August 1, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #255: Nani Brunini

I am thrilled to come back from my July hiatus with a book that features a wordless, highly-visual argument between two complementary colors. Okay, that's not exactly what Disagreement is about, BUT you can definitely see why I was immediately drawn to it! I got a chance to talk to Nani Brunini about her illustration and story processes for this beautiful picture book that takes something messy like a disagreement and shows the beauty that can come from it. Enjoy our conversation!

About the book:
Disagreement is a visual narrative of an argument that devolves out of control, culminating in a shouting match where the only effort being made is to be the loudest. The polarization of opinions and lack of effort to compromise or reach common ground, inspired by recent political events across the globe, consumes those involved. They eventually escape the chaos through creativity and humanism, which ultimately leads to the path of understanding. This book artfully illustrates the toll of conflict and the magic that can occur when one takes a step back from the noise.

Let's talk Nani Brunini!

LTPB: Where did the idea for Disagreement come from? Why did you choose to make this book wordless?

NB: The idea for Disagreement came from my playing around with the concept of "silent books", which is another way to call wordless picture books. This led me to the question “What would a very loud silent book look like?”. That naturally made me think about noise, chaos, etc. I then realized that I was already surrounded by a deafening cacophony - I'm Brazilian and I have recently lived in the US and England, so I experienced the transitions to Bolsonaro, Trump and Brexit up close - with so much commotion, I had the perfect material for a "shouting" book!

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

NB: With respect to storytelling, my biggest challenge was finding a conclusion that was not too pessimistic or a fake "happy ending". The making of Disagreement was a very personal and cathartic experience. With the world getting more and more polarized, I was experiencing that same drama in my own life - even small talk with some members of my family or close friends was becoming impossible! Talking about the weather could become a discussion about climate change and a simple "how's everyone?" could trigger a huge quarrel about vaccines... I didn't want to give up on talking to them. So, the story of the book was evolving along with me. My first drafts were kind of grim, but the book ended up with a more positive note because after reading a lot about empathy and polarization and especially after talking to more people, I became more hopeful.

My notebooks are full of these chaotic mind maps. I was a design researcher before deciding to become a full-time illustrator, so understanding what, why and to whom I am doing something is sine qua non. Researching and concepting happened at the same time as the drafting phase. 

The main thing I learned from that research was that WHAT we argue about is not as important as HOW we do it. No matter if you're fighting about politics, religion or whether Hulk is stronger than Thor (of course he is!). Disagreements are extremely normal and actually very healthy. Being around different opinions and experiences is priceless. Knowing HOW to do it, however, is not an intuitive skill. In a world where social media encourages everybody to say whatever they want, learning how to disagree can be vital to all of us. Disagreement aims to remind us that it is possible to coexist amongst opposite beliefs if we do it respectfully, not trying to impose our own views.

Expressing such a complex message without any verbal support turned out to be a blessing in disguise! By avoiding any kind of text or iconography in the dialogue, I managed to “hide” all arguments and points of views from the characters. My own opinion as the writer is not explicit either. Readers are invited to tell the story as they envision it. That's why I think silent books are so important - they stimulate imagination, interactivity and creativity.

Luckily, just as with the challenges, the list of rewards was very long too!

On a personal level, the person I was having the most difficulty communicating with, my father, was actually the one who helped me find the ending I was looking for! It was a kind of a meta-experience. Talking to him about some topics can still be tricky, but I'm thrilled to know that we both have managed to focus on the many things that we like in each other, instead of the few that make us fight.

Another amazing outcome is seeing my book being used as conversation starters in schools and psychologists' offices, reaching people in different ages and different cultures (Disagreement has already been translated into 8 languages!). On top of that, seeing my first book exhibited in the White Raven Catalog as well as the Amazing Bookshelf at the Bologna Book Fair, right next to authors I'm a big fan of, was beautiful and surreal!

So yes, Disagreement was challenging to make, but also very rewarding!

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?

NB: Most of the drawings started by hand with brushes and ink. I then went back and forth between Photoshop, Procreate and sometimes back to the brushes. I don't have one single method. I love to experiment and try new materials, new ways of expressing myself. It took me a while, but I learned how not to be too stressed about a unique personal style. As long as the illustrations and/or the story are interesting and cohesive, I allow myself to be as many Nani Bruninis I can be!

I listened to a lot of classical music and also went back to some cartoons from my childhood, like the Pink Panther and Disney's Fantasia, to help me understand what a harsh or a calm speech bubble would look like. Another great example of well translated synesthesia was an old book I had from the Brazilian artist Kiko Farkas showing several posters he designed for the Philharmonic in São Paulo. 

Each character has their own particular "voice pattern" matching each one's different personalities; both when they're fighting (spiky and overlapping) or collaborating (round and spaced). This is particularly important inside the monster's belly, when all lines are no longer blue/orange, but rather the same color (white). 

LTPB: Is there anything else you want to share about this book?

NB: Yes! There's an educator guide for Disagreement. I hope that my book helps us all to talk more about disagreements, and we invite you to join the #letsdisagree conversation and share your experience using the book and the educator's guide as well. You can download it here.

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

NB: I've just finished a double spread comic for a magazine. It was harder than I thought it would be, but I learned a lot from the experience. I'm also working on my next book. Nothing my big perfectionism would allow me to share though.

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?

NB: Such a tough question! I can think of so many artists! Since you're asking me to pick one, I think I'd go with Saul Steinberg. I love his art (I use him as a reference in a lot of projects), but I also think he would depict the people and the different places I lived in with a lot of humor in a very clever, elegant and playful manner.

A million thanks to Nani for taking time to respond to some questions! Disagreement published last month from Tapioca Stories!

Special thanks to Nani and Tapioca for use of these images!

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