Oh, Readers! Have you seen the stunning illustrations in my latest picture book, The Gravity Tree? Jaw dropping, right?!
Let me introduce you to the talented artist who brilliantly brought this book to life, Yas Imamura. I had the opportunity to talk to Yas about her creative process, why visual storytelling was essential for this picture book, in particular, and much more! And educators, you’ll see that Yas goes into considerable detail about technique and historic research. That’s why I think this post paired with a reading of The Gravity Tree is a super fit for your classroom.
Let’s dive in!
Anna – These illustrations have such depth and texture that really elevate the visual storytelling. How did you accomplish that?
Yas – To know that my own artistic rendering adds more to the storytelling really means a lot. I owe much of it to traditional medium. I definitely came into this project wanting to have these organic textures created by the way gouache and watercolor layer on paper. There’s a more intentional multi-step way of recreating that digitally but I always cherish the more instantaneous results I get when I paint traditionally. I’ve done this enough now to where I can telegraph what used to be happy accidents. So knowing how to utilize certain methods to recreate tree foliage or the way circling clouds on earth from space might be rendered with unexpected simplicity really helped.
Anna – One of my favorite illustrations in this book features Isaac Newton in his study. That spread had a lot of visual storytelling that needed to be accomplished. And you did it seamlessly while creating warmth. Tell me about your work on that spread, in particular.
Yas – I wanted this scene to have really atmospheric lighting first and foremost, and then worked my way backwards. It necessitated that the fireplace would then be more prominent. I was really drawn to old paintings of Isaac Newton in his study, with a candle light, a fireplace, books and tools just scattered on the floor. I imagine he’d be pacing about a lot and wanted to illustrate that by having him stand somewhere away from the table and his things, just completely immersed in problem-solving but completely front and center to the reader. The darkness of the room added to an almost privy moment where we see him grapple with his equations at the wee hours of the night.
Anna – What are the challenges in illustrating a biography about a tree and how did you overcome them?
Yas – The potential repetitive nature of having a mostly expressionless main character could be daunting but I think those challenges never quite materialized for me because of how the writing chronicled its movement, the ebb and flow of this tree’s journey. Being able to start from a seed in the first spread, witnessing it through the season, the adversities it weathered through (heh!), its impact on science and discovery gave the tree the rich narrative it deserved and made my task so much more fulfilling and easier as an illustrator.
Anna – What inspired your color palette for THE GRAVITY TREE?
Yas – I don’t always start by creating a strict palette of colors but I remembered doing the space station page first and deciding on what other fringe colors to add from there. It’s mostly intuitive, like the way I choose the kind of blue informs the way I choose the rest of the colors. I think my process for conceptualizing a unified palette for this book was more created by mindfully choosing not to use certain colors versus making sure I use a set of colors. I don’t always do that for each book but it was the way I flowed for this. Red isn’t very prominent for example and is almost exclusively a color I use for the apples on the tree.
Anna – What spoke to you about this book and made you want to dive in?
Yas – I love the cast of characters—normal everyday people, famous historical figures, and the present generation of curious and inquisitive minds. It just gave the gravity tree a really rich legacy.
Anna – Let’s delve into your story a little bit as an artist and storyteller. When did you first realize your love for art?
I started drawing as early as I can remember learning how to hold a pencil, I don’t think I’ve really stopped since. Picture books were a huge part of discovering illustrations I liked. But when I didn’t like them so much, I’d find myself drawing on them to make [the illustrations] better. I used art to retreat into my head a lot. Some of the early illustrations I did as a child weren’t created for visual appeal to [readers], but mental cataloging. I remember enjoying doing cross-sections of dollhouses just imagining what would be in each room—a window, a mirror, a bed, ottoman, dresser.. I’d keep stacking the floors up or keep making room compartments like an endless Polly pocket. I realize now I wasn’t so much thinking of the visual end result as it was mostly for brain soothing. I think that has shaped me as a professional artist now in the way I make sure small details in a spread, like clutter in a room, can transport a person to a certain mind space.
Anna – What advice would you give to parents and educators who are nurturing our next generation of artists?
Yas – Aside from nurturing their curiosity and creativity, I think informing them about the many creative avenues in their adult career would be very helpful in sustaining their optimism and bolstering self-actualization. The role of art in society, in activism, is also a great way to introduce an artistic path that isn’t always hinged on capitalism or a very narrow idea of what a successful artist is. Or an idea that you can’t be an artist if it’s not your full-time job. There are a lot of roadblocks in any career, but pursuing being an artist is an exceptionally fraught experience if we don’t allow their own early idea of what that means to breathe a bit and expand in its own space.
Anna – What would readers be most surprised to learn about you?
Yas – I have a degree in Economics and somehow survived doing complex math in Greek letters despite now struggling to add up and calculate tips at a restaurant.
Another is that I newly train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu!
Anna – Tell us about your other books and next projects!
Yas – One of my next books “Love in the Library” by Maggie Tokuda-Hall is set to release January 2022 from Candlewick Press. I’m also currently working on a picture book biography about Yoko Ono titled “Can You Imagine” by Lisa Tolin from Simon and Schuster. Some books that published or will publish this year I’m very happy to share is “Do Something For Someone Else” by Loll Kirby (Magic Cat Publishing) and “An Adventurer’s Guide to Dinosaurs” by Isabel Thomas (Ladybird books).
Wow! I can’t wait to snap each one of Yas’ books! Thank you to Yas for such a great interview. Want to learn more about our book, The Gravity Tree, check out this interview with Maine’s favorite magazine host and journalist Rob Caldwell! It was so fun shooting an interview in the middle of an apple orchard!
And don’t forget you can check out a copy of The Gravity Tree at your local library, buy a copy where ever fine books are sold, or order a personalized signed copy from Print: A Bookstore!
P.S. Want to learn more about illustrating children’s books? Check out my interview with Vita Lane. She’s the talented artist who illustrated our nonfiction picture book Chowder Rules! The True Story of an Epic Food Fight! You are going to love her!