Tom de Freston on illustrating the 25th Anniversary edition of Skellig

You might recognise his work with Kiran Millwood Hargrave.


You might remember reading about the gorgeous 25th anniversary edition of Skellig in our guide. Today we have the honour of chatting with Tom de Freston about creating the illustrations for this classic, and how it is different from his previous works:

Do you remember the first time you read Skellig? How did you feel about the book?

I original came to Skellig through William Blake. Blake and John Keats had both had a huge impact on my artwork as a teenager, and my English teacher gave me a copy of Skellig, which had come out a year or two before. I just remember thinking, yes, David Almond gets it, because the book goes so much further than just referencing Blake, it seems suffused, in its textures, its atmosphere and its imaginative scope, with the very magic that lurks in the Romanticism of Blake’s visionary words and images.

What was your reaction when you were asked to illustrated the 25th Anniversary edition?

Utter shock. My wife, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, was driving us to Norfolk when I got the call. She nearly crashed when I said it was Skellig; it was her favourite book growing up. I immediately knew that there was a pressure to do the text justice, but also it felt like a good fit, like it was a world I could imaginatively inhabit.

You previously collaborated with Kiran on Julia and the Shark for which you did some stunning illustrations. How is the process of creating illustrations for Skellig different or the same?

For Julia and the Shark and Leila and the Blue Fox we built the world together, text and image both emerging from and feeding back into each other. With Skellig not only did the text already exist, but its magical brilliance had been populating the imaginations of readers for a quarter of a century. It is a book full of mysteries, dark dusty shadowy spaces, so the last thing I wanted to do was to close things down. I want the images to further expand the sense of wonder, to leave room for the readers to explore and further expand the possibilities.

And generally, what was your creative process? Was it easy to decide how many and what kind of illustrations Skellig needs? What kind of materials do you work with?

I always work in an expansive, world building kind of way, as opposed to designing specific images. So I built maquettes of the various spaces, and constructed whole stage sets in my studio, roping in my nephew and niece to stage little improvisations of certain moments and scenes. I then film and photograph everything, building up an archive of sorts, which I then use as the basis to make drawings, monotypes, paintings and collages. The monotypes would often be images, of spaces or figures, like a cast of characters, with the trace of the hand, the ink pressed into the paper, always adding a sense of touch, a sense of everything leaving its mark. Then the paintings acted like slices from the psychological landscape of the world. Full of ambiguities, shifts in scales, echoes of buried dust covered surfaces, constant plays with light and dark, with opacity and transparency, with creating spaces which are unstable. All these elements became the building blocks to build images, through physical and digital collage, always looking to enter the unknown, to step into the dark. As with Julia and Leila our editor and designer at Hachette, Rachel Wade and Alison Padley, were incredibly receptive to this approach, helping when it came to crafting and shaping, with Alison working wonders at turning a slightly ludicrous number of images into something that works in the flow of the book.

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