October 29, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #123: Isabelle Arsenault

It was an honor and a pleasure to talk to Isabelle Arsenault about her newest illustrated book Just Because, written by Mac Barnett. I have long admired Isabelle's ever-evolving style, and I thought Just Because was a perfect way for her to showcase the breadth of her creativity and imagination. I hope you enjoy our chat!

About the book:
Why is the ocean blue? What is the rain? What happened to the dinosaurs? It might be time for bed, but one child is too full of questions about the world to go to sleep just yet. Little ones and their parents will be charmed and delighted as a patient father offers up increasingly creative responses to his child’s nighttime wonderings. Any child who has ever asked “Why?” — and any parent who has attempted an explanation — will recognize themselves in this sweet storybook for dreamers who are looking for answers beyond “Just because.”

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Isabelle Arsenault!

LTPB: When you received this manuscript, what about it drew you in? Did you immediately see the characters and the color scheme?

IA: I was enthusiastic about the concept of the book - a question and answer bedtime documentary that sounded absurd, or at least very imaginative. The answers were silly but told in a serious manner and I liked the effect of that contradiction. I envisioned a graphical approach that would work the same way, realistic but funny, supporting that style of humor. As a kid, I loved documentary books. I still have lots at home that I use to read to my kids over and over again, when they were younger. As for the color scheme and characters, they came up later while developing the sketches. But the idea of a limited color palette, which would be matched to each question/answer, was there from the start.

LTPB: Every other spread features the exact same setting: the girl's bedroom. So how did you balance the slow movement of the dad and the louder, more imaginative spreads? How did you work to build tension with the bedroom scenes and release it in the imagination ones?

I used the repetition of the bedroom scene to emphasize the multiple questions asked by the girl. In her bedroom, we have the plain, repetitive and monotone reality, with a question. Then in the answer spread, taking place in the fictive world of her (or her dad’s) imagination, everything is possible; nuances, colors, funny elements, etc. The next page, we are back in the room, where nothing has changed. It’s a way of saying that through your imagination, you can travel into worlds that wouldn’t exist else where. The father’s movements are there to create some dynamic and break this repetition a little bit. You see that he looks exasperate first, like parents sometimes are by the end of the day… But, as more questions are asked, he gets caught into inventing new answers and seems to enjoy this creative challenge.

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

IA: I worked here with gouache, watercolor and pencils. I usually adapt my process to each of my books. I try to create illustrations that support each story not only visually but conceptually. My use of color is also oriented to suit a purpose. I will often associate a certain color to an emotion or meaning and then use it when I feel the need to express that meaning. Colors and mediums are tools that help me compose my visual storytelling. Choosing the medium I prefer is hard. I tend to say pencils. But sometimes I get bored and want to try new things. I love exploring and discovering avenues I wouldn’t have figured out otherwise. Being surprised. I often end up mixing mediums because that way I feel I can express a wider ranger of emotions.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text? When you do both, which do you generally start with?

IA: Writing my own stories makes me feel more in control of what I want to express. I’m able to start from scratch and build a story that I want to illustrate. With The Mile End Kids stories, I have a setup that’s comforting in the sense that there is a recurring pattern in the series, which helps composing on some sort of ground. I start with an idea, then I write a little scenario, but quickly I have to develop it into roughs in order to visualize the pace, dialogs, etc. I create a dummy – as I would if I was working with someone else’s text - that includes page-breaks, text and roughs in a layout. When that part is settled, I start working on final art. Illustrating someone else’s text implies a work of adaptation. The idea is there, but needs to be completed or propelled by the illustrations. It can be very challenging. Finding the right text is complicated but when you have one that speaks to you, it’s thrilling and stimulating.


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

IA: I’m working on a new Mile End Kids story, which will feature Maya as the main character. I just completed the roughs and I will start working on final art very soon. Here is a glimpse of the endpapers, showing the colors I’ll be using for that book.

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

IA: I think I would want to illustrate it myself. I love working around memory and things from the past. I’m a bit nostalgic and this would be the perfect project to indulge myself in that feeling. But if I had to put that project in the hands of someone else, I would say Julie Morstad. Not only is she an amazing illustrator, but she also knows me and has a great experience in picture book biography of women. I would be delighted to see what she would come up with.

A million thanks to Isabelle for taking time to answers some questions! Just Because published last month from Candlewick Press!

Special thanks to Isabelle and Candlewick for use of these images!

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