November 1, 2022

Let's Talk Illustrators #229: Kailin Duan

I am hugely grateful that I had a chance to chat with Kailin Duan about her picture book Nine Color Deer, translated by Jeremy Tiang. The story in Nine Color Deer was adapted from a thousands-year-old Buddhist tale found on the walls of the Mogao caves in China. Kailin's narrative stays true to these paintings, highlighting the importance of being kind and gracious and even going so far as to having artwork that evokes the same style as the original cave images. Come check out Kailin's process for interpreting this old with a modern look!


About the book:
Nine Color Deer begins deep in the Kunlun Hills with a legendary deer whose fur has nine colors. One day she hears a cry for help and rescues a drowning man. When the man asks how he could ever repay this kindness, the Nine Color Deer simply requests that the man never reveal her whereabouts. But will this promise survive a bounty offered by a King and Queen who seek the magic of the deer for their kingdom?

Let's talk Kailin Duan!


LTPB: Where did the idea for Nine Color Deer come from, and how did you first hear about the mural in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang? Why did you choose to tell this story?

KD: I came across a book of the Dunhuang cave paintings in my school library, and they blew my mind. I made a few quick sketches, and realized there was a lot I could learn from them. I was particularly drawn to the story of the Nine Color Deer because a mystical deer whose fur contained nine different shades sounded so beautiful, and of course this is a classic Chinese story, so I started thinking about how I could represent her in my own way. The result is this book.




LTPB: How did you add your own unique spin to the images and story based on the mural? Did your illustrations change as you studied the source material?

KD: I’m very fond of the na├»ve style of the earlier cave paintings, and also of the uniquely weathered look and muted colors that come with the passage of time. I tried to replicate these qualities, and on this foundation I brought together the images and colors of the picture book to tell this story. The elongated human figures and clean lines create a stylized feel, while the coarse textures and plain color palette give a solemn yet fluid atmosphere. I hoped these images would look simple, yet full of transformation.

For the story, I wanted to add a sense of love, hope and peacefulness to the original, and so I made the Nine Color Deer and her little bird friend lead the rest of the deer in becoming vigilant guardians of this land.

To start with, I made some sketches on A4 paper, then I went over these crude outlines repeatedly, until the silhouettes and contours felt more fluid, creating a more designed feel. Once I was done sketching, I made some colored thumbnails on my computer, to establish the palette for the book.


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

KD: The hardest thing was the first sketches, but the hardest thing is often the most exciting. If you don’t carry out experiments like these, you’ll never know what delightful surprises are awaiting you.

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?

KD: For this book, I mostly used acrylics – I like that you can apply several layers or leave them quite translucent, and also you can create different textures by rubbing them with leaves, sponges, steel wool and so on. In some places, I also used mineral pigments, which can create dense layers of subtle colors. When I was done, I scanned these images and adjusted them with Photoshop to get the best possible results. This is my first time working in this way, and I’m very happy with it. I use different methods and styles with different books, because no two stories and themes should feel the same.



LTPB: What are you working on now?

KD: I’ve been planning a new picture book, also based on a Chinese folk tale – I’m very fond of these magical stories, especially when they involve nature and animals. I wish I had something to share, but right now I’m just at the story drafting stage. I’ll have to work faster – fingers crossed that it all comes together.

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?

KD: Beatrice Alemagna! I adore her drawings, which are bursting with imagination and life. She can make even the most mundane things feel tremendously exciting.

Thank you so much to Kailin for chatting with me about this special book! Nine Color Deer published from Levine Querido earlier this fall!

Special thanks to Kailin and Levine Querido for use of these images!



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