Irish Illustrator Fatti Burke on Collaborating with Her Dad & Why Every Day Is a School Day
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
WNW Member Kathi 'Fatti' Burke is an Amsterdam-based illustrator whose work revolves around the things she loves – food, home, memes, animals, and tradition. Her first three children's books topped the bestseller list in Ireland, and she’s only just getting started. By my count, she has north of nine books on the horizon. The way Fatti sees it, you can’t have too many inspiring women and historical heroes for younger readers to look up to.
In our interview below, Fatti shares what it’s like working alongside her Dad on children’s books and book tours, and why every day is a school day. “I’m just so happy that I get to learn as I work; there’s nothing better.”
Tell me a bit about your creative background. Who is Kathi and how did she get here?
I’m 29 and from Dunmore East, a gorgeous little fishing village in Waterford, Ireland. I was a very artsy child and had my mind made up since about 13 that I wanted to go to art school; for what, I didn’t really know. I didn’t even know that illustration was a job, to be honest.
I moved to Dublin when I turned 18 and studied visual communications in NCAD. Once I graduated, I decided that I wanted to focus solely on illustration. I’d completed a few internships in graphic design and realised that I only cared about the pictures. I just wanted to see if I could make a go of it as a career, and I had built up a handful of clients over my college years from freelancing here and there. I would say ‘yes’ to literally any job/exhibition/poorly-paid startup, which I’m very grateful to my past self for doing.
How would you describe your creative style? Is there a signature style that links your projects?
I approach things in a very childlike way: colourful, simple, emotive, and sweet. I’m extremely attracted to colour; my palettes are always what I have to decide on before I begin a job. Once I can imagine the colours I want to use, the rest kind of falls into place. Most of my work now is aimed at children, and I find that they can really relate to the way I see things: bold shapes, static positions, emotive colours, all that good stuff. Fun, I think, is the link between all my work. I never take anything too seriously. At the end of the day, I’m drawing pictures. There’s not much more to it than that.
What do you see as the turning point in your creative development and career so far?
There’s a very definite turning point in my career - I had been freelancing as an illustrator from mid-2013 and was enjoying the work but not the lack of stability or money. I was actually thinking of packing it in, and was looking at going back to college to train as a counsellor. But I got a phone call asking whether I’d ever thought about illustrating for children’s books, had a meeting with Nicki in Gill Books, and we signed a contract for Irelandopedia shortly after. It happened so quickly and unexpectedly, and since the publication of that book, my work has been growing in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Since then I’ve published two more bestsellers with Gill: Historopedia and Focloiropedia. From there I’ve been met with constant exciting book projects, and the best thing is that each one is so different, each publisher is so different, and I get to spend my time learning about so many captivating topics. It’s really been a dream.
For your first three books, Irelandopedia, Historopedia, and Folcoiropedia, you collaborated with your dad. What was that like, creating something alongside him? What did you learn about both your dad, and the collaborative process in general?
We’re also now working on a series called “Little Library” with Gill Books, exploring specific stories of inspirational Irish figures. Turns out we’re pretty prolific when we work as a team! When I was first approached about a prospective book that they wanted me to illustrate, they hadn't landed on the right author yet. We discussed getting a primary school teacher to write it, as they’d know the right tone of voice to write in, and that’s when I had the idea to ask my Dad to work on it with me. And let’s just say he didn’t take much convincing at all!
He has always taken a very backseat approach to this. From the get-go it was “I’m just helping Kathi with her project” but he took to it so naturally, and it was such a great experience to essentially have my dad hold my hand through the teething stages.
He just let me do my thing, edit his reams of facts into what I thought belonged in the books, and then sit back when we had to address halls of children when promotions came around. There is nobody else who can communicate to children as well as my dad. If you ever met him you’d feel the same, just a natural teacher. It’s in our blood.
You have multiple books on the horizon. Can you share some details?
Yeah! The first two of a series with Penguin Random House are already out - but we have already produced many more to follow. You can’t have too many inspiring women for younger readers to look up to. Then, with Bloomsbury, I’ve completed work on Epic Tales of Triumph and Adventure - a book filled with stories of travel writers, explorers, and inventors. Again, lots of heroes for kids to look up to and learn from. I’ve also finished writing my first book (which I also illustrated) with Bloomsbury - not sure of the publication date - but it’s about what happened on Earth before humans arrived.
I’m working on a series of books with Nosy Crow and the British Museum, a ‘can you find it’ type of title, with each book taking place in an accent setting. I have Egypt already completed for publication, with Rome (and many more) underway. Then, I’m also working on two self-published titles back home in Ireland. It sounds like a lot written down, but it’s a full-time job I suppose! I’m just so happy that I get to learn as I work; there’s nothing better.
How has your style and approach evolved over time?
My style evolved slowly and very naturally since college, and in part was informed by whatever tools I had in hand. When I started my studies I only worked in paint and pencils, as that’s all I had. Then I learned how to use illustrator on my laptop, so my style adapted with that technology. Now I draw in a way that emulates my natural drawing style more. It’s all been a learning process for me, but the way I look at things hasn’t really changed.
What’s your creative mission at this stage? What do you feel is missing and what do you want to take up and deliver?
I’m very lucky in that I’m working on tons of books at the moment, with amazing publishers like Nosy Crow, Penguin Random House, Bloomsbury Children’s, Gill Books as well as some personal book projects for limited release. I just want to do my best at all the tasks I’m given and just make beautiful (and educational) books.
However, I’d love to get back into painting, which I adore. It’s been a while since I’ve made art for art's sake, and I miss being able to express myself in that way. My dream would be to take a few months off in a year or two to focus on that part of myself.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
I’m pretty bad at naming influences because I don’t really like to look to others for inspiration for my work. Muddies the water, so to speak. I have tons of illustrators whose work I love though - Oliver Jeffers, Ruan Van Vliet, Bodil Jane, Fuchsia Macaree, Sam Taylor, Laura Callaghan, Sarah Green, Steven Maurice Graham. I like colour a lot, so I gravitate towards other who do too.
What are some products or tools that you can’t create without? What’s something you don’t own that would help you elevate your craft?
Photoshop, my Wacom Tablet and my Kyle’s brushes. They’re the three tools I’ve been using for the past 4 or 5 years and it’s hard to deviate from a method that you know works for you. I’ve recently gotten an iPad Pro, just for Procreate, and it’s been beneficial for the sketching stages of projects. And it means that now I can work on planes and trains which makes me less guilt-ridden when travelling abroad.
What’s something you’ve learned on your creative journey that other creatives should hear?
I think I’ve learned that self-confidence is extremely important in this field. Being precious about what you put out into the world really just serves to hold you back. It’s good to make mistakes and to accept that you’re not going to be perfect at everything you do. Scrolling through reams of talented people on Instagram can be harmful to the creative process - for me anyway. You’ll have thoughts like “their work is better/more frequent/more appreciated than mine” and that headspace is not going to benefit the work of anybody involved.
What do you do when Not Working?
I’m big into food, so a lot of my time is spent cooking, trying a new restaurant, or watching some type of food programme. I’ve recently started bird-watching too when I can find time - or the birds. Not a very diverse range in the city but it keeps me alert when I’m out walking the dog. Me and my partner love travelling (again, mainly for food), and I go back home to Ireland quite a bit to see my mates. Also, can’t beat just going to the pub - an Irishwoman’s natural habitat.