Seven Questions Over a
Post-Dinner Snack with Torben Kuhlmann

h1 September 5th, 2016 by jules


When German illustrator Torben Kuhlmann’s debut picture book, Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse, was released here in the States two years ago, the New York Times described it as a “splendid debut.” Last year, Kuhlmann followed that up with Moletown, also met with glowing reviews (“gorgeous, mesmerizing artwork,” wrote Booklist), and this month readers will meet a star-gazing mouse in Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon, a visual feast over 120 pages long, which tells the story of a moon-bound mouse.

Kuhlmann studied illustration and design in Hamburg and still lives in northern Germany. It’s thanks to NorthSouth Books that we readers here in the States can see his books. Since I’ll be traveling tomorrow morning, he’s joining me, not for breakfast, but a post-dinner snack. (He said his breakfasts almost always consist of a hot cup of coffee and several kinds of bread with jam, so I’m good with having that for our snack. Coffee any time is good. Also, jam. Always jam.)

It’s a good thing to see all his art, and I thank him for sharing. Let’s get right to it.


* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Torben: Finally, I am both! I started as an illustrator, but through a series of fortunate events, I am now able to write and illustrate my own stories. That’s always a good thing, if you like to play with the storytelling elements. That way I can fully embrace my credo: Show. Don’t tell!


(Click to enlarge)


Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?




Jules: What is your usual medium?

Torben: My favorite technique is watercolor, combined with drawing.









Above: Early sketches and final illustrations from Armstrong:
The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon
(NorthSouth, September 2016)
(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: 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?

Torben: I try not to make a distinction. I try to address children the same way as young adults or grown-ups. For children, not everything needs to be cute, and for adults, not everything needs to be serious. For example, when defining the target audience for my book Lindbergh as part of my diploma thesis, I just said that the book should please me as an thirty-year-old adult and should’ve also enthused me 25 years earlier as a kindergartner.






Above: Preliminary images and final art from Moletown (NorthSouth, 2015)
(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Torben: I live in Hamburg in the northern part of Germany.


(Click to enlarge)


Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Torben: It was an unusual road to my first publication. My book Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse started as my graduation project. I studied illustration and book design at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg and I decided to write and illustrate a picture book for my diploma. And the book grew bigger with each month. Finally, it was finished, but I wasn’t very optimistic to find a publisher. The book seemed too long and too old-fashioned for the picture book market, and first publisher feedback confirmed that.

But then, at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair the Swiss publisher NordSued discovered my book dummy, which was on display at my art school’s booth. And after some early misunderstandings—they took my self-designed logo as a sign that it was already published—we finally agreed, and Lindbergh was published in Germany and the U.S. simultaneously. And so my career as a children’s book illustrator really started. I was able to quit my job in the advertising business, and now I work as a freelance illustrator in Hamburg.


Early drawings
(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Torben: (It’s mostly in German, but you will find English information to all of my picture books.) There is also a You Tube channel, where you can find my book trailer and short making-of clips.







Above: Illustrations from Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse (NorthSouth, 2014)
(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Torben: I was very lucky to get the chance to visit schools all over the world. I was on book tours in Russia, Korea, the USA, and in Europe — and it was always a very inspiring experience. Usually, I read the story to the children first, showing the illustrations with a beamer. In the case of Lindbergh, it can take up to a half hour to read the story of the flying mouse. Afterwards, I give a little presentation of my work and explain how such a book develops from a tiny idea — from early rough sketches to the final artwork. With Moletown, my school visits are more like a discussion about the book and its topic of a changing environment, since there isn’t that much text to read. When there is enough time, there is a little workshop in which I draw a mouse or a mole and reveal some tricks and secrets. Hopefully, the children are inspired by that point and are eager to draw flying animals and strange contraptions.



Jules: If you teach illustration, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Torben: Last year I taught illustration at a small art school here in Hamburg. It was an interesting experience, because you learn something yourself by teaching your profession to others. I tried to explain certain aspects of illustration, like visual storytelling and the narrative qualities of perspective, light, and composition. Now I feel more confident in these areas, because by explaining my ideas more in-depth to others, I make them more clear for myself.






The making of a spread from Armstrong
(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Torben: My new picture book Armstrong is about to be released in the U.S. this Fall. It is the continuation of the storyline from Lindbergh and the next giant leap in mice aviation. I am really looking forward to that release. And there are two new book projects on the horizon, one dealing with the topic of time.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, we’ve got our coffee, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with six questions over our snack. I thank Torben again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: 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?

Torben: The first and most important thing is the sketchbook. I collect random ideas and inspirations, and sometimes one or two things starts to evolve. When there is a basic idea, story, or a concept of a book, the sketchbook is important again. I try to test everything in sketch-form first — perspective, light, shadow, and composition. Simultaneously, I start working on the text. It’s a give and take. First sketches inspire some written words, which in turn lead to new images. I also like to juggle with the different parts of storytelling. I mentioned my credo already: Show, don’t tell! Finally, there is an outline of the story, complete with a storyboard of the book, which I will present to and discuss with my publisher. Next comes the translation of the sketches into final artwork. There is a lot of research necessary at this point, especially if there are things in the illustration which should be as authentic as possible. I prepare a sheet of watercolor paper and start with rough pencil lines. The drawing gets more and more refined, and at some point I will switch to a waterproof fineliner-pen. Finally, I start to colorize the drawing with watercolors, working from the background to the foreground.




Above: Sketches from Lindbergh
(Click each to enlarge)


As for outlining, that’s always a little bit different. The tricky part is to get an initial idea that will rapidly evolve into a story. And you never know when the next idea might appear. That’s, of course, only the case with my very own projects. I can give a brief insight into the conception of Lindbergh. Here, the initial idea was about a little mouse venturing through old attics and discovering bats. The little protagonist is then inspired learn to fly. Basically, it is also a play on words in German. The word for bat is “fledermaus.” A precise translation would be “flutter mouse.” Next, I start drawing the first sketches. I imagine little plot points that might occur around this initial idea. As soon as I have a first vision of a story, I imagine some key scenes. For example, in Lindbergh, there was a scene where the mouse stands on top of a giant crane at the Hamburg harbor, ready for his first flight. From there, everything unfolds. Soon, there are other key scenes and story parts and everything grows together — in sketches, words, and with the final artwork. It’s a dynamic process.


(Click to enlarge)


2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Torben: My studio is not very spectacular, but I am very happy with it. It is a small office space in a former hospital in a very green area of Hamburg. Here I work on a normal desk. You don’t need so much space for watercolor paintings — but many brushes and pencils. But there is also an easel for the occasional oil or acrylic painting. On my desk is a PC and around the corner, most importantly, a coffee machine. I share this office space with two colleagues — both of them freelance illustrators themselves.



Above: From Lindbergh
(Click each to enlarge)


3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Torben: I was fascinated by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, which I read as a teenager. It started a trend to read the classics. One other, very influential thing for my younger self was film. I am a big fan of the medium of film, especially the science fiction genre.

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)

Torben: I would like to meet H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, two of the most formidable science fiction authors. And I would like to have a drink with American film poster artist and illustrator Drew Struzan. I would love to hear so many of his anecdotes.

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

Torben: There is a lot of film music currently on my MP3 player. But, no, I don’t hear music while I am working. I really enjoy listening to music when I am at home, during leisure time, or while I am riding my bicycle. That way, music fuels my imagination. When I paint and draw, I hear audiobooks from time to time or listen to podcasts, documentaries, and debates.






Above: Preliminary images from Armstrong
(Click each to enlarge)


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

Torben: I am a science fiction fan and film geek — with an almost encyclopedic know-how of useless stuff.



* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Torben: “Zeitgeist.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Torben: “Krieg.” (It’s the German word for war and, in addition to the meaning of the word, it sounds really harsh and ugly in the German language with its rolling “r.”)

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Torben: Creatively: Almost everything — a walk at the beach, a good book, beautiful artwork, an entertaining film.

Spiritually: Mmmh, that’s difficult.

Emotionally: Almost the same as what turns me on creatively. I think these two categories are closely related for me.

Jules: What turns you off?

Torben: Too many things to list here.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Torben: Mist! (Not the English word for fog, but the German word for dung.)

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Torben: The sound of wind, especially in a forest.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Torben: Drunken soccer fans, singing.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Torben: Film music composer (if I had more musical talent) or astrophysicist (with a lot more brain power).

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Torben: Dentist.

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

Torben: “Some explanations!”

* * * * * * *

All art is used by permission of Torben Kuhlmann and NorthSouthBooks.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, copyright © 2009 Matt Phelan.

One comment to “Seven Questions Over a
Post-Dinner Snack with Torben Kuhlmann”

  1. Torben’s work made me stop and gape at the North South booth at Book Expo. His work is truly spectacular and is old fashioned in the best sense: it shows a real level of craftsmanship and draftsmanship.

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact Thanks.