IN THE STUDIO WITH QIN LENG

Interview by Laura Chapnick and Meaghen Seagrave
Photography by Laura Chapnick

 

Qin Leng draws at her desk

1) How did you become interested in illustration?

Growing up, I always loved to draw. My sister and I would spend our days doodling on old calendars, scraps of paper, and sometimes even on walls! My mother also enjoyed drawing in her spare time and my father, an artist, has been a huge influence on me. So, you could say that expressing myself through drawings has always been a part of my life and always felt very natural. However, I always imagined illustration as a hobby, something I could do whenever I had some spare time. Only after a few years working in the animation industry did I finally consider illustration as a possible career path.

Qin's paints

2) Why did you decide to illustrate children’s books over other art mediums?

Of all the various subjects I could be illustrating, I have always been particularly drawn towards children. They are fascinating to observe, so spontaneous, hiding very little of what they think or how they feel, their body language so expressive. I find it to be such an exciting challenge to try to capture all of that in a few simple brush strokes. For that reason, it was an obvious decision for me to illustrate children books over any other medium.

Away by Emily Sher and Qin Leng

3) What is the first thing you do when you sit down to create something?

When I am ready to start on a new book, I like to open my sketchbook and jump right into it. I think it’s important to empty my mind with all sorts of ideas onto paper, both the good and the bad, to get a feel of what I want to create. Once I have poured my creative juices out, I sift through everything that’s in front of me and slowly piece together what will become the world of my next project.

Qin's shelf

4) Where do you draw inspiration from?

I get inspiration from various places. I will get composition ideas from photography or movies. For characters, I get ideas by looking at people around me. I love people watching, and anyone I spot can become a potential character in my books. Someone walking on the street, someone standing in line in front of me at the grocery store, or sometimes even members of my family . . .

I also love to look at what other illustrators or painters do. I have an extensive collection of fabulous artists at home, and I always like to go through those books whenever I feel at a loss.

Qin's notebook

5) Describe your artistic process.

Usually, I will start by doing a lot of sketches to get a feel of my characters and the world they live in. Who are they, what’s their personality like, what kind of place do they live in? Once that’s sorted out, I start building the structure of the page and figure out what to illustrate on each page and the various compositions and pacing.

I like to keep the rough pass very quick and dirty, so that I have only a very loose template to work from once I am ready to go to final. At that stage, when I am ready to ink, I like to go straight ahead with very little planning. I find that the more I plan, the stiffer my drawing becomes . . . So, I prefer to jump right in and to some extent ‘improvise,’ so that my pieces feel as spontaneous as possible.

Qin draws a character from her book

6)  What are some of your favourite tools?

Over the years, I have tried many different drawing tools. To this day, I bounce back and forth between nib (a very fine one, size 102, so sharp it’s like drawing with a needle) and brush, and paint with watercolour. I used to colour picture books digitally, but I have recently made the jump and decided to do everything traditionally, from inking to painting. Watercolour is a medium I am still learning to control, but I love how it sometimes has a mind of its own and I welcome the happy mistakes.

Qin's painting supplies

7) Your next illustration project, the book When I Found Grandma, written by Saumiya Balasubramaniam, publishes this Spring. How was illustrating this book different from others you’ve worked on?

When Sheila Barry presented me with the manuscript two years ago, it instantly struck a chord with me. It brought me back twenty years to when I was a young teenager and my own grandmother came to visit for the first time from China. I remember feeling so excited at the prospect of finally reconnecting with such a big part of my life, and yet, at the same time, it was a real culture shock. The teenage girl I was was sometimes annoyed, short and impatient with my grandmother whom I didn’t always understand and who was bringing with her parts of China I had become completely disconnected from. Her visit was a memorable experience, which I relived while working on When I Found Grandma.

A sketch from When I Found Grandma

8) If readers could take one lesson from When I Found Grandma, what do you hope it will be?

Treasure your elders and treasure your culture. Often times we want to fit in so desperately that we forget that being different is what makes us valuable as human beings. So, hold onto those traditions and make sure that they live on in each passing generation.

BOOKS BY QIN LENG

 

 

Behind the Book: Nancy Vo Shares Her Artistic Process For “The Outlaw”

Nancy Vo, author and illustrator of The Outlaw, gives us an inside look into her artistic process and her notebook. 


It’s hot and dry as I write this. Hot and dry are not adjectives typically used to describe Vancouver or the Northwest Coast.

Westerns, however, are often set in hot and dry places. When I look back on the notebook that I kept while making, The Outlaw, I can see that I was trying to capture a sense of place for the story.

 

Since The Sisters Brothers inspired my story, I began my research where that story took place – Oregon City in the 1850s. This image of Willamette River, Portland, Oregon helped to anchor the story’s beginning and ending:

 

UO562 3 of 3 Panoramic stumpscape of 1870 Portland Willamette River Oregon USA photos historic
Carleton Watkins copy horizontal bw SW SE

 

These quick sketches were made in the notebook, followed by a rough ink, and a finished spread:

 

 

 

 

 

The finished spread does not have a lot of colour, and this decision to limit the colour palette was decided early – indigo, quinacridone gold, burnt umber. At this point, I was also looking at typeface and fabric patterns. I did not use the typeface shown in the sketchbook but settled on Clarendon for body text.

 

 

For the title, Michael Solomon (Art Director of Groundwood Books) suggested a deboss through letterpress – a fancy way of saying that you can feel the imprint of the type on the paper. I found a local print shop, Black Stone Press, and they found old wood letters that were perfect for the job.

 

 

The original cover on my dummy was rather minimalist and Michael suggested having a person on the cover. I went away and made a couple of versions with the Outlaw on the cover. His advice was spot on and I am much happier with the final cover.

 

Original cover:

 

Final cover:

 

I did a lot of things in this picture book that I wouldn’t recommend as far as process. For example, most people have rough thumbnails before they start work on their dummy. I decided that I wanted to see how the spreads looked all on one page after I had finished the dummy. So, I printed these to have a look. Seeing it like this I’ll say that the scene with villagers could have been varied.

 

 

 

The Outlaw by Nancy Vo:

In this spare and powerful story set in the Old West, people in a small town live in constant worry of another visit from the Outlaw. Then the Outlaw suddenly and mysteriously disappears. Time passes, and one day a stranger rides into town. He takes it upon himself to fix everything that is in disrepair — the clapboard schoolhouse, the train station platform. He even builds a horse trough. But when someone recognizes him as the Outlaw, the crowd turns on him. It takes the courage of a small boy to change the course of events …

The subtle, beautiful mixed-media art with its nineteenth-century textural references perfectly complements this original story from debut author and illustrator Nancy Vo.

In the studio with Matt James

Matt James

How did you first become interested in illustration?

I can’t remember a specific moment when I started thinking about illustration, it was definitely part of my childhood, though, and it probably started with comic books. Someone bought me this little yellow light box that came with sheets of character designs from DC Comics — I would spend hours tracing Wonder Woman and Shazam. That light table made me look more closely: it drew me in — made me look intently at the quality of lines and think about how to make mine look the same way. I also remember that the “Y” in Woodstock offered a cartooning course, which I took. I was in grade four or five, and the guy who taught it was really impressive: he had made a comic strip that he was trying to get syndicated in the newspapers. The amount of work he’d put into it left me awestruck — I think he had three or four months’ worth of daily comic strips all ready to go, hundreds of perfect pages all hand drawn and inked, neatly collected in these beautiful presentation boxes with tissue paper between each of the pages.

studio

Why did you decide to get into picture books as opposed to another art form?

My high school had a really cool art department with printing presses, an enormous process camera, a darkroom, pottery wheels — basically every kind of art equipment you could think of.  When you got to grade eleven, you could drop gym class and take “double art”, spending an entire morning or afternoon trying your hand at printmaking, photography, pottery, etc. A lot of the teachers there had been commercial artists in the 50s and 60s. They sorta guided us towards graphic design and illustration and that was fine by me. There was less fluidity between “fine art” and “commercial art” back then, which was a drag for everyone and made it tricky to figure out how to move forward on a path towards making a living as an artist.

I still do a lot of painting outside of the world of book illustration, and I take a lot of photographs. Picture books have always excited me though, I love puzzling out the pacing and the storytelling and I love being able to slowly expand upon ideas over the course of 32 (or however many) pages. I really love the experience of holding a book in my hands. I like the smell of the ink on the paper and the feel of turning the pages. I guess I really like print in general.

art from The Funeral

What is the first thing you do when you sit down to create something?

I’m not really what you would call a creature of habit — I probably should pay more attention to what works and what doesn’t, but truthfully it’s a different ballgame every time I sit down. It’s more of a feeling out process — just keep drawing, painting, writing or whatever until this feeling takes over. Sometimes it happens when my studio is a crazy mess, other times I feel overwhelmed and need everything to be orderly and neat. I think I thrive on change. Though I will say that I spend an awful lot of time at work. I should probably get up and go for a walk more often!

Matt James painting

You work out of a studio in Parkdale that you share with two other artists. Tell us about the space.

That’s right! Greg Smith, Glen Halsey and I have been here for the past ten years or so.

We love this place. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but it is a window into/onto Parkdale with all of its funky Parkdale sights, sounds and smells: it’s a bit of a feast for the senses around here. The studio is pretty scrappy and doesn’t really offer a tonne of space, but it is a bit of a miracle that we have a place where we can create music and art affordably in this city and we thank our lucky stars daily.

Matt James working

Your new book The Funeral is very special and unique. What was your inspiration for the story?

Hmm, that’s kind of tough to pinpoint. Is there one specific inspirational spark? Basically, the story came from life: I followed my kids around at a few funerals. This book was a way for me to sort through my own feelings about the death of some loved ones, initially it was the loss of Uncle Frank, and then later when I was making the final art my dad got terribly sick and passed away. In other ways, it was a documentation; me watching my kids and writing down some of the great things that they say.

This was the first time you wrote and illustrated a book, as opposed to just illustrating, what did you find to be the biggest difference between the two?

This was more like making a story out of words and pictures — working the words and illustrations at the same time — pushing and pulling and kinda molding them into a story.

Just illustrating a book is maybe a bit more cut and dry: a text exists and then pictures are created to complement it.

paints

Your artistic process for the book was quite varied. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Yeah, I did take some things a bit farther than I have in my other books. I had a nice balance happening in my studio where I was working on two very different books more or less at the same time, sometimes leap frogging one another. One book was When the Moon Comes, written by Paul Harbridge, which is set in the depths of winter on a cold moonlit night. That book was really planned out in advance, the pallet is very cold and dark (mostly blue and black) and is straight up painting all the way through. It was a nice contrast to this book, which takes place in springtime with lively pinks and much chlorophyll in the greens. It has painting as well as collage, and little models made out of whatever materials I had laying around (twine, cardboard, masking tape, flowers).  The Funeral was much more of an exploration where you see the results of experimentation right on the page. If it were a record, it would be mostly first takes or demos — I tend to like the look of rawness over refined.

What is one thing you learned while writing and illustrating The Funeral?

I learned a lot of things. I learned how to press flowers in a microwave! I had the idea to use real flowers, and I would (don’t tell anyone) steal little spring flowers off people’s lawns on my walk to work every day and dry them at the studio. I also saved flowers from my dad’s funeral and incorporated them into the artwork.

glasses

Interview by Meaghen Seagrave and Laura Chapnick. Photography by Laura Chapnick.

THE FUNERAL BY MATT JAMES 

 

 

Jessica Scott Kerrin on the inspiration for The Better Tree Fort

Author Jessica Scott Kerrin hugging a tree

I’m often asked about the inspiration for the stories I write. Mostly, I’m inspired by observing and listening to people around me. Russell was inspired by a little boy I once sat across from on a bus in Halifax. He was maybe four years old, and he was with his grandfather. I was with my son, then five years old, and my husband. We were all heading from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to the film set in the north end of Halifax for a tour of Elliott’s favorite children’s television show, Theodore Tugboat.

Theodore Tugboat was about various boats that worked in the Big Harbour, a harbor that looked identical to Halifax Harbour, so children in the Maritimes felt especially connected to the characters. The star of the show was Theodore, a good-hearted and hard-working young tugboat. His cast of friends included more seasoned tugboats, a ferry, barges and even a cabin cruiser, who never had to work. Such is life.

Anyway, the show had donated their beautiful models of all the boats to the museum, and as part of the exhibit opening, visitors were ferried from the museum to the water-filled stage set built in the gymnasium of a decommissioned school. The models were much larger than the ones you’d find in a kit to build, and they were a bit comical. For example, Theodore wore a red knit cap on top of his smokestack. His giant eyes, located beneath the cap on the stack, could move and express his feelings.

There we sat in the bus, each of us thrilled at the prospect of meeting Theodore and his friends in real life. Imagine! And across from us sat that little boy and his grandfather. The little boy was happily swinging his legs, which didn’t reach the floor of the bus, and he was cradling something on his lap. From our vantage point, it looked like several pieces of wood crudely fastened together. Seeing us eyeballing the lumpy object, the boy held it up proudly.

“My granddad made me this!”

Confused silence from us.

“It’s Theodore!” he boasted.

The little boy beamed. And when we looked again, sure enough, it was. The grandfather had hand-carved two-by-fours and glued them together to more or less resemble the shape of a tugboat. He had hammered in nails for a crooked railing. The port and starboard lights were made from wooden thread spools that had been painted red and green. He had also drawn the eyes on the smokestack in shaky penmanship, giving the model a permanent look of surprise.

Clearly, woodworking was not his forte. But his love for his grandson was all over that model, and I could tell that the little boy wouldn’t have traded his Theodore for anything in the world, certainly not the Theodore we had purchased for our son from the museum gift store at some expense.

I was worried that my son, a budding scientist who preferred to see the world in black and white, would say something harsh such as, “That doesn’t look anything like Theodore!”

But he didn’t. He kept quiet. Like me, he could see that the model was the result of many hours the two had spent together.

Indeed, everyone agreed: the little boy’s model was perfect.

The seeds for The Better Tree Fort were planted long ago. After much watering and pruning, all I needed to do was substitute that little boy and his grandfather for Russell and his dad. Then I swapped the boat model for a tree fort, which Qin Leng so beautifully drew.

Russell and his dad begin building the tree fort

Russell and his dad build a tree fort

 

“Let’s build a tree fort,” Russell says to his dad when they move into a house with a big maple tree in the backyard. His dad doesn’t know much about building, but he gamely follows Russell’s plan. Several trips to the lumber store later, the tree fort is done. There is no slide, balcony or skylight like Russell imagined, but it is perfect — right up until he notices another tree fort going up three houses over.

When Russell goes over to investigate, he meets Warren, whose bigger tree fort has castle turrets and working lights. Russell is in awe until it dawns on him that it’s not worth worrying about who has the better tree fort when he has a loving dad there to build one with him.

In this subtle, humorous story, Jessica Scott Kerrin explores the idea of keeping up with the Joneses — and what that means when you’re a kid with a tree fort. Qin Leng’s lighthearted watercolor illustrations show the unshakeable bond between a father and son, as well as the delightful details of two tree forts.

 

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