I’ve admired Ping Zhu since seeing Swan Lake (a favorite leporello, you can see more here), so it feels like I’ve waited a while to talk to her about her work! Today we’re discussing The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story, written by Maria Popova. Ping has a chance to show off an incredibly vibrant and expressive color palette in this book, and I’m so pleased to share our conversation. Enjoy!
Based on a real scientific event and inspired by a beloved real human in the author’s life, this is a story about science and the poetry of existence; about time and chance, genetics and gender, love and death, evolution and infinity — concepts often too abstract for the human mind to fathom, often more accessible to the young imagination; concepts made fathomable in the concrete, finite life of one tiny, unusual creature dwelling in a pile of compost amid an English garden. Emerging from this singular life is a lyrical universal invitation not to mistake difference for defect and to welcome, across the accordion scales of time and space, diversity as the wellspring of the universe’s beauty and resilience.
Peek underneath the dust jacket:
Let’s talk Ping Zhu!
LTPB: What intrigued you most about Maria Popova’s manuscript for The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story? What were you most excited to illustrate, and did you know in advance that you’d get to do cool things like add gatefolds, gorgeous endpapers, a different case cover, etc?
PZ: At first I was excited about the story because I had never heard of Jeremy the snail before. After I read the manuscript a few times, the nuances of the bigger picture emerged, about how such a snail like Jeremy could even become a living thing in the huge expanse that is the universe. It was special to work on a story that was about the collective history of everything, lead by a creature as unassuming as the snail. I often found myself thinking about my own relationships and how coincidental it is to all be here at the same time.
The story dictated a lot of the design decisions, so I wasn’t aware of how the book would look in a physical sense until much later. I did want the textures of the paintings to come through, so the quality of both the paper and printing was important, and Enchanted Lion was the perfect publisher because they value those sorts of details. The endpapers came after all the spreads were done, and it was inspired by the ebb and flow of time. Circles appear a lot in the story, as snails, suns, petri dishes! Deciding to have the case cover be different from the cover was related to the endpapers. It’s meant to show another passage of time by layering colors to resemble layers of the earth.
LTPB: What kind of visual research did you do to capture this real-life story? What were some of the more challenging moments you encountered?
PZ: Since this was a non-fiction story, I wanted to make sure there were some elements based in reality. The scene that demonstrates snail reproduction was sketched out after I had watched some videos, which were very intimate and beautiful. Other research included getting a sense of what Jeremy actually looked like, and how to separate them from the other snails in a consistent way. The story spans across all of time as we know it, and also zooms in and out between snails and stars. I wanted to make sure that as readers wove their way though from the Big Bang, that it wouldn’t feel jarring. Keeping the visual pace digestible meant some spreads had less happening in others, in order for large moments to shine and create a larger impact.
LTPB: How has your illustration technique changed over the course of your career so far? What is your process for approaching each new project with a new creative energy and fresh ideas?
PZ: I would like to think it has come a long way for the better! Most of the changes are to help promote a more productive workflow. In the past I would use a very limited color palette and figure out the color decisions as I was working on the final. Now I do digital color sketches to help with decisions before I start, like creating a roadmap for the paintings instead of relying on intuition. That itself helped a lot with the book because I was used to working in this way, because I wanted the colors to be harmonious throughout. It has also helped expand my color usage and be more experimental since sketches shouldn’t be too precious.
For new projects I try to see if there’s any opportunity to play around with ideas I’ve been thinking about, which could be something small like using new colors or trying different compositions that I don’t usually work with. The prompt could also help in determining that because subject matters could be something I’ve never worked with. Usually if the job is about something new or unfamiliar, it’s more likely that the approach will be more interesting because there are less preexisting opinions or thoughts.
LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? How does your process change from book to book?
PZ: This book was painted in gouache on paper, which is what I usually use for work. I have only done two children’s books to date, so my process was similar. The difference was that I felt more confident on this second book and was able to start with a better sense of direction. The story determines a lot of how I want the illustrations to look and feel, like for Snail there was a lot of abstractions between the vast span of time. It felt more appropriate to work more loosely and let the paint live in its own way, instead of trying to control every edge. A lot of that can be seen on the case cover and the last spread.
LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?
PZ: I’ve been working digitally for the last few months on a larger project for an animation, which has been a different type of fun and challenging experience. Otherwise I just started on some sketches for a future series of work out for Wrap, and there’s another larger project that I will start on in the summer that’s still unannounced but it is for a film I really enjoyed. Sadly all these things are either still in the works or in the early stages, so I don’t have much to show yet!
LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?
PZ: At first I thought someone famous would have to be the answer for this question, but in actuality I would love for one of my ancestors to illustrate it. This is more of a conceptual outcome because I don’t know if there were any artists directly related to me! I do like imagining that Zhu Da was a distant indirect relative, which would make a very interesting picture book. Apparently he liked to scream and make weird sounds when he painted, which is not unfamiliar! I think about how he would have to interpret the modern age though a different generational and cultural lens, and that the person whose story he is painting is also related to him. I just like the idea of experiencing a life that isn’t your own, but was made possible by your existence. Plus he seemed like a very strange person, so maybe he wouldn’t even do it!
Thank you so much to Ping for talking to me about this super special book! The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story published earlier this year from Enchanted Lion Books!
Special thanks to Ping and Enchanted Lion for use of these images! All book and author photos credit goes to Daniel Cochran!
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May 4, 2021 at 10:37AM firstname.lastname@example.org (Mel Schuit)