Karl James Mountford has established himself as artist with a unique style that is a mix of dark children’s books illustrations with a heavy dose of pop culture cleverness.
Karl was raised in a military family, and after being born in Germany, moved dozens of times before earning a Master’s degree, kicking off a freelance career, and a starting a tenure as one of Redbubble’s finest illustrators.
I chatted with Karl about why being able to draw helped stabilize a potentially chaotic childhood, how he manages the “uphill battle” of being freelance artist, and why he can’t seem to draw fluffy bunnies.
"I always lean into the slightly darker side of fantasy illustration which has shot me in the foot once or twice. I even had a pretty big publishing house tell me to get in contact when I started drawing fluffy bunnies or happier stories. I still haven’t drawn any fluffy bunnies, yet."
The subjects in your work seem to often be fantastical, can you tell us about your relationship with fantasy and whimsy?
I’m not entirely sure. I’ve always loved writing short stories and illustrating them. I did this a lot, especially towards the end of my degree, but they all had a bit of German Romanticism about them. For example, I wrote this short about a mechanical girl called Lemon and she had a mouse on a wheel to keep her mechanical heart beating inside her chest. Anyway, she made the best desserts in the town and everyone loved her for it at first, but other bakers, chocolatiers, and sweet makers of the village were rotten with jealously, so they stole the mouse from her chest. Then they pulled the mechanical girl apart and buried the parts in five different places, and that was it; no happy ending. This is why I’m not a full-on children’s picture book illustrator. I always lean into the slightly darker side of fantasy illustration which has shot me in the foot once or twice. I even had a pretty big publishing house tell me to get in contact when I started drawing fluffy bunnies or happier stories. I still haven’t drawn any fluffy bunnies, yet.
Tell us about your background.
I’ve been drawing and making things since I was knee high. I was born in Germany and my dad was in the military, so we moved around a lot. By the time I was 16 I’d been to 12 different schools. Being able to draw came in pretty handy for starting up in new places, I was always the kid who was good at the art stuff. There was never really anything else I really wanted to do. I just knew art was for me, in some shape or form. I went on to study illustration at Swansea Met Uni in Wales. It was the best! The town is on the coast so the beach was on our doorstep and I met some of the greatest people. So yeah, it was just the best place to be an art student. I then did a Master’s degree to avoid the real world a little bit longer and after that, I started freelancing. I was worried that if I applied for a studio job I’d get too comfy and wouldn’t leave. So I jumped straight into the uphill battle that is freelancing, taking part-time work when I had to, and I’ve just been building and figuring it all out as I go.
"...you are never fully off-duty as everything is kind of relevant to that next piece you make."
Where did the idea for “The Art Of Ruining Conversation At Parties” come from?
It was just a train of thought, really. I was staying at my aunt’s for a weekend, and she lives in the middle of nowhere, and has this giant trampoline in the back garden. There is no light pollution where she lives whatsoever, so the sky is just alive with thousands of stars. Anyway, I just laid on this trampoline, looking up at this awesome night sky, and my mind just went for a bit of wander, and for some random reason. I tried to lie to myself and imagine that the night sky was the underneath part of a dinner table, and then I was wondering who would sit around this nighttime table, and would they argue and bicker like a family? Most of the characters illustrated around the table are supposed to represent certain aspects of life. But I wasn’t really looking to draw anything, sometimes ideas just turn up from the everyday. I think that’s what is really cool about being a freelance illustrator: you are never fully off-duty as everything is kind of relevant to that next piece you make.
There’s a haunting quality to many of your artworks. Do you think illustrations have the power to haunt, possess, or shadow us?
I’m a big fan of ethereal stuff and anything that is a little left of reality. It’s like a nice break from the everyday, right? I definitely think an illustration can haunt you. I’m trying to think of one for you, as an example – it’s not a typical “haunting” image, but Oliver Jeffers’ picture book The Heart and the Bottle has an image where a little girl looks at this empty chair of her grandfather’s, and even though it’s never said, it implies so subtly that the grandfather has passed away. That’s quite haunting, more of sad-haunting, but the imagery definitely sticks with you! Oh, and Tales of Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. There is a tale in there called “Stick Figures” that’s super haunting! The illustrations are top notch and he doesn’t spoon-feed the reader. It’s awesome. I can’t recommend it enough.
How has your style developed in the wake of advancements in technology?
I was a real traditionalist when it came to mediums. I always preferred painting, collage, or screen printing. I’ve only really been using digital software to make art for the past two years now. I was completely wooed by how fast you could make work and amend mistakes, but I was always worried I’d lose some of that expression in the work when using digital, and I’ve always quite liked seeing pencil markings and little mistakes; makes the image feel a bit lived in. That’s why I try to use crude line work or mark makings in my work, as it makes your eyes work a bit more when you look at it, or at least I like to think it does. I’m not keen on illustrative work being overly polished.
What’s a typical work day for you?
I have three types of days in my week. I’m trying to put an order to them, but they usually blend into one. I usually have a so-called “business day” where I answer emails, send off promo stuff to potential clients/editors/publishers, wr
The second typical(ish) day is where I upload work and live at the print shop/post office sending off prints or commissions to folks.
And then there are the best days where I just draw, paint, listen to albums/audiobooks, and make stuff till the early hours of the morning. These days are great and I feel like a proper illustrator. I do have days where I slack off and avoid everything illustration. Those are pretty vital days too, but no one really talks about them, so neither will I.
I love your work “Art Gang.” Are these the tools that you use every day?
Yeah, I use everything to make work. Even though I’m pretty heavy with digital work at the mo’. I’m an acrylic and ink kid through and through. It usually depends on what mood I’m in to use different mediums or how I see a piece looking in my head. The piece “Art Gang” came about because I was clearing out the “graveyard drawer” of old pens and art equipment and just doodled some of them in a Wes Anderson sort of layout.
What’s the biggest learning curve you’ve faced while putting your artwork online for sale?
I think one of the biggest learning curves is knowing how to adapt work onto products and understanding what illustrations will work and what won’t. I’m still learning to do this. It’s so easy to overthink it a lot of the time, but RB has a really great upload/set-up, so it never really feels like a chore. Which I REALLY appreciate!
What are you working on next? Do you have an illustration in mind?
I really want to make some pattern designs for products using naive illustration and textures. I’ve also just finished this little series of unlikely knitters such as Batman, the Hulk, and other pop culture characters — all knitting away, breaking down ideas of stereotypes one stitch at a time!