September 25, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #83: Felicita Sala

By now, you undoubtedly recognize Felicita Sala's work when you see it. Her books are becoming more and more ubiquitous (not to mention more and more beautiful) as she tackles nonfiction biographies of people like Joan Procter, Mother Jones, and Mary Shelley. Her latest book, Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda & His Muse, written by Alexandria Giardino, takes a closer look at the life and influence of Pablo Neruda, and though Felicita stays true to her distinct style, she takes some interesting detours to make the book unique and reflective of Neruda himself. Take a look inside with me.

About the book:
Pablo has a lunch date with his friend Matilde, who shows the moody poet her garden. Where Pablo sees conflict and sadness, Matilde sees love and hope. The story is less a biography of Neruda and his muse, Matilde Urrutia (1912–1985), and more a simple ode to a vegetable that is humble and luminous, dark and light, gloomy and glad, full of grief and full of joy—just like life!

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Felicita Sala!

LTPB: What can you tell me about the design of this book? I LOVE the translucent endpapers (just like an onion!), and the unique casewrap. How involved were you in adding these details? How do you design your casewraps and endpapers to be extensions of the central story? 

FS: Oh, I have to say that this is one of the most beautifully designed books I’ve had the pleasure to work on. I was so impressed when I received the first copy that it almost felt like somebody else’s book. The details were a joint collaboration between myself and art director Melissa Greenberg. It was Melissa’s idea to have the onion skin endpapers. The casewrap is a beautiful surprise under the jacket. The design of these extra elements really depends on the publisher/art director I’m working with. For Ode, its was a real collaborative process, a constant exchange of ideas. We were driven by this representation of light/darkness throughout the story. The only problem I had with this book was with the cover. I wanted to use a cover concept which I felt resonated more with Neruda’s own metaphorical approach to the onion. I didn’t want to show the onion on the cover. (see reference image of proposed cover), and I wanted to show Matilde and Pablo in their garden, looking up at the moon. The publisher chose the current cover and in the end, it turned out to be a beautiful book. But I’m hoping for a cover swap for possible co-editions in Europe!

LTPB: You have a tendency to illustrate nonfiction. Why are you so drawn to nonfiction? What kind of research do you do for your illustrations? How did you mix in the realities of your research with your own unique art style? 

FS: More than a tendency, I would say it just happened that I kept receiving offers for nonfiction/biographical texts, and being drawn to certain things about those texts. To be honest, I much prefer working on fiction, and I am drawn to stories with wondrous or absurd elements in them. I love nonsense and rhyme and poetry, and books that trigger a child’s imagination. 

I suppose when you start with a work of nonfiction (for me it was On Our Way to Oyster Bay: Mother Jones and Her March for Children's Rights for Kids Can Press), you get noticed for that, and then more similar work comes. It got to a point where I said to my agent Kirsten Hall, after my latest non fiction project about Mary Shelley: I’m not doing any more biographies for a while, unless they're about Tom Waits. But, jokes aside, working on these kinds of books has been a precious training ground for me, since I’m self taught. Every book I make I learn something new. With Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles I learnt how to draw lizards. With She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein I learnt how to work with a dark, limited palette. Working on real people in real historical periods requires a lot of research, not only into the historical visual details, but a more personal research of the stylistic kind. How can I best represent this character in a way that doesn’t feel banal or contrived? It can be painful work, finding the character. 

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?

FS: For Ode to an Onion I played around a little more than I normally do. On top of my usual watercolour and coloured pencils, I used gouache, inks and crayons. I also used beige coloured paper as a base. I normally work on white paper. 

I tend to gravitate to the medium I’m most comfortable with, which is primarily coloured pencils over watercolour. For Mary Shelley I used a lot of black ink, and I discovered masking fluid for the first time. But I think the book that best represents me in terms of style and unconstrained execution is Au 10, Rue des Jardins. It’s a recipe book of sorts I made with French publisher Cambourakis. It’s also my first authored book. I had a lot of fun throughout the making of the whole thing, from coming up with the concept, drawing the food, placing every character in a unique microcosm. If I ever have to be remembered for a book, I hope it’s that one. It’ll be out in English next May with Scribble Books as Lunch at n.10, Pomegranate Street.

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

FS: Right now I’m working on a wonderful text by Dianne White. It’s called Green on Green, and it’s an exploration of the changing seasons, all in rhyme. I haven’t started on colour yet, and I’d rather not show anything for now. I’m also working on a new series of paintings on canvas for an exhibition in the coming weeks. It’s what I did before I became an illustrator, and it’s nice to go back to that freedom occasionally. 

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why? 

FS: Can I pick three options? The first would be the Czech illustrator Štěpán Zavřel. His illustrations are magical, and also there is something spiritual and primitive about them. The second would be my husband Gianluca Maruotti, but it would be a Claymation autobiography. It would take 30 years to make and it would be his finest work.

And finally, Manuel Fior, because I’m really drawn to that impeccable painting technique, his poetic sense of colour and genius narration. 

Thank you so, so much to Felicita for talking to me about her latest book! Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda & His Muse publishes October 9, 2018 from Cameron Kids!

Special thanks to Felicita and Cameron Kids for use of these images!

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