June 20, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #254: Mariana Ruiz Johnson

I have long admired award-winning Argentinian picture book creator Mariana Ruiz Johnson, and it was such a pleasure talking to her about her latest illustrated book Luna Ranchera, written by Rodrigo Morlesin. This book is truly fantastic and unique and fun, fun, fun! Happy reading!

About the book:
This spellbinding original story opens in a cantina crowded with desert animals, cowboys, and cowgirls all excited to see the glamorous Luna Ranchera mother-daughter singing duo. Long ago, Luna was down on her luck, starving and struggling to feed her pups, reduced to thieving from nearby ranchers. One day, escaping another heist, Luna has to hide in the worst possible place: on top of a beehive! She howls in pain so loudly, it carries all across the desert. It turns out Luna's musical wails are something special, captivating creatures far and wide. Her most rebellious pup, Ranchera, joins her, and soon the two become the famous howling singing act with the flea-bitten souls, Luna Ranchera!

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Mariana Ruiz Johnson!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Luna Ranchera? What is your personal connection to Rodrigo Morlesin’s text?

MRJ: I knew Rodrigo virtually because in addition to being a writer, he is a kids lit expert who makes very nice book review videos. He recommended my job at the publishing house. When they shared the draft of the text with me, I loved the fact that it was a story about music and about how art can heal (or even be born of) difficult and painful moments. I also liked that it made reference to the Latino culture, and that many words were in Spanish. I am Argentine and Rodrigo is Mexican: we speak the same language. The story is very charming and I felt that it would be an opportunity to show humanized animals, and play with humor and their characteristics, and that is something that I love to draw. I was also interested in the possibility of illustrating a story that happened in a particular area, some desert place in the western United States. That would take me out of my comfort zone and allow me to explore a landscape, an architecture, an atmosphere not very familiar to me. The challenge was tempting!

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the illustrations? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations evolve? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw the text?

MRJ: Rodrigo Morlesin, the writer, was very clear about the main characters' aspect, because Luna and Ranchera are two dogs that exist in real life and that inspired Rodrigo to write this story. First we had to decide how they were going to move and look, if they were going to be humanized or if they were going to walk on all fours. For that we had several conversations with Maria Russo (editor) and Amelia Mack (art director), and then I did some first tests. Another thing we had to decide was the visual language of the book, since I have various illustration styles and techniques. The first tests were to decide if the language would be black Chinese ink outlines, or digital color planes. The second option was discarded, and we decided that an Indian ink outline work would be ideal for this book, which would give it a more classic and warm touch.

First versions of Luna and Ranchera

This was a sample we discarded because we chose the ink outline.

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

MRJ: The difficult thing about illustrating Luna Ranchera was that it is a very long book, which has a certain complexity in the story. The tale begins in the present tense but has a large flashback that tells the origin story of Luna Ranchera. I tried to be very clear with the narration, choose the most appropriate points of view to accompany the most moving aspect of the story. I also introduced some comic strips to give dynamism and humor (this was Rodrigo's idea, who in addition to being the writer was the designer of the book). The most satisfying thing about illustrating this book was the absolute freedom the publisher (Maria Russo as editor and Amelia Mack as art director) gave me to imagine the illustrations for the book. I loved working with Rodrigo as a designer, because he knows a lot about picture books and had a lot of ideas for this story. He was also very available to help me make decisions, put together dummies, sketches, and that saved me a lot of headaches.

Rodrigo´s dummies with two cover options :)

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?

MRJ: To make this book, I first sketched out the whole story. I then printed the sketches in cyan on paper, and inked them with black ink with classic Rotring fountain pens, creating the line illustration first and paying special attention to the hatches. The color was done digitally. My husband, Pato, is my assistant, and he helped me scan all the originals and then color the illustrations.

I usually work with different techniques and the choice depends on what climate the text suggests to me, what aspects of the illustration I want to highlight and if I am going to rest the image on the drawing or on the plane. Each book proposes a different language to me.




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

Right now I am working on a book of which I am the full author, which is called Bo-to and talks about the relationship between a boy and his robot. It is also a reflection on how technology and childhood are related. It is a comic for young children. It will be published by an independent Colombian publisher, Cataplum, which has a very careful catalogue. For this book I once again used pictorial media such as acrylic and oil pastel. Here are some photos of the work in progress:

Work in progress, drinking mate in my mother´s kitchen.

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?

MRJ: I would love for the great Argentine cartoonist and humorist, Quino, to draw my autobiography. Quino was the creator of Mafalda, a much-loved character worldwide, which was one of my first readings as a child. He was, in addition to a highly intelligent humorist, a prodigious draftsman who worked with India ink.

On the other hand, I would also like to have my life illustrated in Richard Scarry's version. I love how he draws a world of anthropomorphic animals and I always loved looking at the details in his illustrations. I wonder what animal he would represent me with.

Mil gracias to Mariana for talking to me about this special book!! Luna Ranchera publishes from Minerva TODAY!

Special thanks to Mariana and Minerva for use of these images!

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