March 2, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #170: Qin Leng

I was absolutely blown away by JonArno Lawson's most recent wordless book Over the Shop, illustrated by Qin Leng, and it was such a pleasure talking to Qin about her experience working on a wordless book for the first time! This book is so, so special, and it's clear Qin was the perfect choice to illustrate this tender story. Enjoy our chat!

About the book:
A lonely little girl and her grandparent need to fill the run-down apartment in their building. But taking over the quarters above their store will mean major renovations for the new occupants, and none of the potential renters can envision the possibilities of the space--until one special couple shows up. With their ingenuity, the little girl's big heart, and heaps of hard work, the desperate fixer-upper begins to change in lovely and surprising ways.

Let's talk Qin Leng!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Over the Shop? What intrigued you most about JonArno Lawson’s manuscript?

QL: I was presented with the project through my US agency Shannon Associates a couple of years ago. At the time, I was already familiar with the work of JonArno Lawson. We had met a while back at a conference in San Francisco, where he was promoting his fantastic book with Sydney Smith Sidewalk Flowers, published by Groundwood Books. I was charmed by the beautiful message of kindness and the sense of community in his storytelling and was especially fascinated by the process behind illustrating a wordless picture book. How challenging and exciting it must be to convey without the help of words, a complex storyline and Sydney Smith had done it masterfully.

The message of an inclusive and welcoming community was so present in Over the Shop, I fell in love with the idea from the start. The setting was also very interesting, with everything happening in that little shop. I was very curious to figure out how I could make 42 pages of the same location look new and fresh after each page turn.

LTPB: As this is a wordless book, I would love to hear more about how you and JonArno divided up your work. How did you work together, and how did you work separately? What kind of text/direction did he provide you with, and how did you adapt it to include your own style and story?

QL: This was my very first wordless picture book. A daunting task for sure and I had no idea how the process was going to be. As it turns out, JonArno has a very visual mind and he had presented an in depth manuscript with suggestions for the visuals. They were only suggestions so I was grateful to have the freedom to explore and expand on it.

The cat was JonArno’s idea and I loved it from the start. In my books, I am always looking to add “side stories” within the main storyline, so this was something I jumped on.

The biggest challenge was to make sure that with my images alone, the reader would be able to follow and understand the basis of the story line.

I looked at movies and graphic novels as reference. Pacing and timing was very important to show passage of time or a sequence of events, so I used panels a lot. I have always dreamed of illustrating a graphic novel, so I sort of saw this project as an opportunity to blend the world of picture books and graphic novels.

Without text, that also means there isn’t a set page breakup. It was up to me to determine how long the book would be. So I just started roughing out ideas, stitching them together and trimming the fat. I was very grateful to have the guidance of my editor Maryellen Hanley and the team at Candlewick to help me with that.

LTPB: You’re in pretty high demand these days! How do you keep your process fresh with every new book? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?

QL: It is true I like to keep myself busy. Having spare time makes me uneasy as I never seem to know what to do with myself if I am not drawing.

To keep things fresh, I try to take on projects that do not take place in the same settings or cover very different subject matter.

I often like to try new things to push myself. The way I see it, each project is an opportunity to grow as an artist so I try not to stick solely on the same old tricks and techniques.

Depending on the mood and type of story, I will choose different drawing tools for each book.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium?

QL: In Over the Shop, I inked with a brush dipped in waterproof Indian ink and painted with watercolor.

For inking, I often like to go back and forth between brush pen and nib. These two tools allow me to draw in very different styles. There are very interesting effects with the brush: thick and thin, dry brush texture, which bring a different energy to my lines. When I draw with the nib, I use a very fine point that gives me no taper. This allows me to draw with extreme precision and also extremely small. I can play with quiver and movement in the stroke to give my drawing life.

For painting, I love watercolor. I used to paint digitally but in 2016 made the switch to traditional. It was a nerve wracking decision as I suddenly couldn’t rely as much on “ctrl+z”. But again, I knew watercolor would bring something more to my drawings. I am still learning a lot about the medium. It is very difficult to control and I often get surprises….some happy, some not so much.

Depending on projects, I also like to add pencil crayons or pastels in order to give additional layers of texture and give more richness to the colors.

LTPB: What are you working on now?

QL: I just wrapped up the follow up to A Family is a Family is a Family with Sara O’Leary and Groundwood Books, called A Kid is a Kid is a Kid. The book looks nothing like the first one (the first was painted digitally whereas the ladder was painted with watercolor and pastels), and I am very excited to share it with the world!

I currently have 3 ongoing projects, each of which I am very excited about!

A new wordless picture book with JonArno Lawson and Candlewick Press. It takes place at the beach and if you pay close attention, you may even spot the characters from Over the Shop!

A follow up book to Skinnamarink with Sharon, Bram, and Randi published by Tundra Books.

Lastly, a story written by Nadine Robert publisher at Comme des Geants.

This is very common for me, to have multiple projects going at once, often overlapping. While waiting on notes from one publisher, I quickly jump onto the next project to make the best use of my time. It can be challenging as I should mention I also work full time at an animation studio in Toronto as a layout lead and concept artist. So I mostly work on my illustrations in the evenings or on weekends, during my son’s naps, in between cooking meals and tidying. I am grateful to have my husband help with giving me some ‘alone’ time during the worst of the deadlines and I have gotten better at multitasking. But it is definitely difficult to juggle all of it.

I do draw very small, my originals are usually 20% smaller than the print size so at least they are quicker for me to execute, less surface area to ink and paint!

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?

QL: I would love Beatrice Alemagna to illustrate my autobiography. Her style is so different from mine, it would be really exciting to see my visual world take an entirely different shape.

I love how her illustration style breaks the rules of proportions and form, giving her work such charm. She has the gift to capture perfectly the playful nature of children’s drawings. Her pictures are also luscious with bold colors but also contrasting with dark hues and her palette has a vintage feel that I love.

A million thanks to Qin for taking time to answer my questions! Over the Shop published earlier this year from Candlewick Press.

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

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