Meet the illustrator: Manuela Scarfò

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What is it like to bring a character to life? How do you start working on a picture book for children? What inspires an illustrator? In our interview series Meet the illustrator, we talk to Manuela Scarfò, the illustrator of our young reader, The Dark in the Box written by Rick Sampedro.

Manuela Scarfò with the young reader The Dark in the Box.

We invite you to visit Manuela’s website and explore her visual world.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How did you become an illustrator?

Manuela: Illustrated books have been my faithful friends since I was a child. I even took them to school and recreated the illustrations for my classmates. As you grow up, the adult world forces you to put your passions aside, mistaking them for children’s games. So I sidelined the fairy tales, fables and my own magical characters who over the years have been influenced by Japanese cartoons. I became an illustrator the exact moment that I promised myself that I would do a job that I enjoyed. And here I am.

HRB: Where did you study art and illustration?

Manuela: My first teacher was my aunt Maria who is speech and hearing impaired and communicates with the rest of the family through her drawings. This has always fascinated  me and I enrolled in the Art college in my town. I learnt about planning and design and I fell in love and wanted to apply art to all communication. I then went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Reggio Calabria where I studied theatrical set design, which was how I got into illustration. After all, in scenography you work with a text, interpreting it and studying the characters and context. It is a book made of three-dimensional characters. Then I went on to do a Masters in Illustration for Publishing at the Ars in Fabula school in Macerata where many of my teachers were also renowned illustrators. But that’s not it … the afternoons spent in bookshops with my colleagues discovering the styles of the great illustrators of the past as well as contemporary masters made me fall deeper and deeper in love with this job.

HRB: What do you think makes a good illustrator?

Manuela: In my opinion, a good illustrator must have three qualities which are all closely linked. First, an illustrator must be an excellent observer. Anything and everything is a starting point for him/her, from newspaper articles to advertisements, the things that surround him/her and the disciplines that seemingly do not interest him/her. Second, though not second in importance, is the ability to plan. An illustrator must never forget that the final product needs research, definition and attention to detail. This is how the story you tell will become credible and unique. Third is the awareness of working for a client: the publisher. An illustrator does not create art solely for him/herself, but for others. These three qualities will help the illustrator to deal with unproductive periods and emotional difficulties.

HRB: What inspires you?

Manuela: I look for inspiration in everything, I do not limit myself, and I let the story take over. Illustrated books are always an initial key. They are both entertaining and a source of inspiration. As I said, observing the world around us is a good way to find what we are looking for. Parks, beaches and squares are the best places to find inspiration and study life.

HRB: Can you describe your creative process of illustrating stories?

Manuela: I read the story several times and try to imagine a face to suit the main character, giving him/her an age, finding out if he/she has a pet, what his/her favourite colours are and so on. When I have outlined his/her identity, I imagine where he/she lives. What would I do if I were this person? Slowly I widen the frame of the character and I focus on what surrounds him/her. I imagine all the information that the text does not provide because that’s how you can make a story believable. Then I move onto the storyboard, looking at the scenes from different points of view. I keep the ones that work best and then I create a mockup to see what the book would really look like. The final illustrations are often digital collages made of watercolour and pencil drawings. Before I arrive at the final version, I spend hours drawing and redrawing the same elements until the lines look convincing.

HRB: Can you tell us about the Helbling young reader The Dark in the Box?

Manuela: At the beginning in my notebook, Andy was called Bruno, and he was a chubby easy-going boy with brown hair. When I reread the text with my tutor, Pablo Auladell I realized I had got the character totally wrong. It was a very funny moment: Auladell tuned to me and said laughing: ‘this is certainly Bruno, but we are talking about Andy!’. This is how Andy finally came to life, a cheerful, slim boy with a thick mop of  blond hair. I was lucky as I was afraid of the dark too, as a child, so it was easy to identify with him. I love his intuitive creative character. When he sees his father do something, he uses that solution to overcome his own fear. Another thing I like about him is that he wants to share this experience with his friends. I tried to use colours to recreate the contrasting atmopheres of joy and fear, cold and warmth, winter and summer, which are part of the lesson the children learn through the text. I had so much fun working on these illustrations!

HRB: What do you think of the role of illustrations?

Manuela: Without doubt, illustrations must add something to the story so the reader can have another perspective on the message of the book. They should also make the characters feel more real, so we can empathise with them. Illustrations also have the advantage of being able to throw you into a reality which is completely different from your own, and when you close the book and return to your own life, you realise that you have changed. Classic novels can make you feel this way, but images communicate on a deeper level.

HRB: Are there any artists or styles that you really like?

Manuela: I love anything with strong line work as it feels more spontaneous. Past masters of the Expressionist movement: Grosz, van Gogh, Kirchner and Schiele. Their sketches and etchings have a nervous dynamism, in other words, they are alive. Japanese art gives me the same feeling – idealized forms on the tip of the brush. Everything in Japanese art is alive, even the writing. In the field of illustration and comics I admire Sergio Toppi, Ronald Searle, Gerald Rose and Alessandro Sanna the most.

HRB: What do you do when you are not making pictures?

Manuela: Mostly I take my dog, Mirò for walks. During these walks I take time to observe my surroundings and that’s when I find most of the ideas I draw: nature is an invaluable source of inspiration. As a hobby I also create designs for fabric which I use to make a range of accessories. I like seeing my own drawings on everyday objects: curtains, pillows, purses. I have as much fun creating the material prints as in putting together the final product.

HRB: Is there a story you would really like tell with pictures?

Manuela: I think this is the most difficult question. There isn’t one, but there are many and they are mostly books I have read and loved. The Little Mermaid by Andersen, Madame Bovary, Animal Farm, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Nausea … but I’ll stop here as my list could be endless.

HRB: Thank you for the interview, Manuela!

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