I am an architect with an architecture degree from the University of California, Berkeley. I currently reside in Oakland, California. Most important, I love illustrating and storytelling and it all started when I was very little…
One of my most vivid and earliest memories as a young child was my drawing of an old man sitting on a stool. I couldn’t believe how lifelike he turned out! I showed my grandmother who immediately told my mom, “Did you know your daughter can draw?!” I fell in love with drawing ever since. Everyday after school I would watch cartoons and then try to create my own characters and stories. My school notebooks were often filled with more outlandish doodles than actual notes.
Before I do any sketching at all, I will read a manuscript over and over many times. Sometimes I even close my eyes and just brainstorm ideas. This step is important to me because this is when all the initial images and emotions I get from a story start forming in my head. I also start doing research and compiling photos at this point as I did for Summoning the Phoenix: Poems and Prose about Chinese Musical Instruments.
Then I start on rough thumbnail sketches. Since I have a hard time drawing at a very small scale, my thumbnails are usually at half size.
Next I refine my thumbnail sketches. I know that for this particular spread, I wanted the background to have a grandiose feeling of wind, waterfalls, and mountains that was reminiscent of a traditional Chinese painting. This was the imagery that popped into my head when I did my initial brainstorming.
Sometimes I have a couple of options with different compositions.
Once the final thumbnail sketch is chosen, I will work on the final, full size sketch.
I scan the image into my computer and color in Photoshop. Here is a final illustration of a girl playing the guzheng from Summoning the Phoenix: Poems and Prose about Chinese Musical Instruments (Shen’s Books, 2013).
How long have you been illustrating?
I have been drawing since as far back as I can remember. I was definitely that kid in school that had her notebooks, binders, and backpack covered in doodles. So technically I have been illustrating for almost my entire life. But professionally, I started in January 2012.
I see you are an architect. When did you decide you wanted to illustrate a children’s book?
After being in the architectural profession for many years, I realized that I could never be totally passionate about building design. I needed to do something that gave me the freedom to be more creative and whimsical. So in 2009 I enrolled in a children’s book illustrating course at UC Berkeley Extension and I instantly fell in love with the combination of storytelling and art. I knew this was the direction I wanted to go in.
Did you go to school for art? If so, where and what did you study?
No, I studied architecture at UC Berkeley.
What was the first thing you did where someone paid you for your artwork?
I recently had an art exhibit at a local ice cream parlor for the Oakland Art Walk. I sold a few pieces from that show.
Have you done any work for children’s magazines?
No, but I would love to!
I see that you are represented by Kendra Marcus at BookStop Literary Agency. How did that come about?
Kendra was one of the speakers at the South San Francisco SCBWI Illustrator Day last September. Her straightforward attitude and experience in the children’s book industry really stood out to me. Another huge plus is that her office is located in the Bay Area. Although I didn’t formally meet her at the event, I invited her to check out my art exhibit a few weeks afterwards. It turns out she remembers my work from the Illustrator Day (which is always a good sign) and a week later we met up for coffee.
It looks like you have a signed a contract with Creston Books. Will this be your debut book?
No, the contract with Creston Books has a longer schedule (release date Fall 2014) so my debut book will actually be with Shen’s Books (2013).
Can you tell us a little bit about the book and how that contract came about?
Creston Books is a young, local publishing house started up by author and illustrator Marissa Moss. In fact, the debut list of books is coming this Fall. I met Marissa at her children’s book party this last summer. At the time she was looking for an illustrator for a manuscript she had acquired. She sent me the story to see if I would be interested. The fictional story is comprised of beautiful, minimal text and strong imagery about a family living in a fishing village. Once I read it, I accepted the offer. The book is appropriately titled Village by the Sea.
It looks like you also are illustrating a non-fiction book with Shen’s Books. How did that contract happen?
The author Emily Jiang picked up my postcard from the SCBWI LA Conference last year and thought that I would be a good fit to illustrate her book, Summoning the Phoenix: Poems and Prose about Chinese Musical Instruments. Luckily, the publisher agreed.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Yes, I would love to write and illustrate my own book.
Have you put together a portfolio geared for the children’s book industry?
Yes, I prepared a portfolio for the SCBWI LA Conference last year. It’s a work in progress because I am constantly switching out and adding new pieces to it.
Have you made any book dummies to show off?
Yes, I have a couple of book dummies for stories that I have written and illustrated. One story is about a magical fish ball called Little Me and the other is about an adventurous beagle called Frank the Monster.
Not counting your paint and brushes, what is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
My computer, but my coffeemaker would come in at a close second!
Do you try and spend a certain amount of hours every day working on your art?
It seems like for the last year, I haven’t gone one day without working on some kind of art project for at least a couple of hours. Lately I have been working like crazy to meet the deadline for my first book. I actually have to remind myself to get up and stretch every so often. It’s hard to step away when I am really immersed in my work.
What is your favorite medium to use?
At the moment, it’s pencil and digital.
Do you take pictures or do any research before you start a project?
Researching is very important to me before I begin a project especially for the nonfiction book about Chinese musical instruments I am working on with Shen’s Books. In this case, researching on the Internet was not adequate since I needed to have a good detailed look at each instrument. Fortunately, there is a local Chinese youth symphony that allowed me to take photos during their practice. I was able to get a firsthand look at how the musical instruments were played, what they sounded like, and what they looked like in real life. All those elements eventually shaped the final artwork.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Yes, the Internet is definitely a great marketing tool and is a convenient way for people to view my portfolio. I was really opposed to social media sites at first but then I came to terms with the fact that it’s a necessary evil because it’s one of the main ways that people interact and stay connected nowadays. So now I have learned to embrace it and to have fun with it.
Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?
Yes, I scan my pencil drawings and then color them in Photoshop.
Do you own or have you ever tried a graphic Drawing Tablet?
I own a Wacom Bamboo tablet. It’s pretty basic but does the trick so far.
Do you think your style has changed over the years? Have your material changed?
I am constantly learning new things and refining my craft. So I have definitely evolved as an illustrator but there are certain elements of my style that has carried through. Initially I was set on being a traditional artist. My medium of choice was either watercolor or colored pencil. Then I ventured out and tried using Photoshop to tweak and then color the illustrations. To me, it’s just another artist’s tool and I have never looked back since. Now I am more comfortable with experimenting with other materials or I may even go back to using watercolor in the future.
How do you market yourself?
Besides using the Internet (updating Facebook, Twitter, my blog), I attend SCBWI events, hand out postcards, participate in art shows, and enter in art contests. Bottom line is I try to get myself out there as much as possible because I never know who is going to see my artwork.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I often daydream that I would follow in the footsteps of illustrators that I admire: Chris Van Allsburg, Brian Selznick, Shaun Tan…just to name a few. Not only do they all have long lasting careers, but their work has also branched out into the world of film and animation. If you’re going to dream, why not dream big!
What are you working on now?
I am working on my two book illustration projects, submitting a proposal for another art show, and developing some of my own stories and illustrations.
Do you have any material tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tired – A how to tip, etc.
I could not function without my iMac, Photoshop, Epson large format scanner, and Cuisinart Grind and Brew Coffeemaker.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful illustrator?
I strongly believe that if you work hard and stay focused, you can achieve anything. Success will follow naturally. Stay inspired and don’t be discouraged because the path to success is different for everyone. Last but not least, remember to have fun!
Thank you April for sharing you journey and process with us. Please let us know when you picture books come out. We’d love to see them and cheer you on. You can visit April at: www.aprilchu.com
If you have a moment I am sure April would like to read your comments. I enjoy reading them, too, even if I don’t have time to reply to all of them. Thanks!