Diversified - Rainbow Colours of Literature Illustrator Sketchpad Reading Themes

[Meet the Storyteller] Free-falling and Finding Soul in Art – An interview with Daniel Palma Tayona

Daniel Palma Tayona - An interview.

Myra here.


Welcome to GatheringBooks, Daniel. It is with great pleasure that we feature you and your distinctly unique voice in our virtual home.

Your Tahanan Books interview show that you are a full-time painter and graphic/book designer. I also gathered from your interview with Visual Viscera that you have a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts majoring in Industrial design and that you have done corporate work previously. What prompted you to take the “free fall,” as you called it, to simply pursue your passion without the safety net that is the corporate world?

My mother wanted me to be a doctor or someone who wears a suit and tie, and driving a fancy car. Unfortunately, I had different plans when I took up my university studies. Majoring in industrial design was sort of a compromise back then. After college, I found myself working for an airline company, a big publishing firm, an ad agency, and even managing a bookstore. But somehow, none of them really excited me as much as when I am alone with my thoughts, remembering my own stories and inhabiting that world within. Since the late 90s, when I finally decided to just draw, paint, or even illustrate a book, that’s when I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing – to give life to the stories inhabiting my head since I was a kid.

The first book cover Daniel illustrated when he was around 17 years old.

About the ‘free fall’, what prompted me was one singular moment when I came home from my work feeling quite numb. It was in 1990, and I was working for an airline company. I was young then, and about to go places with that job, and amongst the candidates, I was picked as the best with my performance, eventually translating into a promotion. For a few moments, when my superior told me the good news, I felt excitement. But when I was heading home after work that excitement turned into fear. You see, that job was simply one of those compromises I did. I wasn’t meaning it to lead into the beginning of a career path. That fear boiled up, literally, to fever pitch in the next few days that I had to ask for a leave. I ended up passing on the promotion a few days later, and in the week after, I filed my resignation – to my boss’ shock, my mother’s consternation and my co-workers’ surprise.

That was my very first exciting, and crazy, “free fall.”

Daniel did this book cover for Tahanan. Published for UNICEF.
Daniel did this book cover for Tahanan. Published for UNICEF.

Tell us more about your work with CANVAS. How did CANVAS manage to snag a free spirit such as yourself?

I have known Gigo Alampay (the executive director of CANVAS) since 2000, when for a whole year I worked with him, and other highly-talented individuals, in forming a dot.com company called TheAsianArtist.com – an online art gallery. For that whole year, we managed to put the site up. Unfortunately, it didn’t really take off the ground as we hoped it would. From that endeavour though, I also met a lot of other visual artists and many friendships have formed.

Daniel with his Canvas Family
Daniel with his Canvas Family

Sometime in 2004, Gigo called me up again on a project – he had an idea of setting up a group that would support and promote the visual arts. It was the seminal idea in the formation of CANVAS. The first project was to set up an exhibit of a young artist who would interpret the retelling of Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees,” and have the images and the story turned into a book. That book, written by Augie Rivera and titled “Elias and His Trees” eventually became the first one I designed for our group. At the mere mention of designing a children’s book, I needed no more convincing. I was already hooked.


What are the works that you are most proud of as a book designer? Tell us about the joys and challenges of doing book design – from doing the layout, typography, and arriving at the overall look and feel of the entire book.

The one(s) I am proudest of, as a book designer, would be two titles – A FISH TALE, and HERE BE DRAGONS.

The first title is pretty challenging and unusual because it uses these gorgeous and detailed sculptures of Daniel dela Cruz. It is not the usual picture book where I work with drawn or painted images. I have to compose pages using elements of the sculptures to make a smooth, flowing story, and not make it look like a brochure for an art show.

A FISH TALE (pp26-27)

Not only that, but designing this book took me the longest. Study after study for the way it would look just didn’t pan out. Somehow, I just couldn’t get it. On the second week of working on it, I dropped everything and spent a couple of days listening to new music. I was listening to the music of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis that it dawned on me. I kept on designing the book with colors, when what it really needed was removing them and just concentrating on one color – blue. From thereon, the idea just flowed and eventually, the book was born.

For Here Be Dragons, I call it my “Hardy Boys book.” When I was a kid, I used to get these packets containing copies of hardbound books from the Hardy Boys series from my relatives in the US. Every time I open a new copy, I would dig my nose into the pages and take a deep whiff of its smell. I love the scent of the crisp paper, the glue used in the covers and that unmistakable smell of printer’s ink, even the design of the books. Somehow I knew even back then, that it was designed way much older.

HERE BE DRAGONS (pp 46-47)

For Here Be Dragons, I want to give it that old, hidden-in-the-closet-for-decades kind of look. By carefully choosing the fonts, the way I laid out the images and most particularly, the paper stock I picked that had a bit of texture on it, I was able to achieve it. We recently launched the title a couple weeks ago, and I still am smelling the book pages. That’s how happy I am with this title.

You have illustrated a few books yourself, one of which is the celebrated Bugtong Bugtong 2: More Filipino Riddles – the second volume to the late Rene Villanueva’s Bugtong Bugtong. Tell us what the creative process was like in making this book and what prompted you to do a book on riddles.

Tahanan Books, the publisher of the first volume, called me up and asked me if I would be interested in following up with a second volume of Rene’s first collection, but this time, I will be the illustrator and author of the book. (He died a few years before the production of the second volume.) Of course, I was delighted to pick up on the challenge.

During the meetings with the publisher on how the book would be like, I suggested the idea of telling the story in the life of a dog through riddles. The story would be done visually, and each page would have the riddles. It was enthusiastically received, and I immediately began the illustrations for it. The idea easily came up because during that time I was having a “secret affair” with a dog named Oskar.


A friend of mine asked me to adopt a small puppy, and I eagerly took him in. but my landlady (I found out too late) forbade dogs or any pets in the apartment. I had no one back then to give the puppy to. So for a whole year, I hid Oskar from my landlady. It was during that year when I also worked on the Bugtong 2 book. I had the model for the illustrations living with me, and the whole book was an observation of the life of Oskar in a day. 🙂

Your art has a very distinct style – how did you find your voice/tonality/shade that made you say ‘this is who I am and what I am meant to do’?

Every time I do a drawing or a painting, it is simply a mirror into my thoughts and my life. All my works are like autobiographical entries in a visual diary. It is easy to find myself in them.


My style? The plump figures and the rounded eyes, can be traced back when I was 16. I joined a children’s theater group and I got involved in making wooden puppets. I would take apart those big plastic dolls with the moving eyes I got from a toy store and would study the mechanisms inside it. From there, I learned to make puppets. I credit those years when I would draw faces that are childlike, with plump cheeks and round curious eyes.

The plumpness in my figures, that one is acquired from my family. I was born in a family where aunts and uncles on my mother side were Visayan and plump. They have this “c’est la vie” kind of an attitude, where laughter is abundant, and living was large.


I have a memory of a couple of my uncles: we’re at our house in Manila, watching tv in the living room. They had their shirts off, exposing in their naked glory their plump beer bellies. I would approach one of them and scratch a belly, and as if on cue, I am handed a peso. It’s like scratching a Buddha statue for money. 🙂 I also have memories of aunts who would chatter away lazy hot afternoons, the sweat glistening on the skin of their hefty arms while they cut away on the plantains to be boiled in coconut milk for mid-afternoon desserts. And a big grandmother shooing us, her grandchildren, away from the kitchen where we’d sneak in and dip our fingers in her greasy, and aromatic adobo, or steal some bits from her arroz valenciana.

In one of our conversations, you mentioned the significance of soul in creating. Tell our readers more about this. Do share a little bit about your hometown, Pasay City, and how its earthy, raw aliveness inspire your creative energies. Share with us a bit of your creative process too.

Soul… that is not something one creates. It is something innate to one’s character, a summation of the life one has lived and the acceptance of that which is truthful. It doesn’t glisten with possibilities nor does it exist to show what one thinks of him self to be. It is real. It is basic. It is raw. It is in the arena of emotions. It is life. The moment one accepts fully and embraces him self – the good and the bad in him –that’s the moment when one knows his soul. That’s how I define it.


I see that everyday in my little corner of Pasay City. It is an old section of the city where posh shops of the upper-middle class once lined the main street of Libertad; and in the smaller streets are the quiet neighborhoods where residents and families have been living in for decades. It is gritty but at the same time, there is much humanity. It is in stark contrast to other parts of the city that serve as business centers and where the richer sections are located. There is order here amidst the seeming chaos.

And it is from this setting that I draw many of the inspiring visuals I see and commit to paper or canvas.

I love it, it’s like I have real-life TV. All I have to do is just keep my windows open and let life and living flow through it. I would catch myself sitting beside my window and just watch life happen along the street of Libertad in front of me.

How do you find your center in moments when you feel that your fire is burning out or when the ‘ink dries out’? What makes you come back and dredge up fragments of your being and make it come alive through your art?

I leave while being immobile. I drop everything and just move on while standing still. When I was younger, I would do it physically. But, with the wisdom of a few years, I found out that I am able to do this “departure” inside me. I would literally “unplug” myself from everything – turn off my mobile, my computer, even the lights in my place, and just be still. Be quiet. And then I remember.


Ironically, I find this “departure” most doable within my own place. It’s like being in a bubble where you don’t hear things happening outside and yet still be able to see everything around you. I don’t find it works for me doing those fashionable trips like going to the beach, or climbing a mountain to “find one’s center.” I sarcastically refer to it as an escape of the vacuous, a fashionable past time, or an egotistical adventure for the young.

Finding one’s center, I have learned, is not about going away. It’s about being still and quiet. It can also be anywhere I am at. Though, the most most comfortable for me is my home, my apartment, where everything that is me is within reach.

You have mentioned in your interview with Inquirer that “My next dream project as an illustrator and storyteller is to come up with a series of books about how to be lost in a wonderful, crazy city like Manila; to know the myriad of secrets behind its walls, beneath its crevices and its past; to have the adventure of a wide-eyed boy seeing everything for the first time; and to come out of it as a brave soul, thankful and much clever than he was before.” How is this coming along so far?

Hahaha, I haven’t done this yet. It’s still “in the air.” I actually talked to my editor about this and she loves the idea. It’s about a boy who had an argument with his brother (or his best friend). He runs away, and gets lost in the city. And while he was wandering through the city, he discovers so many things about it, which led him back to discovering many things about himself. At the end of this adventure, he’s wiser and more accepting of the world around him.

It was actually partly inspired by one of my nephews. When he was a child, he doesn’t want to be a Filipino. He had so many things he hated about the country of his birth, even to the point of wanting to be in another country. When he entered college and became friends with other young people of his age from all over, I saw his perspective change. He’s now a young man who’s active in school politics, teaching other kids, and it seems he’s learned to accept the world around him and works with it, and not against it.

Our current reading theme in GatheringBooks is Rainbow Colors of Literature – do share with our readers some of your favourite “diverse” books.


A FISH TALE is one of my favorite books about diversity. It’s about a boy who is different, runs away to go to a place where he could be with those like him, and eventually comes back because there’s no place like home. And there could be no other home except for where there is true love.


I like this book because it’s a universal theme of home. Not all homes/families are composed of mother, father and child, but a home can be also formed with those of a different relationship. As long as there is love and caring, and where you can be you, then that’s where family is. That’s where home is.

Any upcoming works, exhibits, publications that we should know about?

Well, right now, I am currently working on a new series of paintings about women from the turn of the century and “tampipis.” A tampipi is a square-shaped woven basket. It was the equivalent of suitcases for rural Filipinos. I remember my older relatives from the provinces having these “tampipis” where they put in their precious belongings – bedsheets, Sunday clothes, baro’t sayas even wedding dresses. During the turn-of-the-century Philippines, it was the ubiquitous accouterment of travellers and can be seen stacked up on the buses coming in from the provinces.

Oh, and I am excited as I just got the go-signal (last night as I was writing my response to your interview questions) to work on this new children’s book for CANVAS where I will be using images of one of the country’s most respected national artist for painting. Abangan. 🙂

Thank you, Daniel, for being part of the GatheringBooks family for our Diversified Reading Theme!

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

2 comments on “[Meet the Storyteller] Free-falling and Finding Soul in Art – An interview with Daniel Palma Tayona

  1. Facinating to hear about the book designing as well as the illustrating process. I love your artwork too – and Elias and his trees looks a beautifukl book. Thank you, Both.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Drangonfly

    wow wow wow wow I AM TOTALLY IN LOVE with these illustrations! Love the The plump figures and the bright colors. I’m a big fan of Botero, of who I am a HUGE fan. I even have a signed lithography in my living room that is our most precious treasure. Wow I’m speechless! I had never found another artist that I could compare to Botero! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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