Interview: Carll Cneut, illustrator of Witchfairy and The Golden Cage
We are so excited about our latest illustrator focused blog! We were lucky enough to get to catch up with one of our absolute favourite illustrators, Carll Cneut. We talked to him about some of his earliest memories of picture books, the artists that inspire him and how he creates his rich, sumptuous illustrations.
What's the book or picture book you remember reading most as a child, do you still have a copy of it?
My earliest memories of illustrated books were a collection of fairy-tale books at my parents’ house. They were big books with a number of tales in them, all illustrated by different illustrators. I wasn’t able to read yet, but I remember looking at the illustrations for hours. I still keep those books in my studio nowadays.
But my absolute favourite was Collodi’s Pinocchio. I still treasure my copy of that book.
What is your current favourite picture book, or one you are most looking forward to reading?
I am always curious to see what Beatrice Alemagna will come up with next.
Who are some of your favourite illustrators working at the moment, are there any that have influenced your style?
I admire many illustrators but I feel that I am mostly influenced by painters. James Ensor is one of my biggest influences. I vividly remember the moment when I first saw his painting "Skeletons Warming Themselves" as a little boy. I guess that was the moment when I realized that painting wasn’t only still-lifes and landscapes. It was the moment that I discovered that paintings could really have a story in them. Without that Ensor "aha-moment", I might never have entered the world of painting and illustrating.
"Skeletons Warming Themselves" (1889) by James Ensor
Other painters who influenced me are contemporary painters Michael Borremans and Adrian Ghenie; especially their way of working with paint. But I am also influenced by old masters like Breughel, French painter Géo, or Norman Rockwell.
Witchfairy by Brigitte Minne, illustrated by Carll Cneut
We absolutely adore your unique style of illustration in Witchfairy and The Golden Cage. How would you describe your style? Do you approach each book in the same way?
My way of painting is very layered and goes back to the ancient technique of dead colouring or underpainting (as it is called nowadays), a technique used by painters like Vermeer etc. The underpainting is a kind of monochrome painting in brown tones under the final painting. Once the underpainting is done, I paint in many layers toward the light.
The Golden Cage by Anna Castagnoli, illustrated by Carll Cneut
Let's say I have to paint a yellow plume, the underpainting will be a brown plume. Then a layer of dark red, then bright red, then a layer of orange, a layer of dark yellow, yellow, light yellow. Always working towards the light. A very time consuming technique, of course. Hence why I make so few books!
In all my books I use acrylic paint as the base, sometimes adding extra materials. I have been experimenting with pretty much everything I could find in my kitchen, adding it to the material of the paint.
I always try to find my point of view in how to tell the story. Trying to add an extra layer to the written story. For example, in The Golden Cage, Valentina isn't pictured like a real princess with a little crown, but more like a grumpy ordinary girl with a hat. I also don’t really show "the palace". It leaves space for the reader to imagine parts of the story for themselves.
The grumpy Princess Valentina and one of her many birds
We are delighted to sell a selection of prints from Witchfairy and The Golden Cage which many of our customers love instantly, without having read the books. It opens up each image to endless interpretations. How do you feel about that? Do you intentionally create images that have the ability to tell their own stories without the text?
Giclée print from The Golden Cage
Yes, that is very important for me, whether I make a picture for a book or for an exhibition in a gallery. I always want the image to say something, or at the very least to give the viewer the possibility to imagine what's going on. I like the idea that the reader or visitor becomes an active participant in the image.
Another gorgeous giclée print from Witchfairy
Is there anything you're working on next that you could tell us about?
I have just fished a drawing and colouring book on underwater life. I already made one about birds to go along with The Golden Cage. And now there is a follow up.
I am currently working on a nursery rhyme book. I also will be working on Pinocchio, something I have wanted to do for a very long time.
It was such a pleasure talking to Carll and finding out more about his influences and his process. You can follow Carll on Instagram @carll.cneut.
Over the past few years children have become more and more involved in the environmental movement and now there are loads of fantastic eco-awareness books aimed at children. We've pulled together some of our favourite books which celebrate the natural world and will get children excited about taking care of the environment.