At a time of year when there are more new children’s book releases than autumn leaves drifting about, it’s nice to grab a cuppa, sit back and remember that what makes a book brilliant is the genius behind its creation.
Today we meet one of those geniuses, the quietly charismatic illustrator, Lucia Masciullo. Her story is fascinating. Her style is utterly beguiling. And thanks to her clever connection with my addiction to marshmallows, her name is no longer impossible for me to pronounce!
So grab that cuppa and prepare to be absolutely delighted…
Q Who is Lucia Masciullo? Describe the illustrator in you and what sets your work apart from other Aussie illustrators.
First of all I’m Italian and this is why you probably can’t pronounce my surname (by the way it’s quite similar to marshmallow but with no sugar: ma-shu-llo). I am born and bred in Livorno (Leghorn on English maps) on the coast of Tuscany and I moved to Brisbane in 2006 with my partner Vincenzo.
More than an illustrator I like to think I’m a visual explorer: I love to experiment always new styles and new techniques. Maybe because I started to work as illustrator only 7 years ago, but the more I learn about illustration and visual art, the more I want to know.
I’m also a Biologist and maybe that’s the reason why I like to study things I’m passionate about. I keep the same enthusiasm I had at the Uni, but instead of learning about cells, animals and plants, now I want to learn things like what the best color to represent an emotion is or how to balance words and images in a composition.
Q What is your favourite colour, why and how does it influence or restrict what you illustrate?
I have several favourite colors. It depends on my mood, I guess. I like Amber in the morning, Cool Grey when I’m wistful, and Apple Green when I’m hungry and so on.
I think your personal perception always influences your art, especially while working with colors. It’s inevitable. So I try to feel the same mood that I want to depict. The colors choice is easier this way and listen to music with the same mood I want to represent helps me a lot. It’s probably like being an actor: an actor can pretend to be sad or happy, but it’s way more believable if he can really feel the emotion he wants to convey.
Q What, whom persuaded you to illustrate?
When I was a child I was pretty good at drawing, but I was also good at swimming, math and amongst other things, sprinkling water from my mouth. So I wasn’t encouraged particularly to pursue art.
Maybe I felt that my dad wouldn’t easily accept me doing art as a job. Furthermore drawing was something so important for me, that I couldn’t accept failure or critiques: I didn’t want to show my drawing to anyone. So whatever the reason I ended up studying Biology.
But few years later I realized that if I wanted to do something useful with my life, if I really wanted to make the difference in this world, I had to do something that I really cared about. So I bet on my passion for art.
I would say that learning how to illustrate professionally has been a wonderful experience, but the truth is that the main reason I’m an illustrator today is because of my partner Vincenzo. He encouraged me and supported from the very beginning, giving me the strength to keep going the times when I wanted to give up.
Q Are you a natural or have you had to study your craft? If so where?
I have always been quite good at figuring out simple forms and basic lines out of complex images. Some people may look at a picture and imagine a story or (piece of) music. Others may look at a tree and figure how to climb it. When I look at utility pole, a building or a face of an old woman, I can easily imagine how to reproduce that image using simple lines and shapes. This is my natural talent and that’s probably why I’m good at drawing.
But of course this is only the beginning of the story. You need to perfect your skills: in other words you need to practice. A lot. I attended a three years course in Illustration in Florence and I started drawing and painting 24/7 since. I was caught by the art bug. And I still am.
Q Was it a work opportunity that prompted your move to Australia?
Yes and no. It was a work opportunity for my partner: he won a European Endeavor Award in 2006 that allowed him to work at the University of Queensland for one year. I came in Australia as his partner, so you could say it’s love that brought me to Australia.
The initial plan was just to stay one year, but (lucky us!) things have gone differently.
Q How do you develop your illustrations? Do digital computer programs feature significantly in what you produce?
For each illustration I start by drawing a rough sketch of the scene I have in mind with pencil and paper. Just to get the feeling of it and to evaluate if it’s a good idea or not. Then I draw the final scene, defining the characters and the background. Always with pencil and paper. I draw the same scene few times, until I’m happy with the composition.
At this stage I scan the drawing and refine it digitally using a tablet. It saves me a lot of time. I can change rapidly the scale of the elements, correct mistakes and balance the composition (when I’m not sure if an image is well balanced, I flip it right/left and make adjustments until the original and the flipped image look both nice).
Then, when everyone is happy with the drawing (myself, the publisher and the author sometimes) I make a few digital colored sketches and use those as a guide to paint the final artwork.
Different media may give different effects and moods to the same illustration. For picture books I like to use acrylics or watercolors to which I add details with pencil or ink.
I like the transparency of watercolors and the joyful effects water creates when mixed with pigments. I also love acrylics because they work on every surface and they are great if you want to add a textural element to the illustration.
Q Where has your work appeared?
I’ve illustrated six picture books, three young adults’ novels and I also did little black and white illustrations for the popular series Our Australian Girl.
I’m also the co-founder of Blue Quoll, a digital children’s book publisher company and I’ve illustrated the first two titles.
I have exhibited my works in Brisbane in a number of occasions and I’m very proud that two of my illustrations have been selected for a National exhibition titled ‘Look! The art of Australian picture books today’ that showcases the best of children book illustrations in Australia: my works have been presented among those of some of the most important names in the Illustration industry.
The Exhibition was set at the State Library in Melbourne in 2010, and has been moved subsequently to Brisbane, Canberra and to several Regional Galleries since. Now it’s going to be held for the last time at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery until April 2013.
Q What children’s books have you illustrated? Do you have a favourite?
These are the children’s books I’ve illustrated:
Queen Alice’s Palaces by Juliette McIver ABC 2013
Come down, Cat! by Sonya Hartnett Penguin 2011
Family Forest by Kim Kane HGE 2010
The Boy and the Toy by Sonya Hartnett Penguin 2010
When No-one is Looking – On the Farm by Zana Fraillon HGE 2009
When No-one is Looking – At the Zoo by Zana Fraillon HGE 2009
No, I don’t have a favourite. I always try to do my best when I illustrate picture books, so I really like them all: they are my little creatures.
Q How long, on average does it take you to complete illustrations for a picture book?
From the first sketches to the final artworks it takes four to six months.
Q Do you draw every day? What is the most enjoyable part of your working day?
I draw almost every day, but I also have a part of my day dedicated to the routine: emails, online activity, parcels to send, events and meetings to attend … even though I’m usually quite good at procrastinating all the things that do not concern drawing.
I think the best part of my working day is when I find solutions to my problems. It may be the right color palette for a scene, an original point of view, the right expression for a certain character. Sometimes problems seem complicated, they absorb all my thoughts and sometimes even my dreams. But the bigger the problem, the bigger the satisfaction when I find the right solution.
Oh and of course I like to receive positive feedback from publishers: I can’t stop smiling in front of an enthusiastic email!
Q It’s accepted that writers often scribble ideas on the back of takeaway menus, napkins, bus tickets, whatever they can when ideas strike – is this the same for illustrators? When you get a shot of inspiration and desire to draw, what do you do?
Oh yes, it’s absolutely the same for illustrators. I always bring with me an A6 notebook where I can scribble and sketch freely. My favourite subjects at the moment are utility poles, people and cups. Leafs and trees, sometimes. I also take note of all the sensational ideas I have for my future best seller picture books.
Q I can barely master a stick drawing. Do you like to dabble in the written word and if so, have you consider writing your own (children’s) book?
To illustrate my own story is something I really would like to do. As I said I like to collect ideas for future books, but when I go to Libraries and Bookshops and I see all the amount of beautiful books already done, I just wonder why should I write another children’s book? I guess I’m waiting for the right story, the story I really would like to tell.
Besides I’m not very confident in my writing skills. Probably I’d use more pictures and no much text.
Q Which Aussie children’s book illustrator do you admire most and why?
There are many Australian illustrators I like: Gus Gordon, Freya Blackwood, Robert Ingpen, Kerry Argent only to name a few, but the one I admire most is Shaun Tan, even though his books are technically picture books and not children’s books.
When I first arrived in Australia I found everything was different from my Italian life: food, buildings, trees and my English was quite poor and it wasn’t easy to make new friends. I felt a bit lost. So when I read The Arrival, it hit me personally: not only the pictures were astonishing and sensational, like the kind of pictures I’d like to create, but the story was my own story. I had the feeling that he had written this book for me!
Then I met Shaun in 2010 at the Bologna children’s book Fair and I really liked him as a person: he is a very nice guy, friendly and generous (he helped me in obtaining my Australian permanent visa). A truly inspirational illustrator.
Q Name one ‘I’ll never forget that’ moment in your illustrating career so far.
Well, of course I’ll never forget the moment I received the first ‘yes’ by two Australian Publishers. The first one was by Hilary Rogers at Hardie Grant Egmont; the second one was by Jane Godwin at Penguin.
In both cases they sent me a manuscript, asking me some preparatory sketches: characters design and a couple of background scenes. I did my best and I sent them back my sketches. Amazingly for me, they liked them and they asked me if I was interested in working with them, illustrating the entire picture book.
After years of frustration and hardworking, trying to refine my artistic skills, finally someone was giving me a chance. This was the only thing that I was waiting for, the possibility to show what I could do. I remember I began jumping all over the house because I couldn’t contain the enthusiasm. And I’m happy now Hilary and Jane couldn’t see my lack of professionalism.
Q What is on the storyboard for Lucia?
In December (2012) I finished to illustrate a lovely picture book that will be published in April, titled Queen Alice’s Palaces, based on a hilarious rhymed story by Juliette McIver.
These days I’m working on a breathtaking manuscript by Sonya Hartnett, a challenging one. I love her stories, but I hate them at the same time, because they are so intense I can’t stop thinking about them until I’ve illustrated them.
I for one can’t wait to see them.