April 3, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #64: Leo Espinosa

It seems unlikely that, at this point, you haven't seen Junot Díaz and Leo Espinosa's picture book Islandborn. It's a book that feels ubiquitous these days, and for good reason: not only is the message timely, but it's thought-provoking, too, allowing readers who don't necessarily have the same experiences as the character Lola to put themselves in a position of asking where they came from and how their heritage informs who they are today. If you haven't listened to Junot's Keynote Speech from Winter Institute earlier this year you should (and that can be found here), but today we're here to talk about the illustrations in the book because, as amazing as the text is, Islandborn wouldn't be what it is without Leo's visuals. Have a look.

About the book:
Every kid in Lola's school was from somewhere else. 

Hers was a school of faraway places.

So when Lola's teacher asks the students to draw a picture of where their families immigrated from, all the kids are excited. Except Lola. She can't remember The Island––she left when she was just a baby. But with the help of her family and friends and their memories––joyous, fantastical, heartbreaking, and frightening––Lola's imagination takes her on an extraordinary journey back to The Island. As she draws closer to the heart of her family's story, Lola comes to understand the truth of her abuela's words: "Just because you don't remember a place doesn't mean it's not in you."

Peek underneath the dust jacket here.

Let's talk Leo Espinosa!

LTPB: Let’s start by talking about Islandborn. What kind of research did you do (factually and visually) to get the images right? How did you mix in the realities of your research with your own unique art style? 

LE: I did my own research but also got help from Junot and the team at Dial Books about specific elements in the story. We spent a lot of time getting the characters right, and that means having the right hair styles, skin tones, clothes, etc.

I lived in New York City for close to a decade and I’m very familiar with its architecture, so that came in handy when working on Lola’s neighborhood. For the vegetation and anything else that represented the Dominican Republic, I had my own memories of Colombia, where I grew up, and was lucky enough to travel to Hawaii when I was first working on sketches, so I drew and took plenty of photos during that trip.

Obviously Google is a tremendous tool to complement and verify that all my references are correct; for instance, I wanted to have the right kind of whales that are mentioned in the story and Google was the only way I could find that out.

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you get a new project? Do you make a conscious effort to create different types of illustrations for different types of books?

LE: I’ve been trying to be somewhat consistent with the last books I’ve made, but if I have to alter the way I normally illustrate in benefit of the story, I do it. One good example is all the tropical elements in Islandborn that represent Lola’s imagination and her own idea of The Island she doesn’t remember. These elements appear every time The Island is mentioned, and because they “grow” around Lola’s busy neighborhood, they needed to look strikingly different. My solution was to render all those elements with digital watercolors, brighter tones, and loose brushstrokes that I wouldn’t use otherwise.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? How does your process change from book to book?

LE: I use pencil on paper for my sketches and Photoshop for color. That’s pretty much the same for all books. The only thing that changes at the beginning of each one of them is the way I approach Photoshop; my new motto is “get to where you want to go, but find a different path this time.” That allows me to improvise, learn, and grow as an artist while avoiding boring repetition.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

LE: Sorry, I cannot show you anything yet, but I’m working on illustrations for a children’s product, doing art direction for a short video, and starting on a new book pretty soon.

LTPB: If you were to write a picture book autobiography, who would you want to illustrate it (dead or alive!), and why?

LE: What a strange but wonderful question! Alive, my good friend Bob Staake because of his storytelling and great understanding of design. He also will improve my poor writing. Dead, Morislav Sasek, because I would die to see his drawings of the places I’ve lived in.

A huge thanks to Leo for taking time to chat with me and sharing his process! Islandborn published last month from Dial Books!

Special thanks to Leo and Dial Books for use of these images!

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