Three illustrators, three distinctive visual styles and three different ways of looking at the world. Andrea Alemanno, Mario Onnis and Michele Rocchetti have just returned from the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna. We asked them about their experiences and their creative process. Reading their opinions and views on the world of books and illustrations, you will get a special perspective of the world of artists.
Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): Is illustrating readers different from illustrating picture books?
Andrea Alemanno (AA): Yes, this is my first reader and I must admit that I didn’t find big differences. From a technical point of view we have all the same considerations as when we illustrate a picture book: bleeds, layouts and so on. Of course in a school publication the image is more closely related to the text, but rightly so.
Mario Onnis (MO): Yes, I get more information on how the illustrations should look, and sometimes the illustrations need to include specific details. I still have a lot of artistic freedom though. If I have an idea I can talk to the editor or the graphic designer to find a solution that everyone is happy with. The biggest difference between school publications and picture books is that we need to factor in space for language activities and speech balloons as well as the text.
Michele Rocchetti (MR): In graded readers the illustration describes and supports the text, it has an educational value. The illustrator must take this into account to make the end result work. On the other hand a good illustrator of picture books tells a story with his or her pictures that are often “between the lines” of the written text, and physically the space for the text is the same as, if not less than, that occupied by the pictures. You could say that in school books there is a different hierarchy in the relationship between text and image.
HRB: About your creative process. How do you read a story for the first time? Do you already see the colours, contours, lines? How much do you concentrate on mental visualisation?
AA: Before going near pen and paper, I spend a lot of time on research. Asking yourself the right questions is essential in order to conjure up a mental image of what you’d like to do. First I collect pictures that I feel are close to the text. After that I think about the type of light for all the illustrations, is it warm or cold? Natural or artificial? And so on. I study and reflect on all the aspects of the illustrations, sometimes even the smallest details such as the type of decorations that can appear on a column or the color of a blanket. Finishing this phase with the greatest possible amount of information allows me to have an complete mental image and allows me to work more quickly afterwards.
MO: Usually I read the text several times, and then very slowly I try to imagine an atmosphere. If it is a classic, I do some research into how other colleagues approached it, I watch films and, if it is a period piece, I find out more about the clothes and architecture of the era. If it is my own project it usually takes me a while, from a couple of days up to a number of weeks. I usually start off with an image or a memory. I visualise colours and shapes best just before falling asleep.
MR: In my experience every text brings something new, at times I get clear images of what I want to draw after the first reading, other times I need to read the text a number of times or even do some visual research, during which coincidence and inspiration meet.
HRB: What annoys you the most? What is the biggest challenge when you illustrate a book?
AA: Good questions! The thing that bothers me the most is definitely waiting for the published book. There is always a time when the illustrator has finished his part of the job and sends the final images to the publisher. At that moment, the book is not just gathering dust, the editor, graphic designer and the typographer are busy finalizing the book. Not having any news about what’s happening to your illustrations is always frustrating! You wonder how they are being treated. The challenge is always different from book to book, from story to story. In some books it might be getting the right colour, in others finding a different way to depict familiar words. However, the common challenge in every new book is to find the challenge itself!
MO: Nothing annoys me. Drawing is a pleasure, it’s what I like doing most. For me it’s like being a craftsman. Perhaps the least pleasant part is related to the financial aspect. Unfortunately some people see this profession as being a hobby and as a result they think you’ll work for free. But it is not a game at all!
MR: The things that annoy me are those mental blocks that I face with a new job: what interpretation, what style, what shape, what content to choose. I am often the first to restrict my freedom, but I think that the job of an illustrator is primarily to examine and discover themselves and their own limitations; and we have to come up against certain blocks to move forward and gain confidence through experience.
HRB: What is your biggest source of inspiration?
AA: My greatest source of inspiration is myself 😉 . Every so often we should look inside ourselves and see what we carry with us. Over the years we ‘sow’ memories and friendships; we visit places and meet new people. In all these exchanges there is a huge source of information to us. You just need to let yourself be guided.
MO: For images, it has to be nature and the world around me. However, for stories I find inspiration in everyday things or odd things that strike me – sometimes even the most trivial things have immense power – or the stories of ordinary people.
MR: I wouldn’t know what my greatest source of inspiration is. It is an accumulation of things I like and things that surround me. At an artistic level I feel close to medieval painting especially the Gothic and late Gothic period, and I love miniatures and artists such as Brueghel or Bosch. But I also love graphic design and futurism, for example artists like Depero, Garretto and Pannaggi, and then there’s cinema which I have always imagined to be the elder brother of illustration; music is a faithful companion, as are other people.
HRB: How do you feel about being selected for the illustrators’ exhibition at the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna?
MO: I did not expect to be selected for the Illustrators’ Exhibition, it was a nice surprise. I had planned to go to the Fair to show the project I had been working on for months. It was an honour to see my images on display alongside illustrators from around the world, some of whom are very well-known. It fascinates me to think that the drawings I did at my desk will now go on a long journey through Japanese museums while I’m still sitting at that desk, working.
MR: It’s both really satisfying and a responsibility, Bologna is an important showcase and offers the opportunity to see your own work exhibited alongside important and talented illustrators. In my experience, seeing my work on display changes how I perceive it, on the one hand I’m full of joy, and on the other it makes me feel naked.
HRB: Andrea, you also teach a bit. How do you feel about doing a workshop at the Children’s Book Fair?
AA: What a thrill! Teaching is something totally different. An illustrator usually stays in his study and works alone, at most with some music. When you teach the loneliness of the illustrator disappears. You see faces, listen to questions and find answers, without considering that you also learn by teaching. Doing a workshop at the Book Fair in Bologna was incredible. There is no such thing as a bored student, just people who are really interested in what you do and as you’re working you can sense their attention. I hope I can do it again next year!
HRB: Thank you for the interview!
Visit the three illustrators’ websites here: