June 15, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #182: Il Sung Na

Il Sung Na and I recently talked about his newest illustrated book My Tree, written by Hope Lim. To say Il Sung's illustrations have evolved over the course of his career is a massive understatement, and it was illuminating to hear about how his process has been shaped and changed by where he is in his life personally! Enjoy the read.

About the book:
A young boy, recently arrived from Korea, finds a glorious plum tree in his new backyard. It reminds him of a tree his family had back home, and he names it Plumee for the deep purple plums on its branches. Whenever the boy is homesick, he knows he can take shelter in Plumee's tall branches.

And when a storm brings the old tree down, he and his friends have all kinds of adventures on its branches, as it becomes a dragon, a treehouse, and a ship in their imaginations. But soon it's time to say goodbye when the remains of the tree are taken away. Before long, a new plum tree is planted, new blossoms bloom, and a new friendship takes root.

Let's talk Il Sung Na!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of My Tree? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Hope Lim’s text? What were you most excited to illustrate, and what were some of the more challenging moments?

ISN: My agent contacted me and said she had a new manuscript and wanted me to review if I was interested in illustrating the story in 2018. That’s the year I moved into a house after many years living in apartments. It was the first manuscript that I received, as I have been working as both author and illustrator since 2006, and I was so excited about illustrating another author’s story. My first response to the text was this:

I was imagining a girl who loves a tree so much that maybe she even thinks of it as her best friend. Then I made a quick color drawing as well.

This image idea ended up in the final book:

But the most interesting part for me was the main character’s journey and emotional changes throughout the story, as they reminded me of my own journey. That’s why I made the main character a boy in the end, but I can talk about that more later.

The most challenging part for me was getting the emotions right visually on each spread to show how the main character’s emotions changed from the beginning to the end. Also, if you have read my books, all my characters were animals. So creating human characters was another challenge for me for this project.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of My Tree? As you got to know the main character (and the main character got to know his new home), how did your illustrations evolve?

ISN: If I remember correctly, I was told the main character was a girl, as the author got a story inspiration from her daughter. That’s why there is a girl in my first visual response to the story, and I did draw some girl characters at first.

Then, there was a year gap/delay until the summer of 2019. Typically this delay is not a good thing, but it really helped me to invest in the story more fully, and I coincidentally experienced very important events. I experienced one of the trees in my backyard fall after a rainstorm. It fell toward my neighbor’s fence and their house, but luckily the tree held itself until it was cut down (otherwise it would have been a disaster, for both myself and my neighbor). It was incredible that the author Hope Lim and I had similar experiences, and like the story said, "An old tree knows how to lie down when it’s time."

Also I lost the dog who I brought from Seoul, Korea to the US, and she was with me for many years. After she was gone, there was a huge void. The house was too quiet and too empty.

Her name was Lulu, and I wanted to share some good moments we had together in this book. That’s why there is always a white dog with the main character throughout the story. I wanted to give the main character something to hold on to and rely on other than the tree.

As I read the text more and more and added my journey into the story, slowly the main character was changed from a girl to a boy.

It was not intentional to change gender here, but I did it unconsciously. Like the main character had to adapt to his new house, I had to adapt to my new house as well. That’s why I drew my backyard and my house in this book.

This isn’t my typical work process, as all my other books have been fictional stories, but this story was too special to me. Even though I did not write it, I felt like my journey was also in the story like the main character. During the year gap, I probably lost track and put myself into the story too much. That’s another reason why the main character changed from a girl to a boy.

LTPB: What is your process for approaching each new project with a new creative energy and fresh ideas?

ISN: As I am more of a visual storyteller than a writer, I typically have some visuals when I write a story. I don’t have a specific way to create a story, it changes all the time. Some stories start from doodles, some stories start from a sentence or a word.

This time was different because I did not write the story. What I did was that read the story multiple times. I just read, read, and read until I had a good understanding of the story.

Once I understood what this story was about, I had some visuals in mind. From this point, I did lots of thumbnail sketches, which is all about finding good and interesting compositions that can convey the story well.

LTPB: How has your illustration technique changed over the course of your career so far? What did you use to create the illustrations in this book?

ISN: In my early career, I used textures and colors heavily and less digital editing. I loved making my hand dirty with all sorts of materials. For seven to eight years, I set my illustration technique no matter what story I worked on. But then I started looking at things in slightly different ways. I considered how colors affect and convey emotions and how I can deliver good page turns…etc.

from A Book of Sleep, 2007

from The Opposite Zoo, 2016

from Bird Balloon Bear, 2017

from The Dreamer, 2018

Now, I use more digital tools and My Tree is the first book that I created entirely digitally. Even though I did it digitally, I wanted to keep a hand-drawn feel somehow. That’s why I used a pencil brush in most cases, except a few texture brushes. I cannot say this is my preferred medium as I still love to make things on paper. But it was definitely a helpful tool in a way.

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

ISN: I am currently working on illustrations for a new story that I was given. I cannot say much about it at this moment though. I work on my stories as well. There are a couple of ideas that I have been developing. They are all very rough and I will go through a period of a creative block but hopefully they will be polished more. Aside from picture books, I am also working on a logo design for a local event in the Midwest as well as a blog post for the Metropolitan Museum of Art for kids.

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?

ISN: Aw... There are so many. There are artists that I admire and it is very tempting to visit their artistic world. But if I need to choose one, I would go either Wright Brothers or Steve Jobs. They were both the big inspirations when I made The Dreamer. This book was a kind of my journey to tell how I follow my dream. However, during my research and developing the story, their life stories also gave me a huge inspiration. I would love to know more about their lives and would love to know how they were so persistent and never give up. It would be a great story to tell.

A huge thank you to Il Sung for taking time to answer some questions about his work! My Tree published last month from Neal Porter Books!

Special thanks to Il Sung and Neal Porter Books for use of these images!

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