JooHee Yoon is an illustrator and printmaker who relishes the challenge of interpreting written text. We talked with her about her work, her inspiration and her latest book Stel dat… published by BOYCOTT.
I wanted to start off by asking you: how important is drawing “en plain aire” for you? Do you think it helps you and your illustrations?
“Yes! Definitely. For me drawing from observation gives my brain a much-needed rest. I don’t have to come up with a clever concept or think about what a client needs. It’s purely just the drawing and reacting spontaneously to what I see. I can let my hand/mind wander. It also becomes a visual record of where I’ve been, which is great to look back on.”
How do you choose the right medium for your work (digital, pencils, screen printing)? Does each medium make you think differently?
“The way I work is a direct response to my environment or the given project. It changes quite organically since my art reflects what I am interested in at the time and also what materials are readily available. I never want to be bored with what I do, so I like finding new ways to keep my mind occupied. For instance, the reason I started doing linocuts was that this method of printmaking required the least amount of equipment and could be printed by hand. Once I graduated from school I had very limited resources so this was my solution using what I had. Most of the work I do today has some foundation in printmaking, although now the connection can seem more abstract. But in terms of how I think about colors, composition, and layers, I learned it all through doing things the traditional way.”
What do you think is the best way to create a mood or make the reader feel a certain way when looking at your work?
“I think color and texture in my work play a big role in creating a mood. Even with the limited palette that I normally use, there’s so much you can do within the limitations. Tactility is something that is very important for me and I try to convey that to the reader, not only in the images but with the shape and weight of the book, and the feel of the paper (this is most obvious in my latest book which has more interactive elements). The way I design my books, the composition is very important since I want the image to work with the text. I design the images specifically with the text in mind and having worked in the editorial world where just a single image has to tell the entire story, I also bring that sensibility into my bookmaking. I like to figure out ways in which an image can do more than just show what’s in the text.”
Can you tell us something about your collaborations with newspapers and magazines? How does your approach differs from working on a picture book?
“Well, the two are very different. I started working for the NYtimes and other publications as my main way of making a living. I only got into picture books relatively recently. Working for periodicals was an immediate way of getting my work out into the world. The deadlines are extremely fast, so it can be stressful, but also exciting! And seeing your work in print the following day or later that month is very satisfying. You also end up working with a lot of different art directors and various topics in a short period of time.With books, one of the biggest differences is that you have to stick with the same content for a much longer, thinking about it and re-working it. My book process takes at least a year or more so it’s a much longer commitment and one where I have to keep reminding myself that it will be all be good in the end. When I am working for an editorial client there is more planning involved since I have to show the client my ideas and then they decide which direction they like the best. But with books, I am more instinctive and I consider them personal projects. I usually have an idea in my mind on what I want to draw and then I start drawing to see where it goes. Over planning I think would make the process too predictable for me. Once I start I get new ideas and the project continues to grow as I work.”
What is your experience working for the New York Times and the New Yorker?
“For the NYtimes, the most important thing is to have a good concept. So as long as you can think on your toes and meet the deadline, I’ve always felt like there’s quite a lot of room to experiment with how I finish a piece. The extremely fast turn around (for black and white oped this is a typical schedule: morning for sketches, afternoon to work, finish by end of day) is stressful but at the same time leaves no room to second guess or overwork and in the end sometimes the results are a surprise even for me, which is a great feeling. I also really enjoy collaborating with the NYtimes art directors, since they push you to think better and at the same time are very supportive.”
Correct me if I am mistaken, your picture books are always re-adaptations of texts and poems written by others, have you ever considered working also as a writer on one of your books?
“Yes, this is true. I have not written the story for any of my books. The closest I came to it was retelling The Steadfast Tin Soldier, and this was mainly due to the original story being too lengthy and I felt my pictures could tell the story with fewer words. But even though I may not be the writer, I still consider all of my projects very much my own since with old texts there is a lot of opportunity to breath new life into the story. I find it exciting to work within an existing framework but take things in a new direction. That being said, my current project is one where I am coming up with the story and doing the drawings… but this might take a while before it sees the light of day.”
Tell us more about Stel dat… ?
“The text is written by Alastair Reid, a Scottish poet and translator (the original text is in English). I loved it on first reading, which presents various ‘What if’ scenarios. They are deceptively simple but linger in the mind. Many are humorous and absurd, but in a way reveal glimpses into human nature. What I loved about the text is that there was so much room for interpretation. In the end, I created a visual narrative that accompanies the text, but at the same time has a life of its own.
The original book was published in 1960 and since then there have been two other editions with different illustrators. They all feature a boy as the main character, but when I read the manuscript, I thought some of the scenarios would be more fun with a girl (example — Supposing I went bald). And one of the other scenarios, “Supposing I taught my dog how to read”, made me think it might be fun if this dog appeared at other points in the book. In this way, I gradually formed a set of characters that were inspired by the text, but are my own additions to the story (something Alastair probably never imagined when he was writing!). I also started to make connections between different supposing scenarios and felt the book could be even stronger depending on which of the images were placed next to each other. When I voiced my idea, the estate/heirs of the writer (the writer passed away in 2014) were supportive and approved my reorganized text. The illustrations have a much bigger role in my book than in the previous editions, and to me, this feels like a true a collaborative effort between the writing and the artwork. The art grew very organically (I didn’t plan it out in the beginning, or do any sketches) but just started drawing. If I didn’t like how it looked I started over (I have a giant pile of failed drawings). In the end, the results really surprised me, which is a rare and fantastic thing when it happens! Similar to my other books, this is printed in 3 Pantone colors. I studied various printmaking techniques when I was in college and this way of thinking about colors in layers overlapping really makes sense for my brain. The print production of my books is quite important since the way I work means I usually don’t have an original painting or finished drawing, so I consider the printed book the final artwork.”
What do you think of Bob Gill’s take on that, why did you choose to re-illustrate it?
“In my opinion, Bob Gill’s approach for Supposing felt very minimal and more aimed towards an adult audience than for children. There are books that I’ve come across that seem so complete that I can’t imagine any room for further improvement. Those types of books I wouldn’t dare to mess with. But in this instance, I had a completely different vision for what the book could be.”
What are your favorite illustrators, and biggest influences in the visual world?
“I am very inspired by all forms of visual expression. I love theater and contemporary dance. I find architecture quite fascinating, in the way it can transform an environment and have an impact on how people interact. The natural world constantly surprises me, with its infinite variety of plants and animals. I also enjoy going to museums, not so much for paintings, but looking at old artefacts, objects, and sculptures from different cultures and time periods. In terms of illustration, I am inspired by old picture books from the early 1900s, where artists had to make books with limited colors due to printing restrictions. This is essentially how I make my books today, but out of choice rather than necessity. In terms of inspiring people, there are so many! A few I can think of now would be Henri Rousseau, Louise Bourgeoise, Joseph Cornell, John Audubon, Marie Neurath, Milton Glaser, and Ben Shahn.”
What do you think makes a good picture book?
“A great picture book is one where the text and image work together seamlessly and the design of the whole is considered. I think a great book should be surprising and make the reader think even after having closed it and put it back on the shelf. Where each element in the book has a necessary role to play. The text should inspire great imagery and the pictures add something new to the story.”
Interviewed by Marco Quadri.