July 13, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #186: Isol

It was an absolute dream come true for me to talk to Isol about her work in children's books. I vividly remember seeing two of her books for the first time--It's Useful to Have a Duck, which I talk about here, and Nocturne: Dream Recipes--and instantly falling in love with their ingenuity and creativity. Today I'm talking to her about her newest book out in the United States, Impossible, which is yet another creative addition to an overall delightful collection of stories!

About the book:
Toribio is two years old and his parents love him very much, but some days, taking care of him feels like an impossible task. He won't sleep, makes a fuss when eating, splashes his bath water everywhere, and refuses to use his potty. At the end of the day, Toribio's parents are exhausted. So when they see an ad for a specialist who can solve any type of problem, his desperate parents make an appointment right away. Mrs. Meridien's methods deliver overnight results, but her solution isn't quite what they had in mind ...

Let's talk Isol!

LTPB: Where did the idea for Impossible come from? Where did you start, with the surprise ending or the “problem”?

I: The first idea was the comparison between the things we as parents ask our kids to do (as to behaviour, more independency, etc.) and the things a cat does pretty naturally. I have three cats, by the way. And two kids.

I started thinking about a cat that teaches a boy how to behave. Later on, I thought that the story could be about a kid that asks her mother for a pet cat, promising the cat will teach him to behave the way his parents want him to. But that perspective was not enough for a whole story, because it was all being said already from the beginning… Then one day I thought of the parents talking about their wishes instead of the boy expressing what he wanted, and how they could find a solution to “their problem”. This point of view was less sympathetic in a way but far more common to hear. I would be capable of telling it myself, having visited an expert on parenting issues with my first child, and having looked for recipes to get some sleep and get him fed properly in many books I had to fall back on; we were a bit lost. When the solution with the cat suddenly occurred to me, I started laughing on the street. So I said: that's it! At first, I felt the ending was too cruel for the parents in the story, but when I found that last line the dad says I got to make it a bit more humorous and not so sad.

LTPB: You make the most beautiful books, and every single one feels unique and original. How do you keep your process feeling fresh with every new book? Has your process changed since you started? Are there any topics or stories in particular you’re still hoping to explore in the future?

I: Thank you very much, I try to make books that are not similar to others I've seen, including my own previous books. I feel each project is the opportunity to find new things both in the and in the illustration art. I try to use different media each time, but I have some elements I always love to use because they are strong and warm, like black pastel pencil, plain colours, and expressive characters. I struggle sometimes with the texts and the drawings, I'm into making books that look simple but deep, with some humour but also close to real life issues, with an artistic quality… I want to amuse myself. Sometimes I only have a scene or a phrase that are appealing or funny, as I was the case in Beautiful Griselda; other times I want to use a special technique as I did in Nocturne: Dream Recipes, with the glowing ink; and sometimes I have a concept I like very much, as in It's Useful to Have a Duck where two different stories are developed with the same drawings.

I can't say there's one sole thing that I would like to do in the future. I like not planning too much, in order to be free to go any way my desire points. I think I can do everything I imagine. I only have to imagine seriously, that means giving time to a special project, exploring it, playing with different options… The important thing is to feel that the stuff interests me personally.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? And as your books tend to stick with limited color palettes, how did you choose the colors of this book?

Well, I really love lines. I love black and white. So, colour for me is dangerous in a way, it can ruin the life of the line if it is too strong. I don’t want colour to compete with the line because it is the way in which I show the characters’ expressions; it’s the trace of my hand as it is recorded on the paper (I don’t draw in the computer), so I feel the line keeps my personal aim. That’s why I use colour in a way that has a plainer character, it is like a cloud that arrived to the page and sat there, to shed some light onto the important stuff, to help create the climate of the scene. In Impossible I’ve scanned some paper sheet to use the textures, the colors are warm and brownish, we are inside a house. I did some light textures with brush that placed in the background to have some movement sensation, as I used on the floor of Mrs Meridiana office. When I use a strong colour, as the orange in this book, it’s because it is a very important thing. The orange was printed separately so as to have it really strong and clear: it is the colour of magic.

I started thinking on a more colored book, you can see some tests I did, but at the end I've chosen a brown rough paper as my principal color for the characters, and a light lined paper for the background. Later on, I added some textures I did with black ink. I picked some of them and I place them in the illustrations digitally as a collage or serigraphy, I like to use separate layers of things one over the others in Photoshop: one for the line, one for the paper in the background, one for the box colors, one for the textures…It is a nice way to finding how to balance them, what to remove or add. I can change the color of the line very easy with PSD, I change the line to a pale color in the night scenes, the same I did with textures, I've changed the black for beige, etc. I work as a very basic printing press, with a plate for each color.

I used two drawings of my son at the same age as Toribio, two and a half, for the firsts endpapers and the cover for Groundwood (the cover was different in the Spanish version, by the way).

About the characters, I have lots and lots of versions of the same drawing, in order to reach the right expression. Sometimes I make a Frankenstein, using parts of different drawings to find the right one. In this book the more difficult thing for me was to draw the parents, I prefer to draw children.

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

I: I am just finishing a book that was commissioned by the Palestinian Museum and I am very happy with it. I’ve worked with the traditional embroidery from Palestine culture to invent a story inspired on that fabric. It is really interesting how a new medium can make you imagine in a new way. The book will be published in Arabic, and that means it will be read from right to left, so I have to mirror all the illustrations I made because I drew them from my occidental viewpoint. I hope I can publish this book in other languages as well, I tried to make a tale that could be enjoyed for readers from all over the world.

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?

I: Uff, I think I should illustrate it myself, because I tell while drawing, I can’t leave my story to someone else’s imagination, it wouldn’t be fun! On the other hand, I think that each illustrator I like would prefer to pick their own favorite part of my story, and that could be fun. I have to trust her/his opinion, I think I would pick Paloma Valdivia, she is a great illustrator-author from Chile, very clever and a very good friend of mine. But I think that a real autobiography should be told by me. In a way, my books speak about me, my life, worries and amusements. It often happens to me that, when some years have passed after a book I’ve done, I’ve found it wiser than myself, the author of my books knows me better than I do.

Thank you with all my heart to Isol for stopping by to talk to me about her work! Impossible published from Groundwood Books earlier this year!

Special thanks to Isol and Groundwood for use of these images!

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