March 28, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #18: Alessandro Sanna

Italian illustrator Alessandro Sanna has illustrated over seventy books for children and adults. He has won multiple Andersen Prizes for his illustrations, and his United States debut, The River, was included in the IYL White Ravens Selection in 2014. His work is thoughtful and evocative, and he often explores the relationship between nature and humankind. Today, I'm excited to share my conversation with Alessandro about his second picture book to come out in the US, Pinocchio: An Origin Story.
This interview was an entirely new experience for me! Alessandro is Italian so there was a ton of translating back and forth, and it was particularly exciting to connect with someone in another country about his work on picture book illustration. And while most of Alessandro's process videos are in Italian, I found a short one that shows his process without any narration here, which provides a wonderful supplemental visual.

About the book: Told as a story of cosmic beginnings, this version of Pinocchio is about the formative energy and magic that reside in the wood that becomes the boy. This version is also about life on the molecular level and what it means to think about our composition as human beings from the point of view of energy and cosmic matter.

Let's talk Alessandro Sanna!

LTPB: What was your process like for creating an emotionally-charged, wordless story like Pinocchio: An Origin Story? How do you work to convey tone and emotion with a text?

I always try to end up with a strong level of energy in my work. While I find it difficult to describe in words the intense moments that I experience in life, I have always found good allies in brush-strokes and colors. In order to find the right mood for my stories, I make many stain and color tests that initially may seem abstract, but that eventually, with a few more touches, turn into coherent figures -- this is true for my Pinocchio as well.

LTPB: How do you begin a new project? Do you have a specific narrative in mind when you start?

I hardly ever plan in advance. I brainstorm directly on paper without restraint, always aware of the fact that all the effort and energy that I put into the work could all end up being in vain. Even so, I persevere until I see a glimmer of hope that tells me that something good is about to happen. This is the way I have always worked. I think I have learned the lesson, yet each time it feels as if it was the first. It takes a great deal of effort, but immensely gratifying when things come together. I can never say I am completely satisfied, but at least I am willing to accept a good result.

LTPB: Both Pinocchio and The River demonstrate how you gather inspiration from the nature around you and the fragility of human existence. How do you turn your observations about the ordinary into stories about the extraordinary?

Transforming the world I experience around me into images comes as second nature to me. I have always tried to replicate the strength and fragility of life. I strongly identify with whatever I am painting -- be it a landscape, a person on a bicycle, or an owl at night -- I have to “become” that thing in order to paint it. For this reason, I need to stay extremely focused while I work. I love the unexpected. I consider it the ingredient that tells me that the work is proceeding in the right direction. I always allow the water to go where it wants which then forces my brush to chase the various drops and colors that need to be controlled. This process creates a lot of excitement, and I always hold my breath until the paper is completely dry. For me, this is what it means to represent nature and life.

LTPB: I’m consistently blown away by your use of light: natural light, lanterns, even the stars. What kind of visual research do you do on the story you’re telling?

My visual research is all stored in my memory. I am a careful observer and I try to capture the shapes and colors of the things that inspire me. Light, as well as shadows and darkness, are very important elements; in my images I constantly seek the proper balance between these two opposite poles.

LTPB: What is your preferred medium and why? 

My technique is always water based, and my colors are ink-colors (ecoline is the Italian word). As I mentioned earlier, water is the element that allows for the unexpected and therefore it is also responsible for surprises.

LTPB: The River and Pinocchio feel like they are two books in a single series: they're both wordless with paneled illustrations and longer than the standard picture book length. Will we see a third book in this "series"? 

For sure there will be a third one. Maybe it already exists -- I am thinking about a Moby Dick that I did in 2013 -- but really, I'm trying to start a story set in the fog and ditches of my childhood places. I'm not sure I’ll succeed, but I know I have to try!

LTPB: Though you've written over seventy picture books, The River is considered your US debut. How and why did you extend your reach to American readers? 

My agent Paola Quintavalle, who has been handling my work for many years now, is based in the US. Every now and then I send her piles of projects that I have been working on. I had sent her The River in 2012 thinking it might not be the right project for the American market. Instead, as luck would have it, the work caught the attention of the publisher of Enchanted Lion Books, and so my American adventure began. Now I'm trying to make books for young children for which I also write the text. They are mostly philosophical thoughts on life which I offer not only to children but to adults as well. The simplicity that I seek is very difficult to achieve and this causes me to wake up in the morning with a great desire to get to my desk. What more can I ask for?

LTPB: The last question I’m asking all illustrators who participate in the series is, if you could have one illustrator (other than yourself!) illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why?

The author whom I love deeply is Saul Steinberg, but if I had to think of an illustrator I would choose William Steig. Both are dead now, but they truly are my idols.

So many people helped me put this post together -- the Publisher/Editorial and Art director of Enchanted Lion Books Claudia Zoe Bedrick, Alessandro's agent Paola Quintavalle, and translator Anna Celada (did I mention this was all in Italian just a couple of weeks ago??) -- so a huge shout out to all of them for getting this post ready for you! Pinocchio: An Origin Story published last year from Enchanted Lion Books.

Special thanks to Alessandro and Enchanted Lion Books for use of these images!

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