September 20, 2022

Let's Talk Illustrators #225: Isabel Roxas

I finally, finally got to talk to my friend Isabel Roxas! We talked about her newest illustration work on Sophia N Lee's picture book Holding On, as well as how her picture book work differs from her comic book work. It was a blast to talk to her, I hope you enjoy our chat!

About the book:
There is always singing in Lola's house. Sammy Davis Jr. in the morning, Dean Martin in the afternoon, and all throughout the evening, old Tagalog love songs from Nora Aunor, Basil Valdez, and more. Lola always says: "If you want to hold on, you gotta sing your songs."

Her granddaughter tucks these sounds and Lola's wisdom deep within her heart. And when Lola starts slipping into silence and stillness, she helps Lola hold on, piece by piece, with the joy and music that Lola taught her.

Let's talk Isabel Roxas!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Holding On? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Sophia N Lee’s text?

IR: Julia our editor remembered my digital collage work from a book called Witch Spa and put me on a shortlist. Sophia (author) was looking for someone with deep ties to the Philippines because she wanted to leave a lot of it open to an informed interpretation. But, in order to do that, she needed someone who was instinctively familiar with the context of the region.

What drew me to the manuscript, besides the setting, was that it spoke so beautifully about memory, family/community and keeping traditions alive. Dementia is one of the cruelest diseases, and I loved that Sophie found a way to honor her grandmother as she remembered her–lively, generous and caring.

The image that immediately came to mind was the carabao (water buffalo) scene in the rain. As soon as you drive out of the city, it is a wild, verdant and lush landscape. I spent many summers in the countryside, and it turns out, so did Sophie! When she saw the sketches she said that it was as if I had read her mind.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

IR: Probably paring it down—there were SO MANY aspects of Philippine life and culture that I wanted to squeeze into this book, but ultimately the story went beyond that so I had to make sure that I stayed true to the emotional heart of the story—which is the relationship between Lola and her granddaughter. The thing that made it difficult, is the same thing I found most rewarding—the opportunity to showcase all the wonderful things I love about the Philippine Islands, and make a book that has such emotional resonance.

The jacket art for Holding On for example, was inspired by the art of Pabalat, a wonderful folk tradition from San Miguel, Bulacan in the Philippines. The colorful and intricately cut wrappers hold within them, sweet logs of mushy deliciousness called Pastillas de Leche. It's made with Carabao's (water buffalo) milk, butter with some calamansi zest and rolled in sugar.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text? And how is your general process for creating picture books different than your process for creating comics?

IR: The challenge when illustrating someone else’s text is to accompany/support/enhance the text. With Holding On, it was a dance with the words—balancing sweetness with levity and making room for the emotional moments to land strongly.

One major difference when I am writing AND illustrating a book, is that I am able to cut out pages and pages of text. In my graphic novel The Last Dodo, some of the action takes place in a museum with a big group of kids. The story was getting bogged down with scenes and dialogue that didn’t move the story forward, and after much strum and drang, I tried cutting the entire chapter and replaced it with a double spread with multiple panels instead—it did everything I needed!

At the moment, I only work with other people’s text for creating picture books. The process is pretty straightforward—I make thumbs, play with several different approaches, develop character sketches, build a palette, and keep revising until I get to the Final Art. Writing and illustrating my comics on the other hand, is so much messier because everything is fluid. I am constantly rewriting and redrawing things until it gets to press!

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?

IR: I work with graphite, pastel, gouache, paper collage with digital enhancement. For Holding On, I tried to work off the computer as much as possible because I enjoy the tactile object-ness of real paper, and the ways that inherent patterns or colors in the paper bring can have unexpected effects. There is more room for messes, mistakes and surprises. I love working this way, but it requires a lot of time for the work to sit awhile, and I don’t always have that luxury.

My medium changes from book to book, because I am always looking to grow and be playful in my practice. It also depends on what the book needs—my work for the First Conversations series is a mix of digital and hand drawing with spare backgrounds because we need the images to be extremely clear and simple. It is less about mood and more about clarity. Holding On is mostly mood, texture and emotion—so I felt it needed a more tactile approach.

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

IR: I am working on Book 3 of The Adventures of Team Pom series for Flying Eye, and a book on grief by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli (the fifth installment in the First Conversation series) for RISE/Workshop. They are at the earliest stages…but I can show you pages from the latest thing I finished which are pages from The Adventures of Team Pom 2: The Last Dodo, publishing October 18.

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? 

IR: It would be a great honor if Maira Kalman did it because I think she has so much verve and depth. Or, Suzy Lee, Julia Sarda, Beatrice Alemagna, Remy Charlip or Arnold Lobel—such incredible, individual talents. I love their books so much I want to live inside them!

A big thank you to Isabel for talking to me about her process! Holding On published last month from Atheneum Books for Young Readers!

Special thanks to Isabel and Atheneum for use of these images!

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