Interview with Thao Lam

Interview with Thao Lam

This month’s interview is with the fantastic author-illustrator, Thao Lam! Her signature collage style has graced the beautiful picture books she has worked on to date. We catch up with her to discuss her work and her process.

View more of Thao’s work at ThaoLam.com

Hello Thao! Welcome to PictureBookers! What are you up to today?

I am currently working on my next book. This book will be my first attempt at writing. My last two books were wordless picture books so this will be a new challenge for me.

Tell us a bit about your background – how did you get into illustration?

I have always loved art and children’s books so it was really easy deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up, but the path there was long and hard. I was very lucky to have very supportive parents and teachers along the way. My junior high art teacher really pushed me and expected a lot from me, with her encouragement I applied to an art school, Cawthra Park Secondary School. There I was introduced to a variety of art styles and gained the foundation and appreciation of fine art. When it was time to move on, I really wanted to learn the commercial side of art so I applied for Sheridan College’s Illustration Program. They gave me a strong foundation in conceptual thinking; however, not much was taught on story telling so I had to learn a lot of that on my own.

You have a pretty unique way of working with collage to make your illustrations! How did you get into collage? Is there something about it that you enjoy more than other mediums?

When I was in college, there was a pressure to come up with a style so one of the things I experimented with was creating illustrations using fabrics. I would sew all the fabric pieces together to create an illustration, very much like quilting. After a while it became costly since fabric was really expensive and the stores would not allow you to buy just a small piece, you had to buy at least half a yard. I then discovered Japanese Paper that had the same beautiful patterns as fabrics and I was able to buy them in smaller quantities. Eventually I switched to scrapbook paper, which offered more variety of patterns and colours.

I have always loved working with my hands and making crafts so collage as a medium was a perfect fit.

Keeping things looking consistent is normally a challenge for picture book illustrators. Do you find this easier or harder with collage?

I think it is slightly harder when working with collage because once the art is glued down, there is very little I can do to correct the art. If a mistake is made, I have to redo the whole piece or hope that the designer I am working with has mad Photoshop skills. That is why I make sure my sketches are as perfect as they can be before I start work on the finals. I also do a character study before I start the finals and keep detail notes on what colour or paper I used for each character and scene.

Art from ‘Skunk on a String’ book

Your first book, Skunk on a String, is a wordless picture book. Did you always want it to be wordless? Why?

I have a hard time putting my thoughts into words so it is easier for me to visualize or draw out my thoughts. Most of my stories start off as an image in my head and as I flesh out the story, it plays like a silent movie in my head. A skunk tied to a balloon popped into my head while I was in the shower one day, the image intrigued me enough to ask questions, like, how did it get there? Where is it going? How will it get down? Then I started visualizing the skunk in different scenarios and situations.

Before you did picture books, you used to be an art buyer. Can you tell us a bit more about what an art buyer does?

My role as an art buyer was very similar to a project manager. I was responsible for buying the illustrations that went into educational textbooks. I was in charge of buying large volumes of illustrations for a variety of subject matters, including scientific illustrations for geography books, tech art for math books, and illustrative art for readers and history books. I handled the budget, scheduling, contracts, and writing the spec descriptions (illustration brief). I tracked the illustration from beginning to end, starting with writing the spec description, picking the right illustrator for the piece and overseeing the work from sketch to final art. I also acted as the go between for the illustrators and the editors.

Rough notes from ‘Wallpaper’

As an art buyer, you worked with many illustrators from around the world. Did that experience help you when you moved into illustration yourself? If so, how?

As an art buyer I had a wonderful opportunity to work with amazing illustrators, folks I have admired since I was a kid, like Michael Martchenko. I also had the opportunity to work with illustrators at the beginning of their careers and watching them flourish. Working with illustrators taught me a lot about great work ethics. I learned by example; how they handle themselves in a business situation; how they problem solve creatively; how they handle deadlines; and the humor they have when I come back to them with a crazy request from the editor. One of the perks of being an art buyer is getting paid to look at portfolios. I would spend hours putting together style boards for each project. The opportunity to look at illustrations from around the world was really inspiring and made me hungry to create art of my own.

Though the creative aspect was inspiring, the business practices I learned as an art buyer proved to be the most useful skills when I moved to illustration. Learning to read contracts, negotiate budgets, working and sticking to a schedule, communicating and working with an editor or publisher/client – these skills were not taught in school. When I was in school there, was a major emphasis on coming up with an edgy style but there were no practical business lessons. My years as an art buyer gave me the practical training I needed.

Planning for ‘Wallpaper’ book
Sketch & layout for ‘Wallpaper’ spread

What’s your advice to aspiring picture book illustrators?

Keep reading. You can always find me in a library or a bookstore. Reading and looking at picture books is inspiring but there is also so much to learn from them. For example, you can compare writing styles; choices of words; compare how authors and illustrators approach the same subject; how illustrators interpreted text; the choices they made in colour and composition. What worked and what didn’t work? There is also the design aspect of picture books, how text and image work together visually, book flaps, spines, covers, and endpapers (I am obsess with endpapers!). Most importantly the more you read the more you learn about storytelling. No matter what style of writing or illustration you develop, a solid story is always the foundation of a great book.

Final collage artwork for ‘Wallpaper’ page

Are you working on anything new that you can share with us?

The pub date for my new book, Wallpaper published by Owlkids Books is April 15th, 2018. Wallpaper is about using imagination to overcome shyness. As mentioned above I am currently working on a book about a cat, which is due out spring of 2019.

Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful work with us Thao! Be sure to check out her website at ThaoLam.com

Cover for ‘Wallpaper’ book

Charlene Chua is a children’s illustrator. She has illustrated several picture books, and hopes to eventually illustrate a book featuring a cat. Visit CharleneChua.com to view her work.

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