Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 16, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Alik Arzoumanian

This week we have illustrator Alik Arzoumanian.  She received her BFA in Illustration from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston in 2004.   The first children’s book she illustrated was “Tunjur! Tunjur! Tunjur! A Palestinian Folktale” , a retold folktale by Margaret Read MacDonald and published by Marshall Cavendish Children.  The book received an ALA  Notable Book Award in 2007.

She has also illustrated “So Many Houses” written by Hester Bass and published by Scholastic Library Publishing.  “Grateful Animals” by Sona Zeitlian, and “Where are you Little Frog?”, written by Kayleigh Rhatigan and was published by Lark Books.  Her illustrations have appeared in “Christmas Carols” and “Christmas Songs” published by Ladybird Books. Her most recent work appeared in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Children of God Storybook Bible, that was published in July 2010 by Lux Verbi.

Here is Alik:  I was commissioned by Lux Verbi, a publisher in South Africa, to illustrate three stories in the Children of God Storybook Bible, retold by Desmond Tutu. The one I am presenting here is called “Naboth’s Vineyard”, and it tells the story of a King called Ahab and his wife Jezebel who have Naboth killed in order to take his vineyard. Prophet Elijah is sent to punish King Ahab for what he has done, but Ahab is truly sorry so he is forgiven.

Sketchbook 1, 2, 3 I first created the characters in the story. Visualizing them first helps me understand the narrative better, and results in more successful thumbnails, because instead of generic figures, I have characters I can rely on to bring the story to life.

For this story, I researched historic middle eastern costumes and looked at illustrations of King Ahab and Jezebel for inspiration. I also wanted King Ahab to look not so kingly and a little embarrassed.

Thumbnails 1, 2, 3, 4 The next step was to come up with a composition that would convey the whole narrative at once. The various stories were being illustrated by illustrators from around the world, and each story was to be told on a double spread.

Thumbnails 1: As I started placing my characters in the landscape, I soon realized that I needed to emphasize the vineyard, and prophet Elijah’s anger. So I started worked on making these more prominent.

Thumbnails 2: Jezebel had to be in the back, since she has a sneaky role in the story. As I worked, a more elaborate landscape started taking shape.

Thumbnails 3: These thumbnails show how I can get stuck in one place. I needed more movement.

Thumbnails 4: I finally had the idea of having prophet Elijah emerge from the land, and if you pay close attention to the very faintly sketched thumbnail on the top right, you can see how I have Naboth hug his vineyard. My thumbnails weren’t very clear yet, but I wasn’t required to show them at this stage, so I moved on to a more detailed sketch.

Sketch: My thumbnails were 2.5″ high and 4.25″ long. My sketch was 5″ x 8.5″, and that allowed me to work out the details. I roughly laid out the patterns I wanted to use, and added a basket full of grapes next to Naboth, couple of peacocks and a few sheep in the background for visual interest. I clearly illustrated Jezebel’s letter, which I had thought about at the thumbnail stage, but had no room to illustrate.

Pencil drawing: I now knew what I was doing, so I moved on to the final pencil drawing (10″ x 17″) which I had to send to the art director for approval. The main changes that I made were the removal of the grape basket which was taking up the space I wanted to fill with pattern, and the direction of the path in the background, which I tweaked so that it moves away from the path in the middle ground, in order to create more movement. The main feedback I got from the art director was to clarify that Ahab was a King. He also suggested that Jezebel point at King Ahab, but I was able to argue that that would be too obvious and would take away from the intriguing narrative.

Color Sketch: Before moving on to the color sketch, I actually added the text to my scanned illustration. I once had the bad surprise of having my work blown up and cropped awkwardly because the designer needed more room for text. So I did not want a repeat of that experience, and I was glad to see the text fit easily. So I printed a few copies of the illustration on 8.5 x 11 sheets, and started figuring out the color, my favorite part. I usually have a very clear idea of how I want the color to look, so I just quickly put it down as a reference to work from when I am painting the final. For this one, I can see that I didn’t even finish the color sketch before moving on to the final! I must have been too confident. Don’t do as I do!

Final illustration: To make Ahab look more like a king I changed his hat into a crown, making sure he still looked silly, since I really didn’t think he should look like a king – according to the story “He lay in bed and sulked […]. “I want that vineyard,” he whined.” I also made the grapes larger, because they were not reading well when painted. We were all happy with the final illustration. My favorite part is the way the little flowers at the bottom right morph into the pattern on prophet Elijah’s costume.

The Book: I received the book eight months later, and I noticed they had used a detail of my illustration on the cover! I was also very excited to finally see what the other illustrators had done.

I read somewhere on the Internet that you were born in Lebanon, but then I read something about Armenia.  Can you share a little about your life before you came to the US?  Plus, how long have you lived in the US?  

I was born and grew up in Lebanon, but I am of Armenian origin. Both my parents are Armenian, my mother was born in Lebanon, and my father was born in Greece, so I am also a Greek citizen and visit Greece every summer. I moved to the US in January 2000 with my husband and became a US citizen a few years later. It can be hard to explain, but I am attached to all these places in different ways.

I see that you are fluent in French, Arabic and Armenian. Were you also fluent in English when you came to the United States?

Yes, I was fluent in English, as it is taught in all Lebanese schools. I also attended the American University of Beirut, where all classes are taught in English. But I definitely do have an accent which has become harder to place now! People think I’m German, and when they ask me where I am from, they don’t expect such a long story!

In another interview, I saw something about you having a degree in Agricultural Science.  What made you change direction?  Did your love for art start after you moved to the US? 

Oh no! The dreaded question! Well, to keep a long story short, I did study Agricultural Science thinking I was interested in plant breeding, then I got more interested in water management, but eventually I realized what I had known all along: I was not happy and what I had wanted to do for as long as I can remember was to illustrate picture books, something that was not considered a “career” at the time in Lebanon. I am very happy to say that things have changed now, and Lebanese designers and illustrators are flourishing and in great demand. Some Lebanese publishers have recently won prizes at the Bologna and other international children’s book fairs.

Going back to your question, I always had a love of illustration and all things creative, but did not professionally pursue it until I moved to the UK in 1999 to live with my then boyfriend. I took night classes at different art schools in London and prepared a portfolio which I submitted to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design when we moved to the US in 2000, and was very happy to get accepted! I remember, I had also submitted a little picture book I had written  and illustrated when I was in high school (an Armenian publisher in Lebanon had seen it and published it in 1991) so I think my enthusiasm and love of illustration really helped me get into Massart.

 I see you receive a BA in illustration at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.  Can you tell us a little about the school and the kind of classes you took?

As far as I know, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, aka Massart, is the only public  art school in the US, so in addition to being a great place to make and learn about art, it is affordable. The illustration curriculum is tightly structured, which was great for me, because I was much older than my classmates, I needed a clear path to get me where I wanted. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have the chance to explore. In addition to the illustration department requirements and electives such as conceptual and technical drawing, various media techniques, acrylic painting, digital illustration, and core illustration courses that emphasize the illustration process, I was able to take printmaking and animation classes which helped me take a step back from the intense illustration schedule and create with a little more freedom. Knowing that the work I was doing for these classes was not going to end up in my portfolio was somehow a relief!

Do you feel that attending Massart helped you develop your style?  Does the college try to help their students get work?

My teachers at Massart gave me two of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received: First, we were advised not to deliberately work on developing a style. We were told to work hard, and that eventually a style would emerge. And they were right. The other advice was not to follow trends, because these come and go. We were encouraged to do what we loved to instead. At the end of my 4 years at Massart, my work had a definite, distinguishable feel to it. My style is always evolving, and I try not to be too obsessed about it. Whenever I realize I am forcing my illustrations to look one way or another, I remember what I was taught at Massart.

Another great thing about studying illustration at Massart was the Freelance Studio course, where we were given real life projects, met art directors, and eventually some of us got published while we were students! It was a great course, because we had to apply everything we had learned and had a glance into what working as an illustrator entailed.

In order to get work after we graduated, we were asked to create promotional pieces for the Portfolio class, we worked on postcards, business cards, small portfolios that we could mail to art directors. I received my first picture book assignment after I mailed out the postcards I had made for this class at Massart!

Also, to help us gain exposure, the illustration department at Massart organized a portfolio review and show where are directors, designers and publishers were invited to give us professional feedback and it was a great start to promoting our work.

What was the first thing you did that you got paid for? 

While I was still a student, I created illustrations for a catalogue gourmet nut store called Fastachi. Even though the owner was a cousin of mine, I am still grateful for having been taken seriously. The catalogue won a New England Direct Marketing Association (NEDMA) award, and I was very excited to see my work published and recognized!

Do you have an agent or an artist rep.? 

Currently, no. I did have an agent that’s based in the UK a few years ago, but that didn’t work out very well. I would like to have an agent eventually, since looking for work and promoting myself take up too much time which I’d rather spend on creating illustrations.

How did you get connected with Lux Verbi?  Can you tell us a little bit about that publisher? 

When I was contacted by Lux Verbi based in South Africa, I was very surprised, I couldn’t tell where they had seen my work. I was so curious that I had to ask, and it turned out my name was recommended by Zondervan, a US publisher that was going to publish the same book (Desmond Tutu’s Children of God Storybook Bible) in the US. I truly enjoyed working with them, their feedback was always very meaningful and everything went very smoothly. The art director I was working with was at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair that year (2010), when I was there too, together with Desmond Tutu’s agent, but unfortunately it was too late when I found out about it, and we couldn’t meet!

What kind of work have you done for Abril Publishing?  How did you get that business? 

For Abril publishing, I illustrated an Armenian folktale called “Grateful Animals” retold both in English and Armenian by Sona Zeitlian. In this case, the author wanted to work with me, since she used to be my history teacher in elementary school and she liked my work, so she introduced me to the publisher.

You list Pomegranate Music as a client.  Did you design an album cover for them? 

Yes, the founder of Pomegranate Music is a friend of mine, and he introduced my to his art director and producer and together we came up with the concept for Shoror by Yakovos Kolanian, a CD of Armenian folk music played on the guitar. I took a graphical approach and the illustrations were a mixture of hand drawn and digital elements.

Another publisher you have worked with is Lady Bird Books.  I see that they are located in the UK.  Did you have connections in the UK? 

When I mail out promotional postcards, I also send them to European publishers. I have worked with Lady Bird twice, both time on the Christmas songbooks. When I was in the UK two years ago, I walked into a bookstore around Christmas time, and the book was on display! That was unexpected and made me very happy.

Of course, we want to hear about winning the ALA Noteable Book Award in 2007 for “Tunjur! Tunjur! Tunjur! A Palestinian Folktale” retold by Margaret Read MacDonald and published by Marshall Cavendish Children. Does the publisher have to submit your book for consideration for the award? 

This was the first book I illustrated after graduating, and I was so happy it won that award, not only because I was the illustrator, but also because the folktale belongs to a culture that is very dear to me, and too many misconceptions exist in the US about the Middle East, so I thought this award would make the book reach more children and that would hopefully inform their world view as they grow.

To answer your question, as far as I know, yes, the publisher needs to send a copy of the book to the ALSC office, and submit another copy to the chair of the Notable Children’s Book commitee.

I see you illustrated Where Are You, Little Frog? And the book was written by a ten year old little girl. How did you get that job and did you meet the author?

I was contacted by the publisher, Lark Books, who I assume had received my promotional postcards and seen samples of my work on my website, because at the time that was the only way I was promoting myself. I did not get a chance to meet the author this time. That book was published by Lark Books.

Can you tell us about this publisher?

Apart from my history teacher mentioned above, the only author I have met is Hester Bass, a wonderful writer and person – I had illustrated her book “So Many Houses” published by Scholastic. After seeing the book, she contacted me to let me know she was happy I had illustrated her book! And a few months later, she came to Cambridge with her family and we had a memorable encounter. She wanted to purchase a couple of illustrations, but she was having a hard time making her choice. I liked her so much, and I felt she really liked my paintings, that I gave her all of them instead of just the two she wanted! She later emailed me a picture where she had framed all the illustrations and they were all displayed together. That was beautiful.

As for Lark Books, I was working on a second book by the same author, Kayleigh Rhatigan, but halfway through the project, they were bought by Sterling Publishing and stopped publishing children’s books, and the project wasn’t taken up by Sterling. That was a little disappointing, but of course I was compensated for my work, and now I have the paintings on display in my one and a half year old daughter’s room. She loves saying good night to all the animals in them!

What art materials do you like to use?  Are all your illustrations done using those material? 

Most of my illustrations are done in acrylics, my favorite medium, they are so versatile, and they dry so fast, I love that! But I do add some details in gouache or pencil. I have also mixed some collaged patterned paper with my painting sometimes.

Do you ever use Photoshop?  If so, how and where? 

I have used photoshop for some illustration work, like the catalogue for Fastachi and the CD cover I mentioned earlier. I am also using it now for a children’s newsletter I am working on. I usually scan my drawings, then manipulate the line work, and add color and texture in photoshop. I have also scanned in textured papers and used them as colored backgrounds for my drawings. Photoshop is also very helpful in the sketch phase. Sometimes, when an art director has asked for a small change, I have used photoshop to revise my illustration. I simply scan in the new detail for the part that needs to be changed, delete that area in the initial illustration in Photoshop, and then superimpose the new detail, merge them, and it’s done!

Do you use a graphic tablet?  If so, which one? 

I have a small Wacom Bamboo, which is more than enough. I don’t even use its track pad functionality, I only use my pen to draw on it.

Where do you create your illustrations? Do you have a studio?  

We have always lived in small apartments, and I like to work from home, so my studio has always consisted of a desk, a few drawers and a bookcase. My desk in the hallway now! But it’s very bright and airy and I love working here.

Do you follow a daily routine? 

Before the birth of my daughter in December 2010, I did have a pretty regular routine which consisted of checking and replying to emails and reading the news in the morning, then going for a walk or run before getting behind my desk. I love to visit bookstores, and I will visit one at least once a week. But now things have changed quite a lot, my time isn’t just mine anymore, I do have a routine still, because that’s how I function best, but it’s not work related everyday. I dedicate three days per week to work, and end up working at night if I need to, which I don’t like because I prefer natural light.

Do you think you might write and illustrate your own book? 

I would love to do that, and I do have a few manuscripts waiting in a folder. I still haven’t found the time to develop them into dummies I can send out to publishers. But I have self-published a book I wrote and illustrated in Armenian, about twin sisters who give each other new names when they get angry at each other. I have worked on a translation but it’s not ready to be seen by anyone yet!

What are you working on now? 

After the birth of my daughter I had to turn down a few projects, because being a new mom turned out to be a full-time job! Fortunately I have started to work again, even if at a slower pace, and I am currently working on a children’s newsletter to be published by an environmental NGO whose mission is the reforestation of Armenia. I finally ended up making use of of my agriculture background after all!

What type of marketing things do you do that have helped put you on the road to success? 

To tell you the truth, I don’t think I have been very good at marketing. I created a website from day one (which needs to be updated, for example), and the main method I have used is mailing out postcards to publishers. I also have a portfolio on Picture Book.

What types of things do you do to help get you additional business? 

That’s something I actually really need to be working on. I need to get better at networking. I don’t like the idea of using social media to promote my work, but I am considering starting a blog which might help create more interest about my work. I am also planning to branch out a little. I have always been interested in textile design, and I am now taking a surface pattern design course online to develop my pattern design, licensing, and marketing skills.

Any tips you can share for artists starting out? 

The most important thing is to be motivated. When things are slow, and there are no deadlines ahead, it’s hard to create new work, but it’s necessary. It is actually the best time to work on a personal project you have put aside, because you will not have time for it once you’re busy.

I think we learn best by looking at other illustrator’s work. When I started out as an illustrator, my mistake was thinking that I should try not to be influenced my others’ work. Then I saw a documentary about Willem De Kooning in which he proudly stated that he made it a point to be influenced by Arshile Gorky, in order to learn from him. Now I know there is nothing wrong with looking at work we love, learning from artists we love, not copying them, but letting their work influence ours without feeling guilty about it.

Thank you Alik, you have provided us with wonderful illustrations and it was very interesting learning about you and your journey. We will be looking for more great things from you in the future. Use these links to see more of Alik’s illustrations:

Please take a minute to leave Alik a comment.  I am sure she would love to hear from you.  Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Very interesting to learn about Alik’s background and read about her journey. She comes across as a very talented illustrator with a striking style of her own. Good luck Alik!



  2. What a great look into Alik’s process. Thank you for sharing so thoroughly.


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