October 24, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #266: Sarah Gonzales

I was lucky enough to chat with Sarah Gonzales, illustrator most recently of The Only Way to Make Bread, written by Cristina Quintero. Among many topics, we spoke about how she always makes a conscious effort to work her personal experiences into her illustrations and how she feels her process has evolved (and continues to evolve!). Enjoy! 

About the book:
What's the only way to make bread?

You might use white flour in your bread, or whole wheat flour or corn flour.

You might use water or milk, maybe an egg or two.

You'll use a handful of this, a dash of that, a bit of this and a splash of that.

Some dough will rise, some dough will bubble. Sometimes it will be sticky, sometimes it will be shaggy.

What's the only way to make bread?

Your way!

This tasty celebration of all kinds of bread will tempt bread lovers big and small. No matter what kind of bread YOU like to make, this book is for you!!

Let's talk Sarah Gonzales!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of The Only Way to Make Bread? What drew you into this text? What is your personal connection to making bread and/or baking with family?

SG: The brilliant Samantha Swenson, an editor from Tundra, reached out with this delicious manuscript by Cristina Quintero. With every line, I was drawn to how the words brought forth the feeling of warmth and love that comes from bread. Woven throughout the story is a strong sense of family, community and diversity. I also loved how it was a non-linear narrative approach that takes place in an apartment complex and goes through different phases of making bread.

In the opening spread there’s a Filipino family gathering which is based from childhood memories. It was one of the first images I thought of right away. Shoes and jackets piled up at the door. Kids running around and greeting the elders. At the kitchen counter I drew my Tita Paz preparing the counter to bake pandesal. She would take out the hot pandesal from the oven and everyone would devour them.

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

SG: For me the hardest step is the first step of starting the final art. Seeing that blank piece of paper is both scary and exciting. It was my first time illustrating a book with a predominantly traditional medium. After the first 5 illustrations I finally started feeling more comfortable with the coloured pencil process.

I placed all the spread sketches on the wall. And one by one I would replace them when I finished a piece. It’s like a visual checklist. Seeing the completed 20 spreads, I felt proud and relieved. At the end I was like, “Yes, girl. You did that.”

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?

SG: Whenever I receive a new project, one of the first things I do is research and gather references and inspiration. From there I word map concepts and write down key words. Then I start sketching out concepts and work on little studies. This part sets the mood and visual direction of the illustrations to come.

With every manuscript I think about how the medium and compositions holds the story and the art. And then style comes intuitively. Throughout the process of each book some questions I ask myself are: How do I tell a deeper story with the composition? What’s the perspective or POV coming from? How do the moments in the story affect the colour and light? What kind of textures speak to the story? How do I add visual layers through shape and movement?

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?

SG: For The Only Way to Make Bread, my medium of choice was coloured pencils on watercolour paper with digital edits.

In the visual development phase, I worked on a 5” x 8.25” watercolour Moleskine sketchbook. It was a fun little space to put down concepts and explore visuals. After this process I formed a sense of how to approach the final art.

The grittiness of coloured pencils on watercolour paper reminded me of the grainy texture of bread. Every spread was drawn with a golden ochre under drawing to give them a baked golden feel. As for my favourite medium I think it would have to be pencils!

For the first picture book I illustrated, Maribel's Year by Michelle Sterling, I started with rough pencil sketches which I used as base layers to blend in with digital painting. To bring back the natural pencil texture, I printed out the final art and drew over the lines with tracing paper and pencil. Then I applied the line art back into the final art file.

The third picture book, You'll Always Be my Chicakdeee by Kate Hosford, is set against a natural landscape with a parent and child out for a hike. My first thought went to plein air paintings from nature and my travels. I used a mix of watercolour, gouache and coloured pencils with digital edits.

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

SG: There are two upcoming picture books I’m illustrating in the works, which I can’t share anything yet. Lately for fun, I’ve been doing ink drawings from my Philippines trip back in 2016.

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?

SG: This is a tough question. There are so many talented artists! Although the first one I think of is James Jean. He’s a contemporary artist I’ve always admired and has influenced my work since I was in art school. He takes visuals to a deep unknown world – one that’s surreal, dreamy, complex yet simple all at the same time. Another one would be the late great, Ruben de Jesus. He’s a Filipino illustrator I discovered this year from stumbling on Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (Ang INK) – an organization of children’s book illustrators in the Philippines. Also, Aaron Asis! I think he’s a brilliant visual storyteller. The brush work and textured shapes he creates are so bold, thoughtful and nuanced.

A big thank you to Sarah for talking. me through her process for this book! The Only Way to Make Bread published from Tundra Books earlier this month!

Special thanks to Sarah and Tundra for use of these images!

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