Art Checklist (and writing)


I wanted a bookmark-sized list of things to remember when working on an illustration — or, more to the point, of things I know but sometimes forget to do.

Most of the techniques have a parallel for writing (or at least editing).

This checklist is tailored to my own forgetfulness, and is a work in progress. There are already a few more to add, including “emotional key” and “texture”.

  • Give sketches room — Personal. I tend to crowd-out the page.
    Writing: Probably related to legible handwriting and developing ideas a bit more.
  • Movement — Push everything a little further off-balance, like King Pellinore and Sir Grummore jousting.
    Writing: Stories, like sharks, die if they don’t keep moving.
  • Flip it! — Literally why am showing things in this order? What if I force the eye to travel bottom right to top left?
    Writing: Why am I telling things in this order?
  • Mirror — I keep an old bakelite-framed mirror to hold up to art and see if e.g. eyes match. It’s an old art technique.
    Writing: This is the same as looking at things with fresh eyes when editing — leaving it for a time, changing the font, printing it out, etc.
  • Posture — A subtler version of “movement”: what does pose say about thought/personality/tension, etc.
    WritingI actually made this note after listening to David Suchet talk about how he tried to capture Poirot’s posture as Agatha Christie wrote it, so I think it’s the same thing.
  • Exaggeration — Related to movement and posture, but more general: emphasise the telling/important details, make them bigger, abstract until things are meaningful.
    Writing: Same same.
  • Caricature — More personality-based version of the above. Clearly it’s a point I need to come back to.
    Writing: The principles of caricature are useful for descriptions — catching the key/memorable/meaningful elements of a person’s appearance and mannerisms and using them as a touchstone.
  • (Silhouette) — I think this is in parentheses because I mean it two ways: first, does it read clearly in silhouette (a composition question, but also one of character design); second, could I be doing this as an actual silhouette.
    Writing: The first principle is useful for thinking about structure in more physical terms. The second is more idiosyncratic, but sometimes there are stylised structures I’ve forgotten I wanted to play with, and which end up solving all the problems (e.g. for “Kindling” I realised part-way through I wanted to tell it in two points of view from two directions in time, and for Flyaway I was stuck at one stage of the edits until someone suggested one story be embedded within another and I had the epiphany that that’s mostly how I write long things anyway). Strict structural requirements (and silhouettes have those!) often force a story to tell itself.
  • Angle/POV — Worm’s eye? Bird’s eye? Whose eye? Whose distant city? I default to a straight-on eye-level view. Changing it up, even if I revert to habit, can at least reveal new things about the world.
    Writing: The same. What if I describe this room from floor-level? What if it’s told by the maid? Even as a mental exercise, it helps crystallise a scene.
  • Why this scene? Lean into it — Ask the scene to justify itself, and then strengthen (or stylishly misdirect the viewer’s eye from) those reasons.
    Writing: same.
  • Swap or flip or lean into stereotypes — What if the cats in this picture are loyal and foolish and the dogs are aloof and independent? Whenever I play with this I remember so many dogs and cats (or whatever the subject of the stereotype is) who are left out of usual pictures. On the other hand, you can lean so hard on a stereotype it comes around again to being an archetype.
    Writing: I learned this from Sarah Caudwell and Charles Dickens.
  • What is left out? — This is a reminder to myself to use negative space as part of the design, to feature it. Midcentury commercial art is fabulous at this, but I think I was thinking of Evaline Ness when I wrote it. But it’s also a reminder to think of which/whose stories aren’t being told — whatever I do with that thought.
    Writing: There’s negative space in books, too, and stories that are avoided or hinted at. Sometimes consciously and melodramatically leaving a gap is more honest than trying to paper it over. Plus the whole unreliable narrator thing.
  • De-elongate/squash it — I tend to attenuate my figures. This is a personal reminder.
    Writing: This would be like keeping a list of overused words to go back and deal with (in my case, this includes replacing up to 10% of the “and”s with full stops).
  • [Emotional key] — Pick one word or emotion and use it to key an entire scene, to inflect the composition and colour choices. This was a tip from Winona Nelson at 2012 Illuxcon.
    Writing: This tip works very well for editing, too — picking a word or emotion and adjusting sentence length, word choice, etc, to evoke it.
  • [Texture] — Add it, take it into account, don’t keep everything smooth.
    Writing: Primarily descriptive, it’s a reminder to take into account the surfaces of things. One of the patterns I noticed in researching the MPhil dissertation was that (particularly in a genre where things are often not what they seem) paying attention to the surface and texture of beautiful things made them seem truer and more reliable.

See what I see


There has been, for the last little while, a lot of talk about aphantasia and degrees to which people “see” things, mentally, and whether it hinders or helps the creative process.


Quite a few writers seem startled by the idea that people don’t have very clear mental images. But a surprising number of illustrators seem to be in just that situation. Since they’re both in the business of inserting stories into other people’s heads, the difference is intriguing.

Moving away from strict aphantasia, I’m interested in how much visualisation is functional/trained (setting aside whether a given reader has accumulated enough of a visual library — my littlest nephew doesn’t have enough of a framework for what a “dragon” is to be interested in stories about them yet, and growing up without TV or computers, I didn’t get cyberpunk as a thing until I saw The Matrix).

If I do the exercise above, cold, or if I’m reading as a reader, I’m a 1. If I’m in the process of writing, it drops down a few notches — sometimes it will be a 3, sometimes the word “apple” will appear in my mind or on the page and then I have to consciously stop and push it back along the scale until I can ‘see’ and describe it more specifically.


Tree fight!

But if I’m illustrating, I’m closer to a 5, and often don’t see the picture until it’s on the page. Lynda Barry talks about that process of drawing as discovery rather than expression. Even (or especially) drawing from life is a process of getting the image from the world onto the page through hand and pencil. And most ‘visualisation’ of solutions is more schematic/word-based.


Notes on a project

I mentioned above reading as a reader. A book can be as vivid as a movie, then. But when I’m reading as an illustrator, looking for images to draw, ideally I’m sketching them as I go, converting directly from words into shape and movement without necessarily picturing that inside my own head.


Earliest ideas

When I do picture things too clearly, it’s a trap. The disparity between the imagination and the reality can be distressing!This is one of the reasons I don’t often illustrate my own work (I had to get at the illustrations in Flyaway by starting more decoratively and then pushing back into the text).


Obligatory pre-order link

Although art and writing both come from the same storytelling aquifer, they reach the world through different wells. If I’m going to develop an illustrated piece of my own, I usually have to start with art and support it with words, and/or carve away the words until they don’t distract me from what the art is getting up to.


If it could just stay like this…



A Cover for Flyaway


My Australian Gothic novella Flyaway will be released in July next year — but has now revealed the cover (fabulous design by Jaya Miceli, from a silhouette by me).


It comes with some useful links (although I’ll let you know more about pre-orders as that becomes available) and a few lovely words from Kelly Link, Holly Black, C.S.E. Cooney and Brooke Bolander — authors whose way with stories I very much admire.

I am extremely delighted with this cover, for which the designer and art directors should get most of the credit (and I adore the typeface), and I can’t wait (I must wait!) for the book to be a real thing in the world.

Flyaway has sold to!

jennings have bought my Australian Gothic novella Flyaway! I’m so excited to be working with them on this. It was the subject of my MPhil (Master of Philosophy) research (oh, and I’ve finished the degree, and have the certificate!) and soon(ish — next year) it will be out in the world as a real book, oh my goodness.

Anyway, there’s a bit more about it here, with the announcement: Announcing Kathleen Jennings’ Debut Novella Flyaway

Thanks are due to a lot of people, but immediately & particularly to Angela Slatter, Kim Wilkins, Lisa O’Connell and Ellen Datlow.

“The Heart of Owl Abbas” – now on

My very odd short story “The Heart of Owl Abbas” is now up on!

The story kind-of-sort-of-maybe exists in the same world (or continuum of worlds) as “Kindling” (in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear and Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2012) and “Skull and Hyssop” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #31 and Prime’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015).

Huge thanks to Ellen Datlow, editor for, and Angela Slatter, story doctor extraordinaire, for all they contributed, and to publisher and art director Irene Gallo who let me have Audrey Benjaminsen’s beautiful art. I think it’s the first time a story of mine has been illustrated by someone else and I think it is remarkable. I keep staring at all the little details. Thanks also to Noa Wheeler, copyeditor, who gamely catalogued all the careless inventions and copy-edited with an ear for the weird structures, and to Jodi Cleghorn who kickstarted me into writing this particular project when I was focussed on drawing.

Also, a word to the wise: baroque stylings exponentially increase editing difficulty. Thanks here to C.S.E. Cooney who is the sort of person you want on your side to find replacement words that slot into a particular matrix of sense, feeling, alliteration and anachronism. And also to Amber Gwynne, who diagnosed me with semantic exhaustion.



This Art Is Not By Me (but the story is)

Art by Audrey Benjaminsen

In all Owl Abbas, before it burned (after the Falling but before the Cartographer’s War and the Recurrence of Owls), there were among its many windows only two that need concern us

This is the illustration reveal for Audrey Benjaminsen‘s beautiful charred, byzantine illustration for my story “The Heart of Owl Abbas”, which is to be published by in April. It’s the first time (as far as I recall!) that a story of mine has been illustrated for publication by someone else, and I am so happy with it. Look at all those tiny engraved details, and the little lace cuffs, and that muscular, visceral heart.



The Queensland Writers Centre has been running an 8WordStory project on GOA billboards around Brisbane. This is one of mine! There is still time to enter until 24 November 2017 on or on Twitter, tagged with #8WordStory.