By Meilo So
When people ask me questions regarding my illustrative process, they are more interested in the start of it: How do you begin? How did you do the research? Do you do thumbnails? How many sketches do you do before you find the one you like for the page? Shamelessly, I have to admit all these procedures require very little effort for me. From my experience a good idea will rarely come when toying on the desk. Going for a coffee usually works, if not, perhaps on a visit to the toilet, suddenly an idea will just pop into my head from nowhere, perfectly formed and designed.
Many illustrators find it is best to work through a series of sketches, and I have tried this, only to find the one I go for is always the first one, so now I have learnt to trust this intuition, and try not to tamper with it.
How about research? It is safe for me to say the writers will have done plenty of valuable research already. What I need to do is to read and understand the writings properly. I step inside the world of the author, and at the beginning it is mysterious and dark.Then after a while I feel and find the light switch. Suddenly everything comes to light. It is quite simple.
While starting work is like going on a jaunt to the food market when you are on holiday, finishing the job is more like the chef deciding what to put on the plate. All the ingredients are in front of you: for a weekly editorial illustration, an appetizer is required, a glossy magazine may like a little delicate dessert, some home cooking for a book cover, and for a children’s picture book, a banquet is called for. What you see on the plate will reflect the experience, judgement, and innovation of the chefs, and that is work.
Being a Hong Kong-born Chinese, I am familiar with the Asian style of painting, and the calligraphic brush painting seems to please the public more than others. Like a Chinese calligrapher, I used to cut up a pile of watercolor paper, a bit of flying ink, a dash here, a blob there and you hope the picture will work like the master Qi Baishi ’s drawings of his shrimps and crabs. Now and again it worked, after doing two dozen drawings (and wasting 40 sheets of paper) I would find the type of marks that would make the picture work.
Once I was told by a designer that he actually preferred the image on the back of the artwork where I had ruthlessly made a big cross on it. Since then I have learned never to discard anything, or I should destroy everything.
With my growing interest in illustrating the content over the superficial appearance I have changed my method of work. Now I rarely use more than one piece of paper for each illustration (which saves a lot of material costs). I still like to keep the freshness of the Chinese painting, but I have learned to let every stage tell me what to do next, a bit like the chefs would taste and balance their cooking all the way. I want to stay focused on the idea or emotion to make sure they are properly conveyed, rather than getting distracted by some decorative arrangement that I am starting to fall in love with. Or perhaps spending more time working on the atmosphere of the setting that I am creating, I need to step back to make those decisions.
Very often my uncertainty of what to do next or my surplus enthusiasm might make me overwork the image. In desperation I would want to tear it up and start again, but now I take a deep breath and put it aside and have a fresh look a few days later.
Once the picture has dried I find it more forgiving, and perhaps I will paint over certain areas and work on it, without having to start from scratch. Every illustrator will probably have faced times when they knew the pictures “had” been better, when there was still a bit of life before we worked them into their coffins. In the old days, all we could do was weep, but in this digital age, we can bring the dead to life again by pressing “Undo”.
That is one great thing about digital illustration. It used to bother me when the piece of artwork did not look fresh, but experience has told me that what the reader is seeing is not my artwork but a print where the surface is always smooth and pleasing, and that is another great thing about digital illustrations.
What really matters before we decide that the work is done? Let’s go back to the chefs and their plates. If the writers have given us the best ingredients, let the ingredients shine on the plate, keep it simple. If the ingredients are not so great, maybe more seasoning and spices are needed for enhancement, but still, never overpowering. The worst case would be to put too much on the plate where everything is lost and confused. And that is the time we ought to consider scraping the plate and starting all over again.
Go to your favorite cafe/diner/your own kitchen. Open up a napkin-sized paper you have folded in half (or use a real napkin). Open it so it is like a double page spread. In less than 100 words, write on one side one thing that you find interesting in the cafe. Perhaps the tables, the cups, the pancakes, the bacon, the people, etc. Then on the other side make an illustration that you think could accompany your writing. Pay attention to the details that have not been mentioned in the writing and see if you can illustrate that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meilo was born in Hong Kong and now lives in the Shetland Isles off the northeast tip of Scotland with her husband and daughter, two cats, a cockerel, and two hens.