Ruth Chan – Illustrator Interview

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Bio Pic copyI am not wanting to brag here, but when you live in New York you bump into amazing writers and artists all the time (and as an overseas studentI am truly grateful for every day here), so to be honest I am not sure where I first met Ruth. It could have been a Brooklyn cafe with friends, or an art exhibit or maybe an author’s event at Books of Wonder! I will also let you into secret, I “met” her dog and cat  when Mike Curato introduced us to them during his interview and I wanted an excuse to have them back on the blog (sorry, Ruth!)

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

[RC] Both! I often begin with a picture, usually a doodle I’d drawn and forgotten about in a sketchbook. Then I start building up some of the story by drawing moments I see visually in my head– either funny, or sweet ones, or even just a character’s expression– and then I bolster those with some words, then more illustrations, and so on.

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

[RC] Ooh, I never really know how to answer that one. I’m originally from Canada, where we lived mostly in Ottawa. When I was 13, we moved to Hong Kong where I attended a British-German school, and then I finished high school in Beijing at an American International school. I learned a lot of languages and had some weird accents. I went to college and grad school in Boston, moved to DC a few years later, and finally settled in NY.

I’ve always live in cities, and they’ve done a good job at teaching me to be constantly observant. I like including a lot of little details in my work, and I think that comes from always having so much to see– interesting characters, cool architecture, cultural nuances, and the like.

[JM] Wow, I have been to all the places you have lived and speak German, sadly though no Mandarin or Cantonese. How cool! Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[RC] I remember having an order of favorite colors from most favorite to least favorite when I was maybe three or four. Ever since then, I’d always really loved art, and took it all throughout middle and high school. I majored in Studio Art in college, with a focus in photography, and then went to grad school for Arts in Education. But somewhere along those years, I decided that I wasn’t an ‘artist’. I didn’t feel compelled to constantly create like all the ‘real artists’ I read about, and didn’t feel like I had a strong enough skill set to be a ‘legitimate artist’. Instead, I studied how the arts could motivate and inspire and educate anyone. I worked for a decade in nonprofit arts and youth development organizations, bringing the arts to underserved communities and schools.

Then a few years ago, I started drawing on my own time. I don’t even remember why, but it felt right and I loved laughing at whatever I’d just drawn. I had also been hoarding picture books from my own childhood onwards, and was kind of obsessed with them. I took children’s book illustrating classes at SVA and then worked really, really hard at getting a portfolio together. It’s still weird to call myself an ‘artist’ and I’m still building up that confidence to say, “yeah, I DO deserve to call myself that!”, but I’m getting there.

I think part of being an artist for me nowadays is taking the time and space to notice the little things. I keep a list called ‘Lamb and Rice’, where every day, I document at least one really lovely little moment I noticed or experienced. For example, last week, I watched a mallard duck play, by himself, with all these soccer balls that had been kicked into the river from the park. It’s called Lamb and Rice because that’s the flavor of food my dog, Feta, has eaten every day of his life for 11 years. He has never tired of it, and is SO excited every single time it’s meal time. I want to be that kind of excited about what are seemingly mundane days or walks or experiences.

[JM] LOVE your Lamb and Rice List! Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

[RC] I work mostly in ink and watercolor. I do my line work with a brush, and then paint in the color. I’ll use Photoshop to clean up and do a little color correction here and there. I like drawing with a Zig Pen too.

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

[RC] Georgie (my cat) and his friends, including Feta (my dog), are the stars of Where’s the Party? and will hopefully appear in future books. I love these guys because they are all sort of awkward in their own way, and there’s something endearing and disarming about that. People in real life are weird! I like playing around with the idea of everyone just accepting and appreciating how great others’ weirdness can be.

I’m also working on an ongoing series, Portraits of the Unsure, that pairs a quote or thought with an illustration of an animal. I started these during a rough time in my life as a daily exercise to get me doing something. I was also kind of tired of how I, and other people around me, weren’t saying what we really felt or thought for fear of being seen as ‘weak’ or less than perfect. I liked the idea of bringing about a conversation about real-life uncertainties through really accessible and sweet animals you couldn’t help but empathize with. They made me feel less lonely. I’m still working on new ones, so if you, or anyone has any good quotes, let me know!

Portrait of Unsure

Portrait of Unsure

 [JM] Can you tell us the names of the books you have coming out in 2016 and 2017?

[RC] Where’s the Party? (Roaring Brook/Macmillan) comes out Spring 2016.

Mervin the Sloth is About To Do The Best Thing In the World (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, written by Colleen AF Venable) comes out Fall 2016.

A second book (name TBD) with Roaring Brook comes out Spring 2017.

A sequel of sorts to Mervin with Greenwillow (also written by Colleen AF Venable) comes out Fall 2017.

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

[RC] Here’s a sneak peek of Where’s the Party?’s jacket.

I sketch in pencil onto Arches hot press watercolor paper.

Wip 1

Then I ink the lines.

Wip 2

I add color.

Wip 3

Wip 4

I scan into Photoshop and do any clean up if need be.


[JM] Do you have a favorite form of social media and if so, why?

[RC] Instagram. I used to shoot with a twin lens reflex camera before digital photography was around, so I’m partial to the square. Instagram is also a great place to see what other illustrators are doing, and for realizing that people who’s work you admire are just normal people who have cats, eat steak and asparagus for dinner, and like sunsets just as much as you do.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[RC] I used to work in a shared studio space in DUMBO. It was great, with views of the Manhattan Bridge, and really amazing golden late-afternoon light. Around that time of day, the shadow of the bridge and the traffic on it would project right onto the wall across from my window and form this giant shadow show.

Sadly, we were priced out of the studio so I now work at home. As you can tell. Georgie is constantly in my space. I like it mostly because I can wear pajamas all day long. Sometimes I don’t even wear pants.

Studio 1

Studio 2

Studio 3

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

wall Art

[RC] I have:
A photo of my first cat, Kitty (yeah, I know…), that I shot with my then-new Nikon FM2 when I was first getting into photography in high school.
A painting by Michael Tutson, a teen who attended an arts program that shared a building with the school I used to work in, in DC. The school and program worked with students with special needs and integrated the arts into learning.
A Jon Klassen poster from Monkey magazine– a Japanese magazine– given to me by my good friend and fellow author/illustrator, Misa Saburi. Jon signed it to ‘Ruth, Georgie, and Feta!’ which was nice of him. I especially appreciate that he put a comma before ‘and’.
A Serge Bloch original, ‘Aldo, who never laughs’. I bought this the day I got my first book deal as a way to commemorate this epic moment in my life, and as a reminder to keep the goofiness and looseness and joy of art making as part of this new career.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                                       [JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world?

[RC] When I used to live in Hong Kong, we lived on a hill above the HK Zoological and Botanical Gardens. In the early mornings, you could hear the howler monkeys, and their howls would bounce off the buildings and echo all around. The city would be quiet except for that, which made it feel kind of like a sacred thing to experience. I used to walk through the park all the time because they had these incredibly fragrant jasmine trees, and a two-toed sloth.

[JM] Cats or dogs?

[RC] Both! I’d get in trouble if I said one or the other. I have a cat, Georgie, and a dog, Feta, who are both in Where’s the Party?, and they are inseparable in real life. Georgie is not very smart, and Feta is definitely not an Alpha male, but they make for the sweetest companions. They even have their own blog that just turned six years old last month: They also show up on my Instagram with regular ‘goodnight’ cuddle photos.

Feta and Georgie

Feta and Georgie

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

[RC] I’m really bad at math. Just kidding. Anyone who’s ever made the mistake of asking me to figure out the bill knows that.

I have really weird dreams, and will wake myself up to write myself an email so that I don’t forget them. I never remember writing the emails, and they very rarely help inform me of what the dreams were actually about. Most recent email: All it said was, “pickle jar, pickle song, pickle community.”

[JM] What word best sums you up?

[RC] My friend just said ‘plucky.’ I’ll take it.
Though I wonder if she’s using the Urban Dictionary definition of it: “An awkward, often confused, shifty-eyed individual with a heart of gold.”

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

[RC] Anything sweet. It gets especially excessive when Mike Curato and I get together. While I’m working, I tend to steep a mug of tea in the morning, and will just keep refilling it for the rest of the day, even though the tea bag has nothing left to contribute.

Social Media Links

Ruth, looking forward to the Pickle Picture Book and meeting Feta and Georgie in person one day. Thanks so much for sharing with us on the blog. To your continued success!

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5 Responses to Ruth Chan – Illustrator Interview

  1. I’ve never met Ruth, but I feel like she could be my new best friend already! 😀 Funny that she started out in North American and then moved to Asia whereas I started out in Asia and then moved to North America. I can’t believe how steady her hand must be to ink lines with a brush. I cannot draw a straight line with a ruler to save my life, let alone free-hand. I eagerly await Where’s The Party and Melvin The Sloth! I know I’ll love both.

  2. I like the plucky names for Ruth’s pets, I admire her inking skills (like Teresa!), and I look forward to reading Ruth’s new titles – congratulations!

  3. Tina Cho says:

    Great interview! Your hedgehog drawing is darling! Thanks, Joanna.

  4. So cool. I especially love the Portraits of the Unsure project!!

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