Yasmeen Ismail is an exciting rising talent in the world of picture books. Her artwork and characters are both charming and unique. She studied at art school in Dublin and has worked on a wide range of illustration and animation projects. Yasmeen has a great eye for colour, detail and composition. Yasmeen is Irish. She now lives in London. In this interview she talks to Madelyn Travis.
You did an animation course at university. What did that involve? I had a wonderful teacher called Tony Donoghue who won a Sundance Festival Award. He taught us about filmmaking. There were two animation schools, but the one I went to in Dun Laoghaire was more creative and experimental. There was a lot of freedom and an emphasis on creativity.We were told to try new things like animating on glass with oil paints. We learned about storytelling, story boarding and planning. We also learned that it’s not good enough to just jump straight in – you have to do your pre-production and you have to nail the story down. That’s fed into everything I do now.
I was animating for 10 years and when you animate, you draw and you draw and you draw and you draw. Then you film it, and if it’s not right you go back and you draw again. You have to learn how to imitate other people’s drawings and you have to work really hard and log a lot of hours just sitting drawing. That has helped me in my illustration because now I have muscle memory. Some people find it difficult to know where to put the pen, and I did too. Prior to that I did not have a confident line and now I do, so when I paint I’m very deliberate. I know what’s going to happen, or even if sometimes I don’t know what’s going to happen, it turns out all right.
Ten years in animation is quite a long time. What made you change your mind and move into picture books? Presumably animation is more lucrative as a career choice! I always felt that I could animate very well. I came to London and became friends with a woman called Sandra who suggested we start a company. We made adverts, did films for Channel 4 and worked on a TV series, but it was a real struggle because of the overheads: we had employees and space and had to pay rent, and we were competing against companies that started in the mid-80s and 90s, when money was thrown at these things. It was hard to compete and we were so small. We did quite well but we decided to call it a day.
So then I had hours of time on my hands and I started thinking about what I was going to do with my life. Then I met an illustrator called Adam Larkum. That's when I realised that illustration was something you could do for a job. It took a while to make the transition because I still had animation jobs. But I made the decision then that it was time to change. I was 30 and it felt like the right thing to do.
I took an illustration course in the City Lit, which was brilliant. They set homework and I built up my portfolio. Then I got an internship and had to go in and illustrate all day, every day from 9 to 6. I don’t even do that now. It was exhausting.
I had an interview with an agent back in 2008 and he said, 'all your stuff is black and white and it’s children’s stuff,' I said, 'Okay, I’ll do children’s books,' and he said, 'No, no, if you’re doing to do that you need to use colour'. I kept that with me until 2010 when I picked up illustration again. I was terrified of using colour. I only wore monochrome things. I was feeling down after breaking up the company. It’s such an obvious weird metaphor, but I started dressing more colourfully, I started going for my dreams, I started using paint, I started adding colour into my life. It’s actually a good metaphor, but I overuse it!
At first I thought there was a right and wrong way to do illustration and I slowly realised there’s no right or wrong way to create art. My theory is to just do what you like. If you enjoy it, and if you look at it and think, that’s yummy, you just go with it.
Were you always a writer too?
I could write a script and I could pitch myself. Having the company was good for that because I was thrown into situations with people who were high up in advertising or filmmaking. So when I had meeting with publishers I said, 'This is what I want and this is what I want to do'. They were calling it fresh and new and trying to compare me to other artists. I had meetings with three publishers, big ones, and I thought this is great. I didn’t really think I could write and wondered if everyone was going to find out that I was a fraud and couldn’t write. But Bloomsbury took me on and said we want you so if you want to write, we will let you do that.
I’m a Girl, which is coming out in August, is very empowering. I read it and thought, thank goodness. Everything is so gendered today.
It is, isn’t it? There are whole sections of shops dedicated to princesses and pink. How is being a princess a viable option? You either marry into it or are born into it. If you want to say you’re special, say it in a different way. When I see kids going ‘I can’t do this because that’s for girls or that’s for boys’, I think why don’t you just do what you want? My niece wears pink day in and day out, pink hairbands, pink t-shirts, pink sparkles. I talk to my nephew and he says ‘I want to be an engineer, a physicist, an explorer’, and she says ‘I want to be a princess’. She’s almost 6. It’s not going to last forever. If it does it’s fine, as long as it’s her choice. But kids do make other choices and often it’s knocked out of them.
My and husband I were kids together. When we were four I remember he had these little shoes that had a buckle across them and a little pattern in dots across the top. I remember pointing at them and saying, ‘Those shoes are for girls,’ and he said, ‘No, they’re not’, and just challenged what I had said. It switched my brain a bit. I’ve held onto that story for 30 years. If we can change the perception in one kid and that one kid says, I want to wear this today then that's a job well done. I didn’t write this book to start a revolution but I want to be responsible about the messages that I put out.
Your first book, Time for Bed, Fred!, is coming out in a large format for schools and libraries. How did that book come about? Fred started in the City Lit class. I wrote a story and created a character for it. The story was originally about a dog who looked for things all the time and then witnessed a murder. It evolved from that. I had gone on a trip to Northern Ireland to stay with my friend’s mum and she has a dog called Rocky, and I painted her a little picture of Rocky. And that was the inspiration visually.
Specs for Rex and I’m a Girl are both are about someone who is a bit different but are ultimately happy with who they are. Is there anything autobiographical in there?
Because our school was so small there were four classes – there were ages 4 to 8 in one room with one teacher. When we walked into school for the first time, we were in a room and a girl came in with her glasses and everyone laughed. I knew I was getting specs and would have to go to school with them and I was worried. But when I did, nobody cared, the novelty was over. Kids are just fickle. That’s the message. No one cared.
Where I grew up in Ireland, my sister and I were the only Asians. She got bullied and I bit the kid that bullied her. They went to my mother, who was a doctor, to get stitches, and she said, 'people just can’t control their children’. And he said, ‘It was your daughter Yasmeen!’ He probably deserved it.
I very much identify with being Irish. Storytelling is such a big deal in Ireland; it’s culturally ingrained. If you go to the pub it’s filled with storytellers who can tell a big story over a drink. I think a lot of what I do now is influenced by that. But I wonder – if I had grown up anywhere else, would life have been different?
Are your characters based on real children? You seem to have an accurate feel for how young children behave. My sister has four children all under 7. She’s a brilliant mum and I hang out with these kids. It’s not that they give me stories, it’s just that I can see what they’re like and their logic. The way they approach things is different because everything is new tothem. They are learning about dealing with social situations. Rex is set in a nursery environment. I’d thought that of course the characters go to nursery. That’s where I set it because I can’t set it home.The characters have to get out into the world or it would be boring.
Do you see yourself ever doing a book with human characters? I’m doing one now. There’s a book coming out in America, written by Ji Averack called One Word from Sophia. It features a whole family of people. For my other books, I was asked specifically to do animals because that works worldwide. Although I’m encountering problems with a pig bus driver at the moment! There's a worry that it is going to offend some people. I’m think we should get on with it and see what the reaction is. Richard Scarry drew lots of pigs! It is important to be sensitive but there’s a line where it just becomes pandering toother people’s ideas. I will respect people’s boundaries, but they must do the same for me.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you think that the content in children’s books is somewhat limited or unadventurous.
I’m not saying we should write like Stephen King or go back to Struwwelpeter, but everyone is living in a cycle of fear until everything is too anodyne. Obviously there is a degree of protection and deciding what’s acceptable. You can’t control how people will perceive a book, but here has to be a point where we stop or there will come a point when we can only have children represented as a circle and then people will say that’s unfair to squares. You have to treat the subject with sensitivity, but there has to be a degree of realism as well.
Can you talk a bit about your artistic process and the materials you use The way I work is this: I’ll do a sketch and plan out stuff and scan it in and put it into Photoshop, tidy it up, make it into a pdf and send it to the publisher. Then I paint freehand. I paint pieces: a skirt, a head, an arm. When that’s done I scan the imges in, and all those pieces make up, in the case of this skirt, head and arm, the mother lion. I use the sketch as a guide and then put the pieces together to make my pictures.
I do the final artwork in watercolour, but when I sketch I use either pencil or a Pilot G-Tec C4. And I use a Moleskine copy book. The paper is very thin. It means I’m not precious about it and it doesn’t need to be the best drawing ever. Before, I was afraid I had to use all the paper the right way. That was a creativity killer for me. It’s more liberating not to be afraid to draw.
Who are your inspirations?
One of the biggest inspirations was a guy called Brecht Evens and his graphic novel, The Wrong Place. It’s incredible. I want to paint like that but he is painstaking and I’m not that patient. At the beginning I wanted to achieve a look of watercolours like Michael Foreman. There was a book by Michael Foreman and Terry Jones called Fairy Tales and Fantastic Stories. This was my sister’s book when we were little and there was a picture on the cover of a sea tiger. The pictures were amazing and that really influenced me because it was all rainbows and colours. I would just look at these pictures and read these stories over and over again and it was so magical.
There’s an illustrator called Jonny Hannah, and he did a film with Jonathan Hodgson called The Man with the Beautiful Eyes. You want to just drink it up. And another influence was a Matisse exhibition in the Tate Modern It was just wonderful colour. I was salivating, it was so beautiful. Basically I am influenced by anything that’s colourful and bolshie. The aesthetics that I have now haven’t changed since I was little. There is a core clear, confident part of me that says ‘I like this, I don’t like that. This needs to change, I’ll have to figure that out.’
There’s so much life in your pages. I love the movement – there’s so much fluidity. That is something I learned from animation. All the pictures always flow into each other and you have to work out a way for them to flow into each other correctly. My former business partner Sandra Ensby made a film – Wedding Espresso, which was nominated for a BAFTA. If you want to look at work that flows and is beautiful and colourful, that is a triumph.
When I started working on picture books, I realised it’s the same. You want to travel through the books. You learn about the reveal when you turn the page, what the punchline is. You can learn to animate someone moving if you do a lot of life drawing. There’s squash and stretch and dynamism. One key frame is going to have to give you that energy so that when you play it back it looks as if it’s moving. When people say Fred has so much energy, that’s why. I drew that one key frame where he’s at his most energetic because then I don’t have to draw the rest.
The art is joyful. When I think about drawing or painting something, I think about what I was like as a kid and what I liked to look at. I’m catering to her – to me and all the things that I enjoyed when I was little and that feeds into my work, I suppose. I love my job. I’m happy. Today I’m happy.