We interviewed Yasmeen Ismail, award-winning illustrator and author of children's picture books. She has won numerous awards for her books, including Time for Bed, Fred! which won the New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award 2014. Her work was selected by jury for The Original Art 2015 by the Society of Illustrators, USA. Born in Ireland, Yasmeen now lives in Bristol, England.
When you shifted from purely monochromatic drawings into the color-rich palette you use now, how did that transition affect your creative process?
Well, what really happened was that, as you say, I worked very much in black and white for a long time. I feel like it was a reflection of my state of mind at the time and a fear of using colour. The catalyst that got me started using colour was when I met with an agent who said that they wanted to represent me but couldn't as I needed more colour in my portfolio. They told me that my work leant towards children's illustration and that I should pursue it, but that I won't get there until I started using colour. I know enough to understand that when someone gives you crucial advice like this you should absolutely listen. So I set aside my fears and started to experiment with using colour. It really opened up everything I did. Moving from black and white to colour was exciting! It didn't always work but, I learned what I liked and tried lots of things. It opened up the door into children's illustration and publishing. Creatively, it was very joyful. Things were happening in my life that were shifting too, from a monochrome existence to one of possibilities and good feelings. It's strange, but that whole period of my life, there was a real shift, from darkness to colour, both metaphorically and in my work. It was like discovering new tools, the possibilities and options were limitless.
Though your illustrations have a loose, immediate style, we understand you have a disciplined structure to your process. Can you take us through those steps?
Yes, I have to plan everything. There is an element of spontaneity about my process, but the majority is planning and hard work.
First I write the story, and when that is nailed down I can move on to storyboarding it. I plan the book out, keeping in mind the flow of the entire book, page by page. Then once that is approved and signed off I can start to rough it out. That's just sketching it and getting the finer detail into the idea behind each spread. These are still pretty loose. And when they are signed off I can move onto artwork. I paint this freehand, but always referring to my sketches. I paint in parts, then scan them in and assemble them like collage in Photoshop.
If something needs to be redone, or is not quite working, then I start the process again.
Do you have a memory of something learned as a child that has had an impact on your work? How about something learned later during your art school years in Dublin?
I don't think there is anything in my life that hasn't contributed to how I am or how I work today. I get my work ethic from my parents. I learned a great deal about structure and planning from my time studying film and animation at art school. I learned the hard way that there is no such thing as a short cut. Sure, you can take a short cut, but it will never be as good as when you put more effort in, and undoubtably you will be disappointed with the outcome and have to start again... making it an even longer process! When I was a kid I loved to draw. It's all I wanted to do, so that went a long way too. When I draw now I still remember what I liked when I was little. It's important to me. And what I like now really is exactly the same. I have the same aesthetic now as I did when I was four.
Do you ever reach a stuck moment in your work? If so, how do you break through to continue?
I do. It's not uncommon and it happens to everyone. I know what to do though. I go away and relax a little and think. I have faith in my brain to come up with the goods. So I don't agonise about being terrible at what I do, I just go somewhere quiet or do something else and ruminate on the problem, or not, and let the solutions come to me. And they always do, eventually.
Was there an art project from elementary school that you particularly enjoyed? Do you still have it?
I just enjoyed drawing and anything like that. I can't think of any particular project. I liked making things out of cardboard. I don't have anything from my childhood like that. It was never saved.
Do you have a favorite book from childhood? Do you still have a copy of it?
I had a book called Burglar Bill by Janet and Allen Ahlberg. I loved it. But nothing like that was terribly sacred in my house. My parents gave it away and it was forgotten. Then decades later as I started illustration as an adult I rediscovered it. It was a shock! I could recognise all the pictures and it was like being reunited with an old friend. I now have a new copy, signed by Allen Ahlberg.
Your career includes professional appearances and workshops. What are those experiences like?
It's all just part of the job. I enjoy meeting the kids and talking to them. A lot of preparation goes into each workshop. I teach adults from time to time too and give talks. I quite like being on stage. It's a nice feeling. It can be a bit disconcerting if the crowd aren't giving back. I like to teach adults too. But it can be exhausting. All that adrenaline and work that goes into it. You are giving away a lot of yourself and it takes a lot of energy.
Do you keep an ongoing sketchbook for developing story ideas or preliminary drawings?
I have sketch books, and notes to myself. But nothing in any organised way. They get filled with lists of things to do and the odd drawing. I really use them to plan out books and get down ideas for things that are already going ahead. Depends on time. I don't usually just do speculative work in them as I have so much to work on anyway. So they are filled with preliminary sketches and roughs for books to be published.
What are you excited about this year? Can you share any details from your upcoming projects?
The biggest project is my baby! He is coming along around April and I'll be taking time out to be with him.
I have just finished two books and I am finishing up a third before my maternity leave. These will be at Bologna 2016. Two of these books are novelty lift-the-flap books that I am launching with Walker Books. I am very excited that they are going out into the world (well, industry fairs) after working on them for so long. I am terribly proud of them. New characters and a new style. I just hope everyone else likes them as much as I do.