November 16, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #198: Mercè López

I Am Smoke by Henry Herz and Mercè López is a jaw-dropping look at smoke, all told from smoke's point of view. The illustrations are absolutely captivating, especially when paired with Henry's text, and I was so excited to talk to illustrator Mercè about how she created them! As one might suspect, there's a lot of actual smoke involved. Enjoy!

About the book:
Smoke speaks in mesmerizing riddles: I lack a mouth, but I can speak.... I lack hands, but I can push out unwanted guests.... I'm gentler than a feather, but I can cause harm....

Let's talk Mercè López!

LTPB: When you read Henry Herz’s text for I Am Smoke, what were the first images that popped into your head? What were you most excited to illustrate?

ML: The first thought I had was that it was going to be a real challenge. The most exciting and challenging part was to have to illustrate the smoke itself. I wasn't sure about how to represent the smoke. I started thinking of a personal smoke, a kind of misty Phantom of the Opera smoke following the voice of the book, but at the same time I imagined a very minimal image for the cover: the title of the book showed through the smoke. Both ideas were opposite, in fact. The first one more theatrical, more complex. The second one lighter, like the smoke. So, I quickly choose.

One of the first images that came into my mind was also the big pine trees in a landscape with a campfire and some people around. I was thinking on children or maybe Native American...

LTPB: What kind of visual research did you do for this book? What were some of the more challenging moments you experienced in creating the illustrations, and what were the most rewarding?

ML: I had in mind the art that my friend Marita Carmona does with smoke. I love her dark and sweet universe, and I was fascinated by the work with smoke she was starting at that time. I was very excited with the idea that the smoke was, in fact, made by real smoke so I call my friend and we had a beautiful chat about the technique and more, about all her conception of the symbolism of the smoke in her paintings. After that I was very excited to look after the materials and prepare my studio to not be burned down.

It was so great to work with fire and smoke, touching and smelling the wax and candles. I loved dancing with fate and trying to control the smoke. I wasn't able to but sometimes I could guide the smoke to where I wanted it to go and let myself be guided by the smoke.

I wanted to continue playing with “no control” and my daughter was a special key, here. My art is always closely related with my life and, those days, I was playing a lot painting with my one and a half year-old kid. She played with my acrylics and my brushes (old ones), and I played next to her with water over her drawings. I used some of those paintings to make the backgrounds. Those parts were the most rewarding.

The most challenging, at the beginning, was to work with watercolors, I never use watercolors for my illustrations, but at the end I enjoyed it a lot. Also challenging was how to be accurate with all the historic and cultural elements in the text. I've learned a lot about American History and Native American History, it's been amazing!

LTPB: How does your process change from book to book?

ML: I usually work with acrylics in my color illustrations, but it can change: oil, mixed media... sometimes digitally, but not often... so, this work with more fluid techniques was definitely new for me, and I feel that it started a new period in my way of working...

Every project is unique, in fact. I am not able to use the same style or technique when I have a funny children's book about gambling animals than I would have for an illustrated Romeo and Juliet. I dive into a different universe every time, and I listen to music or podcasts or radio programs that give a background to my mental state.

The process changes sometimes, but I often start the same way: writing. I read the book in a pleasant place like a cafe or a terrace, and I take some notes of my first ideas. I do a little visual research and write a little more around the concept, starting with some small drawings or painting the colors that come to mind depending on the project, inspiration... and then I define more and more until I get the sketches to send to the client.

I like to try a new thing I am interested in with every project.  

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

ML: Hmm... it's a kind of busy period for me. Too busy, I would say.. I am working on a special project with my “fellow traveller” Javier Bermúdez for the Spanish publisher Pastel de Luna. I just finished the B/W illustrations for a young reader's novel for Mexico and I am finishing a children book for the US and starting a new illustrated novel for young readers here in Spain. I'm also doing some covers...aish... Everything interesting and exciting, but I'd rather think less and stress less... I'm afraid I am not allowed to show anything from the books, but I can show you some images I've just finished for a personal commission and some others from a book that just has been published called Room for Everyone by Naaz Khan (Simon & Schuster).

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?

ML: I think I would love to create a collection and have every period illustrated by a different illustrator! If I could choose, I'd love to have my childhood illustrated by Quentin Blake, Claire Lebourg, and Ana Penyas. My teen years would be by Nikolai Troshinsky. My young adult life would be by my friend Marita Carmona, with a few parts by Jorge Gonzalez. My late twenties and thirties by Ashley Wood, for sure, and Ana Bustelo! But I would also love to include touches of Gina Thorstenstein and Carmen Segovia, Brecht Evens, Amanda Mijangos, Armando Fonseca, Jon Klassen... and more and more...

A million thanks to Mercè for taking time to answer some questions about her incredible book! I Am Smoke published earlier this season from Tilbury House Publishers!

Special thanks to Mercè and Tilbury House for use of these images!

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1 comment:

  1. Wow, thank you so much for sharing this book! What a gorgeous way to tackle such a surprisingly complex subject! :)