October 17, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #45: LeUyen Pham

If you've ever seen anything by LeUyen Pham –– and let's face it, you definitely have because she's illustrated almost 100 books so far –– then you know just how versatile she is. Each project LeUyen tackles shows us that she is not afraid to take risks as an illustrator and believes every world she illustrates is unique, in style, tone, color, technique, and more. Her new picture book Fallingwater: The Building of Frank Lloyd Wright's Masterpiece, written by Marc Harshman and Anna Egan Smucker, is no exception, and I knew from the cover that I wanted to talk to LeUyen about this book and how she created her illustrations. I'm so excited to share our conversation with you today. Enjoy the brilliance and tirelessness that is LeUyen Pham!

About the book:
In Bear Run, Pennsylvania, a home unlike any other perches atop a waterfall. The water's tune plays differently in each of its sunlight-dappled rooms; the structure itself blends effortlessly into the rock and forest behind it. This is Fallingwater, a masterpiece equally informed by meticulous research and unbounded imagination, designed by the lauded American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

This book guides readers through Wright's process designing Fallingwater, from his initial inspirations to the home's breathtaking culmination. It is a exploration of a man, of dreams, and of the creative process; a celebration of potential.

Let's talk LeUyen Pham!

LTPB: What drew you to this manuscript in particular?

LP: I love buildings. I LOVE drawing buildings. Plop me in any major city with a sketchbook and a pen, and I will happily while away my time sketching any building in sight. So definitely, painting Fallingwater was the biggest draw. The second reason was because of Frank Lloyd Wright. I’ll admit I knew next to nothing about the man himself, but I’ve always fawned over his creations. To be allowed to devote a few months of my life to learning everything I can about this man and this building just sounded like fun. Yeah, I was that kid in school, the one that really enjoyed reports and research. I’ve pretty lucky that in my adult life, I get to continue to do that, and that it gets to manifest itself into my paintings.

Plus, you know, have you read the script? It’s pretty beautifully written. The authors clearly love their subject matter. When you get a story written with that much care, you can’t help but to want to contribute something worthy to the project. Labor of love.

LTPB: What tools did you use to create these illustrations?

LP: You know, I really struggled over this book, whether I wanted to approach it traditionally or digitally. I knew for certain, after having read up extensively on Wright that I wanted the book to have the look of Japanese prints. I even researched how to make prints and whether I’d be able to pull it off as woodcuts. After watching just a couple videos on some Japanese print masters, I realized I wouldn’t be able to even come close to their level of perfection. Maybe if I had a couple decades to get it right.  

Then I thought I might be able to simulate something print-like digitally, and until the eleventh hour I had thought I was going to paint the book on the computer. I even did all my rough sketches in Photoshop, preserving the files to convert to final images later.

But then, just three months before the book was due, I changed my mind (again!) and decided to paint it in watercolor and ink. I don’t know, I just had to do this one on paper. So back to the drawing board (literally). And out came my brushes, watercolors, watercolor inks, everything. I wish I knew how to collage, it would have made the book easier, but instead I used lots of masking fluid (which I hate! That gunk gets all over your fingers, and woe betide you if you get it in your hair). But it felt great to paint. Even with all the little mistakes.

LTPB: What challenges did you encounter with your new process? What fun new techniques did you discover?

What’s so easy to do digitally –– and SO hard to do traditionally –– is to get the value just right. On the computer, you can select a layer and lighten or darken at will. With watercolor, you can only put some many layers of color down before it gets to dark, so you have to err on the side of light. And while I always depend on gouache to fix up any mistakes with watercolor, for this particular book it was important to me to get the white of the paper across, rather than the artificial white of gouache. So if I messed up, I would just have to start over. 

The first painting is always the one that you consider tossing out later. Once you get comfortable with the style, the following pieces become easier and looser.

The below image is one of my favorites from the book, mostly because it was so much fun to paint. I was one of the last ones to paint, and by then I was really enjoying the style. The snowflakes are all gouache, but the snowy ground is mostly paper.

LTPB: What kind of visual research did you do for this book, both of Frank Lloyd Wright and of his buildings? How did you mix in the realities of your research with your own unique art style?

LP: First off was a trip to see the building itself. I made the trip, wow, about 5 years ago? That’s how long this book took to get going. I flew out to Pennsylvania, rented a car and drove out to see Fallingwater. I had made some calls in advance, hoping the conservancy might be able to set me up with someone I could ask questions to, but they were surprisingly very closed off on the phone. I figured if I could get someone into a room and explain to them what I was doing, that I was there to illustrate a book about the building of the house, that I’d be given that great artist advantage of going behind the scenes, being shown special rooms, etc. I couldn’t have been further from being wrong. When I arrived and tried to talk to someone behind the scenes, I was told in no uncertain terms that not only would I not be given an special license to the building, not only could I not take any pictures for research, but that the Frank Lloyd Wright estate had no prior knowledge to the making of this book, and that it was not approved in any way to go forward by the estate. I was on the phone straightaway with my publisher, who likewise contacted the authors, and then we all discovered that the Wright estate was a pretty litigious group, and that the proper channels had to be gone through in order for approval of even the image of the building to go forward. There followed a flurry of paper work and foot work on the part of the publisher and writers, to make sure that the proper people were informed and that we would be allowed to publish a book on this building. In hindsight, I think it must be that a lot of people try to cash in on the Wright estate and his many iconic buildings, and they were really just trying to preserve his legacy. In the meantime, though, it meant I wasn’t sure if I could continue forward. 

I dutifully took the tour of the house, which was amazing, but much smaller than I’d anticipated. I even tried to sketch in the house, but they wouldn’t allow me any drawing materials inside, for fear of damaging the furniture inside. I took pictures outside, where you were allowed to photograph the cantilevered balconies (although they put a cap on the number of people allowed to stand on them for fear they’d further exacerbate the cracks along the balcony bases), and then took pictures from beyond the waterfall. I remember feeling pretty humbled by the place. I also remember loving the rock formation, and taking lots of pictures of them. I knew those had to go into the book.

Frank Lloyd Wright had a very specific pattern he wanted to achieve with the stones, and he had a few of the builders let go for not following those patterns. 

I also needed to match the images I saw with the floor plans I’d been studying, to make sure that I could match the few grainy photos taken during the construction to the floorplans and the ultimate final product.

To get this sketch correct, I had to lay the floor plan down against the photo on the top to figure out exactly what I was looking at. The presence of the stairwell just adjacent to the brick wall in the photo (barely visible in the photo, it looks like a pile of rubble) was what clued me into the floor I was looking at. I’d had a few photos of the cantilevered balconies being constructed, and realized that the cement funnels at the top of the image was meant to feed into the base of the balcony structure. Yep, that guy designed it so the concrete was molded into the form of the balcony. That technique was later used in the building of the ascending cement stairs up to the servants quarters a decade later.  It’s an insanely difficult way to achieve a seamless look, and of course led to the decline of the balcony within years of completing the house. The use of the cantilevers wasn’t enough to keep the support of the balconies in tact. Anyway, I show that process of the pouring of the cement into this image. 

Also in that image are the lead contractor in charge of this insane project, Walter Hall (pointing out the blueprints to his assistants) as well as Bob Mosher, the man in the red shirt, who was Wright’s assistant, and I think the true reason behind the success of Fallingwater. Wright never once visited the site while it was being built. Can you believe that?

I also wanted to visit Taliesen, the studios of Frank Lloyd Wright, but I couldn’t afford another trip. So thanks to the magic of the internet, I took a virtual tour of the his studio, where I was afforded a 360 degree view. I took a lot of screen captures. Then I compared them to photos in the many MANY books I bought on Fallingwater and Wright. 

This is my color sketch of his studio. I had to remove the red hue to match the rest of the book, but those prints in my image (which I painted in miniature!) are copies of Japanese prints that Wright possessed at the time. He was such a fan of Japanese print that I think he amassed the largest private collection at the time. Of course it influenced his design of Fallingwater, as well as my design of the book.

LTPB: You approach the manuscripts you illustration with distinctly different artistic styles (I’m thinking Fallingwater versus, say, the Vampirina books). What’s the first thing you do when you receive a new manuscript? How do you decide what type of media to use, and what tone to give your illustrations? How does your process change from book to book?

LP: I think, artistically, I have multiple personalities. I’ve never felt comfortable being identified in a single style, and while professionally that’s probably awful, I’ve found it personally really rewarding. Because I change up my look so often, I think I’m considered for a lot more manuscripts that other artists. In the beginning of my career, it was a struggle to convince an editor to let me try a new look, and I completely understand why. How could I build a name and an audience for myself if my work wasn’t easily identifiable? It wasn’t a good bet for a publisher for sure. But personally, I get really tired of one style quickly, and just long to try something new constantly. And now, I think I have a good reputation in the industry as someone who can tackle a lot of different manuscripts, which is exactly what I wanted. In one year, I got to illustrate a book on an obscure Hungarian mathematician named Paul Erdos, I illustrated a Vampire ballerina book (that’s actually about a Vietnamese girl learning to fit in), a graphic novel on the Templar Knights, a board book in chunky sweet style in gouache, and a highly realistic adaptation of The Twelve Days of Christmas. And each editor approached me in the same way: “We have no idea how you’re going to illustrate this, but we can’t wait to find out!”

The Boy Who Loved Math, by Deborah Heiligman

Vampirina Ballerina, by Anne Marie Pace

Templar, by Jordan Mechner, co-illustrated by Alex Puvilland (my husband!)

All Fall Down, by Mary Brigid Barrett

12 Days of Christmas

I wish I could tell you what my line of thinking is when I get a manuscript and tell you something lovely like, “Wow, it just comes to me! Out of the blue!” The truth is, I go through a couple weeks of pure anxiety, trying to decide how to do this book, convincing myself that the publishers made a mistake, that someone else out there is infinitely more capable than I am to do this book. Then I spend a few more days teasing out an image or two. It usually changes quite a bit, and then I agonize some more thinking I’m never going to find it. Somehow, usually around midnight, when I’m too exhausted to see straight, I come up with something that works for the moment. By then I’m so worried I won’t make my deadline that I charge forward with that style. About three pieces in I start to feel comfortable with it, about halfway through I make the best piece of the batch, and when I’m done I want to redo the first three. But I never have enough time. Then I won’t look at it again until the book comes out, and then –– and only then –– do I think, “Hmm.. That’s not too bad!” You know that saying, you have to suffer for your art? That’s me. All the way. Ninety plus books into my career, and that’s the clearest answer I can give. 

LTPB: What are you working on now? 


I just finished up a book called Stop That Yawn by Caron Levis.

I’m writing a book for Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie Like Reading series called The Itchy Book (Mo Willems could edit my picture books for the rest of my life, and I’d be a happy gal).

I just finished another book for Scholastic called Best Friends in the Universe, written by Stephanie Watson, about two boys writing a book about being best friends.

Plus the next Vampirina book, Vampirina in the Snow, Princess in Black #6, and another nonfiction about the geneticist Barbara McClintock, also written by Deborah Heiligman. 

LTPB: Okay, last question! Who would you choose to illustrate your picture book biography, and why?

LP: ALICE AND MARTIN PROVENSEN!!!! Because they are my superheroes, and I love them. Do you even have to ask why?!?

A million thanks to Anna for taking time to answers some questions! Fallingwater: The Building of Frank Lloyd Wright's Masterpiece publishes TODAY from Roaring Brook Press!

Special thanks to LeUyen for use of these images!

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