New from Belgium via New Zealand: An interview with award winning illustrator Kaatje Vermeire

posted in: Kaatje Vermeire | 6

maiaandwhatmattersKaatje Vermeire is a young and very talented Belgian illustrator who has just made her debut in the English speaking world with Maia and What Matters (written by Tine Mortier, translated by award winning David Colmer), a stunning and unusual book exploring friendship across the generations, illness and ageing.

As I’ve a particular interest in translated children’s books I was delighted to interview Kaatje as part of the celebrations surrounding the publication of Maia and What Matters, one of the first books from a new children’s publisher with a focus on translated children’s books, Book Island.

One of my favourite images from Maia and What Matters (click to see larger scale version)
One of my favourite images from Maia and What Matters (click to see larger scale version)
Matters (again, click to see a larger scale image)
Another gorgeous spread from Maia and What Matters (again, click to see a larger scale image)

Playing by the book: Hello Kaatje! I’ve read that drawing was something you always wanted to do, but where did that desire come from? Do you have an artistic family? Who or what provided particular encouragement to you when you were young?

kaatjevermeirefaceKaatje Vermeire: I don’t really come from an artistic family, but my mother always had creativity in her fingers. When she was young, she wanted to study drama and theatre, but her parents didn’t encourage her enough (because of the risky nature of the venture and an uncertain future) and so she chose a more safe direction and studied architecture. She became an interior architect, but – in this abstract and precise universe – she sometimes missed ‘creative liberty’…

I always loved to draw, to create and to fiddle with all kinds of materials when I was little (it felt like a natural need) and my mum always encouraged me in this. The choices I took when I was older weren’t always the easiest ones (and often caused my parents a lot of worries πŸ˜‰ ), but still: they always supported me in what I did (and do).

After my secondary studies (Latin – Modern languages; a time in which my creativity got a bit extinguished, because I turned out to be a real nerd and ‘studax’) I decided to take up my old love (for creating and drawing) at the Academy [The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, in Ghent/PBTB], because any more studying would really have killed me ;-)).

At that Academy, I met a very special and particular teacher, who really got the best out of me by helping me to get rid of my uncertainties and confronting me with myself in a way I had never experienced before. I considered her as my mentor but above that, she became a close friend.
In my act/process of drawing/illustrating I found ( and find) a particular way to express myself. I discover(ed) a world of freedom, so different from the real world we live in and all its expectations and obligations… It’s my way of liberating myself… And daring to say NO sometimes… That liberty encouraged me to persevere!

A recent workshop with Kaatje in China, where Kaatje's books are especially popular, all five having been translated.
A recent workshop with Kaatje in China, where Kaatje’s books are especially popular, all five having been translated.

Playing by the book: What books did you particularly love as a child? Were there any books that you loved to “play” (ie where you pretended you were the character from the book and played games based around the book)?

Kaatje Vermeire: I loved the stories of Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton (The Famous Five), Anthony Horowitz, Thea Beckman (especially her trilogy of ‘Children of Mother Earth’), and Tonke Dragt … Fantastic (but magic-realistic) stories with strange forces and mysterious coincidences (and little brave and heroic main character(s) which I went on adventure with). But no, I didn’t really role play… It was enough to imagine it all in my head πŸ™‚

An image from Elephant (Olifant). Click to see a larger scale version.
An image from Elephant (Olifant). Click to see a larger scale version.

Playing by the book: You studied advertising and graphic design at university. What did you enjoy about these forms of illustration? What didn’t you enjoy? And how did you end up moving into children’s book illustration?

Kaatje Vermeire: At the Academy, I experienced my first ‘official’ acquaintance with drawing (after my secondary theoretical studies) as a real ‘study’ outside my own little and casual experiments. I actually chose advertising and graphic design out of ‘ignorance’: I didn’t really know what to study, what to become…. I just knew I wanted to continue a creative track and course of ‘advertising & graphic design’ probably had the highest chance to get a job afterwards. Perhaps I was a bit stupid πŸ™‚

I really learned a lot: how to deal with typography, lay-out, deadlines, artistic constraints… how to make compromises (without losing yourself too much), how to work with the computer… But actually, it didn’t feel like ‘coming home’… After graduation, I was a bit fed up with working with the computer and making compromises so I chose another direction at the Academy: Graphic Art [as opposed to Graphic Design/PTBT].

In the beginning it was very hard: no deadlines, no instructions…. TOTAL FREEDOM!! Very confronting… But after a while it felt like coming home. Through experimenting with manual and graphic techniques (by using all kinds of disposable materials and papers and so on… left-overs from the workplace), I developed my own ‘visual language’.

After 2 years of experimenting, , I plucked up courage and showed Carll Cneut,a visiting lecturer at the Academy my work… the results of my graduation-project (all kinds of studies on a elderly lady, a big woman – someone who really exists in real life – drawings, etchings, huge wood cuts etc….). He seemed to be impressed and encouraged me to make contact with author Geert De Kockere and Publishing House ‘De Eenhoorn’. Geert agreed to write a story about this ‘big woman’ (by including a little boy in it)… And thus my/our first book was born… And so – completely unexpected – I rolled into the world of illustration!

An image from Japie de Stapelaar (click to see a larger scale version)
An image from Japie de Stapelaar (click to see a larger scale version)

Playing by the book: “Layered” is the word you’ve used to describe your own work. Can you tell us a little what you mean by this, both in terms of the physical aspect of your work (how you build up, or create your illustrations), but also in the figurative sense.

Kaatje Vermeire: 1) ‘Layered’ technically: My illustrations are a combination of different techniques like dry etching (I have my own etching press at home), drawing, painting and sometimes collage. In my first book (‘The big woman and the little boy’), all the illustrations – as they are present in the book – are almost exactly like the originals. I made wood cuts and etchings (as backgrounds) and then I cut out my characters and other details in off-set plates and I scratched in them with a needle and I pasted tape and other structures or textures onto these forms.

I put ink on them and I wipe it back off (the ink remaining in the carves and the other reliefs). Then I rolled it under my press (directly on the image/backgrounds I had already built up)… And that is that. After this first book-experience, I learned that my technique took a tremendous amount of time (because if there was one mistake, one little detail or a ‘print’ that was not accurate enough, or the proportions did not match with the typography), I had to do it all over…

So I decided to split it all up: I make my backgrounds separately and my figures too. I print them all with my etching press on different papers (so I always have back-ups) and then I take scans and put all those different layers back together on my computer screen with the comforting possibility to adjust the composition and proportions exactly the way I want! It involves a great deal of computer work too (and I hate it ;-), I try to limit this digital manipulation to a minimum, but unfortunately it is necessary.

The etching results can be so beautiful when they come rolling out of my press, but are sometimes quite a disappointment once they appear on my screen.

2) ‘Layered’ metaphorically: I try to suggest/evoke worlds different from those that are described in the texts. By adding little details, inventing new characters that aren’t present in the text, including humour now and then, I want to create an atmosphere full of little channels to escape into… For children as well as for adults. Lightness on the surface, but deepness behind… If you take a good look πŸ™‚

Some of Kaatje's inspiration!
Some of Kaatje’s inspiration!

Playing by the book: Would it be fair to say that you enjoy the physical side of illustration as much as (or perhaps more than) the thinking about illustration; whilst you use computer manipulation for the final layout, it is very much based on paper, with the use of lots of additional objects for texture and depth. Additionally, you’ve described your way of working as impulsive and experimental; you try things out and let yourself play, rather than planning it all out in advance. All this makes me think that the _process_ and the physical movement is very important to you art – but would you agree?

Kaatje Vermeire: I fully agree! The physical part of creation is most important to me: playing with the coincidence, experimenting… fills me with unparalleled pleasure; it is the real motivation behind my work. By my physical labour and experiments, my mind often goes on interesting journeys… Again: freedom! While the digital part really makes me depressed πŸ˜‰

Although, actually, when you look at my illustrations, you wouldn’t think it that way. The compositions, expressions and details are very well considered. I often prefer the rough sketches to my finished illustrations in the books… And I really mean that. I am a perfectionist and I find it difficult to say ‘stop’ (‘horror vacui’ is another word to define it). But things that are perfect (and all very well planned in advance)… are often/mostly very boring. It is my endless struggle to let go of that and maintain my experiment and spontaneity on paper. That’s certainly my plan for the coming years :-))

Kaatje's workspace
Kaatje’s workspace

Playing by the book: Your most recent book is “Japie de Stapelaar”, and I wondered if you were a bit of a “stapelaar” [a person who makes orderly piles, or stacks] – your workspace looks amazing, full of collections and piles of treasures. I can imagine you being very at home in a flea market. What sort of things do you like to collect? Here is layering again – not just how you make your work, and what you include in your work, but physical layering all around you too for inspiration?

Kaatje Vermeire: That’s a very nice comparison! That’s why I immediately liked the story of Japie (just by hearing its title): I am Japie πŸ˜‰ and the beautiful message that lurks behind: collecting and holding on to earthly materials can suffocate you (or narrow your vision), but if you manage to let go, they can also make you free (and make you travel to other worlds).

That is why my ‘stacks’ are so important to me: they do not only consist of my working materials (papers, cloths, structures… that other people don’t use any more and that I can roll under my press and integrate into my illustrations), but they also carry a soul or a story… They are my channels to escape into other worlds (evoked by their special form, their age, their origin, their colours, their special meanings…). I find my little treasures at flea-markets, little stores full of kitsch/trash or tasteless (in the minds of others) and cheap merchandise ;-)), other countries… I am fond of little statues, old toys, strange objects…. It is really hopeless to sum it all up πŸ™‚

An image from Japie de Stapelaar (click to see a larger scale version)
An image from Japie de Stapelaar (click to see a larger scale version)

Playing by the book: Your art has been described as full of poetry. Your style is sophisticated and rich, like “fine art” that you might find in a gallery, and perhaps quite unusual (at least here in the UK) for children’s books. Do you think your books are really children’s books? What makes them children’s books?

Kaatje Vermeire: It is really difficult for me to answer that question. Although I love kids, it was never my initial goal to make illustrations for that audience. The images come directly from my mind and belly (maybe from my inner child ;-)), without really keeping ‘my public’ in mind. I really appreciate the positive reactions I get from adults and children and the fact that it appeals to an age without limits.

Sometimes it is really surprising how children interpret my images, they sometimes see things totally different to that which I see myself (which makes it very interesting). Maybe you should ask the children…

An image from The woman and the boy (Vrouw en het Jongetje). Click to see a larger scale image.
An image from The woman and the boy (Vrouw en het Jongetje). Click to see a larger scale image.

Playing by the book: I’ve read that you would love to illustrate books for older children and adults – how would those illustrations be different? How would your approach be different?

Kaatje Vermeire: I can’t really say or predict… In my next project (with De Eenhoorn) I get the freedom to make my own story, without starting from a specific text (that is already ”fixed and finished’) so my dream becomes reality and it scares me like hell! Maybe it will be a complete disaster and I will realize that I am unable to produce something without text.

But that’s the worst case scenario I hope… Let’s just go back to the start, to experimenting, to being wild and reckless, to climbing and falling and having fun between my 4 walls! The result is secondary, but a good one (and some patience from the public) would be what I hope for πŸ˜‰

Kaatje's workspace
Kaatje’s workspace

Playing by the book: What is your next book to be published called? What are you working on at the moment?

Kaatje Vermeire: IT WILL BE A BIG SURPRISE AND ADVENTURE, TO ME AND TO YOU πŸ™‚ But I’ll keep in touch!

Kaatje signing off! (At a workshop in China earlier this year).
Kaatje signing off! (At a workshop in China earlier this year).

For those of you who understand Dutch (Flemish), or who are curious about Kaatje’s workspace, do take a look at this video interview with her.

My post today was part of a wider celebration of this wonderful picture book. You can find out more here. The next stop to find out more about Maia and What Matters is over at


6 Responses

  1. Donna McKinnon

    Oh my god…so beautiful. Fantastic, in depth interview Zoe, and thank you so much for bringing her work to English audiences (and thanks to Lisa for posting on FB) Hopefully I’ll be able to find her books in Canada!
    Donna McKinnon recently posted..Caribou Song

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