Illustrator Interview – Maral Sassouni

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I connected with Maral on Facebook because I swoon at her artwork and because she is a huge Francophile like me. She is relatively new to children’s books, but her work has been well received: selected in Society of Illustrators (Illustrators 56, annual and exhibit), 2014; winner of the SCBWI Portfolio Grand Prize, 2013; selected in the 3×3 Picture Book Show in 2012, 2013 and 2014 (with Distinguished Merit); exhibited at Le immagini della fantasia in Sàrmede, Italy (a group show of children’s illustrations) in 2011 and 2012. And in 2013 Nami Island International Concours selected my book project “Crocodile Shoes” (both text and images) for their exhibit/ illustration annual.

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

[MS] I’m first and foremost an illustrator and have been for over 20 years. But ever since I’ve shifted my focus to children’s publishing, I’m starting to write as well.

Words or pictures first? Both! Usually something visual triggers the idea for a story (a sketch of a character, or something I observe/overhear in real life). I ask myself “What if?” or “What next?” — and when I begin to figure that out, I switch to words… I write everything down willy-nilly, including illustration ideas (described in words). Once it begins to gel a bit, then I start sketching / brainstorming. The rest of it is going back and forth between words and pictures, pruning and rearranging until I’m satisfied…

Right now I’m working on my first picture book (for NordSüd Verlag / North South Books). I’m in the early stages, and find that seeing the entire storyboard in a single glance is very helpful (in terms of composition, pacing, etc). So I begin with tiny sketches of each spread, all on a single page. As the sketches get bigger and more detailed, I still want to see them at a single glance, so I put them up on my wall or bulletin board. Every time time I look up, I can see what’s working and what isn’t!

At some point along the way, I make a dummy, because it helps me to see if the page turns are working or not. This can be quick and casual (like line drawing on folded index cards), or it can be color prints assembled into a full sized book. Here are some examples from Crocodile Shoes dummies:

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Crocodile Shoes and mini dummy

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

[MS] I grew up in Playa del Rey, a quiet little beach town in Southern California. We had a lot of freedom, and my time was spent either at the beach or at the local library, trying to read every single book that they had.

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I also traveled a lot — was abroad for 3 years in my early 20s (mainly Europe, North Africa, and ex USSR). I just burned with curiosity to see other places and have a few adventures along the way. I eventually returned to go to university (UCLA). But 20+ years ago, I moved to Paris and have lived there ever since. Obviously this is a source of inspiration that’s enriched and expanded my mind and imagination in more ways than I can enumerate. Still, the newness and strangeness haven’t worn off — even after so much time, things still look surprising and fresh to me. Maybe this carries over into the images that I make, somehow.

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LINK to my flickr, with a lot of Paris photos https://www.flickr.com/photos/marals/sets/72157608769301967/

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[MS] My family is more scientific than artistic but nonetheless creative pursuits were not discouraged. I was also very lucky to have 2 fantastic art teachers in high school. One of them taught painting and drawing, (real life drawing with models!) almost very day of the week. The other taught communication /design— visual thinking, basically. He was Russian, and he introduced us to the work of many illustrators and designers practicing in other countries, which expanded our horizon enormously — we were exposed to works by Saul Steinberg, Tomi Ungerer, Andre Francois, Sempé, Pushpin Studio, and Graphis magazine. Once I saw all that, there was no turning back…

I went to UCLA, where I studied Design (undergrad) and Animation/film-making (graduate). I soon realized animation was not for me, and pursued illustration instead.

But it was not time wasted. So much of what I learned in animation turn out to be just the skills I need for making picture books — things like storyboarding and character design and so on.

In those years I also worked for the college art library (years before the internet, I had easy access to a world of images from all over) and at the college newspaper doing op-ed illustrations.

The beginning of my work life was indeed for newspapers and magazines, starting with a job at the Philadelphia Daily News, then moving to NY and freelancing for magazines and occasionally working as an art temp (a really good experience, giving me valuable insight into the day to day workings of art departments of all kinds: magazine, advertising, design firms and publishing too). As things kept me so busy, I didn’t focus on creating my children’s portfolio until much later. It was after I settled in to Paris that I turned my attention to it. By then I was starting to attend book fairs (especially the children’s book fair at Montreuil near Paris, and later the one at Bologna). I was bowled over by what I saw—I began to work in earnest exploring and creating a portfolio of work focused on children’s work… a huge learning curve!

Bologna 2011

Bologna 2011

LINK: to blog posts I’ve written about book fairs at Montreuil and Bologna.

http://maralsassouni.blogspot.com/2011/02/salon-du-livre-montreuil-part-1.html http://maralsassouni.blogspot.com/2011/02/salon-du-livre-montreuil-pt-2.html http://maralsassouni.blogspot.com/2011/05/bologna-book-fairpt1.html http://maralsassouni.blogspot.com/2011/05/bologna-part-2-discoveries.html

I attended the art workshops in Sàrmede Italy (which focus on children illustration, printmaking, artist’s books…). This was an enormous turning point — I learned so much there, from great teachers (both Andersen award nominees: Svjetlan Junakovic and Linda Wolfsgruber) and from the other students too.

The other big turning point was joining SCBWI. By then I had more of a portfolio, plus a full-color picture book dummy (Crocodile Shoes), which I’d written and illustrated. In fact I joined SCBWI because I had no clue what I had to do next, and wanted some guidance. So I went to my very first conference hoping to get a few tips … and what I got was the Portfolio Grand Prize !!! And that in turn led to so many good things— a trip to NY (with lots of appointments at publishing houses) and eventually a publisher an agent(the wonderful Jen Rofé if Andrea Brown Literary. Links) and a book contract … I still can’t believe it!

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[JM] Oo, Jen is an awesome agent. Brava! Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

[MS] I work in mixed media — I’ll use anything that comes to hand! My illustrations are a combination of painting (acrylics, oil glazes), printmaking and cut paper collage. Mostly traditional methods, but there is still a digital component to it… mainly finishing touches and sometimes collage assembly

That said, I like to experiment with different materials and techniques to find a visual approach that will really complement the mood of the story I’m illustrating.

[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?

Crocodiles, apparently. I’ve written and illustrated two stories (Crocodile Shoes and No Crocodiles in Town) which both have a crocodile protagonist. The crocodiles in these stories are tiny, benign, upbeat characters, but they are the proverbial fish out of water — always in the wrong place, astonished and trying to figure things out.

Crocodile Shoes in particular has gotten a lot of recognition* and honours, and I’m proud of it.

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*Society of Illustrators, and 3×3, plus being selected and exhibited at the Nami Concours in Korea and finally ending up at the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City during the last IBBY Congress.

http://maralsassouni.blogspot.com/search/label/Crocodile%20Shoes

The book I’m currently illustrating has no crocodiles in it. Not even one! But there is a whole cast of different animals, including an elephant, and I am really enjoying drawing them all.

[JM] European picture books are often quite different than US ones. Do you create with a specific audience in mind?

[MS] No, I don’t — I just tell the story I want to tell, and I take the visual approach that I feel is appropriate to the text itself. It’s true that European books are very different —they’re not simply aimed at children, the thoughtful intelligent stories can be ready on many levels, and the art work is immensely inventive and varied! I feel pretty lucky that my first publisher is both European and American. Nord Süd Verlag is a wonderful publishing house based in Zürich, and their American imprint North South Books in in New York— I’m excited that the picture book will be published in both English and German!

I couldn't bear to be parted from my French picture books, so I brought them to L.A. with me!

I couldn’t bear to be parted from my French picture books, so I brought them to L.A. with me!

I'm also very lucky to be able to find foreign language picture books at my local library here in West Hollywood —

I’m also very lucky to be able to find foreign language picture books at my local library here in West Hollywood —

[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?

[MS] Briefly, I work in a combination of painting, printmaking and cut paper collage. I first make monoprints in the colors that I’ve chosen for the image. I paint on top, with both acrylics and oil glazes, then cut out pieces and assemble them into characters, objects and backgrounds.

Here are a few I’ve done recently:

Autumn Hedgehog:

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Elephant!1sq-wipfinish6-vgood 1sq-wiphand1-ele-800

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I also used this process to create the art for Crocodile Shoes and for the SCBWI cover I did last year:

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This is the caterpillar image I created for the SCBWI Bulletin cover last year (PS I just found out it was selected in the SOciety of Illustrators, L.A. show! Hurray!!)

When it came out, I wrote a more detailed step by step of the process on my blog. For those who are interested, LINK to blog post. http://maralsassouni.blogspot.com/2014/02/scbwi-bulletin.html

It’s not as methodical as it sounds I redraw /redesign /refine the drawings as I see them developing, and having collage elements also allows me some extra flexibility. …there’s definitely wiggle room for late-breaking inspirations!!

[JM] Do you have any marketing tips for illustrators?

[MS] Number one tip is join SCBWI! Go to their conferences and you will get all the other tips you need.

The other number one tip is postcards — just keep sending them out!!

In general, be persistent and resilient and single-minded — since there is no clearly defined path, you really have to want to put in the time and effort, to figure it out and to get there!

[JM] Couldn’t agree more. I have just renewed my SCBWI membership for the fifth year running. What does your workspace look like? 

[MS] In LA, where I am currently, it’s a spare bedroom on the top of the house. There are 3 tables, for painting, art supplies and computer. A lightbox. And a basket for my cat to sit in. A whole lot of books. If I could wish for anything, I’d want more wall space because I really like putting up my sketches and storyboards It’s helpful to be able to see entire book in a single glance. My window looks south over treetops, but I sometimes cover it so I can put up more sketches!

My set-up in Paris is also in a spare bedroom (with a window overlooking the courtyard) only it’s a bit smaller than the space in LA.

From time to time, I do my work at the library (in both LA and Paris) — sometimes a concentrated and studious atmosphere is just what I need. I also sketch outside when I can.

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“Creative Weapons of Choice” – my art tools

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The view from my window (in distance, 11 miles away, is downtown Los Angeles)

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[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house? 

[MS] I don’t really put up too much art — just the occasional textile or old photo. In my workspace, as I mentioned, the walls are covered with storyboards and other sketches to help me keep on track.

On the other hand, I love having little pieces of art from my artist/illustrator friends…

a small painting by children’s illustrator Constanze Van Kitzing (Germany), both modeled by my cat Pomelo. http://www.constanzevonkitzing.de

a castle paper sculpture by children’s illustrator Rob Dunlavey (usa) http://www.robd.com

tiny etching from Assadour (a family friend living in Paris) – couldn’t get a good photo, but here is a link:

https://www.pinterest.com/AMCAproject/assadour-bezdikian-b-1943/ http://www.berlinartlink.com/2012/10/03/paris-walkabout-the-painter-assadour/

Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                                       [JM] What’s your favorite park in the world?

[MS] Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris is my favorite city park, and Yosemite is my favorite national park (all our summer holidays were spent there, camping in a 6-man tent!).

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[JM] Cats or dogs?

[MS] Cats! I have a ginger tomcat called Pomelo who I brought with me from Paris.
(He’s named after the picture book character created by Benjamin Chaud and Ramona Badescu — a tiny elephant in a vegetable garden).

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pomelo on lightbox

Pomelo (picture book, cover)

Pomelo (picture book, cover)

Pomelo's bedtime!

Pomelo’s bedtime!

I’ve got a soft spot for raccoons, too.

[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[MS] I was the spelling bee champion in the 5th grade, and won the Christmas tree and its ornaments. We still have the ornaments!

[JM] What’s the name of that little English village you lived in for a while?

[MS] Countesthorpe, in Leicestershire.(Ay up me duck!!) It was pretty rural when I was there, and we lived at the edge of it. The next village along, Foston, had been abandoned since the plague 400 years ago!

We’d walk along past its old church, atmospheric and melancholy and get the chills. And pretend to ourselves that there were ley lines there. And of course the Fosse Way, an old Roman Road, went through Leicestershire too.

[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[MS] Espresso to get me going in the morning. Jasmine tea to keep me going in the afternoon.

If I really need a good reboot, then a full breakfast at any time of day or night..

[JM] One Word to describe yourself:

[MS] “Curious”

[JM] If you could live anywhere in the word where would it be?

[MS] I’d like to go somewhere rural for a while. Maybe west of Ireland

[JM] What do you listen to when you work?

[MS] Audiobooks — sometimes radio (BBC4 or France Culture) … I just really love hearing stories aloud.

For more information, click here:                                                                                                                My website | Go here to see my most recent work especially children’s illustration: my portfolio, my sketchbook, and a brief sample of my archive.                                                 My flickr | latest artwork and photos from daily life. And kittens!                                            My tumblr | Illustrations, sketches, works-in-progress, and (sometimes) slices of life.

Maral, I can’t wait to get my hands on your crocs and I hope to get to meet you in person at some SCBWI event soon. To your continued success!

 

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12 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Maral Sassouni

  1. What an incredible story, artwork, and adventurous life! I am in love with Pomelo now (it’s my favorite fruit, too). Reading about Maral makes me think I’ve not paid enough attention to places I’ve traveled to. 🙂

    Really enjoyed this interview. Thanks, Joanna and Maral!

  2. Thoroughly enjoyable interview! I loved reading about Maral’s process and inspirations. Just the thing to launch a productive day! Thank you, Maral and Joanna.

  3. nancy armo says:

    Merci Joanna and Maral!
    Swooning over all the gorgeous work! Love the process information which makes me appreciate the illustrations even more. Can’t wait for Crocodile Shoes!

  4. What an adventurous soul! I understand why you swoon over Maral’s artwork. She had such a wonderful start with really great teachers in high school. And she;s developed a very unique style that stands out. I admire her work. No wonder she’s one so many contests. Interesting your paths kind of reflect one another — the search for inspiration and the search. Great interview ladies.

  5. Angela Turner says:

    Loved seeing your process and all your beautiful illustrations. I love collage work. Pomelo is beautiful too!

  6. Great interview, Joanna! I love Maral’s style, and just adore that hedgehog–so cute! Looking forward to reading your crocodile books, and others 🙂

  7. Catherine says:

    What amazing artwork! I love how much you travel, that’s so neat. Thanks Joanna and Maral.

  8. Erik - TKRB says:

    AWESOME art! It really strikes me! 😀

  9. Thank you for all of your comments — it was an honor to be invited to this great kidlit blog. I was my pleasure to share with you my process, my inspiration, my journey … and my sidekick, Pomelo!!

  10. Pingback: Q & A with Jackie Azúa Kramer and Maral Sassouni | Miss Marple's Musings

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