Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder by Gelrev Ongbico


After the unforgettable Rooftoppers, comes The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, easily my most anticipated book of the year. ‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago there was a dark and stormy girl’, it begins. With echoes of the Brothers Grimm and the work of Snoopy, this is a book that already feels like a classic. But The Wolf Wilder comes with an unexpected surprise – gorgeous, atmospheric illustrations throughout by Gelrev Ongbico. Astonishingly this is his first ever children’s book. So how did he do it? I asked Gelrev about the process of creating the images for this unforgettable tale of wolves, revolution and ballet in a dark and stormy Russia.


Gelrev: I got an email from Bloomsbury’s design team inquiring if I had ever considered illustrating a children’s book, and if I would be interested in working with them on a book. They gave a brief description of the story and it had scenes of forests, trees and animals, things and topics that are interesting to me.


The design team was kind enough to send in some samples of, I think, past interior art that they worked on, and they also made suggestions and provided help. I then went on to do some further research and even by just typing in “black and white snow” into Google one can have lots of inspiration already, so I mostly focused on those. I also drew inspiration from the dark work of Edgar Allan Poe, the work of my favorite Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and his compatriot, photographer Masahisa Fukase and the wildlife illustrations of Charles Livingstone Bull.

bull wolves

I can actually say that they gave me a lot of freedom (which was both fun and scary) especially when it came to creating the interior art. Katherine provided some thoughts/ feedback/ suggestions on some of the illustrations. The design team would consult with her, though I’m not sure how often, but the team would relay to me if she had any feedback, and together with their feedback, I would work on the illustrations.

Tygertale: Although Gelrev didn’t work directly with Katherine Rundell there were unexpected overlaps between her vision for the book and Gelrev’s realisation. ‘This is the photo that gave me the idea of Feo asleep in a pile of wolves‘, she writes.


And this was Gelrev’s finished image. ‘As far as I know, Gelrev never saw the photo – just a lovely coincidence’  says Katherine.


Gelrev: For the cover, the design team gave some ideas/suggestions but they were open to considering my own ideas. I submitted 3-4 concept sketches and we started working from there.


For the interior art, I was given a brief, sort of a guideline on what particular parts/scenes of/from the story to draw for each chapter header, vignette, etc. Basically, scenes from the story that they’d like me to focus on. But for the most part, I can say that I was given a lot of freedom to interpret the scenes as how I saw them in my mind.


I think when it comes to creating artwork, the general process is the same for most people. When it comes to making illustrations, I first do thumbnails to explore various designs/compositions. I then would refine the drawings, scan them, and work on them in Photoshop where I would redraw the pencil drawings using a number of brushes, add/remove textures, etc. until I arrive at an image that’s more or less close to the thumbnail and to the image I had in mind. Though in reality this doesn’t always happen. 🙂 (I’ll try to demonstrate this later.)


These were some of the textures I used in creating the illustrations. They’re mostly just random marks made on paper using either ink, acrylic and watercolours, etc.


I think the biggest challenge for me was my lack of experience, because this was my first time to illustrate a children’s book. A previous experience would have been very invaluable. I did tell the design team about it because I knew that they were operating a business, and I worried that I might mess up production due to inexperience, but they were kind enough to say that they can guide me through the process if I want and will be open to any questions that I may have, which made me grateful.Untitled-1

Another challenge for me was the availability of references when I needed them. I did buy a book called “Wildlife Painting Basics (Wolves, Foxes and Coyotes)” by Jan Martin McGuire which helped, and I downloaded a bunch of wolf and figure drawing tutorials from Deviantart and various websites and studied them. I also reviewed figure drawing from sources like Andrew Loomis’ books.

I usually start by creating thumbnails to explore various designs/compositions. Here I scanned 3 pencil drawings and used Photoshop to push the values.

Once I’ve decided on a composition, I would then gather lots of references and start making more detailed drawings. Here I scanned the drawings.


I usually work on the environment first because I find that working on the trees, rocks, etc. is more fun than working on the characters 🙂 I use a brush pen to create the trees, twigs, branches, etc. which I then scan into Photoshop to further manipulate. I try to use them over and over, I just skew, resize, flip, combine, etc. them so I won’t be wasting lots of paper and trees.


Once I have the background/environment, I then would work on the characters. I would set the wolf drawing layer to Multiply (blending mode), and create another layer below it, and then I would trace the drawing using a Photoshop brush.


I then would add and use a variety of textures and brushes to slowly build up the illustration. Repeat this process to do the other wolf.


And here is the finished image showing Black and White in action.


​I think that for most people, wolves are these dangerous animals that will attack and eat humans if they want to, probably fuelled by stories of werewolves and of course, those of popular tales including the Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs that are usually introduced to humans at a young age. When I first learned of the Wolf Wilder, the story of the Little Red Riding Hood first came to mind, as it also involved a wolf and a girl.


Buy the Wolf Wilder from Bookshop.org


3 thoughts on “Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder by Gelrev Ongbico

  1. Fascinating, I wonder how they found him? The pictures, and particularly the textures that Gelrev talks about – giving the feeling of snow and wilderness – add so much to the story – in itself a wonderful and mysterious thing! I’d been looking forward to it too, and it was completely gripping! And so good to see illustrated books for older readers.


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