Rarely do we get a chance to talk to an artist who can walk us through their process quite as well as Amal Karzai can. We thoroughly enjoyed our interview with her, and we absolutely loved hearing about how she illustrates a cover. Our interview is below, but we’re also attaching a verbatim account of her illustration process as we felt it would be the best way to take you along on a journey through images.
Amal Karzai grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, a place she calls strange and sometimes frightening. However, as she puts it, “the skies always opened up once inside (the) local library.” There she spent loads of time creating images for books that were missing pictures (and playing with a puppet theater she was not supposed to touch).
In college, Amal studied illustration and fine art. During part of her studies in Italy, she grew intrigued with the world of art conservation. After graduation, she began training in the conservation of Asian works of art on paper. She continued to illustrate stories that danced around her head. But then she grew impatient repairing other artist’s works and wanted to develop her own. (After all, there were still books out there missing pictures.) The new assembly of images came with a bag full of questions. She found the fastest way to get them answered was graduate school and she’s now completing a Masters of Illustration while freelancing and teaching.
RS: How did you get started as an illustrator?
AK: Finger painting. During the 1970s energy crisis my nursery school never turned on the lights (or at least I can’t remember them ever being on). The only thing I could do, and understand in near darkness, was finger paint. It was marvelous.
RS: How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?
AK: My style has changed dramatically. I always knew I wanted to paint with oils, but all of my experience was with watercolors. I would apply the watercolor thick like oil, sometimes over a gessoed canvas—lovely stuff, but not the most cost effective. Once I began working with oils (I use a water-mixable type because I work in the basement near the furnace—no solvents permitted!), everything changed. I love to draw and now I was drawing directly onto the canvas with the paint– a liberating process.
RS: Do you have a particular routine that you follow when you illustrate?
AK: I do! You’ve already seen a large chunk of my process, but there are in-between stages, like gathering reference photos and building costumes where needed, that are integral to completing the illustration.
RS: What was your favorite children’s book growing up?
AK: The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen. I didn’t actually have the book. I had an ancient slide projector and one story for it. I would project the images onto my wall, moving slowly from slide to slide. I can’t remember if there was music, or even narration, to the story. For whatever reason, I remember both.
RS: What projects are you working on at present?
AK: I am illustrating some very fun illustrations for a children’s magazine to a story called The Tomb Thief and cover art for a middle grade novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken as part of my thesis project.