Karl James Mountford is one of Bright’s most successful and instantly recognisable artists. His distinctive visual language channels a retro aesthetic that, while acknowledging the legacy of some of the true greats of the illustrative and animation ‘canon’, is never cosily nostalgic, and which makes striking use of an often limited palette and wonderfully textural, hand-rendered effects - all delivered with an undercurrent of the ever-so-slighly-unnerving…
Specialising in cover and editorial illustration, recent commissions have included some fantastical book cover design briefs such as The Uncommoners by Jennifer Bell (Jan 2017, Penguin Random House) and The Peculiars by Kieran Larwood (Jan 2018, Chicken House), but Karl is also a keen believer in the importance of pursuing self-directed projects with a ‘just for the hell of it’ flourish guaranteed to keep the imagination limber and creative fires stoked. A voracious reader of fiction, he also has a keen interest in all manner of creative arts - particularly traditional, ‘hands-on’ techniques such as printmaking - while an abiding affection for the cult shows of his childhood, and the iconic artists and creatives whom exerted such an influence on their aesthetic, clearly informs his own artistry.
Karl James Mountford chats about his inspiration, working method, and creative aspirations:
Can you tell us a little about your artistic background and training?
I’ve been drawing from the get-go, but began to really focus on it all when I started art college. I was on this amazing art course that did everything from photography and ceramics to graphic design and painting. It was such a well-rounded course, but illustration was the aspect I enjoyed most, and my final project was re-designing book covers.
Self-directed book cover artwork: top line, left to right: The Great Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore; bottom line, left to right: Smoke and Mirrors, Kristin Halbrook, The Iron Man, by Ted Hughes, Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë.
I then went to a real gem of a university, Swansea Met (now Swansea College of Art) to study Illustration and screen-printing. The course explored everything about illustration - not just picture books - and we had life drawing every week, which I think was so helpful for heading into the art profession. I proper loved the place and the people there so much: I stayed on to do my Masters degree in Visual Communication while becoming an Artist in Residence for the Illustration Department.
Your portfolio includes an impressive array of work, referencing popular culture, e.g. tributes to the Stranger Things Netflix phenomenon, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and those knitting superheroes, as well as your own unique take on classics, such as Peter Pan, that we’d pretty well all recognise. How much would you say ‘story’ and nostalgia are important motivators or influences in your work? And do you think you are drawn to any one genre in particular?
Story and nostalgia are massive motivators for me. All the book covers I’ve mocked up for my portfolio are ones I’ve enjoyed reading growing up, and there is something really special about creating a book cover that houses a story you love. It’s the same for paid work: when I get a brief, I (almost) always read the manuscript (although sometimes I will have to skim-read) because it’s the best tool. If you know the ingredients, you can make a cake - it’s a bad analogy, but knowing the story means you can find the tone of it and hopefully make a great book cover/art…or even cake. That said, there’ve been one or two occasions that I haven’t read the manuscript in full and it shows in the final work. Maybe not to everyone, but to me it does.
Karl’s homage to Stranger Things (Netflix series, 2016), and his tribute cover artwork for A Series of Unfortunate Events (now also a popular Netflix series created from books by author, Lemony Snicket, Feb 2017).
Pop culture is the best, too: people love to see something they enjoy or have a personal connection to recreated through an artist’s impression or homage. EVERY illustrator draws what they love at some point: whether it’s TV or film characters, animals, food - whatever it is, it’s always a good place to start. Drawing things you are interested in spurs you on to try your best. I do lean towards stories that are darker…Maybe ‘darker’ isn’t the right word. Perhaps ‘truer’? Maybe not that word either…but a story that doesn’t try and ‘hold my hand’ too much has far more appeal for me.
Superheroes reimagined as avid needle-workers, left to right Superwoman (DC Comics), The Mighty Thor (Marvel) and Captain America (Marvel).
The picture books and stories I remember from being a kid weren’t the ones with comfy tales and endings, it was the ones where I put myself in the characters’ shoes, and had to think about myself in that situation. Like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things are and David McKee’s Not now Bernard…which is terrifying, and it wasn’t really because of the monster; it was that worry that my parents would ignore me and I’d end up being eaten by a monster down the end of the garden. But when you’re five…I just thought it was the monster that gave me wiggins, when really it was the parents’ neglect.
In an interview for Waterstones about A Place Called Perfect for which you were shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Award 2018 Younger Fiction category (congratulations!), you mention having been drawn to the project because that writing had a slightly darker tone. Much of your illustration (I hope it’s fair to say) does have a wonderfully quirky, slightly unsettling quality to it – which, of course, is part of its distinctive appeal – but how differently do you think you might approach the artwork to a story with a less threatening undertone?
Completely fair to say. I might contradict myself a bit here…I think two or three years ago I would lend myself to whatever the client wanted, I was just so grateful that I was getting any work at all, and after two years of solo freelancing (without an agent) I was desperate to turn something I love doing into a job. But you are asking me today and I think, now, I’d have to read it [the work] before I said yes, OR at the very least get a synopsis and flavour for what the client wants. I’m at this weird point in my career where I’m not just saying yes to everything, because as much as being able to pay your rent is great, it’s like winning the lottery when you’re hired for a project/story that interests you and that you can really get behind. You can really invest yourself - and that surely means you’ll make better work.
Are there other sources of inspiration you draw upon on a regular basis? Are there any artists - of any discipline - whose work you find particularly inspiring?
Oh, for sure. Alice and Martin Provensen are probably some of biggest influences - their use of shape and colour! Disney’s Mary Blair too, and Shaun Tan, who I think is the best storyteller this world has. Film-makers Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson, too - again great visual storytellers! I have a stack of old books - you know, the sort of old books that are over-decorated but with few colours and those geometric-patterned borders. Books used to have a real class about them, back in the day. I love the old Penguin books from the 50’s and 60’s, too. Also, ANY screen-printers, past or present - there is a magic with screen-printing that is different to painting or ‘colouring-in’ on Photoshop. It’s sort of flawed and random, but kind of perfect too?! Tom Frost is one of those screen-printing artists whom I admire a lot. And when I say ‘admire’, what I mean is, if I could trade skills, it would be with him.
Clockwise from top left: The Animal Fair cover art - Alice & Martin Provensen; concept art from Cinderella - Mary Blair; interior illustration from The Arrival - Shaun Tan; A Book of English Clocks and British Reptiles and Amphibia - Penguin books: artist unknown; limited edition screen print - Tom Frost.
I think anyone or thing that reminds me of something older [artisanal, hand-crafted], sparks my interest. I’m not knocking digital art - I use it every day, and it’s a god-send for speeding the process up (and the possibilities are endless!) - I’m just fond of getting my hands dirty when making work.
Could you give us a bit of an insight into your process when you embark on a new project? Where do you start, and what stages would you typically follow to arrive at the final artwork?
I usually start reading the manuscript and making notes, then I read over the brief. Usually a publishing house has an idea of what they want me to do ‘looks wise’ with the book, but I always make a few alternative rough ideas for a cover, just so we’ve explored all the possibilities. Also it’s nice not to just go with the trends on the bookshelf but instead try make something that’s a bit different and tailored to the story inside. Once we’ve settled on a design, I do colour tests - again just to make sure we haven’t missed a trick. It’s a lot of ‘back and forth-ing’ but I really enjoy the development of book covers and artwork.
Do you ever suffer from a bit of an artistic ‘block’ and, if so, do you have any methods you’d be prepared to share for overcoming those times and rediscovering your creative mojo?
Oh, for sure. A lot of the time artist block for me is from burning out. I’ve found the best thing I can do is just go with it. Having an illustration break is just as important as working round the clock. I make a lot of lists too; nothing fancy, but just lists of personal work I want to explore - topics on mental health to food packaging - so when free time comes about I can ponder on those and try and make something. The lists help when I’m at a loose end, art wise. It gives me a starting point.
Do you ever have time, as an illustrator, when you are not being creative – and, if so, how do you like to fill it (aside from sleeping…!)?
It feels like an all-around-the-clock sort of thing. It’s not like a normal job: there is no 9-5 cut-off point. Even when you’re out and away from the desk, you’re always thinking ‘oh that would be a cool building to draw’ or ‘this might be useful for a story idea’. BUT, that being said, I like to see my mates and be around my favourite folks - and be outside, of course, walking the dog down the beach. And I love a bit of D.I.Y too - especially wood-work, fixin’ up stuff.
What has been your favourite project to date?
Favourite…I like most of them, and they are all special for some reason or another. BUT Kieran Larwood’s The Peculiars I’m a bit proud of. It was a re-brand job, but the folks over at Chicken House gave me a ton of freedom and trust to just make a decent book cover. It wasn’t over stressed about, and it was just a seamless project.
And finally…which book/film/Netflix series would you most like to create cover artwork for?
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials - 100%. But I’ve got a list. I would love to illustrate some more classic novels too, and maybe do the artwork for some big festival – I reckon that would be amazing to be a part of.