Thursday, October 15, 2009
Six years, three years—oh dear, some times it takes a lot of time (and a big camera) to illustrate a book
I have been so absorbed in projects that I haven’t had a chance to celebrate that my newest book, My Abuelita, written by Tony Johnston, has hit the shelves this fall. There are many reasons for me to be excited about this book, but the most important one is that it was a challenge to illustrate it, and that I did it.
And so, in the spirit of a little release celebration, I though I would show how My Abuelita was made.
Care to find out?
Six years. In 2003, when I signed the contract to create the illustrations for My Abuelita, written by Tony Johnston, I didn’t anticipate that it would take me this long to see the work completed. But at the time I had other books to finish before I could begin any new project, and so time began to pass.
Time passing is a good opportunity for daydreaming. Daydreaming is an opportunity for imagining. And imagining is how my illustrations start.
During the years I needed to complete other books, I imagined how the illustrations for My Abuelita would look someday. When it comes to my work, I don’t really imagine things like a character’s features or the colors of skin and clothes. Instead, I imagine possibilities. And so I began imagining the possibility of making the illustrations for My Abuelita not with paintings, as I had done with all of my previous books, but utilizing something I had long adored: dolls and puppets.
When I had just arrived in the USA from Mexico, I fell in love with making puppets. I learned about it from books I borrowed from the library. It was through making puppets that I began exploring the creation of my own stories and characters, which eventually led me to create my own books. Yet I have never stopped loving the wonder of inanimate objects moving, posing, and coming alive to enact stories.
The more imagining I did, the crazier the idea of using puppets became. This seemed like a project that would require many different kinds of techniques: sculpting, sewing, painting, photography, digital work. Could I really do this all by myself? How was I going to make rigid puppets have facial expression? What would happen to the curved lines I like to use in my work? Could I still keep a sense of movement flooding my illustrations if I had to build them rather than paint them? Would I need to hire a photographer, and would he or she be in tune with the vision I had of my work? And more important, what would my publisher think about it? (They scratched their chins. “Let us see,” they said. “Try it.”)
In 2006 I finally started working on My Abuelita, a story of a grandmother and her grandchild living together and bonding through imagination and storytelling. By then I had closed my eyes to my own doubts. I had decided to use puppets and props to make scenes, buy my husband, Tim, the camera he’d always wanted, and finish the illustrations using digital media. There were still plenty of things I didn’t know how I would do, but I trusted that I would find a way of learning—I would study or ask people to teach me, and one way or another I would figure it all out.
The work began with bad drawings, as usual. My first attempts always produce the simplest and roughest drawings. They are stick people without features or details—pure shape and energy. Later, based on the text, I began refining my drawings to conjure this grandmother shaped like a pumpkin, her loving grandchild, and their cat, Frida Kahlo.
As I was establishing the look of my characters in sketches, I began working on thumbnails, small drawings where I concentrate on the compositional and storytelling elements of the 32 pages of the book. While in the past I have used my thumbnails as the road map for drawing refined sketches and ultimately paintings, this time my thumbnails were the reference for creating three-dimensional scenes. In these thumbnails, all of the characters, places, situations, attitudes, and objects in every scene were established.
With my general plan for the book visually laid down, it was time to begin building the characters and elements that would appear in the illustrations. I wrote down a list so that I would not forget anyone.
I have made puppets before; papier-mâché pulp is my favorite construction material. But I knew that My Abuelita needed puppets that would withstand extensive maneuvering. I would need to position them in diverse poses and attitudes, and they would need to stay. So I began studying stop-motion animation techniques.
On a wire structure I built by twisting wire and wrapping silk thread, I sculpted my characters. I used polymer clay, which stays soft and malleable while working, but hardens when baked in a kitchen oven. Because I needed my characters to move, I left bare wire joints for the neck, knees, wrist, fingers, waists, and more. Later I would cover the joints digitally. Once baked and hardened, I primed the figures and began to paint them. I decided then to give my puppets features but not expressions (including no eyes), so that later I could create expressions digitally for the different moments in the story.
For Frida the cat, I mulled over how to make her fuzzy. I found my answer in felting. Using a special needle with an indentation on the tip, I learned to clump felt fibers over my wire cat skeleton and sculpt them into the shape I wanted. The hair of Abuelita and her grandchild were also made with this technique.
Next I sewed their little dresses, pants, and shirts. The boy’s shirt is my favorite because I put it together with fabric printed with motifs based on a Mexican Loteria game. El corazón card became the front; el pájaro card is on the back. For many of the linens and clothes, I bought fabrics and laces in Mexico; many are common fabrics that have been used for generations.
Everything from little bedroom slippers to little toys, beds, spoons, a feathered crown, and more had to be created. I painted the image of the artist Frida Kahlo with my computer, printed it on fabric, then sewed it into a lace pillow for Abuelita. Some objects, like Abuelita’s iron bed, I designed while I was in Mexico visiting my family. There I found a metal worker who, following my drawing, cut and soldered the bed for me. Other elements, like the clay dishes Abuelita and her grandchild use at breakfast, are toy crafts played with by children in Mexico. I bought mine in el mercado, my hometown’s market. To create the metal mirror in Abuelita’s house, I embossed a sheet of aluminum foil in the style of traditional Mexican silver works.
My Abuelita is a story that honors both everyday life and imagination. These two worlds come together in the story, and they needed to come together in the illustrations as well, while still being distinguishable from each other. But how? I decided to depict the real world of Abuelita’s family with my three-dimensional creations; their imaginary world would be portrayed in my paintings.
And so the images began developing through an amalgam of different techniques. In my husband’s photography studio, we propped up the walls of Abuelita’s house, which were boards that I textured and painted. Using my early thumbnails as storyboards, we furnished every scene with the props I had made, and we positioned the puppets as they enacted the story in front of the camera. Depending on their complexity, setting up the scenes to be photographed took from one to three days each.
Lighting played a big role. From illuminating the general scene to adding glow and shadows to each puppet, the process was handled by Tim. He listened to and interpreted my lighting wishes, experimented with different approaches, positioned photographic lamps, and even constructed miniature reflectors and small light boxes in order to concentrate light on the smallest of characters.
Eighteen high-resolution photographs were taken to create the book. One by one I uploaded them to my computer so that I could digitally finish in Photoshop. The list of work to do was long:
Abuelita, her grandchild, and Frida Khalo the cat had to be given eyes and expression. Sometimes whole eyelids, mouths, and cheeks were digitally destructed and reconstructed in order to give their faces a more realistic expression.
Skin was built wherever bare wire joints showed. Fingers and toes were repositioned so that they would be in visual tune with what the characters were doing and feeling.
Some scenes required that new glows and shadows be manually redrawn.
Real food was cooked, photographed, and digitally served in the photographed dishes.
A model car that was smaller than we needed had to be seamlessly adapted to the driving scene.
The alligator clamps, clay, pins, strings, and any other tools that kept the puppets, floors, walls, and props in place had to be erased.
And the list continued.
One of the last steps was the blending of the imaginary world with the real one: my paintings had to be integrated into the photographs. Using my computer, I layered every photograph with a painting, one on top of the other, and blended them together as one. I erased some parts and redrew others. I extracted or copied pieces of the images, grabbing colors and textures, and then moved them where I needed them. In a way this felt as if I were sculpting the illustrations—not much different than my adding, extracting, and moving clay when I sculpted my puppets over the wire armature.
Then, after about three years, I was done!
Illustrating is a series of choices. I give voice to my work by choosing ideas, possibilities, and ways of using art (and not my ability to draw, my painting skills, or how good or bad I am at anything). I hope that the way I chose to tell the story of My Abuelita comes out with a voice “as round as dimes and as wild as blossoms blooming” and that even Abuelita would be proud.
Now that My Abuelita is long finished and is already a completed book, what I keep closest to me is that fantastic feeling of being at the studio, setting the puppets in the scenes. No matter how tired I was or how many times we reset the puppets (which often moved or fell, crashing the whole scene), it always made me squirm with pure delight to have Abuelita, her grandchild, and Frida the cat bring to life a scene I had only imagined. How I had dreamed of this perfect moment, ever since I was a child playing with my dolls.
Yuyi. Two hands, callused feet. Mother of a skyscraper. Fears abduction by extraterrestrials. Would like to move things with her mind. Resident of the purple house. Morales