I had the pleasure of meeting Arree at an SCBWI conference schmooze and I was struck by his dedication, enthusiasm and humility.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[AC] I consider myself an author/illustrator since I write as well as make pictures. Having been trained as an illustrator, I am very comfortable with making pictures and like to doodle ideas while I work on the words. It’s hard to say where I begin. Usually, in the beginning, it’s a big mess. Sometimes, it’s just words for an idea. With words, you can capture the abstract feeling of a story and since it’s still abstract, you can pivot to many other ideas. Other times, a funny drawing or a doodle of a character will inspire a story. Your doodle may come to life. A character emerges with it’s own personality. You never know where a story can come from but you must capture it on paper ASAP before you loose it.
[JM] Where are you from and how has that influenced your work?
[AC] I am from the San Francisco Bay area. I love the diversity here. I’m working on a middle grade novel that chronicles my years of growing up in the suburbs. The novel has a lot of stories about identity, race and learning what it means to be an American. As an ABC (American Born Chinese), I relate to both cultures. In the Bay Area, I love that there are people from all over the world.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[AC] I got the itch to make art when I met a few art students on a train ride home after work. They showed me their drawings and I was blown away. I knew I wanted to do that. At the time, I worked as a litigation consultant making lots of spreadsheets. My love for art and storytelling lead me to apply for a job at Pixar. Miraculously I landed a job and three years later, I left Pixar to train at Art Center.
I grew up fascinated with animation. Disney movies, comics and books touched me deeply. I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to make stories or movies? Wouldn’t it be cool to make toys? Now I get to do exactly that!
That’s sort of the neat thing about growing up. You really can do just about anything if you pursue it. The next step is dedicating yourself to your craft, learning and improving everyday.
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[AC] You know, I work in many mediums and like to experiment. That’s part of the fun for me and I think it makes for better storytelling. You develop the art, just as you develop the story and you decide what mediums to use that best tell the story. I believe that story should drive your visual choices.
With that being said, the mediums I use most are: Acrylics, Watercolors, Ink & Photoshop. Also, I am very excited about experimenting with collage for a picture book coming up.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[AC] I love the wonder and playfulness that young children have. When I look at NINJA! and some of my other stories in progress, they usually have themes of adventure, pretend or the extraordinary. In NINJA!, Maxwell performs amazing acrobatic tricks to accomplish his mission. On my next picture book, OUT, a toddler escapes his crib and his dog must do amazing things to keep him safe.
Never loose that sense of wonder that we are all born with.
[JM] How autobiographical is your first picture book, NINJA?
[AC] To be honest, I never took martial arts. I had some insecurities about being the “Chinese kid” that knew karate. Of course, knowing karate would have been really handy in dealing with bullies later. Oh well!
As a child, I always loved playing another role. My favorite superhero was Batman, and I loved pretending to be him on the playground. When my parents watched “the King and I”, I would act as the King and prance around the house singing, “Shall we dance?”
[JM] What tips would you offer a new illustrator trying to break into the field of children’s books?
[AC] First, you have to have a lot of GRIT and stick with it. Working hard for many years is a given. Everyone who is successful puts a lot of time into it. Read a lot and have fun. Your best work will come out when you are lost in what you are doing.
Last piece of advice would be to copy. Of course, I don’t mean to copy other people’s ideas or stories but copy masters to learn. Early on, an editor told me to go to the bookstore and read 10 books each week. I did and on most trips, I sat in the bookstore and copied the words into manuscript form. Doing this reminds me a lot of homework assignments in art school where we did master copies- copying the artwork of master illustrators. You learn so much by doing so and at some point, all that learning seeps into your unconscious.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[AC] I have a work desk for illustrating and a computer desk. I like to separate the two.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
After I get the dummy working, I like to do a black and white version to figure out my values. This helps me simplify the design and think of how to make things read. Then I do a color study. I usually do this in tandem with a color script for the whole book. I like to figure everything out before going to final artwork. Just before going to final, I do a tight line drawing. This is where it’s good to make sure your characters are on model. From here, I paint on Rives BFK paper and scan in. That’s it!
[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[AC] I have a lot of artwork from friends as well as some of my favorite illustrators. Most of the art in my house are picture books. There’s so much in each one of them.
[JM] Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] What’s your favorite park in the world?
[AC] Central Park in NY.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[JM] Favorite way to spend a summer evening?
[AC] Relaxing with friends over dinner at a great restaurant. Listening to good music or playing Settlers of Catan with close friends.
[JM] One word to describe yourself?
[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[AC] I’ve changed my diet recently in an effort to be more healthy as well as deal with my eczema issues. As I’ve grown older, my eczema has worsen and I know what I eat has a lot to do with it. So I’m changing to a whole foods oriented diet.
So lately I’ve been eating a lot of apples and I’ve quit drinking coffee in favor for tea.
[JM] Where can we find you online?
[JM] Good luck with the dietary changes, Arree. I know that over the years I have tried various nutrient combinations to become the healthiest I can be. My focus now is locally grown whole foods, where I can! I love picturing you as a mini Yul Brinner in the ‘King and I’ – awesome. I hope our paths cross again soon and I wish you all success in your current projects.