September 22, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #156: Seng Soun Ratanavanh

I was thrilled to connect with French illustrator Seng Soun Ratanavanh about her illustrations for the third Miyuki picture book Thank You, Miyuki, written by Roxane Marie Galliez! Anyone familiar with Seng Soun's work knows her illustrations are inspired by Japanese art and full of brightly patterned colors, and anyone who knows Miyuki knows they're in for a treat with this newest adventure. Enjoy our chat!

About the book:
Miyuki's curiosity is piqued by her grandfather's morning meditation routine, and she is eager to learn this new skill. Her wise and patient grandfather first takes her on a walk in the garden. "When do we start to meditate?" she asks repeatedly. Grandfather enjoys the warm sun and stops to smell a rose, inviting Miyuki to join him. Their walk in the garden, filled with many tender moments, heightens their gratitude for each other and for the world around them. Miyuki comes to understand that in the small acts of mindfulness throughout her day, she learned how to meditate.

Let's talk Seng Soun Ratanavanh!

LTPB: All of your books feature bold and colorful patterns -- how did this come to be your signature style? What conscious efforts do you make to connect the Miyuki books?

SSR: Patience, Miyuki was my very first experience of illustration for a picture book. Roxane Marie Galliez’s text has the classic form of a tale that tells of a journey and whose characters are a little Japanese girl and her grandfather. But to me, nature is the third full character in the story. Miyuki addresses elements of nature that resonate with her and introduces the reader to a lush imaginary world. I wanted to reinforce this imaginary side by playing with the the scale of characters and the size of the birds.

The Japanese name of "Miyuki" also determined many choices for the graphic universe, specifically the technique: I wanted, above all, to work on white paper. I also wanted to refer to Asian art by following the idea that "builds / forms the full by the void." In my illustrations for Miyuki's adventures, white is the most important color. It is the white of the paper which cuts out shapes and reveals colors by contrast.

I also wanted to refer to the art of Japanese prints by removing perspective and putting all the elements of the image on a single plane. I wanted to create a Japanese universe not so much by the landscape but by using elements and objects of Japanese culture such as: daruma, kokeshi, koinoboris, kimono, sandals, pine, and of course the pattern. 

It was an incredible opportunity to work with Japanese fabric and paper patterns which are graphically and incredibly beautiful and diverse! For Miyuki, I took my daughter as a model and her bob hairstyle (like a helmet), and for the grandfather I took Miyagi San as inspiration from the film Karate Kid of which, I admit, I was a teenage fan. I tried to keep all of these graphic elements and choices as a common thread in the three Miyuki books.

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?

SSR: For the Miyuki books, I used watercolor; very diluted gouache and colored pencils on paper. 

But I like to adapt the technique to the project and to the text. For example, in My Island, on each illustration I used red thread that I sewed directly on the paper that surrounds one or more elements of the image. The text speaks of this "island" which can take multiple forms and which children make and take for refuge or as a creative space. I wanted to materialize the process of imagination and creation by sewing this red thread, as when one weaves or embroiders, to invent worlds and stories.

Happy Days is about two children who try to revive the memory of their missing mother through the Hanami party. I decided to use as support for my illustrations, wood and acrylic paint. In each image, the shapes of objects are left empty, and the wood reveals, like an imprint of absence, of emptiness, such as the absence of this missing mother.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Hopefully another Miyuki book??

SSR: I have just finished a very long project Gaspard dans la nuit which is very particular for me, in which I am also and for the first time the author. Princeton Architectural Press will be publishing it in 2021. It is an incredibly rich and very inspiring experience that I owe to my precious editor, who pushed and guided me to attempt the adventure of a project as a whole, by creating both the text and images.

And I'm currently working on a new book, which is a continuation of a haikus collection about the seasons.

In addition, I work regularly for the DJECO brand on projects for toys, puzzles, objects, stationery.

I do have a lot of projects pending but currently not for a Miyuki sequel, but who knows what the future holds?

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

SSR: Personally, I don't think I have a sufficiently interesting life for an autobiography, but if by your question you asked me who are the illustrators whose work I admire, there are many!

If I listened to the child in me, I would say SempĂ© because he marked my childhood with the drawings of little Nicolas which are incredibly accurate. From an illustrator's point of view, I would evoke the work of Lisbeth Zwerger. 
A million thanks to Seng for taking time to answer some questions! Thank You, Miyuki published earlier this month from Princeton Architectural Press!

Special thanks to Seng and Princeton Architectural Press for use of these images!

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