Schlock Talks | Kathleen Jennings

For our second November Schlock Talk, we speak to the versatile Australian artist Kathleen Jennings. Both a writer and illustrator, she has most recently applied her delicate, evocative and fragile line to Angela Slatter’s latest collection, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. We chat to her about juggling two art forms on a regular basis, meeting your clients half way, and her predilection towards an ‘autumnal’ colour palette.


How do your creative processes differ when you’re working on art or writing, if there is any?

In writing, I write then agonise. In illustration, I agonise, then draw. The first half is where the discovery happens, the second is where it is refined.

I push ideas further in illustration – not that the viewer can tell! When writing, I’m conscious of being conservative and protective of my characters. The illustrations feel more representational to me.

But they are both forms of storytelling, and I keep finding out new ways in which the lessons and principles of one form can be applied to the other. Movement, detail, simplicity, contrast, focus…

Sketches for The Bitterwood Bible illustrations by Kathleen Jennings

What’s the most difficult project you’ve worked on?

A group art show I took part in. The theme was ‘Once Upon A Time’, with no further limits, so ideas, self-doubt and overweening ambition (why yes, let’s sculpt a fairytale city of paper and wire!) had ample room to flourish. Then I had to talk myself down (mood and scope) and create the art. And then the logistics of framing and hanging and fixing frames and… The logistics of art shows stress me out, and eat weeks of drawing time.

As far as the actual illustration, the most difficult was my first comic, for the Steampunk! anthology. It was a new style of writing and illustration and a large scope. My only comfort was that the editors knew I hadn’t done this before and weren’t required to take it!

What is your proudest accomplishment, when it comes to illustration?

I’ve always learned so much by the end of the process that I have huge difficulty looking back on any of my projects with gentle objectivity. I do carry a great secret well of delight at some of the people I’ve had an opportunity to work with.

Hmm. Probably I’m proudest when I talk people into letting me get away with something fun, even if it’s different from the original brief. As a lawyer, that makes me happy.

What’s the most difficult part of a brief, for you? Have you had any really finicky or difficult clients and how do you go about getting into their head to translate that into a finished product?

The initial agonising! This does create some difficulties with clients whose expectations I don’t understand, because I’d like to agonise in private before producing sketches for them, but I don’t know which direction to go angsting off in.

If someone doesn’t have a defined brief, and if it isn’t a clear case of ‘do whatever you like’, I’ll usually push back and get them to select a few pieces of mine that have the feel they want, or ask them to put together a few images that capture the idea. Pinterest is really good for this, because we can share a board and put references, inspiration and sketches in one place.

Is it more difficult for you to work off of a brief or to come up with something out of the blue? And hence does having a finicky client make it worse/better?

It’s very difficult to work without parameters. I can create boundaries, if I’m not given them, but I’m left second-guessing the client’s expectations, which can be very hard. Finicky… well, it depends how well the client can communicate it. Precise expectations can be a very entertaining challenge, help me learn how to draw something I hadn’t tried before, develop new techniques, create a stronger product. At best, they turn into good art-direction with well-reasoned input.

The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings by Angela Slatter. Cover illustration by Kathleen Jennings

Looking at your work, there seems to be a preference for an autumnal palette (yellows, burnt oranges, reds, copper, etc). Is this a deliberate choice? Could you talk more about this preference?

It is deliberate on a piece-by-piece basis, less conscious overall. I do like those colours, and their art-deco echoes.

They have a natural warmth and life to them, a sense of movement: blood and fur and autumn and leaves and rust and fire, things which not only exist but which are in the act of changing and shifting. That’s a key of storytelling (whether in words or pictures).

What was the process of illustrating Angela Slatter’s latest short story collection, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, like? Since the book is a series of interlinked stories in a richly layered fantasy world, how did you set about finding the most direct and economical way of representing key moments from each story?

In the most indirect and roundabout way possible!

The Bitterwood process was very back to front. Angela asked me to beta-read the collection, sketching as I went, with the scheme of attempting to talk Tartarus into giving the book endpapers. I sketched every scene which caught my mind’s eye, a handful for each story. And then Tartarus decided to put them in as individual illustrations!

Any directness and economy came from the organic nature of the process, and the lack of pressure. It was done in hope, rather than to meet an expectation, and with an aim of expression and volume rather than accuracy. It was liberating.

Young Woman in a Garden by Delia Sherman. Cover illustration by Kathleen Jennings

What advice would you give to aspiring creators, particularly those who, like you, juggle two different art forms?

Make things and put them out in the world. Learn, emulate, invent. Thick skins are born more often than grown, and it’s no shame not to have one, but at least accept that getting back on the horse will be a regular activity.

It will always require juggling. Two artforms, two jobs, any two aspects of life won’t always pull in harness. Each has different requirements: physical, logistical, social. Each has different benefits.

Don’t lose sight of why you’re creating and, if you’re juggling more than one art form (or even more than one project), remember why you’re doing each one. It will help with the juggling. For example, it takes longer to write a piece than to draw one, the pay is worse and there aren’t usually deadlines – it would be easy to think I should concentrate on the art. But speed and money and volume aren’t why I draw, either. So I take time out of drawing to write. And socialising seems like it would be counterproductive to both, but a large part of the reason I like storytelling is that I get to hang out with storytellers.

Be sure to check out our review of The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings in the upcoming edition of Pop Culture Destruction. For more on Kathleen’s work, check out her website and blog.