Q&A with Maral Sassouni
e: What was your path to publication?
Maral: After about 20 years working as an editorial illustrator, my focus turned to children’s publishing. I became more and more enchanted with the pictures books I saw in the libraries and bookshops in Paris. Soon I began to frequent book fairs, at Montreuil (near Paris) then elsewhere in France… and finally —inevitably — ending up at the Bologna Book Fair.
I’d always wanted to tell stories with pictures, but had much to learn about visual narrative. Luckily at Bologna I met Monica Monachesi (art director and curator extraordinaire) who pointed me in the direction of Sarmède in Northern Italy. Workshops are held there on all aspects of children’s illustration, as well as printmaking, painting and so on. Founded by the Stepan Zavrel (brilliant Czech illustrator and a great favorite of mine), it’s full of talented artists and incredible generous teachers (I was taught by Svjetlan Junakovich and Linda Wolfsgruber both of whom are nominees for the Anderson awards!).
As a result, I had work in exhibits that were all over Italy and Europe, new portfolio pieces I could show at book fairs and publishing houses, and the beginnings of some picture book dummies.
I completed the text and color illustrations for one of those dummies (Crocodile Shoes) and sent it to competitions (3x3, Nami and Society of Illustrators), where it did very well. But I still hadn’t a clue about how to approach publishers in the US. Cue: the SCBWI Conference.
e: How did winning the SCBWI Portfolio Show change things for you?
Maral: To put it into context, the 2013 SCBWI Conference was the first time I’d ever been to ANY SCBWI event EVER. I went expecting nothing more than advice and feedback. But to my utter surprise, I won the Portfolio Showcase Award, and that has really changed EVERYTHING for me. Here’s what happened:
I met the person who later became my editor at North South Books. She offered me a contract some months later. The book I did with them is The Green Umbrella, to be released in Feb 2017.
The portfolio grand prize included a free trip to New York, with many meetings at publishing houses arranged for me by SCBWI (along with a few more meetings I managed to arrange on my own) so I ended up going to lots of rendez-vous with art directors, editors, and agents. I learned so much, and above all it was the start of a conversation that continues to this day!
I met illustrators and authors at the conference who have become good friends— I’m in constant touch with them: we talk shop, we pool our information and chat throughout the year. Every so often there’s a “Lost Weekend” where we meet, most recently in New Orleans last May.
Things didn’t end there, of course. I continue to be a member of SCBWI. The second year I went to the summer conference, I found my agent, Jen Rofé (of Andrea Brown Literary Agency). I’ll stay involved with SCBWI whenever I can because there’s still so much to learn…
e: What is your medium?
Maral: It’s a mix of cut paper collage and painting. I use oil paint, acrylics, and inks, and occasionally color pencil. The characters are generally created separately, like little paper puppets, which I then glue to the painted/collaged setting, along with any foreground elements. I use Photoshop (when necessary) to digitally assemble hand-made collage elements and occasionally add some sparkle and glow where needed.
e: Can you walk us through your process?
Maral: After the publisher approves the sketches (including the character design) I get started on the preliminaries. It begins with choosing colors for the whole book, and deciding on textures. This has to be done first, because I create the paper I use for collaging. So I do a series of color studies in acrylics, like this:
It takes a good bit of trial and error. Once the color decisions have been made, then I create the papers. First I make monoprints (big enough for full bleed double spread artwork). I make other kinds of colored paper as well— including layers of rough brushstrokes; salt into wet acrylics; sponge textures; sandpapering; scribbles; stamping (with just about anything that comes to hand: straws, chopsticks, bubble wrap, and so on). Then it’s just a matter of which colors/textures can be put together harmoniously. I keep them in folders organized by color (so I can just reach for the color I need…).
I don’t transfer the drawing onto the watercolor paper because it will soon be covered by layers of collage. I trace the drawing onto a large piece of tracing paper or vellum (with trim, bleed, gutter, and text areas) and tape that into place. I use this vellum flap to position the collage pieces correctly later on.
I use Arches Hot Press watercolor paper (140 lb). I draw on the trim line, the bleed line and marks for the gutter lightly in pencil. Then I soak, stretch and staple the paper onto the board. When it dries, I paint a background color, typically the sky or the ground.
Then I’m ready to collage. I usually begin with the setting— the houses and the street, for example
I approach each setting differently. The houses are on a pale blue monoprint, with the details (doors and windows) added in color pencil. I collaged each roof, separately.. And the shadows were in an oil paint glaze (a dab of Prussian blue and plenty of Liquin). I hold the pieces in position with putty (easy to reposition!!). I don’t glue anything down until the end.
Then I create the characters. This is the fun part, and really important to get it right (in terms of body language and facial expression) — I sometimes have to do several versions and pick the best one! It all begins with a simple line drawing of the character in pencil…
Then I take the line drawing and sort of explode it! Using the light box I draw it again such that all the body parts etc are separately drawn. It’s not as complicated as it sounds — you just end up with a page with the head, 2 arms, 2 legs, a dress and 2 boots, for the example above. I retrace them to the prepared color paper. I paint the face and a few details in acrylics, then cut the pieces out and glue them together.
These mice were scanned separately and placed into the composition digitally…
…but normally the characters are glued into the setting that I collaged previously.
Once all the elements (setting, characters and props) are in position, I glue them down. I use a good glue stick or matte medium. There are a few final touches to add— things like shadows and reflections on the wet pavements and puddle-splashes. Those are usually done in an oil glaze.
Occasionally there’s some “post-production” in photoshop after the artwork is scanned. For instance, the raindrops were added digitally for all the scenes in the rainy town, and a few hand made elements were collaged digitally (like those mice).
So my process is a mix of very methodical and intuitive. The preliminaries and assembly can be minute and laborious, but they also leave a lot of freedom for late-breaking inspirations that you glue on unexpectedly. Et voilà!!
e: Were there special challenges on this book?
Maral: I had the usual challenges of every first-time picture book illustrator:
Firstly character consistency throughout the book.
Secondly, continuity (consistent with all the details from page to page. It’s harder than you might think!).
Aside from those challenges, the particular ones in this book were
1. The five characters in this book came in a very wide range of sizes— they went from hedgehog up to elephant! That much difference in the dimensions of the characters posed a big challenge in terms of composition. They were interacting with each other: there had to be eye contact. And it had to work in all other ways.So I created a contrast in two ways… I did it with my use of color (a cool monochromatic palette in the rainy town, vs. warm and vivid colors in the imagination/adventure scenes). And I also did it with composition, alternating between spots layouts (for the rainy scenes) and full bleed double spread (for the imaginative interludes). Again, it took a good bit of experimentation to find what worked best.
2. I had to create a contrast between the two realities — the everyday world (the elephant in the rainy city, meeting one animal after another) and the world of imagination and adventure as described by each animal.
e: Thanks so much Maral, and congratulations!