The art of Kinuko Y. Craft

The Queen of the Golden Wood by Kinuko Y. Craft

After yesterday's post about Patricia A. McKillip's books, illustrated with the sumptious cover art from the Ace Books editions, let's take a closer look at the artist with whom Patricia's novels have long been paired....

Kinuko Yamabe Craft is widely acknowledged as one of the finest illustrators working today. She has won more than one hundred awards for richly detailed work ranging from fairy tale and folklore subjects to Shakespeare, historical themes, and modern mythic literature. Whether painting Baba Yaga or Turandot, Sleeping Beauty or Romeo and Juliet, she conjures the glow of magic at the heart of the world's great stories.

Kinuko Y CraftKinuko was born and raised in Kamazawa, Japan, where she fell under the spell of art as a child pouring over the books in her maternal grandfather's library. She received a BFA from The Kanazawa Municipal College of Fine and Industrial Art in 1962, and then obtained sponsorship to study at the School of Art Institute in Chicago. She subsequently worked with two commercial art and design studios in Chicago before branching out on her own as a freelance commercial artist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Time, Playboy, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic other major publications, and on book jackets for a range of authors including Isabel Allende, Dorothy Dunnet, Carl Sagan, Eileen Goudge, Antiona Fraser, Barry Lopez, and Stephen King. She's also created illustrations for historical works, Shakespeare, and opera classics. "I'm comfortable creating imagery crossing over many different cultures," she says, but she'll only take an assignment if the subject speaks to her, and allows her room for self-expression. "I choose my jobs by instinct, by my reaction to the theme or manuscript. The writer's sensibility must meet me half way. There must be room for my imagination and heart. I can't just be a hired hand. If something's not right, if I read the story and it's like a blank, then I know that I can't do it."

The Dreamer by Kinuko Y. Craft

Kinuko works in a variety of styles, but she's especially drawn to fantasy and folklore themes, which resonate with her own rich imagination and aesthetic sensibilities. In the 1980s, her work began to appear on the covers of adult fantasy novels, where she quickly developed a loyal following for her jewel-toned imagery. Over the next two decades, Kinuko's dreamlike, distinctive paintings graced books by such fine fantasists as C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Robin McKinley, Sheri Tepper, Guy Gavriel Kay and Ellen Kushner in addition to Patricia McKillip; at the same time, she also created exquisite art for children's picture books including Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, Cupid and Psyche, Pegasus, and King Midas.

Beauty & the Beast by Kinuko Y Craft

When she's working on a book, Kinuko spends many hours with the manuscript, letting its mood seep inside her, tint her dreams and spark inner visions. "Stories have color," she explains, "a certain smell and taste. I have to spend time with that, inhabit it, taste it, know it. I want to bring out my fantasy about that flavor." Although it's import to her to understand and express what the author has written on the page, it's ultimately her mission to tell her version of the story -- to render her reaction to it in color, shadow, and line. She doesn't like to be rushed, but rather to take the time to truly live with the tale. "The more time I put in, the more something lives in the image. I actually live in the book while I work. I function much like an actor taking on a role. The outside world fades away. It can be a real problem, especially when we run low on food during an ice story, and I've just spent twelve hours in my studio. But I think I've been in a fantasy world all my life."

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Kinuko Y Craft

Accuracy is important to her -- not only the little details of a character's hair coloring or dress, but historical accuracy, which is always meticulously researched. Even her fantasy paintings, she says, "must have a basis in reality -- a loosely assigned place in history. That sets the tone and flavor within which I must work, like a stage in a play and then I must fold my own fantasy into it. I consider myself a storyteller, and like any good actor, must convincingly portray my subject in a way that lends credibility to what I paint."

Elizabeth of the New World and King Midas

She particularly revels in her roll as storyteller when creating picture books for children, in which the reader is guided through the story by means of a string of linked images. She doesn't view them as books just for children, however -- and indeed, her picture books are also collected by many adult art lovers. "I create the images mainly for me," she notes, "for both the mature woman and the child within myself. I believe we are always young inside and psychologically never grow old and worn out, from birth to death."

Cinderella by by Kinuko Y. Craft

The books of her grandfather's library provided her earliest art education, and it's no accident that her work is most often compared to Renaissance art. "He had a few volumes of Renaissance work. I was quite mesmerized by them and spent hours in their capture. I wanted to somehow become a storyteller like Giotto, Martini, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Credi, Ghirlandaio, Bellini, Mantegna, Titian, and especially Leonardo da Vinci, who to me is the greatest painter who has ever walked the earth. I'm also attracted to painters of neoclassicism, romanticism, the symbolists, pre-Raphaelite paintings, Hudson River School works and Boston painters of the early 20th century. And also more modern works by artists like N.C. Wyeth, Kay Nielsen, George Tooker, Jared French and Richter attract me, maybe because I am moved by the elements of fantasy or the poetic themes of their paintings."

Sleeping Beauty by Kinuko Y Craft

Kinuko has her own method for creating her distinctive imagery, combining watercolor and oil paints:

Rhiannon by Kinuko Y. Craft"First I make a very careful drawing on Strathmore brand illustration board. Sometimes, just planning the drawing can take longer than the actual painting. When I am pleased with the design, I begin by overpainting it with thin watercolor washes. That lays in the basic colors and tones. After that, I apply a sealer to the surface, to prevent the oil paint from soaking into the surface. The next step is quite time consuming. I work with very small Windsor Newton watercolor brushes, overpainting the watercolor with oil paints. Sometimes a painting can take up to a month."

Kinuko's original paintings are even more beautiful than book reproduction conveys, and as a result her art has been widely exhibited and collected. Highlights among her long list of shows include Brave Little Girls at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (which subsequently traveled throughout the U.S.), New York 5 at the Art Directors Club of New York (which subsequently traveled to Japan), Women and Illustration: Contemporary Visions and Voices and The Art of Enchantment at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Illustrating Women at the Ringling School of Art and Design, Masters of the Art of Children's Books at the University of Wisconsin,  Storytellers at Westmont College, The Fantasies of Kinuko Y. Craft at the Norfolk Library, Visions of the Floating World at the Cartoon Art Museum, a one-woman show at the Society of Illustrators in New York, and numerous appearances in the Society of Illustrator's annual exhibitions. Her work is in the permanent collection of The National Geographic Society, Time Inc., and The Museum of American Illustration, as well as in private collections world-wide. 

A detail from a painting by Kinuko Y Craft

The pictures in this post are just a fraction of the imagery Kinuko has created over decades of dedicated, focused, passionate work. What keeps her inspired? "I'm driven by an attraction to beauty wherever I find it," she says. "That can be in the natural world, or in music, poetry, literature, or in a picture in an art museum, or in anything that touches my sensibilities or strikes a chord in my senses. I like to try to create the feelings these things touch off in me in my paintings, but always fail miserably. That's why when someone asks me, 'What's your best painting?' I always answer 'My next one,' in the vain hope that I may finally be successful."

Kinuki Y Craft's cover art for The Bell at Sealey Head

I must beg to differ with Kinuko's humble appraisal of her work. In gifting us with her unique vision, creating imagery that is deeply personal yet also universal, she has increased the world's store of enchantment, painting by painting, book by book. The beauty that illuminates her art is both restorative and necessary in this age of harsh discord: it nurtures our sense of wonder, and helps us to find the magic in the world around us. Her paintings, like Patricia McKillip's stories, are absolutely luminous, and may the faeries bless everyone at Ace Books who conspired to put these two remarkable women together.

Thomas the Rhymer by by Kinuko Y. Craft

The quotes above are from an interview with the artist by Maurizio Manzieri (ASFA Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2003), an interview by Karen Haber (Locus Magazine, August 2002), and from Kinuko's website. Titles for the paintings and drawing can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art above reserved by Kinuko Y. Craft.


The luminous worlds of Patricia McKillip

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's In The Forests of Sere

I'm still reeling from the news of Patricia McKillip's death last week. She was only 74, and I thought we'd have more time with her, more wonderful tales flowing from her pen, and I simply cannot reconcile myself to a world without Patricia in it.

Photograph of Patricia A. McKillip by Patti PerretI admired Pat professionally, loved her personally, and have been profoundly influenced by her artistically. From the moment I first stumbled upon her work (The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, 1974) her books have been lodestars for me -- demonstrating, over and over again, the timeless power of myth and fairy tale tropes when wielded by a master writer. And a master of fantasy she certainly became: one of the very best of our age, as well as one of the most influential in the mythopoetic end of the fantasy field.

"Writing was something I fell into," she once said, "much like Alice down the rabbit-hole, when I was fourteen. I sat down one day to write myself a story instead of reading one, and thirty-two pages later -- pencil and lined paper table -- I finished my tale and realized that my predictable world had expanded wildly, enormously, with endlessly diverging and intriguing paths running every which way into an unknown I suddenly knew existed. Having ended one story (which is locked away, guarded by dragons and evil-eyed basilisks, and will never see the light of day if I have anything to say about it), I wanted to start all over again on another."

Kinuo Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's Winter Rose

In another autobiographical piece from 2004 (and heavens, I wish there were more of them) she noted:

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's Od Magic"A friend asked me recently, 'What inspires you to write?'

"She is a writer herself, so I knew she wasn't asking me, 'Where do you get your ideas?' She would know that ideas are as random as shooting stars; they come while you're cleaning the bathtub, or watching Four Weddings and a Funeral for the ninth time, or in the morning when the last bit of your dream is fraying away, just before you open your eyes. You see it then, what you've been searching for all these weeks or months, clear as day; you look at it and think, 'Oh. Yeah,' and open your eyes. That wasn't what she was asking. And that was why I couldn't answer, I could only sit and stare at her with my mouth hanging gracelessly open, because all the answers that sprang immediately to mind answered the question she hadn't asked....

"The question was about drive, motivation. What possessed you to write eight or ten entirely different fantasies in ten or twelve years? What compels you? How could you? Why would you want to? Ever since I was young, the imagination, like the raw stuff of magic, has seemed to me a kind of formless, fluid pool of enormous possibility, both good and bad, dangerous and powerful, very much like the magma in a volcano. And I envisioned myself sitting on top of this mountain of magma, spinning it into endless words, visions, imagery, controlled and useful, to keep it from bursting out in its primitive state to devastate the landscape. At first, I felt very precariously balanced on top of my private volcano, spinning word and image into tales as quickly as I could to keep up with the unstable forces I was trying to harness. Lately I've been feeling rather at home there. The magma level has gone down a bit; I've done some satisfying work. I can slow down, maybe, take a longer time to think about what I want to make now. What I set out to do about fifteen years ago was to write a series of novels that were like paintings in a gallery by the same artist. Each work is different, but they are all related to each other by two things: they are all fantasy, and they are all by the same person. That's all I wanted to do. And now I'm reaching the end of that series.

"I have no idea what comes next."

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's The Bards of Bone Plain

What came next, of course, were more brilliant books (Od Magic, The Bell at Sealey Head, The Bards of Bone Plain, Kingfisher), three dazzling short story collections (Harrowing the Dragon, Wonders of the Invisible World, Dreams of the Distant Shores), and a handful of other fine stories. She kept shaping that magma into wise and wondrous tales, and it's hard to believe there will be no more. But she has left us shelves full of books to read, and re-read, talk about, and share, and as long as we do, then the magic is still flowing and she is still with us.

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's Alphabet of Thorn

A few years ago, I spent two months re-reading her entire backlist (in order of publication); this week, I'm starting over again, from The House on Parchment Street and The Throme of the Erril of Sherill to her most recent stories. I know I'll find new depths in them, as I always do. I know I'll continue to learn from her. Perhaps some of you might join me by re-visiting a favourite novel or story, or seeking out a tale you missed along the way. For anyone who wants to join in: just let me know what you're reading in the Comments below this post, and then share any thoughts you have about the reading when you are done.

"At it's best," she wrote, "fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies at the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven't heard the end of it yet."

No, indeed we have not.

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's The Tower at Stony Wood

Some suggested reading to be found online:

"Women in SF & Fantasy" by Patricia A. McKillip (The Fantasy Cafe, 2013)

"Revisiting Patricia A. McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld" by Molly Templeton (Tor.com, 2017)

"Gingerbread Bricks, Cherry-Eating Cats, and Other Culinary Disasters" by Patricia A. McKillip (Tor.com, 2018)

"I Write Fantasy Because of Patricia McKillip's The Riddlemaster of Hed" by Julie E. Czerneda (Tor.com, 2021)

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's Obria in Shadow

I also highly recommended listening to the Coode Street Podcast, Episode 579: Remembering Patricia A. McKillip, in which writers Ellen Kushner and E. Lily Yu discuss Patricia's life and work with the podcast's hosts, Gary Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan (May 16, 2022). To hear Pat herself describe her writing process, listen to her interviewed on The Agony Column Podcast Newsreport (April 20, 2008).

The remarkable art in this post is by Kinuko Y. Craft, the cover artist for many McKillip books, whose jewel-like paintings perfectly capture the luminous worlds contained within each volume.

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Song of the Basilisk by Patricia A. McKillip

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's The Book of Atrix Wolfe

The quotes above come from "Gingerbread Bricks, Cherry-Eating Cats, and Other Culinary Disasters" by Patricia A. McKillip (Tor.com, 2018); "What Inspires Me," Patricia McKillip's Guest of Honor speech, Wiscon 28, 2004; and The Writers Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books, 2002). All rights reserved. The photograph of Pat is by Patti Perret, from The Faces of Fantasy (Tor Books, 1996); all rights reserved by the photographer.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

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Long Covid is easing its grip at last and it's good to be here in the studio, with my work-in-progress spread out the desk, and an intriguing pile of new books to dip into. Rain taps on the cabin's tin roof and roars in the stream that runs behind. Outside the windows, all is in motion: the wind, the clouds, the leaves of the plum tree, the ponies crossing the valley below. Inside, music in Gaelic and English is easing me gently into the work week. Here are a few songs to share with you....

Above: "Dh'èirich Mi Moch Madainn Cheòthar" performed by the Scottish band Rura (Steven Blake, Adam Brown, David Foley, Jack Smedley) with Julie Fowlis (from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides). The song appears on Rura's new album, Our Voices Echo (2022).

Below: "Open the Door Softly" (by Archie Fisher) performed by Julie Fowlis and Irish singer/guitarist Dónal Clancy.  The video comes from the BBC Alba programme Ceòl Aig Baile (2020).

water in the stream

Above: "Tàladh Dhòmhnaill Ghuirm" performed by Julie Fowlis, with Irish concertina player Pádraig Rynne, Irish fiddler Aoife Ní Bhríain, and Orkney-born musician & songwriter Kris Drever.

Below: "When the Shouting is Over" by Kris Drever, with Julie Fowlis, Pádraig Rynne, and Aoife Ní Bhríain. 

Both videos were filmed at the Sugar Club in Dublin (2016).

Tilly in the stream

Above: "Thrift (Dig In, Dig In)" performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart with Kris Drever, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, and Jim Molyneux for Spell Songs II: Let the Light In. The two Spell Songs albums were inspired by the creatures, art, and language from the books The Lost Words and The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. Both albums are utterly enchanting, so please don't miss them.

Below: "The Lost Words Blessing," from Spell Songs I. (Lyrics here.) This one goes out to my dear friend and colleague Patricia McKillip, who left us last week, too young, too soon. She created spells on the page with her stories and novels, and her powerful magic will always be with us. Please read Pat's exquisite books, if you haven't already, and then pass the magic on. 

water and hound


In Chagford on Thursday...

Celebrating the Earth in the month of May

If you're in traveling distance of Dartmoor, please join us on Ore Hill in Chagford on Thursday evening for music, song, storytelling and frolics traditional to the month of May...with the village Jack-in-the-Green and Obby Oss to lead the way. Deck yourself in green...or greenery...or else just come as you are. All are welcome, young and old.

Chagford Obby Oss

The beautiful poster art is by Virginia Lee. The Obby Oss (above) is performed by Howard Gayton; costume created by Nomi McLeod .