Behind the Scenes with Maral Sassouni: The Green Umbrella

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Featured Books / Inspiration / Interviews / Process

Above: The endpapers for The Green Umbrella.

Illustrator Maral Sassouni combines ink, pencil, crayon, and monoprinting to create the rich collages in The Green Umbrella, a sweet picture book about friendship and imagination by Jackie Azúa Kramer. There are so many great details to linger over. Today Maral tells Pen and Oink about her inspirations and her really cool process.

The Scoop on Maral Sassouni

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Hometown: Playa del Rey, a small beach community in southern California

Now lives in: Paris since 1992, but currently in California because of family matters.

Tools of the trade: Acrylic paints (Golden and Liquitex), oil paints. And I love Neocolor oil crayons and color pencils that have a lot of pigment in them (like Faber Castell, and Caran d’Ache ‘Luminance’ line).

Illustration idol: Impossible to name one—my pantheon of illustration giants would have to include Tomi Ungerer, André François, Saul Steinberg, Brian Wildsmith, Stepan Zavrel, Sempé and Roger Duvoisin.

Caffeine of choice: Espresso, made in a stovetop pot from Italy (my much-loved Bialetti). Coffee ready in 3 minutes!

Workspace: Spare room at the top of the house.

Cat or dog? Cats since forever. My constant companion these days is Pomelo, a ginger tomcat from Paris. But I am an animal lover and I would adopt raccoons, donkeys, parrots, skunks and Jack Russell terriers if I could.

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Favorite children’s book…

…as a child: Aesop’s Fables illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen and Charlotte’s Web by EB White.

…as an adult: I discovered Harry the Dirty Dog pretty late in the game (in my late 30’s!), and I just love him.

I made many happy discoveries while in living in France—the ones I mention here have English versions: Albertine (from Switzerland) has so many wonderful books (favorites: the wordless book, La Rumeur de Venise, and her series about Marta the cow), Benjamin Chaud (Bear’s Song and the Pomelo books), Gus Gordon (Herman and Rosie), Isabelle Arsenault, Shaun Tan (The Arrival), Emily Hughes (Wild), and Christopher Corr (many books published by Barefoot Books).

Routine: My routine, such as it is, goes like this: chores and non-creative tasks after breakfast (this includes research, emails, calls, scanning, uploads, downloads, and so on…). Mid-day: I take a break outside (go for a walk, some sort of exercise, sometimes the library and/or errands). The real concentrated and creative work starts in the late afternoon when everything is out of the way. I put in at least 7 hours, usually more. I like my creative work time to be open-ended, rather than have an arbitrary time to stop. I’m a night owl, so it works for me!

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Robin: Tell me about how you and NorthSouth found each other.

Maral: Beth Terrill (editor from NorthSouth Books)was at SCBWI’s Summer Conference 2013, and present when I won the Portfolio Showcase award. She was most enthusiastic about my portfolio and dummy. So we contacted each other after the conference and agreed to rendez-vous in New York. A few months later, when I was in New York for SCBWI’s Winter Conference,  I got to meet the whole team from NorthSouth, including some who were there from Switzerland.

Long story short: over lunch, they handed me a manuscript called The Green Umbrella! I didn’t have an agent at the time, so CUE lengthy research and negotiations. The Authors Guild was a great help with the book contract, but it took a while before I could get started with the actual work of illustrating it.

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Maral’s sketches for The Green Umbrella, displayed in her studio with string and clothespins

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A spread from The Green Umbrella. "There are five main characters, with a really big range in size (from hedgehog on up to elephant!). It was challenging to make the compositions work well and still have the characters interacting in plausible ways—making eye contact, conversation and gestures… all the things that visually tell the story."

Final spreads from The Green Umbrella. “There are five main characters, with a really big range in size (from hedgehog on up to elephant!). It was challenging to make the compositions work well and still have the characters interacting in plausible ways—making eye contact, conversation and gestures… all the things that visually tell the story.”

Robin: Are you inspired by theater sets and puppets? I get that from The Green Umbrella.

Maral: Yes, theater sets and dioramas and of course Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes. Then there are the window displays in Paris’s department stores (an art form unto themselves, especially at Christmas!) [I love] inventive dream worlds made of cardboard. They’re not creating an illusion of reality, but can be utterly captivating. Like a magic trick that turns out to be magic after all.

I am also great admirer of British artists like Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Robert Tavener, and Mary Fedden. And I also love poster art: the French affichistes (like Hervé Morvan, Raymond Savignac, Lefor Openo…), poster art of Poland and Cuba… unparalleled!

Robin: What media did you use to create the book?

Maral: I work in mixed media — specifically a mix of cut paper collage and painting. I paint in oils and acrylics, plus touches of ink, color pencils and Neocolor oil crayons. I also use various monoprint techniques, both to make the paper I use for collaging and for some line work.

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Some early sketches for the Elephant…

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…and a final elephant collage in progress

Robin: I love the style you’ve used for the characters in this book. How did you go about developing these characters? Did you start with pencil sketches or do you sketch with collage?

Maral: Creating the characters is my favorite part. But I usually need to do several versions to get them right in terms of proportion, facial expression and body language. The collage version of each character begins with a line drawing, which I then dismantle— I redraw the character with its parts separated (e.g., for the raccoon, there’d be a head, a torso, two legs, two arms and a tail).

The sketches took a long time to get right. There are five main characters, with a really big range in size, from hedgehog on up to elephant! It was challenging to make the compositions work well and still have the characters interacting in plausible ways—making eye contact, conversation and gestures… all the things that visually tell the story.

I don’t sketch with collage, and I don’t sketch digitally. All of my sketches are done in pencil on paper. I redraw and redraw until I get the proportions, expressions and gestures right. Then I make a simplified version to cut from: the details will be painted on afterwards.

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Mice in progress for The Green Umbrella

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Final Mice for the book

 

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More in-progress character sketches

Robin: How did you decide on your palette for The Green Umbrella? Did you plan it out beforehand?

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Thumbnail color exploration

Maral: Once my sketches get the green light from the publisher, I start to make choices about the color palette. I do lots of color studies in acrylics. I think about the picture book as a whole and strive to make all the images (15 in this case) work together. I consider things like consistency versus contrast, and the progression of time.

My point of departure was the rainy day: I used cool colors to convey the drizzly damp town— a setting we see a lot in the beginning of the book.

The town scenes alternate with scenes of imagination and adventure, as described by each animal: I did those in warmer colors to contrast with the rainy town’s cool monochromatic palette.

I wanted the colors to reflect the passage of time— the story takes us from morning to sundown, so I factored that in as well.

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Some of Maral’s acrylic color studies for The Green Umbrella.

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The final spreads for The Green Umbrella.

Robin: The collaging throughout is amazing. Can you talk more about your collage process?

Maral: After I made my decisions about color, I created color sheets. I began by making monoprints for the backgrounds at a size big enough for full-bleed double spreads. I also made other color sheets in a variety of textures and patterns: papers with rough brushstrokes, oil glazing / sgraffito, sandpapering, sponging, salt, painting on top of printed ephemera…The possibilities are endless—you just have to put the colors and textures together in a harmonious way.

I also do texture studies, just to figure out which combination of textures and patterns and colors would work best for each element— lots of trial-and-error and intuition here. But as with color, you have to be consistent about the textures you use from page to page.

I keep the color sheets semi-organized in an informal collage library, organized by color in 11×17″ folders. I have separate folders for the paper ephemera — things like postage stamps, graph paper, old packaging, envelope linings, pages from books, sheet music…

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Color sheets for The Green Umbrella. “I began by making monoprints for the backgrounds at a size big enough for full-bleed double spreads. I also made other color sheets in a variety of textures and patterns: papers with rough brushstrokes, oil glazing/sgraffito, sandpapering, sponging, salt, painting on top of printed ephemera”

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Maral kept detailed notes on her palette and textures.

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Detail of a final collage from The Green Umbrella.

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Another detail from The Green Umbrella. Maral created the water texture using sgraffito: “The under-painting was in acrylic paint…. I then brushed a thin oil glaze on top of it. I used an exacto knife to create the lines in the ocean. I made quite a few practice sheets to get the hang of it.”

Robin: Can you take us through your process for an illustration from start to finish?

Maral: Here is a scene from the story which takes place in a forest.

I created the setting first. I use Arches Hot Press watercolor paper (140 lb), which I soaked, stretched, and stapled to the board. Once it was completely dry, I lightly drew on the trim line, the bleed line and the gutter.

I didn’t transfer my sketch onto the watercolor paper. (The drawing would just be covered by layers of collage.) Instead, I traced the drawing, including the text blocks, onto a sheet of vellum or tracing paper. I taped that into place, lining it up with the trim, the bleed and the gutter marks. (I later used this transparent flap to position the other collage elements.)

I started by painting a background color in acrylics, then adding a faint salt texture to it by sprinkling kosher salt onto the thin acrylic wash while it was still damp.

Following my sketch, I cut out tree trunks and a little hillock for the foreground— not glued on, but positioned temporarily with putty. The pattern on the paper was made with layers of rough brushstrokes in different greens.

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Here’s the sketch on the vellum flap, so I could put the collage elements in the right position.

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I removed the tree trunks then painted the distant background of trees and ferns in a thin oil glaze. Once that dried, I sprayed it with fixative then returned the tree trunks to the composition.  

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Next I traced [the cat and raccoon] body parts onto the prepared color paper. I painted the face and a few details in acrylics, then cut out the pieces and assembled them.

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Putting the characters together is the moment when things really start to come alive! By the way, the raccoon was not mentioned in the text, nor was the cupcake party.  The publisher was delighted with it, fortunately!

When collaging, the background elements are glued on first (obviously), then the foreground elements go on top. It’s the opposite of how I draw, which is to begin the character and foreground, then the background afterwards.  Here I added some more details:

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Here is the final illustration [below]. I tweaked details as I went along: enlarging the umbrella, removing some elements (the squirrel, the wagon, the picnic basket) and adding others (the colorful banner, the mushrooms…). This technique —a mix of methodical and intuitive—lets me incorporate improvements as I go along, and I really like having that kind of freedom.

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The final tea party spread in The Green Umbrella.

Robin: I love the spread where the old Rabbit is recounting his adventures. The trail that weaves through the spread and ties it all together is very satisfying. Any story about the process for creating this spread?

Maral: The team at NorthSouth wanted me to do this as a series of spots. But I prefer full-bleed double spread images mainly. I use spots sparingly, when I need “fast cutting”— to convey lots of information quickly.

In the end, we compromised—I decided to make a playful allusion to a board game and tie all three spots together with the candy colored path. At one point, we discussed turning the image into an actual usable game board. But it wouldn’t have worked as well as an illustration: the spots would have become too small to convey the story, visually. 

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A final, board game-inspired spread from The Green Umbrella. 

Robin: How much work do you do on the computer versus by hand?

Maral: The artwork is almost entirely done by hand. Every so often, I scan my handmade collage elements separately and then add them digitally to the main illustration. Other than that, I use Photoshop mainly for cleanup—stray pencil marks, glue crumbs and cat hairs are all ruthlessly eradicated—and to make a few basic adjustments (contrast, color balance, and so on). I sometimes add an extra bit of radiance and shimmer digitally, if needed.

Robin: Anything else you want to share with us about your process?

Maral: The collage and painting approach I used for The Green Umbrella has been developing over many years. In some instances, the collage elements are just an accent, and other times (like for The Green Umbrella), the collage elements really dominated. But, that said, I love to experiment and explore in terms of technique and media. I would want to find a visual approach best suited to each text or story. Each manuscript has its own mood or ambience, and I would want to harmonize with that, visually.

So rather than being confined to a particular method or art material, I would say that my style is more in the way I think, and the ways I find to tell a story visually and express the emotions I find in it.

Thanks Maral! Check out more of Maral’s work on her website.

2 Comments

  1. Wow that was a tour de force. I am so impressed by your process and also appreciate the early sketches and the way you used the vellum overlay. There is so so so much work that goes into illustration!!!!!! All the best too for your next project.

    Liked by 1 person

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