Dear blog followers, I promised you that I was going to try and expand my interviews beyond the North American borders, so today we are back in the UK with one of their finest picture book illustrators, Sam Zuppardi (well, okay, he isn’t completely British!)
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[SZ] I’m an Author/Illustrator. I think I begin with ideas, and often they come from a kind of hazy place that is almost neither words nor pictures, a rather vague and indistinct place. Only bit by bit does something with more clarity emerge, and by that point I find it can be either words or pictures. Sometimes a phrase or sentence will form the first coherent starting point for a story, and the pictures follow, and other times an image appears first and the words form around it. But I suppose it always begins with a vague idea, whatever form that might take – sometime it’s no more than a feeling.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?
[SZ] I grew up in a city called Norwich, in Norfolk, England. If you imagine the map of England, Norfolk is the little bump on the lower right hand side of the country. It can look very bleak and very beautiful, especially as it gets more coastal. There are large areas of saltmarsh and a network of interconnected waterways called The Broads. It’s a very flat place, almost unnervingly so. The landscape, as you pass through on the train, is 90% sky. It gives the place a strangely untethered feeling, as if it might all just float off upwards. You don’t tend to pass through because it’s not really on the way to anywhere, so it feels somewhat separate to the hustle and bustle. It’s tucked away and decidedly off the beaten track. Norwich feels to me like a hidden treasure in the middle of all that remote flatness.
Perhaps that feeling, of finding a marvelous hidden world that is secret and located just beyond the edges of normal life, is something that has influenced my work.
These days I live in York, which is full of twisty-turny little streets that also feel rather magical and a bit otherworldly.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an illustrator.
[SZ] I think drawing was something I liked to do as far back as I can remember. I used to paint with my granddad when I was really pretty small so it must have been noticed already by then that it was something I was into. I used to make lots of little picture books and comic strips, I was always interested in using words and pictures together to tell stories. Drawing was just a very natural part of my life, I never considered the idea of being ‘an illustrator’ or ‘an artist,’ drawing was just part of who I was.
Looking back it didn’t feel like I was constantly drawing, but I look at how many old visual journals, storybooks and comic strips I made over the years and I wonder how I found time for anything else. I have a huge stack of shoe-boxes full of old projects in a cupboard at home in Norwich.
At school I did Art up until A Level, then decided I’d rather keep it as something I did for enjoyment, and not something I had to study. I think Art College would have been really fun, and it looks like a great opportunity to experiment with loads of different materials, but it felt like the idea of relying on being an artist or illustrator for my future career would put too much pressure on being creative. I kept drawing though, while I studied other things, and worked other jobs. Drawing was always there, alongside everything else I did.
After a bit I thought I might try and see whether I could get something published. So, almost as a game really, I began to apply myself to that idea, and looked into making some sample picture books, approaching agents and refining a specific visual style.
I’d say getting something published is a very separate endeavor to being an artist or an illustrator, which is separate again from being creative. Being an artist is a side-effect of being creative – it’s the particular channel your creativity uses to express itself. And getting published is a kind of game you play with your creativity.
I still draw a lot, and a tiny fraction of what I draw gets published. But most of it is stuff I just draw for myself, in my own time, and for my own enjoyment.
[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?
[SZ] I mostly work in acrylic. It’s a very practical, forgiving and quick paint to work with when illustrating. You can paint light over dark, you can add a bit of texture, the colour is vibrant, it is water soluble – so no faffing about with turpentine and white spirit as you do with oils. It’s also quick drying, and you need to be able to be quite quick if you’re working to a deadline.
I do use watercolours as well, and I sometimes like to mix in other elements like collage or pencil crayon, and I tend to go in for rather scribbly pencil outlines over everything. But the staple ingredient of most of my stuff is definitely acrylic paint.
That said I do really enjoy black and white line art, with just pen and ink. You can do so much with just black lines on white paper. I had real fun illustrating a trilogy of books called The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe, by Gordon McAlpine, with pen and ink. Up until then it had been a long time since I’d done black and white work like that. But I really enjoy it.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[SZ] I think any situation where the imaginary world impinges upon the real world, that’s a theme that I return to, certainly it was right there in my first picture book, The Nowhere Box. Situations where the real world can suddenly be altered or departed from altogether, through something rather mundane, and a whole imaginary landscape unlocked as a result, that’s an idea I find myself coming back to again and again. I also like monsters.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP or a recently published book, and the process of creating them?
[SZ] Here are some pieces from Nobody’s Perfect, a picture book which came out earlier this year, written by David Elliott, with my pictures. These images show the process of designing the front cover.
Things tend to start with a very rough sketch for a concept for the cover, just pencil on scrappy paper, which I then send over to the book designer. We then discuss and refine it and there may be more sketches involved as we work towards a final image. There are various covers meetings at the publisher’s too, and they really have a close eye on the look of things, because the cover is so important. It really goes through a very fine filtering process, with many eyes checking over it.
The second rough sketch here shows how things for this cover progressed. At this stage the sketching is all still very rough. I try and keep things that way so I can easily and quickly re-sketch and redraft, and keep the image flexible and fluid as we work towards something more final. When we have a final image the book designer prints it out at full-size, with all the necessary templates and markings showing where the edges of the cover come to, where the spine and the title text will go etc. She sends that to me and I use it to trace the final image, which is the third picture here. This is now ready for painting.
My work is quite loose and chaotic so the challenge with the final painting is to preserve a sense of that spontaneity and haphazardness, and not become too fixed and rigid. The scribbly messiness of the final product often belies the fact that the image has been carefully planned and reworked several times.
Sometimes it’s a bit nerve-wracking starting the painting process because of the chaotic nature of my painting, which is at odds with how carefully planned and controlled something like a cover image needs to be. There are things that only really emerge and happen in the painting – certain paint splatters or scribbles that you can’t convey or plan in a sketch – so there’s a tension between staying within the templates and the planned elements of the image, and then letting the unplanned stuff have enough space to play.
I don’t work digitally so there is also something very final about the painting process. You can’t click ‘undo’ or experiment with different versions in quite the same way; you just have to plunge in.
The final image shows the finished book jacket, with the final painted design and all the text. Done!
I also wanted to share a picture from my next book, Jack’s Worry, which I have just finished painting, and will be out in Spring next year. This is the first page…
[JM] Name three artists/illustrators who have particularly influenced you?
[SZ] Just 3!?
Oliver Jeffers; Shaun Tan; David Shannon.
But there are so many…
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[SZ] I live with my fiancée and our flat is not huge, so I don’t actually have a dedicated workspace. When I’m working on a project I use our dining table and spread out all my art stuff there in a rather makeshift, ad hoc kind of a way. This is what it looks like when there’s a book on the go (Jack’s Worry in this case).
We eat around the edges of the mess until the book is finished. One day I will have an actual proper workspace. Maybe even a whole room. That’s the dream…
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world?
[SZ] At the moment it’s Homestead Park in York, where I live now. Came across it by chance one day last year and it still feels like a magical discovery.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[SZ] Cats, definitely.
[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[SZ] I’m half Italian.
[JM] Of course now I want to know what part of Italy? What word best sums you up?
[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[SZ] I like a good pot of tea.
Sam, I especially love your thoughts on the differences between getting published and being an artist. I hope I get to sit and chat over a pot of tea with you sometime! To your continued success!