For the month of October, the blog post prompt is “Where did you get your inspiration for your first picture book?” My answer to that, in short, would be: Overcoming challenges! This was my first experience not only illustrating a full picture book, but also working on a subject matter that was a bit out of my personal experience, to say the least. So it was certainly a challenge, but I found it to be a fulfilling one.
Being the illustrator of a Non Fiction book, my inspiration had to reflect on the subject matter, and therefore came from China’s History, its art, and the flora and fauna that dwelled there in the time period where this story takes place. More importantly, I wanted this book to reflect the love I have for the Chinese culture, as it is the culture, and the generations before, that made my beloved Chinese husband who he is. The Chinese culture has shaped our mixed family, and I want to keep that very culture alive for our children.
I first began brainstorming with the biggest challenge at hand: the story is told by the adult main character, who is reflecting on what happened in his past as a child. I would have to illustrate a Past and Present main character. There would have to be a clear visual definition between what was happening in the past versus what is happening now. My solution came to me in the form of a memory book, or a scrap book. The entire story is told as the main character gathers his photographs, field notes, and water color paintings and puts them together into a memory book!
Now that the format had been decided, I next had to figure out my color palette. I wanted my art to reflect many aspects of the art I had seen during my visit to China, years ago. China has such a rich history of art, from watercolors, to silk paintings, to paintings on scrolls. So when it came to inking my line work, I found that none of my many stock colors were good enough for the job. I had to mix up a large batch of the perfect blue-green-grey shade of ink that I had seen in so many famous Chinese ink paintings. That ink color led me to my full color palette, through trial and error.
The next challenge was to figure out a way to make the memory book pages stand against the “real life” art, so the reader would instantly know the difference of time and place. So I decided on two completely different styles of line, texture, and paper. For the spreads that depicted the adult main character in the present, I used a thin pen nib for line work, smooth hot press paper, and I superimposed various textures on certain objects to give them a more lifelike feeling. For the spreads that depicted the main character’s memory book, I painted my line work with a thin brush versus a nib, rough cold press paper, and I also added small colorful accents with water soluble crayons.
My original bit of inspiration for the illustrations in this story came from an old bed that once belonged to my late mother in law. I was in awe at the intricate carvings that decorated the entire frame of the bed. I had wanted to use this as a framework for my spreads, much like the way Jan Brett frames out the art in her spreads, but it just wasn’t working the way I had planned. The traditional cherry wood color was far too heavy and did not go well with the palette I was trying to work with. But I really wanted to include the intricate patterns in some way.
My book’s author, Sigrid Schmalzer, had the ingenious idea of using the traditional Chinese folk art of paper cutting in lieu of the heavy wood frame work. Something during her travels in China had triggered the idea, and it worked out perfectly!
And so the rest is history! You can see how I used the paper cutting idea to frame out the art on the cover of the book. Or... is that actually the cover of the main character’s memory book? You’ll have to read “Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong” to find out! Thanks for taking the time to read about what inspired me the most on this project!
Melanie Linden Chan
“Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong” by Sigrid Schmalzer illustrated by Melanie Linden Chan
Tilbury House Publishers, February 6 2018
Available for pre-order now, at your favorite book store!