Robin created illustrations for "Neap Tide," a beautiful yet gruelling story of survival and humanity's effect on our environment. She also worked on "Silent Song" a story in our Feminist issue which focuses on how we can deal with adversity while taking others into consideration, and in the process averting violence and learning to overcome prejudice. View the beautiful cover illustrations for "Neap Tide" and "Silent Song."
The Future Fire: I am struck by the range of styles in your work. How do you select one for a particular piece?
Robin E. Kaplan: Thank you! Actually that range of styles makes it easier for me to start a piece, because each one is for a different audience, and knowing my audience is the first step in my visualization of a project. The flat, saturated, textured cut-out style I use primarily for children's books because it lets me play with very stylized shapes and lets me simplify space and lighting so that the character's faces and personalities get more attention. For stories like Neap Tide and Silent Song, the fine detail adds a little more realism and gives me more to work with in terms of lighting and space, since the stories are more nuanced.
Is your art influenced by socio-political considerations?
Absolutely. Art has to be honest, even when its speculative, which means it has to be true to the way I see the world. I'm not ashamed of being a feminist and strongly supporting queer rights. My own world view colors my work, and an awareness of certain—I wouldn't presume to say all—social issues and political discussions is one of the hues I work in.
On the other hand, in order to be honest I also try to keep certain political messages away from my work, since there are things I do not have a solid enough view on to express comfortably, and while I may work some of that out through art, it’s not my natural habitat. I'm more interested in just showing the world the way I see it that is, colored by the issues which have always surrounded me. For instance, I do a lot of 'Steampunk' work that uses a Victorian motif, but the characters portrayed are primarily women doing interesting things outside of home (such as field research) and may be any ethnicity, which is quite contrary to the actual social clime of the era! The point of this isn't to rewrite history or deny the horrors of Imperialism, but to address the modern audience for this art and fashion movement, and to create another world where perhaps things had gone far differently. That's the power of speculation, and speculative fiction is at its best when it addresses at least some socio-political issues—which I'm sure isn't news to this magazine and its readers!
What role do you think illustration can play in affecting change?
I think illustration helps make a world more real to people. We see propaganda, photo journalism, political cartoons, satirical drawings—artwork can be used to tow the line or to dissent, and that's very profound because what artwork does primarily is bridge one person's imagination to another—or to everyone's. While I would never feel comfortable using my artwork to make a political point on the level of campaigning for a particular party, person, bill, etc, I believe that improving society is something that imagery can do, and adding to that which is good, kind, accepting, curious, sophisticated, multi-faceted—well, my list of positive attributes can go on, but what I mean is that instead of simply escaping into a fantasy world, speculative fiction actually provides a place for us to try out our deals, hopes, irritants, and our fears. Illustration helps make a visual reality out of abstract concepts.
Could you describe your approach to illustrating the two TFF stories you worked on? Did this approach differ to your other commissions at all?
One of the stories was set in Vietnam, the other in Iceland, two places I've never been but which hold a keen interest for me—and how could they be more different! So first off I researched the places a bit. Both stories had a strong sense of place. I thought it was also clever to use such extreme locations that do seem alien to many Western readers. Next of course I had to choose two scenes to sketch, the most visually arresting moments in the story that wouldn't give too much away but did supply enough information that the illustrations would be very specific to the story. That meant I needed to do a second, close reading of the pieces. I'm very visual when I read, and since I'm seeing everything as a tableau just looking at black-and-white words on the page, that gives me a place to start, at least, with the sketches. I think it’s important to lay-in color at this stage because I'm very color-oriented and color is what makes a piece stand out or look like a mess. For ‘Neap Tide,’ I wanted very misty blue colors, for the feel of the piece. For ‘Silent Song,’ things needed to look very cold, but have pockets of warmth, just like the story, and of course the Aurora Borealis features heavily so I knew I was going to work with those colors! What a treat.
What advice would you give to budding illustrators?
For your artwork: use reference, draw thumbnails before a finished drawing and observe everything. The more you know, the more you can show people in your imagery.
For your career: research the markets that exist and submit your work accordingly. It can be so scary to look at a whole store full of books and wonder how you can get hooked up painting some of those covers, but it’s much more accessible to look through a database like Duotrope and read submissions guidelines for the publishers and art directors who could hire you. Understanding how publishing works makes it much easier to build a portfolio, and easier to know what to do with it once you have it!
What are your hopes for your career in the future?
I really hope to be doing more book work ― even if books begin to exist in multimedia forms to be read on digital tablets instead of pulpy print ― and to be writing and illustrating some of my own projects, as well as helping bring other people's stories to life. My latest book, with Raintown Press and written by Molly E Johnson, is coming out on October 1st, 2011. It is called "Spartacus and the Circus of Shadows" and is a middle-grade novel with some unforgettable characters and a fantastic finale. I hope it’s the first of many, and intend to see that future out myself.
Find out more about Robin's children's illustration and other illustration work.