July 9, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #113: Jen Corace

I felt so lucky to catch up with illustrator Jen Corace about her newest book Small World, written by Ishta Mercurio. Jen adds layers of wonder, color, and geometry into every poetic word written by Mercurio, and it's hard not to spend hours looking at each individual spread. Needless to say, this book is pretty special, so I'll let Jen take the conversation from here. 

About the book:
When Nanda is born, the whole of her world is the circle of her mother’s arms. But as she grows, the world grows too. It expands outward—from her family, to her friends, to the city, to the countryside. And as it expands, so does Nanda’s wonder in the underlying shapes and structures patterning it: cogs and wheels, fractals in snowflakes. Eventually, Nanda’s studies lead her to become an astronaut and see the small, round shape of Earth far away.
Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Jen Corace!

LTPB: When you received the manuscript for Small World, what about it drew you in? Did you immediately know how you’d illustrate it?

JC: I was pretty much sold from the initial email. Tamar Brazis, my editor for Small World, described the story in a conceptually structured way: how we come to understand our place in life through scale and pattern. That while the world is large and overwhelming it is small in context to the rest of the universe. I immediately thought of the Eames’ film Powers of Ten, which is essentially an exploration of all of my existential wonder and dread. An email and manuscript that can trigger that is a project meant for me.

When I get a manuscript that I quickly connect with, the visuals come easily. I saw Nanda very clearly. She came out during a first round brainstorming session after reading the manuscript a few times over. The manuscript itself reads like a lyrical list of sorts. Ishta Mercurio is precise and economical with her words. They have a lot of calm feeling to them and just enough information to give me some direction for the illustration. The way Ishta wrote this book allowed me to do what I do best.

I revisited the original, super rough pagination, and while there is some tightening and some moving around, there are no real large changes

LTPB: What kind of research did you do (factually and visually) for this book? How did you mix in the realities of your research with your own unique art style?

JC: Breaking down the text on a page by page basis is one of my favorite parts of book illustration. Alongside that is research. I love research. I love learning. I love procrastination. There is no better form of procrastination than education.

Generally, I do a lot of image research first. I keep a visual library on my computer for every book. Each book has an image folder with subfolders for different categories. For Small World there is a folder for India (color, textile, pattern), playgrounds (geodesic domes, European playgrounds, Japanese playgrounds, Russian playgrounds, etc), outer space (constellations, galaxies, astronauts, space suits, Laika...always Laika because I love Laika, shuttle launches), human propelled helicopters (which I admit, I problem solved my way out of having to draw a human propelled helicopter in its entirety. They are massive and require a draftsmanship I didn’t think I could manage in gouache), Cessnas, mosques and Islamic geometric patterns, arial photography and on and on and on.

I did some reading about Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Kalpana Chawla, Svetlana Saviskaya, Eileen Collins, etc etc. I watched Mercury 13, and while I worked I ran my favorite space place movies: Moon, Silent Running and Solaris. Oh, and Cosmos, Carl Sagan style.

Fun fact: I hate outer space. I appreciate that its eternally expanding, never-ending existence makes my existence essentially mean not a lick at all. I have a real problem with vast and/or horizonless spaces. They make me nauseous. I once downloaded a star app and made the mistake of pointing my phone downward, through my body to see the constellations in the southern hemisphere. It felt .. unsettling.

This is all to say that the research for the end of Small World was sometimes a challenge. I had to take some breaks. I’ve talked this all over with Ishta.

As for translating research and reality into my style, my main interest is how shapes interact with one another. I love thinking about negative space. I enjoy skewing perspectives. I love placing pattern next to pattern. The best way I know how to make that all work together, keeping in mind that I am referencing real world situations, is to flatten everything. Flatten and stack it. I’m primarily thinking about the dinner scene where the table is a flat circle but it’s not an overhead composition. I live to show the entirety of a tabletop and have people sitting around it like everything is fine. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium?
JC: I used gouache, ink and pencil on Rives BFK. Rives BFK is a printmaking paper, made for touch and go printmaking processes, less so layered, water based techniques. It is a fussy way to work, but over the years I’ve figured out my own method. I enjoy how paint and ink sink into the surface.

I think Small World hit a good and right crescendo in terms of color, pattern and composition. I’ve been working this way for awhile, and I’m starting to get the feeling that I’ve gotten everything out of this process that I can for now. I’m ready to prune things back a bit. I want to think about color in a new way. I want to rethink how I approach composition. The best work teaches you, and this book definitely did. 

LTPB: How does your process change from book to book?
JC: Small World has been the first book where my process changed at all. In the past, I’ve worked on the whole book at once. Meaning, in order to maintain continuity ... especially in books like the Little series or Mathilda and the Orange Balloon ... I set all the darkest darks first though all of the spreads, if there is a specific color that exists through the majority of the book, I make those colors and set them in place. It can sometimes be a little assembly line-ish, but I like to get the larger notes down and then individually, page per page, go back and put in details 

With Small World, I approached each spread like an individual painting. I worked in sequence through the book which I have never done before. It allowed me to focus on the patterning happening on each page ... which I became completely obsessive about. I barely saw any of my friends during this time. I might have gone a little loopy. It was all worth it. 

LTPB: What can you tell me about the design of this book? The orientation, trim size, casewrap, dust jacket... How involved were you in adding these details? How do you use these design elements as extensions of the central story?

JC: Oddly enough, the image on the title page feels like the most extensive design element to the central story. It might have been one of the first images I made for the book. Part of me thought I should squeeze it into the story itself or it should have been the cover. Turns out, all lies. I don’t think I’ve ever done a more solid title page image. I feel absolutely confident about that.

The cover design was the most difficult part of this project. I spent so much energy inside the book that by the time it came around to design the cover I had a hard time encapsulating the whole book into one image that didn’t give everything away from the get go. I had ideas but none of them stood out like the title page had or the entirety of the book had. It was an odd space to find myself in. 

I had great support from my editor and art director. They were great at throwing around ideas and sussing things out. With covers, the marketing department gets involved, so some curve balls were thrown into an already tight feeling situation. Everyone wanted the best possible outcome and sometimes that path is a little rough and tumble. I fully accept that.

In the end, I was very happy with how the cover came out. The dust jacket has a stark quality when compared to the color carnival that is happening on the casewrap.

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

JC: Currently I am finishing up final art for a bedtime book called Night Wishes. It’s a collection of 14 poems, curated by Lee Bennett Hopkins and is going to be published by Eerdmans.

My next project is Bear Outside, written by Jane Yolen, published by Neal Porter Books. Jane was inspired to write this book based on a painting I did in 2007, Bearsuit. It’s unbelievable. It’s out of control. I still can’t believe it. If Small World was a dream project, Bear Outside was a dream I didn’t even know I had. 

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

JC: Hands down, Ezra Jack Keats. He’s obviously amazing at color, shape, composition and the combination of stark color fields and collaged pattern. Duh. What Ezra Jack Keats can balance that I aspire to one day is a sense of drafting ability/graphic control and the loosey goosey quality of how he uses watercolor. I’m specifically thinking of an image from Letter to Amy: outside the Chinese laundry, Peter is sliding to a stop into Amy, Willie is there...and how he handles the stormy sky in the book, the freedom vs the control...that is an ability I want for myself. 

A million thanks to Jen for taking time to answers my questions so thoughtfully! Small World published from Abrams last week!

Special thanks to Jen and Abrams for use of these images!

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1 comment:

  1. I do love Jen's flattened and stacked world! This book looks amazing.