Let’s Talk Illustrators #189: Carmen Mok

Illustrator Carmen Mok has been on my radar for a long time now, as every book she works on has a tendency to feel inviting and personable. I feel super lucky to have had the chance to pick her brain about her illustration process for her new illustrated book I Hear You, Forest, written by Kallie George. With a special message about taking time to stop and smell the flowers, it’s the perfect book for such a busy time in our lives. Have a read below!

About the book:

The forest has lots to say… if you listen.

When a child steps into the forest, her ears are open and her heart is too. She listens carefully and hears marvelous things. She hears the rustling of leaves sharing their secrets. She hears a beetle balancing on a branch. And the more she listens, the more she learns.

Let’s talk Carmen Mok!

LTPB Hi Carmen! Thanks for talking to me about I Hear You, Forest!
CM: Thank you very much for the interview! I am grateful for being featured here! 🙂

LTPB: What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Kallie George’s text? What were you most excited to illustrate?

CM: I read some books written by Kallie George and love them a lot, so I felt very excited when I received the offer. Since her text left a lot of room for illustrations, I had so much freedom to make my own visual interpretation. It also allowed me to create a side story within her story which was very fun and challenging.

When I first read the manuscript, the image of fullness of nature popped in my head immediately. There would be a lot of trees and different shapes of leaves and flowers and some cute forest animals. I could imagine there is a lot happening on each spread, readers will be able to find surprises from my illustrations although they read the book repeatedly.

What made me even more excited is it is a project with a series, I Hear You, Forest is the first book, and there are two more to come!

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of I Hear You, Forest? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations evolve?

CM: In the beginning, I had two different visual approaches for the forest animals. First idea was to create anthropomorphic animals which may come from the imagination of the child, the second idea was that the animals are more grounded in the real world. I offered both thumbnail sketches to the publishers, then we decided to go for the second approach.

Here are some anthropomorphic animals with clothing and accessories, they picnic all together on the last spread!

This is my final approach mixed with realistic and whimsical style.

I always like to do a lot of sketches for the main characters in the early stages, it is my exercise to develop the character’s appearance and personality. I would say sketching is my "dating" stage between me and the characters.

For the girl in this book, I created orange hair for her but was unsure what hairstyle fits her. I also tried different outfits, it was fun to stay open to all possibilities. Although her final look was very different, you are still able to trace back my flow from her hair on #8 and the jumpsuit on #7.

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?

CM: The illustrations in this book were rendered in gouache paint and color pencils, then I touched up and adjusted the colors with Adobe Photoshop.

I used to make art with digital paint brushes, but I changed back to the traditional mediums in 2018. There are endless possibilities with traditional paint brushes, as a result, my art became more unique with traditional mediums. I also use other mediums such as acrylic paint, watercolor, dry pastel and ink, but gouache and colour pencils are my favourite combination at this moment.

Looking back, I am happy to be able to interchange between traditional and digital mediums. Both skills have advantages and disadvantages, but when my client prefers digital art such as an editorial illustration that needs quick turnover time, I am capable of doing so.

Depending on my visual interpretation of the story, the making experience is never identical, this is the most fun thing to become a children’s book illustrator! For some projects I used heavy texture and brush strokes, other projects may have a bigger contrast in colour palettes. Sometimes I like to create my illustrations smaller than the actual book dimensions in order to enlarge the texture, other times I made them big to show more details on my art. I just finished a set of illustrations for my next picture book which I worked with wet gouache paints and dry pastel, it is quite a new experience when I used two extreme mediums from very wet to very dry on my illustrations.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

CM: As I just mentioned on the above, I am about wrapping up a new picture book When I Listen to Silence, written by Jean E. Pendziwol, published by Groundwood books on April 5th, 2022. The story is about a child hears the words “Please, be quiet!”, she sits still … and her imagination sweeps her away on a magical journey. I am thrilled to disclose the book cover!

I am also in the making of the 2nd book I Hear You, Ocean. There are different main characters so readers will feel a fresh look to this book. Here is a couple of sketches:

While I am busy painting, my brain is gathering ideas and inspirations for another two picture books: Cone Dog, the 2nd book to team up with the author Sarah Howden and Owlkids Books (first book was Cone Cat in 2020), and Luna’s Green Pet by Kirsten Pendreigh from Vancouver, published by Sleeping Bear Press. How exciting to make two books about "pet", they sound similar but totally different!

There is one big project on my way that I am overjoyed about! But I have to keep it private until it is ready to be announced. With this project, I am already to look at my schedule in 2026!

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?

CM: Ah! This is a difficult one to answer! I would choose Mary Blair, my favourite illustrator from the mid-century. She was ahead of the trends in her era, I don’t feel her art looks old even seeing them today. Her whimsical style and colour palettes inspire me a lot.

A million thanks to Carmen for taking time to answer some questions! I Hear You, Forest publishes TODAY from Greystone Kids!

Special thanks to Carmen and Greystone for use of these images!

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September 7, 2021 at 10:37AM noreply@blogger.com (Mel Schuit)