An Interview with Artist Keith Thompson

Keith’s Map of Ravka

As some of you know, there are now a limited number of signed copies of Shadow and Bone available for pre-order at Books of Wonder. The shipping is steep, but while supplies last, you’ll get Grisha buttons and a 16″ x 20″ poster of Keith Thompson’s map of Ravka. Plus, you’ll be supporting a great independent bookstore!

Recently, Keith and I had a chance to chat about how he works and how he approached this project.

LB: Keith, first I need to tell you how honored I am to have your artwork in Shadow and Bone. I first came across your work in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and I’ve been a fan ever since. When my editor told me you would be the person to bring Ravka to life, I nearly keeled over.

KT: Thank you, it was a pleasure to contribute to the world of Shadow and Bone!

Grand Map from Leviathan

LB: Now that we have the fangirl freakout covered, can you tell me a bit about how you start a project and how you first approached creating the map of Ravka?

KT: First I started by going through my own map collection.  Knowing the general equivalent timeline and type of cultural setting meant that I was already keeping to a specific selection of maps and artworks.

After steeping myself in those real world analogues I filtered everything through my own aesthetic and vision and of course tried to instill in it your own visions of the world.

Ravkan Double Eagle

LB: Oh wow. I’d love to see that map collection. Once you got into it, what was the biggest challenge in depicting Ravka?

KT: Maps are fundamentally comprised of icons, that presents its own unique challenge. They’re also like props or imagined artifacts from within the world they’re depicting. This multi-layering is challenging in a singular project where there isn’t the time or resources to explore and establish the new culture that the map is supposed to be a part of.  I suppose it could be interesting to imply the map is created by an explorer from another culture to work with a freer base, but that would still introduce its own layering complications.

LB: It’s conveying so much more than geography, and in a secondary world, that can get really touchy. Particularly when you have an obsessive author on your back. All of our communication on the project was done through the publisher, but I know the back and forth on a collaboration like this must be frustrating sometimes. Was there any point where you wanted to punch me in the face?

KT: Ha, as long as the artwork doesn’t get too damaged by the process I can keep going!  I try to avoid talking about any projects that get ruined.  If people are happy with how the art turned out that’s great, but I try not to dwell on wrecked art and move on to the next project.


LB: Then I’m glad you’re still talking to me. What part of the map did you most enjoy working on?

KT: Probably the Unsea. It really is the focus of the map. It’s like a manifest act of violence on a piece of cartography.  That’s a fun thing to present as something which obviously must be crossed by the protagonists.

LB: I have it on good authority that your volcra are already giving people nightmares. (Well done, I say.) Your work has such a unique sensibility– beautiful and strange, sometimes disquieting. Who inspired you when you were younger and are there any artists we should have our eye on now?

KT: I grew up with a large amount of books in the house, including many art books.  We also went to the library regularly.  I’ve been in love with art from every point in history and culture before World War I.  A key favorite since my earliest years of course is Bosch. I spend a lot of time seeking out inspiration, and try to discover a new influential artist at least once a week.

LB: And when you’re working, what is a typical day like?

KT: My schedule tends to vary wildly on the type of project.  Sometimes I’ll work nonstop for days and then rest.  Often with movie and game work I stick to a regular daily schedule in whatever time zone the project is in.  That can still often slip into long nights.  I always find that the best ideas and the most natural flow comes to me in that dead zone when I should be finished and resting.

LB: Do you listen to music when you work?

KT: I often have music on. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Max Richter and Kurt Weill.

Detail from the True Sea

LB: Weill makes me a little squirrely, but I like to listen to Max Richter when I’m drafting. Do you use a tablet or are you a pen and paper kind of guy?

KT: I work in graphite and then digitally. Black and white work will mostly be traditional and the digital stage is for colour glazes.

LB: What’s up next for you?

KT: I’m currently designing a new video game that I am unfortunately not allowed to name at the moment.

LB: Mysterious! Between you and the trailers for Assassin’s Creed, I am sorely tempted to take up gaming. Last question, if you were recruited into the Second Army, which Grisha Order would you be?

KT: I’d have to join the Durasts.  It’s nice to know that even if they’re at the bottom of the heap, craftsmen are still their own elite order!  I’d labor away making beautiful things.  If I ever got tasked with a particularly high profile commission I’d be very careful not to end up like Postnik Yakovlev by doing too impressive a job.

LB: Ha! Somehow I knew you’d be a Fabrikator. For what it’s worth, they become pretty essential to the war effort over the course of the trilogy.

(Fun fact: Postnik Yakovlev was the architect of St. Basil’s in Moscow. Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible blinded him so that he could never create another building to rival the cathedral. Not the best policy for encouraging new hires. Does anyone remember Terry Pratchett referencing this in Color of Magic?)

Many thanks again to Keith Thompson, for taking the time to talk and for bringing his extraordinary talent to the pages of Shadow and Bone.

Get a poster of Keith’s map when you pre-order a signed copy of Shadow and Bone at Books of Wonder.


Filed under Writing

8 responses to “An Interview with Artist Keith Thompson

  1. A great interview! I love the map and can’t wait to see it in real life. The Unsea is probably my favourite part of it too. I love the detail and attention that went into it. 🙂

  2. His work is so beautiful, evocative and disturbing all at once. And you know how much I love that map! *grabby hands*

  3. Beth

    Hi Leigh,

    I also loved Keith’s illustrations for the Leviathan series. Will his illustrations be in the UK books, too?

    Less than a week!!!

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  5. Great interview! I love Keith’s illustration for your book. I focus on something different every time I see it. Amazing!

  6. Hecate

    Keith is such an amazing artist! I’ve been a fan since picking up one of his art books about four years ago. And he’s so friendly and polite, a pleasure to talk to!
    This interview is really great, he’s awesome!

  7. Pingback: Leigh Bardugo: Author of The Grisha Trilogy: Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising

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