Mar 13, 2012

Interview with Isabelle Arsenault, illustrator of Virginia Wolf

One of Canada's most loved book illustrators is Isabelle Arsenault, who won the prestigious Governor General's Literary Award in 2005 for children's illustration due to her work on Le coeur de monsieur Gaugin. She is also the illustrator of the wonderful Virginia Wolf. I had the pleasure of asking her a few questions, and I loved reading the answers. Hope you do too!

Perogies & Gyoza: Did you do any research for Virginia Wolf since it is loosely based on real characters?

Isabelle Arsenault: I did visual research focusing on pictures of Virginia Woolf and around her house in order to have references that would help me visualize her life and include elements about it in my images.
As the story had so little to do with the real Virginia Woolf, I didn't feel like I had to read biographies to make the work accurate.  Also, Kyo gave me lots of hints about Virginia's life, that she suggested could be integrated into my images.

Image from Virginia Wolf - copyright Isabelle Arsenault
PG: Could you elaborate on the colours/style you chose to show the different moods of Virginia Wolf?

IA: The story begins while Virginia is not feeling so good... to describe her state of mind, I chose to work with muted tones, mainly grayscale with one or two colors, while the rendering was sketchy.  

When the whole house sank, the colors and style shift to different ones where the shapes look like shadows or silhouettes.  It's a world where everything is dark and negative.  

When Vanessa starts to use her imagination and creativity to enlighten this darkness, she uses color crayons and paint that contrast to the previous atmosphere.  Colors/creativity bring some joy and fun to what seemed boring and faded.  

But this world is in their imagination.  When they woke up the day after, reality is not as perfect as they thought it would be.  This is described as a  mixed of the sketchiness from the beginning and the colors from the end.  It's not as perfect as in Bloomsberry, but it's much better than before.
So basically, colors represent Arts and creativity and what we can do with them.  With just a few colors and a big imagination, we can go a long way.

House sinking from Virginia Wolf - copyright Isabelle Arsenault
PG: Is Bloomsberry based on anything, or your own secret world?
IA: I just tried to picture it as I figured the author would see it herself.  In the text, she mentions that Vanessa painted Bloomsberry "to make it look just the way it sounded".  So that's what I tried to do.  I also took inspiration from a picture I saw on Kyo's blog which showed some blue flowers from her garden.  

PG: You seem to have a very distinct style (rosy cheeks, muted colour palette, judicious use of white space). Did this come about organically or was it a specific choice?

IA: It's a bit of both.  As I said, the styles were distinct from one part to another in order to define the different states of mind Virginia was going through.  So I had to think about the impact of every style before going with it or not.  But on the other hand, it all came naturally.  I like to experiment with techniques and explore the possible visuals for every specific book I'm working on.  I also have a tendency to play with colors and oppose them to grayscale tones in my everyday work.  It's my way of using colors - I'm a bit selective and picky about it I guess.

Image from Virginia Wolf - copyright Isabelle Arsenault

PG: Do you produce art other than that for children's books?  If so, is there a way for people to buy it?

IA: I produce illustrations for children's books and do some other illustration assignments for magazines and newspapers.  In my  free time, I work on a sketchbook where I develop ideas and new projects.  Sometime, these can develop into a creative project of its own, like a silk-screen print series, or a promotional object.  But I don't have right now what I could call a production that people could buy, out of the original artwork pieces from my books.

PG: What books did you love as a kid, and are there any kids books you love as an adult?

IA: I loved books with striking images, either because of their beauty or of their darkness, their scariness.  In either ways, I remember liking the feeling of being impressed by the illustrations of my favorite books.
Colour test for Virginia Wolf - copyright Isabelle Arsenault

PG: Are you multilingual? If so, do you have any tips for parents like me raising multilingual kids on how not to stuff it up?

IA:I have two sons, and they only speak French right now... but sometimes, I read to them books in English.  I think children's book are great for learning a new language.  The illustrations help understanding a story and guessing the meaning of new words.  You can go at your own pace, and repeat parts if needed.  My kids and I especially like books by Mo Willems like Piggie and Elephant, which are simple, repetitive, and fun.

PG: What's next? 

IA: I'm working right now on a children's book that looks a lot like a graphic novel and I'm having lots of fun doing it!  It's for kids aged between 8 and 12 years old and will be published in French at La Pasteque.  I have other great book projects coming up in the next year and hopefully, I'll have another collaboration with inspiring author Kyo Maclear in a near future.
Thanks so much Isabelle for letting me interview you! Can't wait for your next book!



  1. I can't believe I'm the first to comment. Lovely interview. These illustrations are TO DIE FOR!! So gorgeous and I love how the gray plays off of the colours. Gorgeous! Thank you for the insight.

  2. These illustrations are really something aren't they? Why is it so many illustrators are such amazingly nice people?

  3. I am very impressed with what I have seen of Isabel Arsenault's work so far. I pour over the book she speaks of as her current project in this interview, and had a really hard time returning Migrant to the library recently. So that wil be my next purchase. Stunning! Thanks for this interview.


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