Rovina Cai describes the process behind her emotional illustrations for Patrick Ness’ And The Ocean Was Our Sky

The artist explains how her illustrations "set the tone and atmosphere" for Patrick's short novel that tells Moby Dick from the perspective of the whale.

Author Patrick Ness is one of the biggest names in Young Adult literature with 11 books under his belt, including the incredibly emotional A Monster Calls and the Chaos Walking trilogy, which is currently being adapted into a star-studded movie with actors including Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen and Tom Holland.

His latest book, And The Ocean Was Our Sky, is a short novel that Patrick describes as a 'fantasia of Moby Dick' rather than a retelling, told from the perspective of the whale. It explores the power of prophecy and rumour, and how they can infect us - how much does being told something is going to happen make that thing happen? It’s illustrated by the talented Rovina Cai, with stunning artwork that is integral to the story.

In And The Ocean Was Our Sky, gravity meets at the surface of the ocean. To the whales, the surface of the ocean is below them, but men see the world the other way round, like we do. This concept is beautifully brought to life by Rovina’s illustrations, as are the emotions of the characters. They are largely greyscale, with flashes of reds and oranges throughout.

At the book’s London launch event on board the HQS Wellington, Patrick spoke about working with Rovina and why he decided this particular novel should feature illustrations. “I had ideas, but I’m not an illustrator at all,” he explained. “Certainly nothing like the incredible Rovina. So I wanted to hear what she thought, and hear what she was excited to draw after reading the book.”

“There’s an amazing sequence near the end just full of action, and there’s no text. I love the idea that a book is a beautiful thing, so I thought if I bring my best and she brings her best, maybe together we can make something incredible,” Patrick continued. “This is book number 11, so I just want to keep pushing and trying something new, to see how much further I can take things.”

We spoke to Rovina to find out more about what it was like to work on this project, the challenges she faced and her processes. Based in Melbourne, Rovina has also worked on other novels and picture books including Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series and award winning picture book Tintinnabula by Margo Lanagan.

Her illustrations have a very distinct style: her use of lines to create shadows and textures is particularly striking. “It’s difficult to see my work from an outside perspective,” Rovina said when we asked how she would describe her style. “Others have described it as poetic and surreal with a lot of moody atmosphere.”

Rovina says that her inspiration can come from a variety of places, including music or museums. “I do like to draw on my experiences where possible. Whenever I start a new piece, I’m always thinking about the emotions I want to convey, and the feelings I can tap into in any given piece of writing. I’m looking for something I can relate to in the text.”

After seeing some of Rovina’s work online, Walker Books art director Ben Norland reached out with the manuscript for And The Ocean With Our Sky to find out whether she’d be interested in illustrating it.

“Patrick Ness is an amazing storyteller, and I was really drawn to the unusual narrative; I thought it would be a great challenge so I jumped on board,” she said.

Rovina had previously read Patrick’s A Monster Calls and loved it. It too is an illustrated novel, with art by Jim Kay, who is also behind the illustrated editions of Harry Potter. “I’m really interested in the way that text and images can work together, and A Monster Calls is an excellent example of that,” said Rovina. “So when I was offered the opportunity to work on an illustrated novel too, I was really excited.”

The freedom of the sea

The brief was fairly open. Aside from discussing where each illustration should be placed and technical things like how the characters or locations should look, Rovina was free to interpret the text as she liked. “The book contains a few sequences, where there are several consecutive spreads of illustrations with no text. It was particularly fun to come up with what to do with these pages, and it was left up to me to decide what to show, and how to use the allocated space.”

“The main goal was to set the tone and atmosphere of the story with the illustrations,” Rovina explained. “Showing just enough to guide the reader, but leaving enough room for their own imagination to fill the gaps. The story is really unique and unconventional, so the illustrations are there to visually help readers understand concepts that might be hard to imagine.”

Describing her process, Rovina said that she notes down the main themes and emotions in the writing after reading a manuscript, and decides what the illustrations need to convey overall. She will then create a moodboard of colours, reference images and textures to guide the mood she’s going for.

“After all the research is done, I do rough sketches. These are sent to the art director, who will consult with other people at the publisher and author, before coming back with feedback. I really enjoy this part of the process because it’s very collaborative, and different people are able to contribute ideas that ultimately make the illustrations better.”

“After the roughs stage, I then move on to the final. This is pretty straight forward, since most of the “work” has been done via the sketches. It’s just a matter of making things look nice and polished.

"My process for creating finals is split into two stages: I first make a graphite drawing on paper ...

"... and then I scan it in to edit and colour in Photoshop.”

The narrator of And The Ocean Was Our Sky is a whale called Bathsheba. Led by Captain Alexandra, she and her pod fight a never-ending war against men, until on one of their expeditions they come across something that will change their lives forever.

“It was important to convey that Bathsheba wasn’t just a whale, but a multi-dimensional character with thoughts and feelings,” Rovina said when we asked her how she faced the challenge. “I looked at images and videos of whales for research, but found that they looked too stiff and emotionless if I were to draw them accurately. So I had to put the reference away and just rely on my imagination. In the end, a lot of the illustrations are close-up shots, with focus on the eyes, which I think helps the reader feel a connection to the character.”

And The Ocean Is Our Sky is available to buy now from Amazon, Waterstones and Barnes and Noble.

A detail from one of Rovina's graphite drawings.

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