Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Kelly Murphy

h1 September 24th, 2008 by jules

Two illustrator interviews in one week? you might be saying. (If you missed it, Elisha Cooper stopped by on Monday.) Well, why the hey not? You know, dear readers, that I love talking to artists and chatting with them about style and process and paintbrushes and influences and favorite words and inspirations and maybe some chalk here and collage there and oils way over there and so on and what-not. And you know I’m not going to ask them to stop by if I don’t have a particular fan-girl vibe goin’ on for what they do, and with today’s illustrator—Kelly Murphy—well, I love her work. The best thing? She always surprises. And I know Eisha’s a fan, too, so I boldly speak for her. So, yes, I’m so happy Kelly has stopped by for seven questions over breakfast, and how could I wait any longer to share her thoughts on what she does and find out—ooo! ooo!—what she’s up to next. (Hint: One future project involves Jane Yolen, so that makes it doubly exciting.)

And so what do I love about Kelly’s illustrations? First, I love her range. You can tell by the illustrations on display in this interview that she can paint for the wee’est-of-the-wee set and then swing over to painting something altogether more sophisticated and edgy for older readers. And, in their review of 2007’s Gallop O’ Gallop (Dial), School Library Journal nailed what else I adore about her work: her “well-composed, beautifully textured” art and her ability to swing from style to style with ease: such as, from realism to whimsy. She can also go from warm to goofy to somber—and a wide array of tones in between—with great ease. And there’s always a real energy—lots of verve, a sparkle—to her work, no matter the subject matter, setting, or tone.

There’s also her kickin’ web site; her sense of humor; and her latest venture, Shybird Studios, in collaboration with French artist Antoine Revoy. Shybird, founded in 2007, showcases Kelly’s and Antoine’s collaborative projects and specializes in illustration, concept art for animation, and character and motion design. When Kelly stopped by one Sunday in late March here at 7-Imp, she shared one of those collaborative illustrations, as well as a handful of other illustrations not in this interview, so head on over there if you’re cravin’ more Kelly.

Kelly’s very latest illustrated title, Masterpiece by Elise Broach (Henry Holt), will be released at the end of this month. I haven’t seen it yet, but OF COURSE I want to. Masterpiece, marketed as a YA novel (though Kelly told us in March it’s aimed at ages 8 to 12), evidently tells the story of a beetle named Marvin, who makes a miniature drawing as an eleventh birthday gift for James, a human with whom he shares a house, and the two new friends work together to help recover an Albrecht Dürer drawing stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What’s Kelly having for breakfast this morning while we chat? “I typically have Diet Coke and a lite yogurt for breakfast. Nutritious, huh? Aspartame owns me. BUT, my ‘I can eat anything and not gain a pound’ ideal would be blueberry blintzes…OR a huge hunk of a baguette with Nutella. HEAVEN.” Think I can talk her into having some coffee with me? Let’s set the table anyway by getting the basics from Kelly, and 7-Imp thanks her immensely for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Kelly: Illustrator and one-time author so far.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Kelly: {Ed. Note: Kelly took the time to list her books-thus-far—plus a few forthcoming ones—and they’re listed at the bottom of the interview.}

Spread from Hush, Little Dragon (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2008)

Spread from Fiona’s Luck (Charlesbridge, 2007)

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Kelly: Acrylic, watercolor, oil, and gel medium on paper.

7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Kelly: I guess the biggest difference would be the time and medium that each takes to complete. I am finding that chapter novels are such a fresh breath of air compared to picture books, because typically they are black and white. But since I love color and atmosphere, I also miss creating the atmosphere and jump that picture book stories can have.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Kelly: I haunt southern New England, Boston, and Providence. Then another chunk of weeks I am flying over to Paris to be with my fiancé. Sounds more glamorous than it is. Nothing is fun about layovers and the Metro after being up twenty-four hours.

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Kelly: Constant! Charged with a recent Bachelor of Fine Arts and the dream of making pictures for a living, I sent samples out to publishers right out of college. I sent them to everyone and anyone, magazines, ad firms, publishers… After being frustrated with full-time work, I made the decision to apply myself 120%. It was tough in the beginning, and is still tough nine years later, but I would never give this up. After three years out of school, Henry Holt published my first book.

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?


7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Kelly: Hahaha, oh goodness. See, contrary to what people think… I can be painfully shy. In theory, I love the idea of going to schools and sharing my work and inspirations with the very people that I work for. School kids have an energy and fervor {more} than any other age group. They can also be the most brutally honest. I admit, I get the shakes before starting each visit. Minutes before they enter the auditorium, I yell at myself, “Why did you say yes??” But by the end of the day, I am so energized and excited by seeing the students’ faces and questions, I am ready to do it again. I don’t think I will ever get over stage fright.

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell us how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Kelly: Teaching is in the same boat as school visits. SHAKES. I’ve been teaching at Montserrat College of Art for six years now. Before every class… SHAKES. But teaching has been such an important part of my life these last few years. It gives me a chance to apply my success and downfalls to very eager people. It also forces you to clarify simple things that can go overlooked, really important things like: Why am I doing this? How can I make this better? What am I saying? Constantly keeping these in my mind while talking to students has made me push myself harder in my own work. I almost feel guilty.

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

Kelly: I have a book with Candlewick Press and Jane Yolen about monsters I will be starting soon. I am so excited. A sequel to Hush, Little Dragon with Boni Ashburn and Abrams Books For Young Readers is in the studio, too. And, I just picked up a gig illustrating these amazing adventurous chapter novels about a young boy, destined to become a Beastologist. Trust me, they are awesome. A British publisher and I are also collaborating on a new edition of the traditional Japanese story, Peach Boy. Wow, I am exhausted thinking about all this.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set, and we’re ready to sit down and talk more specifics. Kelly’s got her Diet Coke; I’ve got my coffee. We’re good-to-go.

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Kelly: It always starts with research and drawing. I grab so much reference from all places it’s not even funny. You know what’s been strange? With almost all of my books there have been these serendipitous occurrences where I will have just been looking at a certain artist or watching an interesting documentary that pertain to the future project. For instance, days before I was contacted to illustrate Loony Little, a friend showed me this huge book of Rockwell Kent’s Arctic paintings. They were gorgeous, and I ended up using all of his colors in the illustrations for the book.

From there, I start to develop a character list, their looks, attitudes, props. This is the best part of making the book. From that point, and this is such a lame statement, but I almost go on autopilot. I thumbnail the pages, blow them up, start a slightly larger version, and then tweak all the viewpoints, while refining the smaller details. It almost comes very naturally. After that, painting till I cannot paint no more. I am SO slow, and keep getting slower. It’s frustrating… I typically am pulling all-nighters the last month of the deadline. This is my biggest problem. I think I might have to change my process in order to see an improvement.

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

Kelly: This is so bad, I cannot believe I am telling you this… on the couch, palette in my lap, dog on one side, cat…wherever she wants, glass of Diet Coke to the right, and watching more movies and documentaries than you can shake a stick at. How bad is that! My back is starting to die, so I have been looking at setting up my desk in a better fashion. My desk is awesome, and I’ve had it since sophomore year of college, but I have to change something. I live in a one-room apartment, which happens to be the top half of a renovated barn, so it’s got a lot of light and air. But I am never separated from my work. Sometimes good… sometimes very bad.

As this link explains, Kelly works in the top half of a renovated New England barn.

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Kelly: Because I was not the strongest reader, I was always attracted to the non-fiction books, which were luckily rich with image. Our family always had encyclopedias and National Geographics that were filled with so many different animals, maps, and history I grew to love. Other books I was obsessed with were the “Learn How To” series. One of my most prized possessions is Let’s Draw Animals by Ann Davidow. This book is so beat up by myself and six other siblings, I would run into to a burning building to save it. I remember being so excited each time I opened it up and would practice drawing all of the animals inside.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Kelly: Oh goodness. I have to chose just three? Will they see me get tipsy? I hope not… J. Otto, S. Saelig Gallagher, and Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (two for the price of one!)

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Kelly: Wow, do I! If anyone ever saw my playlists, they’d think I was mentally agitated. Currently playing now, is Charles Trenet, but fear not, The Smiths is right after that, and then Arcade Fire, Fanny Pack, and Lita Ford. I’m a bit of music sponge, so I will soak up anything. And I mean ANYTHING. The sound level is usually deafening. Poor animals.

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Kelly: I really am THAT jittery. I don’t think it’s the caffeine either. It’s just how I am built.

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Kelly: Maybe something along the lines of… Will you do this forever? I’d love to say yes, and I will try my best. As I get older, I am nervous about my health and what effect my paints and chemicals have on me. Will I have my eyesight? Will I make enough money? What’s so wonderful is that publishing is not just one thing and can take you in so many different avenues. I welcome any of them!

The Pivot Questionnaire

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Kelly: “Sleep.” Kidding… it’s typically fun ones, like “fortuitous,” “serendipitous,” “gobble.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Kelly: I’ve always hated “P**P,” “snack,” “spank”… just ugly to me.

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Kelly: Emotions and atmosphere. Sometimes just the way light is hitting an object or landscape and send chills down my spine. Such a nerd!

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Kelly: Over-boastful things. No need for the divaness.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Kelly: Hahaha, in relation to the aforementioned question, “P**P.” Occasionally (which means constantly), I string together all of the cuss words. Good thing I do not have a parrot.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Kelly: OOO! Good questions. Ready? Snow crunching beneath your feet, crickets, cats purring, katydids, and the noise pond ice makes when you drop a puck, “dooooooooooyyyyooooupp.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Kelly: Loud noises freak me out. But most of all, the hum of a fluorescent light. NIGHTMARE.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Kelly: Pilot! Who wouldn’t want to be a pilot? Or even a Cirque Du Soleil performer? Those people are magnificent.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Kelly: Hahaha, lawyer, real estate agent, or wedding planner.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Kelly: “Um, okay, let’s see. It’s Murphy Kelly… Oh, Kelly Murphy. Okay, um, nope. You’re not on the list… AW JUST KIDDING!”

That God, he’s such a prankster.

OR, “Sorry about the jitter.”

* * * * * * *

All illustrations and photos courtesy of Kelly Murphy. Posted with permission. All rights reserved.

* * * * * * *

Kelly’s answer to her books-to-date question:

  • Boll Weevil Ball
    Henry Holt 2002
    Written and Illustrated by Kelly Murphy
  • A Place to Grow
    Bloom and Grow Books 2002
    Written by Stephanie Bloom, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
    The American Horticultural Society, August 2005
    Recipient of the “Growing Good Kids–Excellence in Children’s Literature” Book Award for outstanding plant, garden, and environment-themed title.
  • Loony Little
    Candlewick Press 2003
    Written by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
  • Dancing Matilda
    HarperCollins 2004
    Written by Sarah Hager, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
  • Good Babies
    Candlewick Press 2005
    Written by Tim Myers, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
  • Fiona’s Luck
    Charlesbridge 2007
    Written by Teresa Bateman, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
    Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Bookmania Book To Get List 2008
  • Gallop O’ Gallop
    Dial Books 2007
    Written by Sandra Alonzo, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
  • Hush, Little Dragon
    Abrams Books for Young Readers 2008
    Written by Boni Ashburn, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
  • Masterpiece
    Henry Holt 2008
    Written by Elise Broach, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
  • Brand New Babies
    HarperCollins 2010
    Written by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Kelly Murphy

24 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Kelly Murphy”

  1. Wow. Thanks. She’s soooo young to be that talented. (I keep forgetting that I sold my first book on my 22nd birthday!)

    Can’t wait to see what she does with our book.


  2. I’m looking forward to the Peach Boy story. How cool. And now I must also find The Boll Weevil Ball.

  3. Great interview, Jules! And thanks for including so many images of her art. I could look at it all day… beautiful.


  4. GO KELLY!

    And she’s been that talented from the start!

    (RISD 4-Life, yo!)

  5. I want to live in a renovated barn!!! And isn’t that art from Fiona’s Luck just to die for????

  6. Whoa — MAJOR stuff here.

    Like Jane Yolen said, it’s real hard to look at Kelly’s work (and all the luscious goodies at her website, which you link to above, and at her online store) and think how young she is, yet how accomplished. She’s got a gorgeous career ahead of her (preferably not as a lawyer, real estate agent, or wedding planner — or pilot, for that matter!).

    If by some chance she’s reading these comments: Kelly, I see the only book listing you as both author and illustrator was your first. Has that been intentional? Any more WRITING of books in your future?

    Thanks so much for spoiling us with a second illustrator interview this week, Jules. (And thanks for covering for up-to-her-eyeballs-in-new-job Eisha. But you better not burn yourself out!)

  7. Thanks, everyone.

    JES, hoo ha! I’m hardly covering! Did you see how often I posted myself last week? My own posting’s been very spotty lately. Two interviews in one week is the result of my email server for work being down yesterday (translated: work couldn’t come first, ’cause I couldn’t get to it). Yes, Kelly’s stuff is great…glad you went and looked at more of her stuff at her site.

    Susan, I also think the Peach Boy story sounds great.

  8. These interviews are outrageous. The amazing art, the personalities, the motivations, the dreamy work spaces…so damn cool.

  9. We bought Fiona’s Luck for my daughter who has that middle name and I love love love the illustrations. We also loved Hush, Little Dragon, so it was super fun to learn more about her!

  10. Ditto on what Liz said about living in a converted barn and the illo from Fiona’s Luck. Faboo interview, as always. What large, glorious pictures :)!

  11. I so love her work. What book is the image of death from?

  12. Thanks, all.

    Kelly F., not 100% sure about “La Mort,” except that Kelly did share that with us back in March when she stopped by one Sunday (I’ve been meaning to do this interview ever since then!), and she referred to it as an experimental piece, “hot off the desk.”

  13. Thanks so much Jules and Eisha for giving me the chance to be featured here. It’s really an honor and a pleasure. I am energized for the rest of the year with everyone’s comments.

    JES, I really hope to get another author/illustrator book signed. I am not very confident with my writing, but am shopping a few ideas around. Sometimes I feel too vulnerable when pitching my ideas. I keep telling myself, get over it, so I’ll keep trying.

    Thanks again and cheers!

  14. I clicked over from my google reader b/c the author photo at the beginning was really cool. And of course, I found fabulous illustrations, as I always do when I visit. Thanks for posting these! 🙂

  15. So cool to see you chime in here, Kelly. Just so you know, my girls (4 and 7) *love* Boll Weevil Ball, and we’ve re-read it many, many times.

  16. I have been a fan of Kelly’s work for a while now and it is great to see that she just keeps getting busier and busier – she really deserves it, her work is beautiful 🙂

  17. Thanks again, everyone, for your feedback. Em, I KNOW! I love that opening picture.

  18. I especially like the art of the girl on the swing. The beautiful horse brings to mind merry-go-rounds.

  19. […] having cyber-coffee this morning with Kathi Appelt and Kelly Murphy. However, since I’m feeling a bit under the weather (You know how getting the flu shot can […]

  20. […] all remember 2008’s Hush, Little Dragon (Abrams), written by Boni Ashburn and illustrated by Kelly Murphy, yes? I loved this delightfully subversive, subtly ghoulish little wonder, what the San Francisco […]

  21. […] Kathi Appelt, who was joined by author/illustrator Kelly Murphy, on Kelly’s artwork for Brand-New Baby Blues (February 23, 2010): “I especially love […]

  22. […] * * *   A work-in-progress spread from Kelly Murphy from Pat’s upcoming Wordsong/Boyds Mill press title, Face Bug; these will be Pat’s […]

  23. […] name is EunHye Seo, and she goes by “Kaila.” She comes to 7-Imp by way of illustrator Kelly Murphy, who was once her instructor and who tells me that Kaila was last year’s SCBWI winter […]

  24. […] And, as you can read below, he also now teaches art and illustration. (Fun fact: He is married to illustrator Kelly Murphy.) […]

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