Illustrating Franz Kafka's "A Report to an Academy"

One of my absolute favorite assignments while studying illustration at Watkins College of Art was to create a "dummy book" - a partially finished illustrated book, typically sent to publishers as a sample. This dummy book could illustrate any public domain story of my choice, and since I was feeling pretty introspective and weird at the time I opted for a Franz Kafka story. A Report to an Academy is the tale of an ape who has to decide between a life of captivity and a life spent performing for the entertainment of humans. Yep, real uplifting stuff!

Note to reader: If you're interested in downloading the dummy book and reading the story with my accompanying illustrations/sketches, click here. Please excuse the horrendous type - I hadn't yet taken any typography courses when I made this!

Choice of Medium

In keeping with the rather dark and weighty nature of the story, I decided that moody, black & white drawings would be best. I made this back in Spring of 2012, before ever trying to draw in pen & ink, so pencil was my weapon of choice. While not always appropriate, I feel like it's emotive, traditional look was ideal for Kafka. I used mostly a mechanical pencil and a black colored pencil for the finished illustrations. I later took Kristi Hargrove's Drawing II class and she suggested I use proper pencils. Needless to say, my drawings are much better now.

Character Design

I did a lot of research in preparation for this project. Most of the illustrations feature the story's protagonist, Red, so a lot of this research revolved around him. My first step was to teach myself how to draw apes, which pretty much involves Googling "ape" and drawing a bunch of apes. Once I had the basics of ape-yness down, I designed Red. I studied ways to give him as much emotion, character, and humanity as possible while keeping his look consistent. 


One of the most challenging aspects of the project was dividing the story into sensible sections for each page. It was a lot of fun plotting out where each picture would land and deciding what would be the most appropriate visualization of the illustrated segment. This process emphasized how much power the storybook illustrator has, guiding the reader's imagination and creating a world in which the author's story can live.

Meet Red

This is the opening spread of the book, introducing Red who narrates the story. I decided that the reader should first see him post-transformation, as the man-like performing ape he is at the time he is telling his tale. In this illustration, I used the various items on his dressing table to give the reader clues into his lifestyle and character. My favorite pictures are those that continue to reveal their secrets well after the first glance; pictures that can be studied time and time again.

Dummy Book Sketches

Every page of the book features some sort of image, from spot illustrations to full spreads. It was a great deal of fun to create Red's universe, depicting his past spent traveling on a merchant ship, his time spent in study with various teachers and doctors, and his later stages of life as a "civilized man".

All of the drawings began as rough pencil sketches. I then digitally refined the pictures that were not to be fully rendered, to give them a cleaner, more finished look. To see all the sketches, download the entire dummy book.

The Cover

For the cover image I wished to summarize my own interpretation of the story and what it says about freedom and identity. While Red does not end up in a cage at the zoo, his cost was to sacrifice who he was and act as another entirely. While he enjoys aspects of his newfound humanness and the illusion of freedom with which it comes, he is less free than he ever was. The ship in the story carries him to his fate - a life of captivity, one way or another. The ship in a bottle also appears in the final spread, a trinket on Red's writing desk beside his finished report.


I took quite a bit of license with my pictures, perhaps projecting a more solemn and nihilistic perspective of the story than others might have. Red's voice sounds strong, but I wanted to capture his inner life. I tried to approach the design as a cinematographer would, communicating not only through the subject matter, but also through the point of view and scale. This picture accompanies Red's reflection on freedom. He describes how humans can't possibly know what it is to be truly free, yet are consistently deceived into believing that they are. I hoped to illustrate his isolation, and the human hivemind from which he so fervently separates himself.

These illustrations were due one week apart, and I was taking three other classes at the time. I remember having to stay up literally all night to finish this drawing in time for critique the next morning - my first college all-nighter! 

Naturally, looking back on this project now there are things I would do differently. Over the three  and a half years since I made it, I've learned a lot about composition, flow, and storytelling, and my drawing skills have vastly improved, but I'm pleased with it as a first serious attempt. The two finished illustrations garnered some attention while I was at college, winning some awards including a National Student Addy, which really boosted my confidence and fueled me to work as hard as possible. Since discovering pen & ink I haven't done a ton of finished pencil drawings, but the pencil was my first true love. I hope to work on more graphite and storybook projects going forward!