Let’s Talk Illustrators #:221: Nina Laden

I have absolutely fallen in love with author-illustrator Nina Laden‘s newest project The Trainbow! This book is on two of my favorites lists––board books and leporellos––so you know when I had the chance to chat with Nina about it, I took it immediately. Enjoy a peek at this beautifully-designed treasure of a book!

Let’s Talk Illustrators #:221: Nina Laden

About the book:

Look what is coming down the track. It’s the Trainbow! Readers fold out this accordion shaped book to reveal the most colorful train you’ve ever seen, making Trainbow perfect for story time and playtime. All aboard!

Let’s talk Nina Laden!

LTPB: Where did the idea for The Trainbow come from? Did you always know it would be a leporello?
NL: I have always loved trains. When I was a kid, the LIRR (Long Island Railroad) literally ran through our backyard in Rego Park, Queens. Trains rumbled through day and night. They even shook our house so much that the water in my fish tank would slosh out and I’d find dead fish on the floor in the morning. That’s the backstory. The actual inspiration is that I love to play with words and one day I mashed the word “train” with the word “rainbow,” and The Trainbow was born: a rainbow-colored train.
Yes, I wanted to do an accordion fold book! (and I have never heard of the term “leporello”- to me that word sounds like a yellow leopard who plays cello and is a fine fellow.) In the very beginning I made a tiny dummy of folded copy paper, and then I did one to exact size on Bristol board. (see photo) The rainbow die-cut at the top came later. (see answer to next question)

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

NL: This book was a long journey. I sold it to Chronicle Books years earlier and somehow it got stalled on the tracks for reasons I was not sure of, but I was grateful when it started rolling again- and then the pandemic almost derailed it. Designer Lydia Ortiz and I became adept at communicating via FaceTime or Zoom. The biggest problem was the concept of making the rainbow work as a die-cut 3-D element. I suggested that the smoke from the engine’s smokestack be rainbow-colored and the arches would form from that smoke. Lydia created some other designs without the smoke and they didn’t work for me. One of the other problems was that she reversed the rainbow colors. Once I explained that red has to be on the top, things smoothed out… and I made the tiny color dummy on the right in my photo to show how I thought the arches could work as a die-cut.

That helped, but the arches were too thin. So I created the dummy on the left which had thicker arches and created the look of a rainbow tunnel.
Here are those dummies open:

The rewarding things were finally figuring out the design- and then tackling painting art that was almost five feet long! I bought a huge roll of Arches watercolor paper and painted the entire book- each side at a time. I also hand-painted the title. I used to be a graphic designer a long time ago, and I loved typography. It was fun to paint the letters in a funky gradation to create a rainbow.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text?

NL: I started my career as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer (I’m going to date myself) in 1984. My dream was to be a children’s book author and illustrator, but for years and years I was a “wrist for hire.” My first entry into children’s books was when my book The Night I Followed the Dog was published in 1994, and from then on, I was writing and illustrating my own books. I’ve only illustrated two picture books for other authors. I illustrated The Blues of Flats Brown written by Walter Dean Myers in 2000, and I illustrated An Ant’s Day Off, written by Bonny Becker in 2003. I was very nervous illustrating for the legendary Walter Dean Myers. He had the right to approve my work, and I was so pleased that he did. I didn’t know Bonny before I illustrated her book, but we became friends. When you illustrate other people’s work you have to bring your own sensibilities to the story and effectively make it your story, too. When I illustrate my own work, it has been living in my head as a more cohesive whole for a while, and I have to hope that I am bringing the story to life in the best possible light.
In the past number of years I’ve also had other illustrators illustrate my writing. This has happened with my more poetic books, Once Upon A Memory illustrated by Renata Liwska, If I Had A Little DreamYellow Kayak, and Dear Little One, all illustrated by Melissa Castrillon. For some reason editors didn’t want to pair my illustration styles with my poetic texts, and I was going through a series of family crises and did not have time to focus on developing other styles. I was, however, involved with choosing illustrators, which was good. Being collaborative like this was a nice way to make other friends and to free up more of my time for other projects.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? 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?

NL: I do all of the illustrations in my board books (like my Peek-a Who? series, Grow Up!, Daddy Wrong Legs, etc…) in a technique I developed using Holbein Acryla gouache on Arches watercolor paper. I paint my paper black first, and then I paint over the black leaving little flecks and marks showing so I get a “fake woodcut” look. It has a lot of texture and energy and I think it makes art for the littlest readers more fun to look at. Here is a photo of the engine from Trainbow partway painted:

My techniques have always changed over my career. I have “the curse of versatility” in that I can work in many mediums. I like to say that “the book tells me how it wants to be illustrated.” I did The Night I Followed the Dog in chalk pastels. (I did four other picture books in chalk pastels, too.) I painted When Pigasso Met Mootisse in gouache because it was about painters. I did my book, Roberto the Insect Architect in mixed media collage- I basically built the illustrations, because it was a book about a termite who wanted to build houses. I did Romeow & Drooliet in a more detailed painting style using Holbein Acryla Gouche. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of watercolors, tons of pen and ink, and also learning Procreate.
I love to reinvent myself. I’d get bored if I did the same thing every time. Playing with new art materials is exciting for me. My parents were fine artists, and I grew up using every material I could get my hands on. I see new books as opportunities to create new visual languages. I’m not always in sync with what publishing wants, though, so I have drawers full of stories and images that have not gone anywhere yet. But I keep on keeping on! I create for myself first, and then if I’m lucky, someone else will like it.

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

NL: I am actually working on a graphic novel memoir. (on spec) This is something I’ve wanted to do for decades. I am literally reinventing myself in many ways. It’s a huge project and I’m not really wanting to share anything directly related at this point, but I will share a funny four-panel comic I did in Procreate that is a piece of my true story…

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?

NL: Hah! This is so funny, because I am, in fact, writing (and illustrating) memoir right now. It’s for adults, though. (and perhaps young adults) On the picture book level, it would be so hard to pick, but as crazy as my life has been, and by sheer virtue of my eclectic nature I would have to say Maira Kalman. I love her loose, funky, quirky, confident style. I am a bit jealous of her beautiful work and I wish I was her friend.
A trillion thanks to Nina for taking time to answer some questions about this uniquely fun board book! The Trainbow publishes from Chronicle Books TODAY!
Special thanks to Nina and Chronicle for use of these images!

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August 16, 2022 at 10:33AM noreply@blogger.com (Mel Schuit)