October 15, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #122: Paweł Pawlak

I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk to Polish author-illustrator Paweł Pawlak about his illustration and story processes for Oscar Seeks a Friend, a story I knew I would connect to from the cover alone. I dug a little deeper into the design of Paweł's book, and I hope you enjoy the interview!

About the book:
What if you could turn the world the other way around and take a peek at what's on the other side? Perhaps you'll find something you never expected. Such as friendship. The sad little skeleton on the cover of this book might not look very promising, but when Oscar meets a lonely little girl, it's the start of an adventure for both of them. Together they make an unusual journey to two very different worlds, each beautiful and necessary. And it all begins when the little girl's tooth falls out...

Let's talk Paweł Pawlak!

LTPB: What inspired you to create Oscar Seeks a Friend? After creating so many books in your career, what was it like to sit down and think about what a picture book is physically and how you could use the structure (ie the gutter) to tell a story?

PP: As so often happens with the books that I write as well as illustrate, the first element to appear was the main character. The little skeleton boy in oversized, brightly colored shorts appeared for the first time in 2010 in one of my illustrations for a French children’s magazine called Toupie. He was one of the background figures, but I immediately felt he deserved to have a whole book devoted to him. The idea for the story gradually matured (thanks to the help of my friend, the French writer Gérard Moncomble, and my wife Ewa, who also writes and illustrates children’s books), and once I knew that the book would be about a journey into two very different worlds, I started to consider the best way to use the physical structure of the book to show the contrast between them. I like to think about a book as a material object with particular properties, and the idea of using the natural fold in the middle of the flat spread of the book (I don’t think the word “gutter” has such a vivid equivalent in Polish) came to me at once. And was reinforced by the thought that other artists have used this element for their own purposes (e.g. Iwona Chmielewska in A House of the Mind: Maum by Heekyoung Kim). But my first attempts were aimed at the sort of division which would have involved turning the book – or at least parts of it – through ninety degrees, making the gutter run horizontally, because originally Oscar’s world was going to be underground. I drew some complicated diagrams, because with that structure, including spreads that were entirely devoted to one world or the other meant obliging the reader to keep turning the book, or so I thought. At first it seemed quite comical, and the sketches for that version got to an advanced stage, but then I realized that Oscar’s world is parallel to ours, existing alongside ours, not under our feet, and I went back to the simple division of left and right, and the idea of viewing the book the “normal” way. 

LTPB: Once you had settled on the concept of the book, how did the story and characters evolve (textually and visually) as you fleshed out your ideas and began to bring your characters to life?

PP: Once the main character and the general concept for the book were ready, I worked out the character of the little girl, and then sketched out the scenes of the conversation between her and Oscar, the ones that are on half light/half dark spreads. I did my best to find very expressive poses for the bodies of both characters, to show their emotions clearly. Finally I devised the double-page illustrations showing the girl’s and Oscar’s worlds. The biggest problem was to come up with concise, succinct and yet visually attractive images that would prompt sympathy, which obviously was hardest with Oscar’s gloomy world. At the same time, I started refining the text, the draft versions of which had already appeared in the margins of the first sketches for the illustrations. I had decided from the start that not all the scenes in the book would include words, and that some of the spreads would function purely visually. But even in the illustrations where there is text, I tried to keep the words to a minimum. They’re not my strong point, and I have more trust in pictures. ☺

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How has your process changed throughout your career?

PP: Once the book was in the form of a detailed mock-up with black-and-white sketches, I could start work on the illustrations. Right from the start I wanted the figures to be made the same way as the skeleton boy in the French magazine, using paper, as a spatial collage. My aim was for the final illustrations to be very realistic, material, to have their own volume, but at the same time to give the impression of being delicate, fragile and ethereal. It’s one of my favorite techniques, but it’s very time-consuming and I can’t always allow myself to indulge in it. I use paper I have painted and also ready-made colored paper (best of all I like thin, subtly patterned paper, the kind florists use to wrap flowers!) 

Working on Oscar, first I stuck down the backgrounds for the illustrations, then I positioned the characters on them, and the additional details made out of slightly thicker cardboard.

All the light-and-dark spreads showing the conversations between Oscar and the girl have the same backgrounds. I glued my series of figures of Oscar, the girl and the dog onto them, and the gradually developing flowery decorations. It was like working on an animated film.

Once the completed illustrations had been scanned and further refined using a picture-editing programme, I placed them in a mock-up of the book and polished up the text to make it short and simple, but at the same time to be the ideal supplement for what was in the illustrations.

I don’t think my career path has been a simple one leading from less successful illustrations to the best ones. It has involved triumphs and tragedies, a complicated journey including returning to nice, familiar places, but also unexpected trips into new spheres. Often the technical and aesthetic themes first drawn years ago in my older illustrations act as a point of departure for trying new things. I like to change my style and illustration techniques, and for each book I try to find the means of expression that emphasize its special features. I think another reason why I like these changes is that I don’t trust exaggerated technical mastery; I think I achieve more interesting results when I’m having to contend with the material for the illustration, when the technique presents me with a challenge. 

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

PP: Apart from book and illustration commissions, of which the next in line is a picture book for small children telling the story of my home city, Wrocław, that I’ll be working on with my wife Ewa, I do have some books of my own in the pipeline. One of them has been inspired by some of my own childhood drawings that I found earlier this year at my parents’ house. I’d like this book to be a silent book, without any words. That’s the project I think about as I fall asleep. But the project that’s at its most advanced stage is a book about fear and how to overcome it, the main visual theme of which involves shadows, and how they stir the imagination. Like most of my ideas for books, this one began with individual images and scenes, on the basis of which I then built the story. The result is a tale about a child feeling lonely, about a little girl’s struggle to have her dreams come true, and about paternalism in general. Another major theme of the book is the rights of animals. I wanted to show a world where animals are the same sort of residents as people, they populate the streets, practise human professions, and so on. And at the same time it’s a world where there are hunters who prey on animals. I think it’s a good way to show the absurdity of killing animals in cruel ways and thoughtlessly inflicting pain on them. Here are a few sketches and two completed illustrations for this book. I decided to use a paper collage technique for this one too

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

PP: What a great question, thank you! It has never occurred to me that anyone might be interested in my biography, so that’s probably why so many ideas occur to me that I’ve got to ask you if we can assume reincarnation exists, that I’m going to have several lives and can think about several autobiographies? ;-)

I’d definitely want one of them to be illustrated by Manon Gauthier, who’s from Montreal, and who I’m pleased to say is a friend. I love her work for the love and empathy with which she presents her characters and their worlds, and also for the fabulous combination of incredible finesse, subtlety of form and childlike simplicity that I find in her illustrations.

I’d be overjoyed if my next autobiography were illustrated by Carson Ellis. This would be a story of my life that brought the astonishing magic and elusive mystery of the world into the foreground, as well as the constant wonder at it that I never stop feeling. I can see similar thoughts, presentiments and emotions in Carson’s work.

If I wanted one of the autobiographies to emphasize the element of madness that I can sense somewhere deep inside me, I’d ask the Italian illustrator and cartoonist Lorenzo Matotti to do the illustrations.

Another dream illustrator of my life story would be the Spanish artist Jesus Cisneros. I value his work for the freshness and cheekiness of his artistic imagination.

And if in the end I decided that my autobiography should be a “silent book”, with no words, I’d ask the Belgian writer/illustrator Anne Brouillard to tell it in pictures. I don’t think anyone else is as good at telling a story in nothing but images, profound visual metaphors and an atmosphere created by graphic means.

A million thanks to Paweł for talking to me! Oscar Seeks a Friend is available now in the US and will be available in the UK on October 17, 2019 from Lantana Publishing!

Special thanks to Paweł and Lantana for use of these images!

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