September 12, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #260: Nic Yulo

I am so excited today to present my interview with Nic Yulo! I absolutely adored her 2022 debut, Patch of Sky, and I feel lucky I got a chance to catch her and talk about her sophomore picture book Out of the Blue. I hope you enjoy this beautiful and unexpected journey through feelings, friendship, and the deep blue sea.

About the book:
Coral has big dreams about grand adventures--but it's hard to go after these big dreams when you're the smallest in the class and feel completely invisible. During a school trip to the aquarium, Coral finds a kindred spirit in Kraken, a small octopus who knows that being invisible isn't always a bad thing.

When Coral finds herself in the aquarium after everyone else goes home, she learns that being seen isn't always about how big you are.

Let's talk Nic Yulo!

LTPB: Where did the idea for Out of the Blue come from?

NY: The idea for Out of the Blue came from a very fortuitous conversation I had with my literary agent, Alexandra Levick. I had been working on another project involving the ocean and our chat naturally turned to how we both thought octopuses were fascinating. I had an inkling, as I often do at the very start of a new book, that there might be a ‘story’ there. I wanted to research and craft a world that would showcase these amazing creatures and, considering my debut book involved a little girl and animal best friend pairing, I thought it would be a nice follow up to focus on a similar dynamic.

A good number of the stories I write involve STEM concepts and are rooted in real science, so I knew immediately which subspecies of octopus I wanted to feature—the diminutive Flapjack octopus or Adorabilis. I named him Kraken and became excited about exploring the idea of ‘bigness’ and ‘smallness’— how a kid or creature might feel so overlooked and insignificant that they feel invisible. Having been a quiet kid myself, I hoped that narrative arc might resonate with readers. Also, it gave me an excuse to spend afternoons at the Museum of Natural History to get inspiration and sketch a lot of colorful, big-eyed fish.

LTPB: Can you talk about your process for hand lettering the text?

NY: Because the text is so integrated into the layout of the illustrations, I tend to try to map things out as early as possible, mostly in pencil, just to get a feel as to where all the important elements should go and how I would like a reader’s eye to follow the action on the page.

Once my editor and I lock the text in, I start either inking or digitally drawing each individual letter until I get the look I want. My goal is to try and get the words to feel as dynamic as possible and guide how they should be read without being too heavy-handed. After the letters are drawn, it becomes a matter of ‘cutting’ them out and assembling them on top of the pencil sketch.

It’s a pretty time-intensive process but really fun once you get a rhythm going. I usually have a podcast or music playing in the background as I go along, so it can be a very calming part of the process.

LTPB: What part of the process in creating your sophomore book stood out to you most?

NY: My first book, Patch of Sky, was designed to be more minimal and stylized. I used a lot of white on the page—I really like taking advantage of negative space—and the color palette was purposefully limited.

Out of the Blue on the other hand, despite also having a very specific color palette, was longer, featured an entire class of kids, a teacher, a field trip, an aquarium, and dozens of different aquatic creatures. There are so many more elements on the page that needed to be thought through and illustrated.

(pp 8-9 Rough Sketch)

(pp 8-9 Sketch)

(pp 8-9 Color Study)

(pp 8-9 Final)

The cover jacket, especially, needed to incorporate all these myriad elements. We went through a couple of variations before going with the cover as it stands today.

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?

NY: I usually work both traditionally and digitally throughout my process. This book leaned slightly more digital, particularly when I started having to combine the text and illustrations, but I’m always going back and forth between scribbling on paper, building textures, scanning them in, and layering them onto shapes in Photoshop.

Usually, the story dictates what the illustrations should feel like, whether that means a cleaner and more polished style or a more hand-drawn effect. I get most excited about a project when I don’t quite know how I’m going to pull it off. I always try to leave myself open to inspiration that might lead me down a different direction than I was anticipating. I love to experiment and figure things out as I go.

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

NY: I am currently working on a darker story for older kids. It involves the ocean, but this time, I’m leaning into how mysterious and terrifying it can be. I can’t go into depth or show too much about it quite yet, but I am very excited about the progress I’m making.

Perhaps this concept drawing might give a hint of this new story’s vibe:

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?

NY: What a brilliant question! Two illustrators that I have always admired are Dave McKean and Mary Blair. The combination of the character and emotion inherent in Dave McKean’s ink illustrations along with Mary Blair’s unique sense of color would make a fantastic style for a hypothetical picture book autobiography.

They are huge inspirations to me and inform my work. They also possess such unique, expansive, tender, odd, and whimsical imaginations. I feel like they would be able to represent the duality of my interests in both hopeful stories and darker fairy tales. I have no doubt that the resulting book would be stunning to look at and possess a nuanced and compelling narrative arc—the stuff of dreams!

An ocean-sized thank you to Nic for talking to me about her book! Out of the Blue published earlier this year from Dial Books!

Special thanks to Nic and Dial for use of these images!

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