John Kelly on Pirates, Processes and Illustrations

John Kelly

I don’t like cheese. Hate the stuff!

Celeste: Hi John! Thank so much for chatting with us today! I just love your Beasty Pirates book and I am so excited I can pick your brain for a bit. First of all, can you tell my readers a little about yourself?

Munch, Crunch Prirate Lunch
Munch, Crunch Prirate Lunch

John: Hi Celeste, So glad you like the Beastly Pirates, especially as there’s another one coming this summer. It’s called ‘Munch, Crunch, Pirate Lunch!’ And tells the tale of Heartless Bart, the pirate leader, who is exceptionally annoyed that the Beastly Pirates have eaten all of his pirates and sets out on a dastardly plan of revenge.

Well, I’ve worked in publishing, firstly as a designer, since 1990. Most of that was in children’s reference non-fiction. I found out very quickly that as I was a designer who could draw I naturally gravitated towards doing books about explaining things. My niche was deconstructing technology, buildings, animals, maps, and films. I’ve always been interested in taking things apart and putting them back together again to show how they worked.

But I’ve also worked in licensing, doing books about Star Wars and Pixar for a company called Dorling Kindersley.

So I spent a big chunk of my career drawing things for other people to then illustrate. I never considered my own drawings to be artwork or illustration as such. They were always just the ‘blueprints’ for a ‘proper’ illustrator to come in and finish off properly.

Over the years I did illustrate some books, but in the early 2000’s (long story) I ended up getting involved in children’s fiction. The rest, they say, is history.

Illustration by John Kelly
Illustration by John Kelly

Celeste: Your characters are so exciting and each one different and the scenes are all completely action packed! Can you unpack a bit your process and how you get from the idea to the full-blown, brightly coloured end result?

John: I’m really glad you like my characters. I work very hard to try and make each one visually different from the other. And I’m very keen on trying to put as much physical action as I can into my artwork. I’m always thinking ‘TOM & JERRY’. I’m a huge fan of the graphic novel artist Frank Quitely, and have learned an awful lot from studying his artworks. He is brilliant at choosing exactly the right moment to convey drama.

My process, for the Beastly Pirates, is to write the rhyming manuscript first. This can take quite a long time (or not). The first book happened quite quickly, but the second one took an awfully long time!

Then, after a bit of character design, I will fill my sketchbook with scribbly little pencil drawings of what I consider to be ‘gags’. These are just very simple drawings of the things that happen in the book. No page layout or structure or design. They’re a jumping off points. When I’ve got enough of these I’ll start cutting them up digitally and putting them into a rough page plan along with the text. I’m still not working with anything that resembles a book. At this point it’s just trying to work out what I need to do to illustrate the story, with the correct pacing. The big question is always: Does the story work!.

After a few goes round of this some sort of page layout will begin to emerge, and at that point I start to rough how the images are going to appear actually on the page. But I keep everything very very rough at this stage. Then, when it’s all working from a story and layout point of view I’ll sit down with nice large blank pieces of paper and draw detailed pencil roughs of the book as it will finally appear.

Those are then scanned in, tidied up in Photoshop, and painted in a program called Artrage. I do most of my painting in that – with occasional forays back into Photoshop for tweaks.

That’s it!

Beastly Pirates
Beastly Pirates

Celeste: You have been involved in such a large range of books and projects – what has been your favourite project so far?

John: I think I’d have to say the very first Beastly Pirates book. It’s the first thing I’ve ever done that (my own technical failings not withstanding) I was completely happy with.

Celeste: I am always interested in how each person stays in contact with their industry. Do you attend any workshops/conferences, or maybe listen to any podcasts to keep learning?

John: I’m afraid I’m terrible in that regard. With the exception of my publishers, and a few friends in publishing, readings and performances at schools/bookshops, I don’t have any contact with the industry at all. Don’t much like Twitter and Facebook either.

As far as training or learning goes the Internet, as with so many things, is my friend. I’m a self-motivated learner. Over the last five or so years I have watched probably several hundred YouTube videos about illustration – usually posted by exceptionally talented concept artists. That’s my main learning tool. It’s an incredible resource. If I’d had it 25 or 30 years ago my career would have taken off in a completely different direction.

Sir Scaly Pants
Sir Scaly Pants

Celeste: Do you have a favourite children’s book, that you like to keep close by, for inspiration, or maybe a favourite movie? Do you have any illustrators who inspire you?

John: I didn’t really read a great many picture books as a child. I was a mainly a comics fan. I started with things like the Dandy and the Beano, before moving on to war stories, then 2000 A.D. and the thrilling world of graphic novels.

There are so many absolutely brilliant children’s picture books around now. I think my current favourite is probably, ‘Oi Frog!” By Kez Gray and Jim Field. Sheer genius.

Though the books I will look to, more often than not, for inspiration are movie concept art books. A particular favourites at the moment are ‘The Croods’ and ‘Cloudy with a chance of meatballs 2’. Stunning, stunning, illustration.

Celeste: You have also leapt over the fence, and are in the process of publishing a book that you have authored and not illustrated. What was it like experiencing that side of the process?

John: I have written things for other people in the past, but not in children’s picture books. The whole process is very interesting – especially having spent my career as an illustrator. It’s quite a surprise though that the industry is certainly more respectful of writers than they are illustrators. The writer is very much viewed as the ‘creator’ much more than the illustrator is.

I’m hoping to do a great deal more writing in the future. Whilst I like illustration it’s possible to really get lost in writing. I’m working on longer form fiction at the moment.

by John Kelly
by John Kelly

Celeste: It is always good to hear tips and tricks from others, do you have any that you could share with us, about illustrating, or breaking into illustrating?

John: My tip is: ‘Be yourself!’ – especially if your ambition is to be an illustrator. Don’t copy the fashionable styles of the day. Find your own visual voice and, if possible, learn to be versatile. Learn to draw and paint in lots of different ways. Styles go out of fashion in illustration as in everything else, and whilst being really cool will get you some work, it won’t necessarily keep you going over decades. I see far too many illustrators leaving college assuming that somebody is going to pay them to do ‘their style’ forever. It’s highly unlikely.

My other tip would be to learn to be critical of what you do. You can definitely be too critical, but it’s unfortunately more common for people not to be critical enough of their own work. Remember, there is always someone better than you. Take advantage of that and L

learn from them! If you’re going to copy always copy people who are much, much better than you.

Celeste: Thank you so much, John, for taking time out today. Can you share with us a little known fact about yourself, as well as where people can find you on the internet?

John: I don’t like cheese. Hate the stuff!

You can find me at


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