Il Sung Na – Illustrator Interview

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lowI reviewed Il Sung Na’s Book Of Sleep a few years back and have wanted to interview him since then.


    I am also continuing my search for illustrators beyond North American borders as well as within, so we can steep ourselves in a broad pool of influence.

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

[ISN] Author & Illustrator. Sometimes a word comes first, sometimes a drawing comes first.


In 2004, I got an idea when I was about to sleep one day. I started wondering how other animals sleep. So I wrote it down on a piece of paper. After few days, I found this note and did actual research on the internet. That’s how I started my first book, A Book Of Sleep that was published in 2007 in UK.


Bear drawings, 2012

Then, the bear character with a balloon was developed long ago and had been forgotten since 2012. In 2014, I recalled the character and created a short story about him, which I later developed into a 32-page picture book, Bird, Balloon, Bear.


Bird, Balloon, Bear, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017

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

[ISN] I was born in Seoul, South Korea. I moved to London to study Illustration and Animation where I discovered a passion for children’s picture books. After graduating in 2006, I have published several books in UK. Then I moved back to Seoul in later 2008 and worked on few more picture books with UK and Korea until 2013. After I examining my past works, I decided to come to US to find a new visual voice. I went on to complete my MFA Illustration Practice at MICA, in Baltimore where I spent two years to search for a new way of working. Now, I live in NJ since 2015.

With all that experiences, moving and living many different places, it made me thinking about what is a home. Although it’s not a perfect place, I always felt my home is the most comfortable place. So, I wanted to tell a story that there are no better places than home.


Welcome Home, Bear, Alfred A. Knopf 2015

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

[ISN] While in London, I relished experimenting with all manner of textures and vivid colors, which became the elements of bold compositions. The relationship between words and illustrations fascinated me. Every time I had an assignment when I was in college, I always ended up with a dummy book. I was lucky to have a chance to publish my first picture book after graduation. I would say I was fortunate to meet right people at the right time in the right place. Ever since I have been writing and illustrating picture books. But moving to Baltimore for MFA study was a big step forward for my career.

During those years, I have tried to loosen up my drawings and tried as many different things as possible.

I was invited as a panelist at AFCC (Asian Festival of Children’s Content) in the summer 2014 in Singapore and this was pivotal. This experience allowed me to meet and learn from authors and illustrators from all over the globe. Including one of my favorite Spanish illustrator, Javier Zabala, who showed me how he draws and uses watercolors with a brush pen. Just watching him draw was so inspirational that I decided to experiment with the technique upon returning to the US. It was the first time I had actually used a brush and watercolor since my college year. This new move helped me discover my own way to use watercolor and color pencils.


Javier Zabala shows off his techniques on a street.


a couple of experimental drawings after I returned to US

There were another turning point during my time at MICA. I was not sure what I could achieve with ceramics. Everything was uncertain. Including deciding what to make. But the challenge of trying something new was intoxicating. And I knew this opportunity might not come again. The process of making ceramics is different from illustration. It is unpredictable and less planned. I began by making small figures first, then they got bigger, but I purposely kept it simple.


first figures with a concept ‘in the woods’, 2014

After producing many failures, I recently have launched my own handmade ceramics called ‘Clay and Wish’. It’s delightful to find something that I can do without concerning too much about ideas, push and pull with editors/art directors and worry free from ‘who’s going to like it’ thoughts. It’s full of joy during the process and love to make things what I like.

Here are things I have made.



[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

[ISN] It has been changed. Although it changes time to time, I love using two or three materials together.

Ink and color pencil were my very first favorite mediums, then Acrylic and Soft pastel. From 2005 to 2013, I used Acrylic, Soft Pastel and Oil bar for most of my works.

I did not like using watercolor but once I used it with color pencil, it became one of my favorite to use since 2014. Now I use Marker Pen/Brush with color pen or color pencil frequently.

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

[ISN] Not really, I try to keep things simple as possible. I have been making simple concept picture books until 2014 and now I try to do more story telling. It’s hard, but I started with something I have experienced in past and as a shay person myself, the upcoming picture book Bird, Balloon, Bear (2017) is somewhat autobiographical, revealing a little bit about me. I do a lot of animal characters in my books, because I am more comfortable with animals as well as I like alternating representations of peoples’ characteristics into animal characters.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe from a work in progress, and the process of creating them?

Sure! Here are some examples how I work through.

For The Opposite Zoo (2016), I came up with a few ideas and chose the simplest among them. I wanted to capture ‘Opposite Words’ using animals. So, choosing a place for the story-a zoo- was easy. I added a little bit of story that audiences can follow.


idea development



final sketch

For this book I wanted more free-form lines and shapes in contrast to my previous illustrations. Using ink, watercolor and color pencil were a risk. But it was worth trying.

first color sample which I did not use on my final book.

first color sample which I did not use on my final book.



two final illustrations

[JM] Which book do you remember buying with your own money as a kid?

[ISN] It was a comic book. If you are asking about a picture book, then The Rabbit by Shuan Tan and Slow Loris by Alexis Deacon in 2004. Those books dragged me into a picture book world.

What does your work space look like?


New workspace since I moved to NJ. Just right after I set things up.



Soon it became like this 🙁

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


[ISN] My friends’ illustrations (by Sarah Jacoby) and screen print (by Lisk Feng) .

Javier Zabala’s drawing

Javier Zabala’s drawing

Another friend’s illustrations by Jasu Hu

Another friend’s illustrations by Jasu Hu

And there are some of mine, too.

[JM] What’s your most interesting recent flea market find?

[ISN] I have been lazy to go to flea markets recently. The last time I went I got this cool material folding table and a tray.


I have collections of old film cameras and I bought Polaroid sx-70 camera the other day.

I better head off to hunt things more for sure!

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

[ISN] I go often to parks with my wife and lulu (below), but I cannot choose one.

Pier A park in Hoboken has nice size for a dog walk and view. Verona park has beautiful landscape. These are the ones I recently visited. There are Hampstead Heath and Hyde Park in London.

[JM] Cats or dogs? (photo?)


[ISN] Oh! Dog!

Lulu is a 12 yrs old tempered and a little bit spoiled Chihuahua.

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

[ISN] Most people think I only write & illustrate my own books. But I would love to illustrate other authors’ stories, too. I just did not have a chance yet.

Most people did not know my first major I studied in Korea was industrial engineering. I was quite good at math. I did not finish it though.

[JM] What was your first paid job?

[ISN] In 1996, a new popeyes fast food shop opened at my local town in Seoul. And I worked there for three month, made burgers and fried chickens. I just graduate my high school and there were terms before I went to college. That was my first ever paid job.

And 10 years later I made my first book contract in London.

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

[ISN] Hot Chocolate during the winter.

You can check out more of Il Yung Sa’s work on his website and instagram accounts.

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4 Responses to Il Sung Na – Illustrator Interview

  1. I will be reading his Opposites book at Storytime today! Back later to read in peace!

  2. I’m embarrassed to say I did not know Il Sung Na’s work yet but I am now a fan after reading this interview! Love his clean and whimsical style. Just as he’s inspired by Zabala’s art, I am inspired by his! Thanks, Joanna!

  3. Love his whimsical illustrations. And those clay creations too! Great interview!

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