1. Tell us tell us a little about yourself and how you became an illustrator.
I’m originally from the Philippines and was the typical kid fixated on animation and comics and would constantly draw all the time. In 1997, I moved to San Francisco and earned my Fine Arts degree at the Academy of Art University.
Originally, I had intended to work in film animation, but I quickly grew fond of the possibilities of book illustration. In the late ’90s, there was a huge shift from traditional animation to 3-D animation, which made me rethink my art prospects. At the same time, I was also drawn to book illustration because of the creative freedom it offered and the chance to interpret a full story (in my style!).
I then tried my luck in the publishing world once I graduated in 2003. I was fortunate to have an art agent, Mela Bolinao of MB Artists, take interest in my work and she’s represented me to this day. Since then, it’s been a blast having to say that I draw for a living. That’s something my 12-year-old self from the Southern tip of the Philippines would never have dreamed of saying. It’s been quite the journey. Still is.
2. What children’s books have you worked on?
I’ve worked on quite a few books since I started professionally. Some notable titles are the Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew and the Alien in my Pocket series. I’m also currently the illustrator of the Flat Stanley books (Worldwide Adventures and the I Can Read series).
I’ve also illustrated 12 picture books including Bedtime at the Swamp, I Saw an Ant on the Railroad Track, Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe, and even one for the San Francisco Giants called The Night Before Baseball at the Park by the Bay.
As soon as I heard that the story was about a young kindergartner and her beloved dog, I was sold. At that time, my daughter was at kindergarten age. She adores our two dogs, whom she calls her “brothers.” One was Autumn, an extremely goofy golden retriever that inspired my design of the character Buster in the book.
Needless to say, I had plenty of real world inspiration for the book. The scenes where Stella Isabella, the main character, plays dress up with her puppy while including him in imaginary games are borrowed from my everyday reality. It only made sense that I dedicated the book to my daughter and her two furry brothers.
4. Could you describe your creative process for us?
This might sound unusual, but at the start, I stay away from the drawing board and try to mentally visualize the story. This way, I let my mind wander and not get impeded by the limits of pen and paper. There are times when I get good storytelling ideas when I’m at a cafe or casually walking outdoors.
Then I draw rough thumbnail sketches of how I want the book to flow, most of which would look like indecipherable scribbles to others. I try to keep it loose and fun.
Picture books take time, and I make sure that preparation—lots of research (and inspiration)—happens before I start with proper pencil sketches and painting.
5. How did you find your illustration style? What medium(s) do you use?
I think finding my illustration style was a journey that entailed drawing what interests me, copying my art heroes, and finding the medium that I enjoy the most. Having fun is important because the joy and focus will show in the final product.
Even as a kid, I always enjoyed creating characters and drawing portraits of people, either as caricatures or trying to capture an exact likeness.
Later on, I found that acrylic and gouache suited me. I’m more of a “drawer” than a “painter,” and I find that these mediums help highlight my art strengths.
When I started my career, I taught myself digital illustration (on Photoshop) using a similar approach to how I illustrate with traditional mediums. I enjoy traveling and moving to different places, and I find working digitally is the best way to see the world and still be able to produce quality art for work.
6. Where do you like to work? Do you have ideal working conditions (early/late, must have coffee, listening to music, etc.)?
I’ve been known to work late at night. Coffee and a variety of podcasts keep me company. I’m a night person, and I enjoy the peace and quiet the night (and oftentimes, early mornings) offer.
My work desk is quite basic with my MacBook, Wacom tablet, and iPad Pro. I try to keep it simple for easy travel. My ever-growing collection of pens and pencils are another matter.
A recent addition to my work area is a second small chair at the side of my desk. My daughter has taken it upon herself to colonize a portion of my desk space and proclaim it her “office.” It’s hard to convince a kid that “dad’s at work” when dad draws smiling bears in neckties for a living.
7. How do you handle creative slumps?
When I hit a creative wall, it’s really just a matter of stepping away and maybe going for a run or shooting some hoops at a nearby park. Forcing matters seem to make it worse. Oftentimes, just as I always did as a kid, I end up sketching hobby art that I enjoy. It relaxes me, but it’s still art related and gets the juices flowing, which leads to new ideas on how to work around the slump.
8. What is your all-time favorite children’s book that you didn’t illustrate?
Tough question. Lots of books come to mind. LOTS. And my answer may differ form day to day. I must admit, a few of my illustrations have been inspired by Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I’m drawn to the idea of an independent child who immerses him or herself in an imaginary world.
Halloween (illustrated by James Bennett) and The Remarkable Farkle McBride (illustrated by C. F. Payne) are two books that showed me possibilities in children’s books illustrations that I can strive for. They are the artists that I looked up to when I decided to be an illustrator, and I would (and still) study their books to learn as much as I can.
OK, I gave three answers, but it was a really tough question.
9. Is there any type of project you haven’t done, but dream of doing someday?
Quite a few. Obviously, I very much enjoy doing what I do, but I would like to try out middle grade book covers. The fantasy and mystery element that some covers have appeal to me. The comic book fan in me would have a blast figuring out dynamic poses, fantastical themes, and drama in that genre. Doing editorial art of prominent people and musicians would be something that would appeal to me, too. It would probably scratch my character design and caricature itch that I normally do in my free time. Finally, I also have a few stories in mind that I would like to write and illustrate someday.
10. Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?
Don’t just illustrate what you see, that’s what cameras are for. Show us what you can do with it with your imagination, and then go even further. Surprise us.
We already know that this is what you love to do, but challenge yourself. Be competitive and yet still be open to criticism. I personally prefer hearing [critiques]. Compliments will only get you so far.
Lastly, take good care of your back, and be nice to people.
Written by Livingstone Crouse
Illustrated by Macky Pamintuan
School is about to begin, and Stella Isabella Harden decides that kindergarten just isn’t for her. Instead, she decides to spend the day learning from her puppy named Buster. Together these two adventurers plan a day full of playtime, teatime, nap time, and story time. After every “lesson,” Stella gets the best reward: a kiss from her best friend and favorite puppy. But will she change her mind about kindergarten before the first day of school?