Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Q&A for Thesis Students - children's book illustration in the making part 3

Many students request me for a personal interview for their book illustration thesis. In order to facilitate student’s research requirements, I have compiled most common interview and research questions and posted them here. I hope what I wrote will help in some way and save their time researching.

Why are illustrations important in children’s books?

Children at such a young age are still learning how to read and understand the meaning of words. Illustrations or pictures help them understand those words and perhaps some issues being tackled in the story. Sometimes illustrations also extend the story visually to a different depth where words cannot express enough.

What inspires you to illustrate for children’s books?

When you illustrate for children, you can be what you want, do all you can. You can make your own story and it extends your imagination. Through illustration, when your work is published, your message to the world in the form of art (or design) can reach a wider audience and impart something invaluable. "Reading" images or illustration is like deciphering a puzzle, and it works amazingly when you unlock those hidden messages.

How would you know whether your artwork would appeal to children?

It’s actually a hit or miss; people in general (since they are actually the ones with the buying power) may love or hate your artwork. Appeal is about personal taste, after all. Maurice Sendak's classic "Where the Wild Things Are" may not be to everyone's understanding but the majority love the book. My black and white illustrations in the book "Tight Times" by Jeanette Patindol won't be understood by as many kids as to why it is colorless, but it won recognition among stakeholders. The best thing to do is try to make a study first, sampling a few illustrations to your audience-the kids in your family, neighbors etc., then ask them what they think about your work. Observe them, their toys, things. Do your research. But usually, cartoon-like and brightly colored illustrations never fail and should work well. 

It is worth noting too that children's preferences in picture book illustrations is also linked to how art lessons were taught. For example, if their art teacher has properly taught them to be open minded about seeing or appreciating beauty and not imposing stereotypes (only objects that are straight, clean, complete, and bright is beautiful), then they can probably pick a wide range of illustration styles. 

Here's another reflection on this topic. 

How did you get into the business?

When I was studying, I thought I should be enhancing my background as an artist. That was the point I got the chance to know Ang INK and wanted to be a part of the group. I wanted to meet the best and famous illustrators at the time. It really helped me well, especially in the knowledge of illustrating and producing books for children. Children's book illustration is a totally different area in the world of art and design. It requires a special attention and illustration skill, a big social responsibility actually. You don't just have to make pretty picture books.

How are you chosen to illustrate for a particular book?

The usual practice locally is that the author gets to choose his own style of illustration, but the publisher or you as an illustrator may also suggest the most effective way to convey the story. If a style fits the mood of the story, and you can render that style, then it’s your book. Oftentimes, the author and publisher entrusts me to illustrate their book, so most of the visual thinking is done by me. Usually I’m free to choose which scenes to visualize or highlight in the spread, or the designs of characters, settings, color scheme etc., though sometimes they will suggest what works and what fails, like particular situations or settings.

What type of projects do you enjoy most? Why?

I like projects that are entirely entrusted to you with your own creative freedom, clients who are very open about innovative or avant-garde ideas. This is how creativity soars high in me, and it really affects the output. I am very fortunate and grateful that most of my projects are such. Sometimes I don't mind if a project doesn't pay well, as long as my enthusiasm compensates for it and generates wonderful causes.

How does an illustrator get paid for a commission?

Usually, some publishers prefer the outright fee. They give you a one time professional fee for all the illustrations within a mutually agreed definite period of time. Other publishers also offer royalties. An illustrator in our country today, if one is very resourceful and creative enough, may earn not only through publishing alone. Some illustrators I know venture their artworks in different applications like household items, fashion, merchandising, and even recreational spaces.

What media have you already used in illustrating for children’s books?

So far, I’ve been using mostly water-based media like acrylic, watercolor, charcoal, and pencil on board and canvas. I have noticed that some students do not take their materials and artworks seriously. You may experiment on different media but always keep in mind also about the longevity and conservation of the artwork: use only durable and quality media.

How did you arrive at your particular style?

I myself don’t think have a particular style yet. It really varies per story. In my work, I tend to match the style to the story. If the story requires realistic renditions, then I should shift accordingly. For me, your particular style does not matter; an illustrator is an illustrator - you visualize regardless of artistic style. I think style develops and emerges eventually as you become critical and conscious of your works through time.

But my approach in illustrating is to go beyond the story and make it my own somehow. Rather than illustrating the obvious literal scenes, I want to show more by putting other details which the reader won't find in the texts. I want the readers to think and look more, and ask themselves what, why, and how. The illustrations may somehow be independent of the texts, like in picture books. I also make it a habit to incorporate the Filipino identity in my illustrations, whether in color scheme, ideology, settings, or characters.

What are the processes involved in illustrating a children’s book?

Usually it all starts in a meeting of all the book production team involved: the author, the illustrator, and the publisher. You discuss the look, content, and flow of the story. Then you submit thumbnails for them to know your plans for the story. After approval of the thumbnails, you get to transfer your ideas in pencil, the actual artwork. You then again have these approved. From there you color and finish everything. The publisher will then have it designed in book form. Sometimes, you also get to check color proofs during the printing stage of the book so colors will be accurate to your original artworks.

Is there any book that you would like to re-illustrate or redesign?

Unless the book really looks bad or there's a compelling justification for re-illustrating, I don't think it's ethical to do so. I believe every book is a product of intellect and hardwork, so when you re-illustrate a book make sure there's really a problem, reason, or you present a new take on the story. If ever your thesis requires re-illustration, stick to the classics and not recent books, or better yet why not create your original story? I would love to illustrate children's versions for Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo if I have the chance.

As an illustrator, what are the common difficulties that you encounter? On the other hand, what are the perks? What do you enjoy most about it?

It is very difficult to find time that will fit the average production schedule which is usually around 1-2 months. Illustrating books requires so much of your time if you really want your work to look better, and spend time longer if you want it to look the best. The enjoyable part is the time when you actually see your works, after so much hard work, being published and displayed on stores. And finally being read by kids, being appreciated for your work, and then you hear their crazy but honest comments.

Has the taste preference of children changed over the years?

Definitely preferences change through time. It also evolves coincidentally with technology. Preferences depend on demographics and culture, it is very subjective. One cannot particularly tell which book will likely be well-loved or a best-seller. Generally, a delightful book will always have that universal appeal. A delightful book may not always be the"best" book. Likewise, the "best" book may not always be well-received or become a best-seller.

Here's a similar reflection on this topic.

What problems do book illustrators face today?

What I’m looking at now, as one of the problems, I guess, is that foreign competitors dominate the local book industry. I have learned that there are still many of us Pinoys who recommend foreign/imported books more than our own local books. It is sad but we still have this colonial mentality within us, when in fact we have all the talents far greater than, if not at par with, the world has to offer, if only given the chance.

The local children's book scene is not as enthusiastically supported and financially rewarding unlike in other parts of the world where illustrators and authors are esteemed and celebrated. It is sad that our industry is being looked down only because they are just books for kids and nothing more than just fairy tales. Most people don't realize the creativity and passion that every bookmaker place in each of the books that children read. More importantly, some people never take advantage the power of children's literature has: the potential to influence positively a child's values and experiences even today.

Another problem, I think, although only indirectly affecting illustrators, is technology. The printing technique, design, and quality of imported books have come a long way from our own, based on what I'm seeing on the shelves. So far, I'm satisfied with only a few print production houses who are very meticulous in their output especially binding, ink quality, and clarity regardless of budget. Of all I have worked with, only a few of them can also understand design, or are willing to produce your bizarre design ideas at the most cost efficient budget. 

Other problems include infringement of intellectual property rights, the preference for digital to conventional media, and the proliferation and use of image banks and archives.
With all these challenges that faces the children's book illustrator in our country, it is very sad that only few stay in the game. I have met some talented illustrators who have turned their back on this vocation and pursued other more rewarding interests, so only the more passionate children's book illustrators remain. No wonder there's still a lot of work to be done.

What advice can you give to aspiring illustrators?

Just keep on enjoying what you do best and strive to produce quality works, make your own legacy proudly with your name on it. Educate more people about art and the profession so more will take it seriously. Most importantly, please love our country and fellow Filipinos, they're all we've got.

Naku, Nakuu, Nakuuu illustrations in the making Part 2


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