The Dog Called Cat – How I Illustrated Friendship and Loneliness

Elina Warsta

A story titled Koira nimeltään Kissa (’The Dog Called Cat’, Teos 2015), written by Tomi Kontio, was first published in a book called Keltainen kaupunki (’Yellow City’) in 2012. A publisher from Kustannusosakeyhtiö Teos read the text and requested that the story be made into a picture book. When a representative of the publisher contacted me later that year, I was immediately excited without having even seen the text. The image I got during the telephone conversation was that the story was beautiful, touching and topical.

I met Tomi once at the publisher’s and the book project was started. I received the text, read it and saw it as a challenge. I was given relatively free reign over the illustration. It took a long time to figure out how to make pictures worthy of the text, to accompany a story so gentle, multi-layered and caring. Although the story spoke to me and I was touched by it , the situation prevented me from starting the work straight away. The illustrators’ strike and other hurries in life delayed the beginning of the work.

With the help of a grant, I started illustrating the work as late as 2014. At the beginning of the year, my family travelled to Tasmania, Australia, where my husband Kasper had received a place in an artists’ residence. The residence was located on the little island of Bruny, next to the main island. We lived in the middle of a jungle-like forest, the mountains and the sea. I was impressed by the local nature and its unbelievably beautiful colour scheme. The shades of blue, brown, grey and green alternated with pink and orange accents. I have always experienced colours very strongly, they contain unbelievable power. The Tasmanian colours helped me out of my stalemate with the illustration. I thought that this colour scheme is exactly the one found in ’The Dog called Cat’. Soft, harmonic and beautiful, like a colour-knit cardigan. I took watercolours and papers with me on the family beach walks. I quickly painted colour scales so that I would remember them right and could use them in the future (picture 1).

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It felt natural to combine the colour scheme found on the other side of the globe to the world of the book, the events of which take place in the Finnish countryside and mostly around Helsinki. The picture world started to develop in my mind. Finding the colour scheme also got my thinking about the characters and the style on the right track. It started to feel natural to illustrate the world, even a rough one, gently. In Tasmania, I made rough sketches of Cat and Weasel, the main characters of the book, for the first time and also tried different techniques (picture 2). I wanted to make the pictures from start to finish by hand but failed to find the right technique. Even the characters were still just rough sketches.

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I fretted for a long time over choosing the technique. I tried to find one that would allow me to combine pencil and watercolour in the same original. But watercolour requires watercolour paper and the way I use pencil is not suitable for such paper. For some reason, I could not let go of the idea of making the pictures fully by hand, so that they would have a tangible texture. After a long struggle, I ended up with a combination of pencil and computer, forgetting the quest for handmade originals. Using this technique, I was able to include all the nuances of the pencil trace in the pictures.

Thinking about the process in hindsight, it is really good that I did not start the work immediately after I received the text. The fact that I had time to absorb the story helped me design the illustrations. The pictures were developed quite far already in my head and sketching them on the paper was effortless. I thought carefully about the change of pictures and the arc of the content as I designed the layout. I wanted the pictures to have many details, which the reader might only notice after several reads. I also gave a lot of thought to the variation and composition of the spreads, on how they would best support the big picture and provide a rhythm for the reading experience.

I began the actual illustration work with the front cover. I made a number of rough sketches for the cover art (picture 3). They all had three elements in common: Cat, Weasel and Helsinki. However, the close-up of Cat and Weasel turned out to be the strongest candidate. It was the most emotional and delicate of all the covers. In this cover, Weasel’s joy of finding a new friend and Cat’s slightly insecure but curious nature are telling of the mood of the book. The street lights hanging on the top and on the back cover hint at Helsinki. They are a timeless detail of the street scene, which I liked a lot when I lived in Helsinki.

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Sketching Cat’s character, I searched for pictures of the breeds Cat is a mixture of. I wanted to represent Cat as a sort of human character, not as a too realistic dog. I considered it important to use Cat’s body language and facial expressions to illustrate feelings and states the reader could easily identify with.

In the first half of the book, Cat’s mother abandons Cat. As a scene, this is very sad and I believe that it raises questions in children. I wanted to soften the scene with the picture. For the book, I gave the mother a hat, which she places on the puppy’s head as she says goodbye to him. The picture shows that the situation is also sad for the mother and she wants to give him something that warms the puppy and reminds him of his mother. I could also use the hat to depict Cat growing up. In the first picture with Cat wearing the hat, he almost disappears in it, but as time goes by and the dog grows, the hat turns out to fit just right.

Kontio’s text is a little big story. I see it in all its simplicity as a story of the encounter and friendship of two lonely characters. But, on the other hand, it is also a strong and socially aware multi-layered text about visibility, tolerance, of finding happiness in non-materialistic things and of how you should never ignore or turn a blind eye to anyone. It is a text that I hope will reach as many readers as possible. The story is comforting and shows how someone marred by sad events can find both joy and himself, with the help of friends. Although the story is melancholic to an extent, it has compassionate humour that in a way, as you read the story, creates an atmosphere of the multidimensionality of life. I wanted the pictures to have similar humour in them. In life, humour can be found everywhere, even in hardship.

I also wanted to use the colour scheme to highlight the change of the mood in the story. The melancholy beginning of the book, which probably consists at least partly of memories, has dark tones of blue and bluish green. The cycle of seasons is also shown in the imagery, with the winter hard and cold and even the summer is illustrated with cool colours. The forest where the mom says goodbye to her puppy is gloomy. I wanted to illustrate the town in the scene of Cat arriving in Helsinki as still colourless, cool, but nonetheless full of light. The way a new city often opens up to a new resident. As the tale moves on, the colours begin to get stronger and in the last illustration, Helsinki is bathing in the shades of soft peach and pink. That is when the city has finally become a friendly hometown for Cat.

The big turning point in Cat’s life is when he meets Weasel. In the layout, I wanted to emphasize the turning point by rotating the imagery 90 degrees and forcing the reader to turn the book. From this spread, the shared journey of Cat and Weasel begins.

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Illustrating for children, I try to recall my own childhood reading experiences. What kind of pictures fascinated me and which ones I were absorbed in. Illustrating the “real world”, I want today’s children to be able to recognize their own living environment in the pictures, and I want the pictures to feel natural. The city life and milieu, rich in their diversity, are delicious subjects. Every time I expanded the illustration of the environment in ’The Dog Called Cat’, I wanted to illustrate Helsinki as just as lovely a city as I experience it. Full of different houses, animals, parks, people: old, lonely, young, immigrant, rich, with families as well as hobos. In one of the pictures, I hid Johnny Cash with his guitar walking the streets, because the story of ’The Dog Called Cat’ reminds me of a song called A Boy named Sue.

Elina Warsta is an established Finnish illustrator. Her illustration of ’The Dog Called Cat’ was nominated for the 2016 IBBY Honour List. In November 2016, Warsta was granted with the State Prize for Children’s Culture.

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