Today I’m sharing an interview with Jason Chin, the illustrator of Watercress by Andrea Wang. It was such a privilege to take a closer look at Jason’s work and his illustration process, and I’m thrilled to share our conversation here today. I hope you enjoy getting to know Jason’s work as much as I did!
Driving through Ohio in an old Pontiac, a young girl’s parents stop suddenly when they spot watercress growing wild in a ditch by the side of the road. Grabbing an old paper bag and some rusty scissors, the whole family wades into the muck to collect as much of the muddy, snail covered watercress as they can.
At first, she’s embarrassed. Why can’t her family get food from the grocery store? But when her mother shares a story of her family’s time in China, the girl learns to appreciate the fresh food they foraged. Together, they make a new memory of watercress.
Let’s talk Jason Chin!
LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Watercress? What were some of the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Andrea Wang’s text?
JC: My editor, Neal Porter, acquired the manuscript and then asked me to illustrate it. When I first read it, I was blown away. It’s such an emotionally resonant text, and beautifully written. I don’t think that manuscripts of this quality and importance come along very often. That said, I was also nervous. Illustrating another author’s text is a big responsibility, especially when it’s a memoir and the author is the main character. I took my time considering whether I was up to the task, but I think I always knew I was going to take it on.
The line that really struck me on my first read was “I was ashamed of being ashamed…” What a perfect line, it immediately stirred up my emotions. The first images that popped into my mind were the images of the family in the ditch, with the Ohio sun beating down on them.
LTPB: Your endnote mentions so many of the incredible details you added, were these all details you envisioned immediately, or did the illustrations evolve as you got to know the characters? What were some of the more challenging moments?
JC: The illustrations definitely evolved over time, with various details being added along the way. When I was preparing to do the art, I went out and painted cornfields around my house, because I knew I was going to paint a lot of corn in the book. As I was painting I started to consider the similarities between corn and bamboo, and how they are both grasses so they share some similarities in form, and they are also iconic plants of American and Chinese culture. I decided to explore ways in which I could use them as a motif in the book—corn to symbolize America and Bamboo, China. This is where the spread of the corn morphing into bamboo came from.
It also gave me a starting place for illustrating the scenes that are set in China. Those scenes are based on small towns in Sichuan Provence because Sichuan is well known for its bamboo forests. In addition, Andrea’s mother was born in Sichuan which was a nice connection.
LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text? What are some of the unique challenges that come with each?
JC: I usually write about science and nature, and there is a big difference between those books and this one. Those illustrations are for communicating the science and the narrative. In this book, the pictures also carry the narrative action but they also help readers visualize and understand the characters’ internal experiences. So it was essential that the child reader to be able to read the characters’ emotions in their expressions and body language.
To get there, I needed to understand each characters perspective and feelings. As with my science books, I prepared by doing research. I spoke to Andrea about her family’s story and her feelings. I spoke to my father (who is second generation Chinese-American) about his experiences. I learned about the Chinese great famine and read testimonies of people who had experienced it. I reached into my own memories and tried to remember times when I felt as the main character did. When I was making the paintings I imagined myself in the shoes of each character, trying to envision their internal experience as well as their external appearance, as I was painting.
LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?
JC: I normally paint in watercolor, but for this book I actually wanted to do the illustrations in pastel. I did a lot of preparatory pastel paintings, but all the while I was looking at Chinese art and thinking about how important the brush is to Chinese culture. I was compelled to go back to watercolor and when I did, it just felt right. So this book was done in watercolor using a combination of Chinese and western brushes.
I typically paint on smooth hot press paper, but for this book I wanted a little texture and I wanted to work wet on wet (painting onto wet paper so that the color bleeds into the wet area). I chose a textured cold press paper because I found that it held the water for a little longer than the smooth paper that I typically use. Getting those soft edges was important to me, because I wanted to reference Chinese landscape paintings in which soft edges are used to depict mountains rising above clouds. These paintings have a dream-like quality and I saw a connection between that aesthetic and the theme of memory in the book.
There are several other ways that I referenced Chinese paintings. In Chinese paintings, a single stroke is used to form a bamboo leaf, or a section of bamboo stalk. I adopted this technique in my painting of bamboo and in the painting of some of the corn. Chinese painters also use a dry brush technique to depict texture (especially in rocks). I used this dry brush technique to depict much of the vegetation around the ditch. Finally, I used straight black in these paintings. Normally, I use Paynes grey or sepia to get a a very dark hue, but I chose black to reference Chinese brush paintings which are done with dark black ink.
My hope was that the style of the artwork would reflect the Chinese and American culture and also the theme of memory that runs through the story. I should say, however, that style considerations were secondary to the primary goal of understanding and empathizing with the characters. Their humanity was what I cared most about.
LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?
JC: I am working on a book about microscopic things which will be a companion to my book, Your Place in the Universe. Unfortunately, I’m running way behind and I don’t have any thing 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?
I would choose Trina Schart Hyman. She was one of the best children’s book illustrators of all time. Everything she drew had vitality, it didn’t matter if it was King Arthur, a dragon or a salt shaker — everything in her drawings was alive.
A big thanks to Jason for talking to me about his process! Watercress published earlier this year from Neal Porter Books!
Special thanks to Jason and Neal Porter for use of these images!
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May 11, 2021 at 10:32AM firstname.lastname@example.org (Mel Schuit)