but that wasn’t how it started.
So how long did it take you to get Morris looking the way he does now?
Relatively early on in the Picture Hooks programme Morris started looking as he does now, and he was the first character to be finished. I don’t really know where he came from, being that weird shape, but he just seemed to work!
He’s really friendly isn’t he? And you’re right, there is a hint of The Snowman about him…
A weather-based friend who disappears in the morning…
And like The Snowman, Morris is there for a child who is experiencing change and loss. But there are lots of differences, too. Morris comes back, he doesn’t melt…
That’s so sad in The Snowman. I remember crying over that!
What else do you think inspired or influenced this book? Which children’s book illustrators do you admire?
I think The Snowman was an accidental influence, to be honest. I tried really hard not to look at other people’s work while I was coming up with the initial concept because I didn’t want it to look like anything else.
As for the books I admire - I really like Francesca Sanna’s work. It’s very different to mine, she works in block colour. Her first book was based on immigration and the second was about anxiety. I really love her style and the topics she chooses and the sensitive way she covers them. I also love Helen Stephens, I was so chuffed to be paired up with her during Picture Hooks.
One of the things I love about The Mist Monster is the way it explores change and loss, but in such an understated and positive way. We know that Penny has just moved house, we can tell she’s missing her mum, we feel her loneliness - these ideas are woven into the story and give it emotional depth – but her journey through the book is funny and warm and upbeat, and leads her towards finding a real-world friend. How much of the way you dealt with those deeper feelings was instinctive, and how much did you plan those elements?
It was kind of instinctive in that I felt I already knew Penny’s story, and the loss of her Mum has always been important part of it. It was supposed to be an underlying theme, and it was based on my cousin whose mum died when he was young. He was was raised by his father, and that sense of loss, of what he went through, has been an important part of this book’s journey.
I’m quite a bit older than my cousin, and watching him deal with grief was very different from watching an adult or an older child, because he still had this exuberant joy over things, too – he didn’t understand to be sad all the time, and then it would hit him again and he would really miss her. He was trying to deal with the loss while also being a normal child - experiencing life and going to school and making friends and doing all the normal stuff.
When I first wrote Penny as a character, it was something I knew that was part of her. Like my cousin, Penny is struggling with all the changes that have happened, but also trying to enjoy life. And still adventuring….
When I was working on the book with my editor Alison Green and my designer Zoe Tucker, we discussed Penny’s backstory when I was first writing and storyboarding the book. We felt her Mum’s absence was something I didn’t need to mention in the text but that it would inform the story, and that visually there could be hints.
Like the importance of Mum’s hat…? It’s really interesting, listening to you talking about this aspect of the book. I think children who are dealing with loss would find something very powerful to connect with in this story, but you haven’t created it solely to talk about loss and grief – everything flows naturally.
People who are experiencing loss or who are grieving don’t want that experience shoved down their throat - sometimes that’s the hardest thing to see. So I just hinted at it throughout, and tried to keep it delicate.
Let’s talk about the style of your artwork - I’m particularly interested in how you’ve depicted the vegetation in the garden, and all the wonderful landscapes!
I spent most of my time at university making really big screenprints and lino carvings of plants and botanical illustrations. I just really love drawing plants! I used to include big patterns made from things like Monstera leaves in all sorts of work.
"So the plants in Penny’s garden aren’t always technically accurate for a UK garden - they’re often based on houseplants..."
For example, there are giant Peace Lilies on one of the pages. But they’re all jumbled in together; I just wanted something that was vibrant and interesting to look at.
As for landscapes, you can tell where I’ve done most of my sketching because all the houses I draw look like Edinburgh tenement blocks! So Penny’s garden could be in the countryside, but maybe it’s just in Edinburgh, who knows?
And in the best tradition of garden stories, this one seems to lose its boundaries, so maybe we don’t need to know exactly where it is?
My brother and sister and I used to play in our garden for hours, it was a normal-sized garden but when we were in the middle of our game about a pirate ship it would seem enormous. So I think that influenced the idea of losing boundaries.
And what about your colour palette? Where did that come from?
I always start with a colour palette and stick to it quite solidly. I try to pick only four pantones, plus black and white. The rest of it is created by merging those colours and overlaying them. The palette for this book hasn’t changed all that much since the work I did for Picture Hooks.
Can you tell us about the process of producing your illustrations?
I tend to work by drawing a large rough and putting it onto a light box, where I start building up textures. I’ll put inks in, and anything else that feels right. For example, some of the mist in this book was graphite and an underlying texture, but most of it is a spray paint texture that I put over the top. I had black hands for days afterwards, from trying to get the exact right density!
But it still didn’t work, and part of it had to be digitally created through a brush that I made from spray paint canisters, because I couldn’t quite get the effect in any other way.
Once I’ve built up textures on the lightbox, I put my work into Photoshop and add the colours digitally with brush tools. Then I merge it together, so that I’ve got these texture-heavy images. When you first see them, they’re just big, black blobs - I tend to work entirely in black, so they’re just layers and layers of black textures, and then I go through the layers and change the colours.
It’s easier to work that way, because if you draw something in colour and then scan it, all the colour pigments are included and it’s harder to alter it later in the day. So if a publisher says, we don’t think this piece is quite bright enough or whatever, it’s really hard to alter it digitally if you’ve done it in colour in the first place. Whereas if it’s black, it’s much easier.
Do you plan your layouts, or does the designer do that?
I did them, but I made the mistake of drawing everything far too big and not leaving room for the text! Technically I’ve published other books before this one, but actually it’s the one I worked on first. So when I drew the initial spreads, I had never worked on a picturebook with a publisher, and I just didn’t leave any room! Luckily there’s a lot of mist, so we were able to go back and thicken it where there needed to be text!
If someone wants to create misty, translucent artwork with kids - without using digital techniques - what could they try?
The main reason I used digital was because it had to be in a printed book. But you could use white chalks to get really dense mist and then smudge it out, or you could try white spray paint (not for little ones!) or you could try flicking paint, like I did on the Seven Stories Bookshop window. You could get watercolour and water it right down, and use it to create a fine spray.
So if you’re going to use chalk, you’d make a picture and then chalk over it?
Yes, you’d make your background first. You could do a really heavy foliage background, or just use black paper, and then the last thing to go on would be the mist, so you can see things through it.
That’s really helpful! If you’re working with children and you want them to engage with an artistic investigation, or explore different media, you need lots of varied ideas and you want at least one of them to have a good chance of being really successful. So it’s great to get some insight - many thanks for the tips!
On the subject of different approaches and media, did you make 3D models or anything like that while you were working on the book?
No, I didn’t. Someone asked me recently if I’ve ever tried animating The Mist Monster, which I have - but I don’t really have the patience to do it very well.
I did wonder about making a big set design version of Morris. I figured out how to do it and I did a test run but I would have to get a huge bit of Perspex and paint it so you could see through him.
Did you create your artwork for Morris in the same way as the mist?
Yes. The top layer – with almost a fur-like texture – was created using pencil so every time I draw him I have to do loads of pencil scribbles! And then it’s just a block of chalk texture, and that makes Morris - I just have to make sure he’s not too thick, so you can see through him. He’s relatively easy to draw on top of things without using any computer-aided design.
I love the blackberry in his tummy! Has anybody asked you why we can’t see anything else inside him?
He’s just a magical being… so luckily I can get out of that!
He’s also very astute! That look he gives Penny, as she’s telling him about Mum’s hat…
His features are really simple, so I had loads of fun with his facial expressions. He doesn’t have eyebrows, and that’s where a lot of expression comes from, so trying to get him to look certain ways… you’ll see in some pictures I’ve added tiny little eyebrows to help with that.
"But most of the time he’s just got two really big yellow eyes and a line for a mouth..."
The Mist Monster was your first solo picturebook, but you’ve illustrated texts by other authors for different publishers. Which approach do you prefer?
I like being an illustrator for other people’s stories, but I don’t think I could do it the other way round and write for someone else to illustrate, that would be weird. Because I don’t tend to write in words, I write in pictures, and then I have to try and suss out the words that I need for those pictures… because I’ll know the story and be able to tell someone, but I can’t always put it into words as well as someone who’s a proper writer.
How did you find writing the text for The Mist Monster?
Actually, I really struggled with it. When I first met with publishers that were considering the books, a couple offered to get me a writer if I wasn’t confident. But I’d written the book in images, and I knew exactly where certain things needed to be, I just needed some help to pull it together as a text. And the wonderful thing about working with Alison Green was that she said “of course you can write your own book, you’ve got it there, we just need to make it flow…”
We worked around the imagery and she helped me pull the bits I’d written apart and re-word it. The original text described what went on and what was happening, but I wasn’t all that good at using dialogue, so that needed work. In the end I almost worked backwards, in comparison with how most books are put together. Usually it’s text and then illustrations. I had my illustrations, but then I had to find my text.
Some people think that because children’s books don’t have very many words in them, they’re easy to write, and anyone can write them. But that just isn’t the case!
For some great learning ideas inspired by The Mist Monster, take a look at our Meet the Books feature on this site
Having to make big changes can be pretty challenging, even when they work out well in the end! Did any of your illustrations change as much as your text?
I looked through my roughs the other day, and there were maybe four or five sets that were very close to approval and then changed drastically. When the Dad character started off, he was a much smaller man, but he looked too young and I wanted him to be bigger - I wanted there to be some semblance of size between Dad and Morris, so to get Dad’s shape, I drew him on top of Morris. If you look at the Dad character now when he’s on his own, he’s a bulky man. But it took a lot of re-draws to get that right.
What are you working on now? Are we allowed to know what’s coming next?
I’ve been working on someone else’s book - it won’t be out until mid-2021 and I can’t say much about it, but it’s going to be a really heartwarming story.
Do you have anything that’s all yours on the go?
I struggle to work on more than one book at a time, but I’ve written the text for the next book I’d like to author-illustrate. It’s about a witch, but I’ve got more work to do on it and my schedule’s a bit booked up at the moment. Potentially when I hit a quiet moment I’ll go back to it!
It must be difficult to balance all your freelance and creative commitments?
I could do with being more organized in general! I’m so new to this that I’m still working my part-time jobs as well. But it’s hit the point where I’m working more days than there are in a week, so it’s trying to balance that. I probably need to take a step back from doing café work and making coffees for people, but I really enjoy it. I did The Mist Monster at the same time that I was doing The Missing Bookshop and then The Lost Homework, so I was never working on just one book at once, and I found that so hard. I was bouncing between roughs for one publisher and roughs for another, and I took a year out from doing café work while I was doing that. But then I ended up just sitting in my studio looking at the same wall all day, and after years of working in the Service Industry that was quite hard. I’ve worked in different hospitality jobs since I was 16, and I kind of missed it. I end up chatting anyone’s ear off that will talk to me after a month of being alone!
I had my own studio for the first half of 2018 and then for the back end of the year I was sharing with two other girls. One of them was studying fashion and textiles, and she would come in very late at night after she’d been at university all day, and sew things. So we were kind of like ships in the night, because I was trying to stick to daylight hours, especially for illustrating. But if I maybe worked in a bigger shared studio space it wouldn’t be such a problem. It’s trying to balance everything.
Weirdly, though, I’ve found that something that can work for you one year might not work forever. I used to enjoy working on my own and I used to struggle to work in a shared studio – when I was a student I used to come home and do all my work alone at night. But now I struggle to work in very quiet environments, I need at least some kind of background noise!
What’s your favourite The Mist Monster moment?
There was a lady the other day who came into the café with her little boy. I was making her a hot chocolate and coffee and she had just bought my book in Waterstones. It was really strange to be standing on my side of the counter. I didn’t say anything! It was really weird, but so lovely to see a mother and her son sit down with a hot drink and a little cake and read my book together. I was trying not to watch, but it’s the first time I’d seen anyone with it!
And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Special moments sharing a special book…
It’s one of the most wonderful things about what I do - the possibility that what you create will be someone’s favourite book, one that they’ll remember it into adulthood. Children’s books shape who you are and your relationships. I think there’s so much care taken with them, and attention to detail. When you’re writing or illustrating for children’s books there are so many things that you would never think about that publishers will pick up on. They’ll say you need to offer this, or we’d like this to be represented. A lot of things like that come into it, because they’re powerful and can have such an impact.
What a pleasure to be involved in something so fundamentally positive! Thank you so much for talking to us, Kirsti, and all the very best of luck with whatever you do next.
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