In a backyard in Hamburg Altona. Meaty laughter leaks out of one window of the old schoolhouse. Upstairs in Kerstin Meyer's studio they are sitting on the white sofa with their grubby pirate trousers, wiping out the Portuguese tartlets, their shaggy beards clotted with the icing of the sweet pastries, which were meant to be our breakfast.
The studio floor is covered with paint splatters, blue and green and yellow and brown. Pirate pig Jule has crawled up in a far back corner, hiding from the noisy guests. She can't bear the silly buccaneers' stench and raucous bawling, because pigs are very clean and sensitive animals.
Not one single crumb of the tartlets has been left over. The pot-bellies are stuffed and now they are lying crisscross on the sofa, starting to snore: Captain Firebeard, Crooked Carl, Willy Wooden Hand and Morgan O'Meany. Jule takes advantage of the situation, cautiously sneaks past the stinking pirates and lies down on Kerstin's feet under the drawing table.
That's how it could be like in Kerstin's studio.
"One of those pigs. I bet that would be a nice pet", Kerstin says.
"And they are so intelligent to boot." Oh yes, one would love to fondle Jule's snout. Kerstin's characters are so charming and real, that one can imagine them crawling out of the pages from time to time to have a coffee in Kerstin's 'studio lounge'.
This surely can be traced back to Kerstin's former work for animated film. "My thinking is filmic. I automatically picture the characters in motion."
Maybe some of you have a picture book of Cornelia and Kerstin on your shelf: Pirate Girl, Princess Pigsty, The Princess Knight, The Wildest Brother. There are some more left, which have not been translated into English yet. One of them is called "Der verlorene Engel" (The Lost Angel), Cornelia's token of love to Los Angeles. For this book project, Kerstin actually traveled to California to gain an impression and to bring along lots of pictures in her head. As for the illustrations, there was no guideline at all on the part of the publisher, so she had every freedom and could simply go ahead.
Something rustles among the paint cups and brushes on Kerstin's work table. A small, lucent guardian angel is making desperate efforts to rub an ink stain out of his wing, looking angrily over to us.
Kerstin learned her craft at the same college as Cornelia: at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. They both studied illustration there. And what comes next?
"You start to visit the book fairs and apply with the publishing companies. If they like your work, you will be accepted into their archive. When you have illustrated the first book, it will get easier, because then other publishers dare to publish your pictures as well."
The snoring from the sofa turns into a wheezing and smacking and Jule tries unsuccessfully to cover her ears with her short legs.
There's a wall in Kerstin's studio, which is draped with lots of 'animals': polar bears, whales, a squirrel wearing thick glasses and a scowl on its face, and a nice, little, white dog. "I know that dog", Kerstin says. "And if I know an animal, it is far easier to create a character from it. They are cavorting in her illustrations, showing up in small, endearing, funny scenes. "I own an old biology book my father gave to me. This and some modern books of animals are sources I get ideas from. Besides, I have been to Africa once, on safari, and an elephant was standing and breathing and stinking very close to our car. It's amazing to experience animals in nature."
Something is moving on the window sill. Are that two guinea pigs behind the flower pot, watching us?
"What do animals mean to you and to your illustrations?" "Well, I had a cat once and we got along quite well. Then I had little to do with animals for quite a while. I actually was a bit afraid of dogs — up to that day when I got to know the nice, little, white dog. I realized that his growling does not say 'I'm an angry dog', but 'I want to appear biiiig and dangerous, though I'm just a scaredy cat'. To include that into the pictures, to understand such behaviour and to spot the humour in it, that's what I enjoy. The very fact that we often impute human characteristics to animals amuses me. Maybe that's one reason why they are that funny in the illustrations."
Pirate cats with eye-patches stray about on deck, paramedic guinea pigs drive their ambulance through the shambles of the children's room, an elephant hangs his trunk into a cup of tea, and some pigs indulge in reading inside their sty. "I can make up nice, little stories for those neutral beings, which are in no way specified in the texts, that means, I can let my imagination run wild."
And since we have such fun with Kerstin's picture book animals, we came up with a little animal scene, that we brought with us to have it illustrated by her. Now it is lying on her drawing table, waiting for a picture.
Dog sits on the hill and waits for Cat. Cat is late as usual. After a solid hour he's fed up with waiting and starts unpacking the picnic basket. Drat! Nothing but grilled mice. "Pah! Then I'll just go to Duck and get a proper dish of fish", says Dog. Duck and Cat sit on the river bank and eat trout. "Stupid muggy!", thinks Dog, goes home and makes himself a cheese sandwich.
Kerstin gives some thought to the text, looks down to the empty sheet of paper in front of her. Still and a bit askew she is sitting on her spinning chair, bending forward and backward, sideward, canting her head, pausing for a moment, with her pencil strolling across the paper. "Sometimes I have to dig a bit until the pictures show up", she says. "You often have to counteract old habits, what you are used to, what comes easy to you. It's quite helpful, for example, to simply draw with my left hand. Thereby you automatically think in another direction. It feels different and this different feeling brings new ideas, new thoughts. This inquiring, this process while drawing is what I really like." A final thought, then Kerstin puts the pencil on the paper and starts sketching. Dog is slowly taking shape. No. Different. Starting over again. Rubbing out. New draft.
"Okay, Kerstin, you've got the text, you have an idea. then you do a first draft ..." "Yes, first I had a different idea — I thought about cartoon-like retelling the story, but I changed my mind, that is to say, I rather wanted to tell the story summed up in just one picture." She really says "to tell". That's exactly what she is doing: she tells stories in pictures. It's not only taking characters from a story and turning them into drawn characters on paper. Illustrating means telling the story beyond the story's words.
Slowly, line by line, Dog is getting a face. Sitting there a little disappointed, a bit offended, but also slightly sad, resting his head in his paw. Cat is on his mind, how she is contentedly gnawing the last piece of fish off the bone. Stupid muggy!
"As a child, did you already enjoy drawing and painting?"
"I remember that in Religious Education we were often told stories which we should paint pictures for. I painted the sheet of paper allover from top to bottom. My father, by the way, taught me a lot. He can draw very well."
A light table is standing in a hidden corner of the studio. A table with a translucent pane of glass that is lit up from below. Kerstin puts the Dog-Cat-draft on it. The light shines through the sketch paper and Kerstin can copy her drawing onto the sheet of paper, that she will use for the final design.
Then she returns to her working table, where brushes and quills are stored in empty yoghurt cups and coffee cans. Next to them four apples, yellow and red, are waiting for being eaten. A crimson pencil sharpener, wooden and metal quills, ink pots and drawing paper. "I prefer working with pigmented inks, for there is so much colour in them. You have to mix with great care. When they have dried they are waterproof, that means, I can paint several transparent layers one upon the other." Brushstroke by brushstroke Dog's brown ink-fur is growing, a shadow is sitting on his face and Cat is residing above in Dog's thought bubble, bedded in colours, pigged out and happy.
That is how an illustration develops from a story: First there is the text and Kerstin lets the story's atmosphere spread within herself, being a Princess Knight herself for a moment. And then she does not just start off with the very first idea, but reflects and tries out, which scene or moment should be shown and which picture would have the best effect. How big, for example, does the monster have to be to appear scary and funny at the same time. That is what an illustrator has to work out — in the head and on paper.
The little angel hovers down to the pirates' feet.The ink stain is still there on his wing. And then this terrible snoring. He kicks in Captain Firebeard's shin frustratedly. Firebeard does not even notice, grunting contentedly in his sleep.
Illustrating is not only creative work with pencil, quill and colour. When Kerstin has to illustrate a complete book, she first thinks of a concept. Then she spends much time in front of the computer, turns her drafts into correct sizes and correct order. "Sometimes it takes me weeks in front of the computer and I don't fancy that at all and don't know what's actually the use of being an illustrator. At the time when I'm that frustrated, I think to myself: Just start with a colour draft. Sometime pleasure is back, for I simply missed working with colour, I missed holding the brush and painting on paper."
The water inside the pot gurgles and plashes when Kerstin dips in the brush to rinse out the ink, wipe it off and mix the remaining colour in the porcelain palette — brown, yellow, auburn: Dog's fur
Kerstin's brush puts some more wild colours around the wild cat and then it is done. The picture is finished. Normally it now would be hung on Kerstin's picture wall, the lector would come and tell Kerstin what should be changed.
Time to leave, the pirate crew is waking up. Jule crawls back to her corner and the little angel angrily continues rubbing his wing.
It was very nice at Kerstin's studio and we are looking forward to all future illustrations that will be developed in this place.
Thank you, Kerstin, for coffee, Natas (the Portuguese tartlets), many, many answers and, last but not least, for 'Dog and Cat".
Text: Insa Funke and Michael Orth, Photos: Michael Orth, Illustrations: Kerstin Meyer