A very warm welcome to Pepper! I am no stranger to Pepper’s artwork as I reviewed her Araw sa Palengke (A Day in the Market) a year ago.
We also invited her here in Singapore for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in 2012 when we had a Philippine Focus for the festival. Needless to say, she wowed her audience with her wit, her refreshing candor and infectious joie de vivre. She also shared the ‘lessons’ she learned about breaking into the international scene, particularly in New York.
She contributed a chapter in our edited book, Beyond Folktales, Legends, and Myths: A Rediscovery of Children’s Literature in Asia (and generously created the book cover, design and layout too) where she elaborated on her creative process further.
We are indeed privileged to have her visit us as our featured artist for Illustrator’s Sketchpad.
Creative Influences and a trip down memory lane
In the book chapter that you wrote for the AFCC Publication, Beyond Folktales, you mentioned how instrumental Ang INK (Ilustrador ng Kabataan) was in your journey as an artist. I’d like to know how your creative forays began during your childhood – have you always dreamed of being a children’s book creator as a child?
As I child, I dreamed of being First Lady of the Philippines! I have since scaled down my ambitions, but there is still a lot of nation-building to be achieved through children’s books. I was a collector and avid reader of children’s books before I started entertaining the notion of illustrating them.
As you know, our current bimonthly theme is A Game of Thrones: Bluebloods, Queenship, and Aristocracy.
Did you have any favourite tales from your childhood that you can remember about princes and princesses, kings and queens, castles and knights that you particularly enjoyed?
My favorite book related to this theme is The Once and Future King by T.H. White. I especially loved the part where Merlin transforms young “Wart” into different animals to teach him the lessons he needs to become a good, benevolent ruler.
I also loved The Princess Bride by William Goldman. The movie was great too, but the book is whole different thing altogether.
Picture books in this theme that I like are Kveta Pacovska’s Little Flower King, Prince Silencio by Anne Herbauts and Twelve Merry Princesses by Lola Basyang and illustrated by Abi Goy.
Tell us about your childhood and how art and books contributed to your development during your growing-up years. What was the teenage Pepper like?
Hahaha—teenage Pepper was much the same—grumpy, loved to read, loved to draw and preferred rainstorms to rainbows. Seriously though, reading was heaven. I loved the library. I loved the cool air, the quiet and all the stories waiting to be read.
My mother is my greatest influence—she is an Antique dealer, avid traveler, voracious reader and art lover. I learned very early that objects held stories/histories within them, that art was important to the development and enrichment of society, that books are powerful as well as enjoyable.
You have taken a Masters Degree on Communication Design at Pratt Institute in New York on a Fulbright Scholarship. What would you say to be your top three learnings from your experience at the Pratt Institute?
- Being a hard worker is more important than being talented.
- Arrive Early, Leave late.
- Anything can be learned.
You have quite an impressive portfolio with 12 books published in the Philippines from 2001 til 2013. What is your favourite among the picture books you have done in Manila?
I love Araw sa Palengke because I got to draw so many of my favorite treats and toys.
But I also really love Segunda. I loved the period, I enjoyed drawing all the costumes (which I based on watercolors by the great Damian Domingo), and I loved that it was a story of a little girl empowered by reading.
You have also done a few historical fiction picture books such as Segunda Noong Panahon ng mga Espanyol and a picture book biography Juan Luna: Patriot and Painter. Could you share with our readers what kind of research you do to make the artwork authentic to the time period that you are depicting?
I love to research. It’s probably the part I love the most other than drawing. I pored through several books—biographies, histories, I bombarded my mother and her friends with questions over Bibingka (a delicious Filipino rice cake) and I also visited museums. I think I overdo it a bit, but I really like exhausting all avenues…so I don’t regret having left anything out, or miss putting in a great detail or other.
Your artwork was selected as cover illustration for the Food Issue of Babybug Magazine, do tell us a little more about that.
I have no idea if Gina (designer at Babybug) knew about my passion for food, but it was certainly a fortuitous match. I love working with the Babybug team because they usually give a pretty general brief. For this, it was literally, “theme for issue is Glorious Food…go.”
Some early ideas included food as something to Enjoy with friends, and drawing a giant mound of my favorite dishes and treats. The final idea, which I then pursued was “Food as an adventure (best enjoyed with a Polar Bear)”. I spoke extensively about the process on their blog.
Medium and Technology
You mentioned in your book chapter in Beyond Folktales that you do make use of technology to create your artwork. Could you share more about this. What types of computer programs do you use? What do you find to be particularly helpful given your style of doing art?
I use anything and everything that will help me make a picture—matchbooks, ticket stubs, watercolor, pastels, the computer…I remember cutting my own hair once for a project, to add some texture. Anything goes.
Computer programs—Adobe Photoshop I use for combining drawings with digital coloring. Adobe Illustrator I use for vector drawings, or when I need a starker, cleaner line, and Indesign I use when I need to work with type.
Did it take long for you to find your own style, your own ‘voice’ in illustrating? How did it come about?
It’s taken ages, and it continues to evolve today.
Earlier in my career, I studied and mimicked several artists—Jack Ezra Keats, Romare Bearden, Maurice Sendak, Jim Henson, M.C. Escher—I kept my references broad and numerous, then I picked out the things I loved best about them and tried to mix them all together and come up with something more my own.
Being curious helps. I am interested in everything. I follow all sorts of leads that pique my curiosity—Nordic folktales, food, depressed polar bears, different art techniques, etc…then I distill and make stuff.
It’s kind of a weird paradox—you need to be open to everything, and yet need to commit to a few things, then eventually be willing to let these go too.
It reminds of me of becoming a person—you’re never one thing, and you continue to evolve over the years. I think my work has shifted and changed over the years, and early influences have come and gone, though a few remain the same.
When people ask for advice on how to find their voice, I just tell them to just go ahead and make stuff. Experiment and draw as much as you can. The “style” won’t come full formed in one go—it comes with making a ton of stuff, then seeing what works, what doesn’t. It comes from continued creation though some of your pieces aren’t loved or lauded.
What is the medium that you are most comfortable with?
Watercolor and collage.
How do you achieve a texture or a 3-d quality in your work (quite distinctive, really)? This is particularly evident in Segunda where the characters seem to stand out vividly.
That’s just the nature (and beauty) of collage.
The Case of the Missing Donut
This is a fun book that I am sure a lot of kids would enjoy. There is the mysterious disappearance of a powdery donut, the intrepid Sheriff and his Deputy, the various clues left around, and an obviously-guilty demeanor that simply cannot be concealed, practically begging to be found out.
What was the creative collaboration like between you and the author Alison McGhee?
There were a few notes within the manuscript from Alison, but most of the collaboration was really with our team at Penguin (editor, art director and designer).
How long did it take you to complete the book?
Six months or so.
What was it about the Sheriff’s character that you resonated with?
His anxiety. The character I truly identify with is the deputy—always angling for the next treat.
Are you planning on writing and illustrating your own book someday?
Yes, most definitely. I think I’m finally ready. I have a few ideas written down, some completed stories that need a bit of polish and some that just need a dummy.
I visited your website recently and noted that you are a very busy woman with an upcoming book this year (Good Night Songs) and in 2015 (Witch Spa). Could you tell us a little more about that?
Goodnight Songs was a super duper project that just fell on my lap. I couldn’t believe my luck—I got an email query from an Art Director at Sterling asking if I would be interested in being part of a book of unpublished Margaret Wise Brown poems. I thought at first that it might have been a hoax, because it was too good to be true, but then my agent called to see if I was interested and I said YES OF COURSE!
It’s a remarkable honor to be illustrating a poem by MWB, as she is part of the Children’s book canon, but to also be in the company of such highly accomplished illustrators is amazing. Dan Yaccarino, for example,was an illustrator I admired growing up and his story inspired me to move to New York and become an illustrator, so it’s a pretty big deal to now be sharing credits section with him.
Here is the book trailer for Goodnight Songs
I also have a book with Tahanan Books due out September 2014 called Mang Andoy’s Signs by Mailin Paterno. It’s really fun because the setting is in the middle of Divisoria (that cacophonous section of Manila). It’s chaotic, colorful, and crowded! I can’t wait to draw all my favorite local vendors and signs.
Finally, Witch Spa is a funny story about wigged-out witches by Samantha Berger. We’ve been working on it for a while now. It’s been challenging because everything needs to be invented from the ground up, but it’s been tremendous fun dreaming up characters and magical inventions.
You just had a Solo Exhibition (For Only the Lonely) in Tokyo last year, are there any more exhibits in the coming months or so?
No new exhibits for a while—especially since I am trying to make new books of my own. But I love making artwork for shows, because they can be about anything I want, and it’s a great way for me to explore an idea. For Only the Lonely (my Tokyo show last year) allowed me to delve deeper into the notion of loneliness, which was inspired by the story of Gus the neurotic Polar bear from Central Park.
Through Keen City (my show for 2011 at SLab, Manila), I was able to build an apothecary for Intangible Curiosities—a collection of imaginary objects that people would probably wish they could buy if only they did exist: “A Bottle of Shade For a Sunny Day,” “Sad Syrup (contents: liquid sunshine with a dash of glee),” and “A Key For Hearts That Cannot Open Themselves” to name a few.
These explorations allow me to come up with new stories, try new techniques and are simply fun to do