Julia Kuo spoke to us about the process of illustrating the picture book I DREAM OF POPO, out now, and gave a drawing demonstration!
Want to read more about the book? Check out this personal essay from I DREAM OF POPO author Livia Blackburne as well.
[We Need Diverse Books opening credits: text against an animated crinkling paper background. The text reads, “Book Giveaways, Grants, Mentorships, Writing Awards,” followed by the WNDB logo.]
[Julia Kuo, a Taiwanese American woman, is wearing white and is seated facing the camera. A background with white flowers and dark green leaves is behind her.]
Hi, my name is Julia Kuo and I’m the illustrator behind the picture book I DREAM OF POPO, written by Livia Blackburne, edited by Connie Hsu, and just released by Macmillan Books. [The cover art for the book appears beside Julia. It features a grandmother and a young girl facing each other against the same background as the one behind Julia. The grandmother is holding the girl’s hands.]
So I DREAM OF POPO was a really special book to work on because it was the first time I could tell my own family story through my illustrations. Everything I was drawing felt like it came from a first-hand experience. I actually lived in Taiwan for a year when I was young in the same house as my Amà and Agōng. And I visited throughout the years, especially as an adult.
[Spreads from inside the book scroll across the screen as Julia speaks: the grandmother holding the young girl, a Lunar New Year dinner table with multiple dishes of food, the grandmother and girl standing together in the entrance of a home.]
It’s important to say that Livia’s story is not my exact story but it comes much closer to anything I’ve ever drawn before. With all other illustration projects, I usually have to learn about and research the subject matter in order to be accurate and that just wasn’t an issue here.
[A box appears at the bottom of the screen with the question, “What’s it like to be on a 100% #OwnVoices team?”]
As for working with a team that was totally Taiwanese American, things just went really smoothly! I’m sure Livia, Connie, and I are all used to code-switching as we move from one world to another but here there was no need to explain ourselves, or for me to explain the choices I was making with these illustrations.
For example, I included a lot of objects that are familiar to most Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans, like a Tatung rice cooker, house slippers by the door, even a huge 20-pound bag of rice sitting in the kitchen. And because Livia and Connie are Taiwanese American, they’re familiar with all of these things too. [As Julia speaks, an image of a rice cooker, straw slippers, and a 20-pound bag of rice appear beside her, respectively, each with a popping noise]
[A box appears at the bottom of the screen with the question, “How closely did you work with Livia, the author?”]
When it comes to picture books, authors and illustrators don’t really interact much during the actual making of the book. My process pretty much started once Livia was done with hers, although I know she was shown the art at various stages and was able to give feedback. I really worked a lot more closely with Connie and her team. As the editor, Connie bought Livia’s manuscript and then selected an illustrator for it. So I’m just really lucky that I got to be that person!
[A box appears at the bottom of the screen with the question, “What’s it like to be on a 100% #OwnVoices team?”]
I usually start with creating a couple sample images to establish the style of the entire book. From there I made a couple more sample images to make sure I was on the right track, and then I went into the sketches. I did rough sketches for this for all the spreads so that we could get an idea for flow and balance from page to page. Once that was approved by Connie’s team, I had a couple months to just dig into the finishes and develop each page into what you see in the book now.
[Footage plays over Julia’s narration, showing Julia drawing a rough sketch in Photoshop begins playing. She is drawing a man who is holding a cleaver and standing before a table where he is chopping fish. She then begins sketching a patron standing before the table. Finally, the footage cuts to a scrolling view of the opening pages of I DREAM OF POPO, which show a view of a street in Taiwan and the little girl handing flowers to her grandmother, along with the copyright information, author and illustrator names, publisher name, and book dedications. The dedications read, “For Popo — L.B.” and “For Ah Gong — J.K.”]
All right, so I’m going to talk a little bit about process. By the time I was working on the finishes
for I DREAM OF POPO I was actually in Taiwan, and so this kind of provided a great opportunity to take reference photos when I was just out and about living my daily life there.
[Julia is narrating over a screenshare view of her computer, on which she has pulled up a series of photos. She clicks on the photos to bring up each in the view as she describes them.]
And so I’m just gonna show you some of the reference photos I took. I love running along the riverfront park and so I came across this group of seniors who got together to stretch and dance in the morning. This is a common sight, actually, if you stick around Taiwan long enough. Here’s an oba-san on his bike. I always take lots of sneaky photos on the subway and I’m sure that I’m going to get caught one day. But I mostly just like capturing photos of normal, everyday life. Um this is a crew just cleaning up around the neighborhood and picking up trash.
I like these just very natural poses. You know, I can pose friends to try to get the look that I want but there’s nothing like just emulating real life.
[Julia scrolls back through the photos. And pulls up the spread from I DREAM OF POPO in which the girl is embracing her grandmother.]
All right, so let’s pick one to draw today. I think I will draw this woman sweeping because I like her shape. So just looking really quickly at the I DREAM OF POPO style, I draw on a lot of different styles. So each project kind of has its own language and if we look at this one, everything is composed almost entirely out of shapes. But there are, there’s line work used sparingly to kind of delineate some details, so mostly shapes, just a little bit of line. So we’ll put this over here to remind ourselves what to what to strive for.
[Julia uses her cursor to drag the spread over to the top left corner of the screen. The image of the woman sweeping is below the spread, in the bottom right corner of the screen. To the right of both of these windows is a blank canvas with a plain white background in Photoshop.]
So I work in Photoshop which is vector-ba—uh, which is pixel-based, excuse me, and so that
means that everything is only as big as you draw it. So I usually try to draw a little bit bigger in order to accommodate for different uses. So I just look at things based on the shapes they make and I’m going to try to kind of translate her into an I DREAM OF POPO color palette. So I’ll stick to those reds, greens, and the yellows.
[Julia begins drawing the woman, starting with her baseball cap, which Julia makes green to match the greens used throughout the book.]
And I try to stay somewhat organized in my layers. You know, you have to label them or else you’re just going to get 100 unlabeled layers in Photoshop and not know what any of them are.
[Close-up of Photoshop layers in the sidebar. The words “Label your layers!” appear with a dinging noise while Julia hovers the cursor over the name of one of the layers and renames it from “Layer 8” to “hair”.]
So she has either short hair or pulled up hair here, but I’m gonna give her a ponytail because I think that shape will add some visual interest. Just drawing her face. I know I’ll have to accommodate for the mask later on. It’s kind of a shame we can’t see her facial features. So we’ll add this mask over; it’s very fitting for COVID times. And then the gathers in this mask are a good opportunity to use a little bit of that line.
[As she’s speaking, Julia draws the woman’s head and hair. The hair, Julia colors black; the woman’s skin, Julia colors tan. Julia also draws a light pink mask over the lower half of the woman’s face.
All right, so onto her clothing! She’s got this super bright pink, fluorescent pink vest on [in the photo], but I’m going to change that to that bright red that we use in I DREAM OF POPO for for the little girl’s dress.
So one thing that I do a lot is I use the lasso tool to fill in the shapes. It’s a lot faster than just coloring it all in. I also use a lot of hotkeys. And hotkeys are, for example, like if I want to erase I could literally go over it here. I think that’s the erase tool and erase here, but another way of doing it is I
could just press the “E” button and then my brush will turn into an eraser. So I won’t get too deep into that but there are a lot of tricks in Photoshop that make things get—make things a little bit more efficient.
[Close-up of the drawing so that the viewer can better see the woman’s sleeve, which is outlined in black but not yet colored in. As she speaks, Julia demonstrates the tools she’s talking about and uses the lasso tool to fill in the sleeve with black.]
So I really love this bright red color; the little girl in I DREAM OF POPO wears it and actually I’m—I have two other books coming out where the main characters also wear a super bright red. And you know, it works for I DREAM OF POPO and another one of the books because the characters are Chinese and this is a very auspicious color. But I simply just love this color. In fact, I call it “hot Cheeto red” because it reminds me of my favorite snack.
[Julia draws the woman’s vest, which she colors bright orange-red.]
So [the woman’s vest is] kind of like, you know, rumply at the bottom [in this photo] but because I DREAM OF POPO has such clean shapes I’m going to give it a sharper edge to make it look stiffer. And for you to better understand that it’s a vest.
[Julia refines the bottom of the woman’s vest so that the lines are smooth and slightly rounded.
Okay so she has these gloves on [in the photo] but I’m just going to pretend that she doesn’t. That’s the beautiful thing about illustration. You can make your world however you want it. And it helps to, since we didn’t really have to show details of the face, because it’s all covered by the mask. This is what I would have done for the face. Let’s just kind of indicate a little, a few lines here and there to show like, oh, these are how her fingers are separated from one another.
[Julia draws a few lines to add detail to the woman’s hands.]
And I like using, you know, a limited color palette. If I could use a color for a couple different things it’s a lot better and I like to draw upon the same color palette and use derivatives of the same colors. That
way it feels a lot more harmonious.
[Julia draws the handle of the broom in the woman’s hands.]
Okay, we’ll finish the rest of the broom later when — after we finish her legs. So back to clothing.
[As Julia speaks, she demonstrates by drawing lines to separate the woman’s legs.]
You know, I know that her legs are actually like this, here’s the front leg and then here’s the back leg. But we’re just using shapes and we’re not actually using line work in the clothing so it’s just going
to look like a big blob of black. And you’re expected to understand that these are two legs, visually our eyes do tell us that. You know, in a different book with a different style I would have been inclined to be like, okay, you know, draw in the separation between the two legs for you to better understand it, maybe even in the clothing here.
But that is not how I DREAM OF POPO looks. You can see that these clothing are—the clothing shapes are just flat, very simple color fields, so we’re not going to do that.
[Julia erases the lines she drew so that the woman’s legs are a single shape of black again. The footage then cuts to a close-up of the reference photo so the viewer can see the woman’s feet.]
I love these little boots.
[Julia draws the woman’s boots in the same shade of light pink as the woman’s mask. Then the footage cuts to a wider view of the woman’s entire body.]
Okay, so now that we’ve finished the rest of our body, we can um finish the broom because we know where it ends now. And so you can tell that the broom is just like one of these old school brooms where it’s all these different hairs just kind of bound together by a little bit of metal.
And so now I have the decision, like do I draw it like that? You know, what it actually is, all these separate hairs? But that doesn’t really look like the way that I DREAM OF POPO looks. So I think
it should be one flat shape. You can’t see the bottom of it but I assume that they’re uneven lengths.
So what I’ll do is kind of imply that there are breaks in it and inconsistencies without actually having to show them all. And that’s kind of how we did the little girl’s bangs. We can add a little bit of detail. Maybe a few… implied lines.
[As she speaks, Julia draws the bristles of the broom in one single shape, then she adds in a few details.]
Okay, so that’s my lady sweeping the street! I hope this gave you a glimpse into how I illustrated for I DREAM OF POPO and thank you for listening.
[The footage returns to Julia sitting in front of the camera. A box appears at the bottom of the screen with the question, “What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?”]
I like to encourage new illustrators to be as prolific as possible and to use their spare time to create their dream projects. Once they get going in their career, they’ll be taking art direction and collaborating on
every project, and it takes a lot of skill and experience to get the portfolio piece that you want out of these assignments. That’s why personal projects are so valuable: you can make what you want, however you want to do it.
So you put it out there for the world to see and now art directors scrolling through your site can look at a tangible example of your dream project, and maybe they’ll hire you to make it!
Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to me talk about my process and to share about I DREAM OF POPO!
[Closing screen against an animated crinkling paper background. The text reads, “To read more about I DREAM OF POPO, visit the blog at: diversebooks.org”]
[Closing credits with links to the WNDB Youtube channel]
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Julia Kuo is a Taiwanese-American illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, Google, and Science Friday. Julia has taught illustration courses at Columbia College Chicago and at her alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. She is the illustrator of Drawing Leaves and Tress: Observing and Sketching the Natural World, Katrina Goldsaito’s The Sound of Silence, Roni Schotter’s Go, Little Green Truck!, Melissa Gilbert’s Daisy and Josephine, 20 Ways to Draw a Dress, 20 Ways to Draw a Cat, and Everyone Eats.
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Produced by JoAnn Yao
Edited by Anya Steiner & JoAnn Yao
Graphics by Amber Hooke