A Q&A with JooHee Yoon Upon the Release of Her New Book, Up Down Inside Out
For the first three books you published with Enchanted Lion Books, you adapted classic stories and poetry. What made you interested in focusing on aphorisms this time around?
I have a great interest in how people use words, and these sayings that have been passed down through the generations always made me curious to know more. They sound so mysterious, almost like a riddle. I like that the meaning behind the saying is sometimes hard to guess. And often there is an underlying humor as well. Every culture seems to have their own variations, and visually they are so full of possibilities.
This project is the closest I’ve gotten to merging my editorial brain with my picture books. For each saying I had to come up with a concept that conveys to the viewer an idea in a single image. So each illustration in the book functions as a stand alone image, but they also work together and a bigger narrative is created when they are seen together.
How did you decide which aphorisms to use?
I started this project doing a lot of research. Especially since the original idea was more of an encyclopedia, going into the history and the origins of the aphorisms. But after a year of working on the project I realized this was leading me down too many rabbit holes and I wasn’t capable of doing everything on my own. I also ran into the problem of some aphorisms having a lot of history while others were either extremely obscure, or too recent, which in both cases resulted in not much background.
The uneven amount of information for each saying led to a huge design challenge. I wanted to give equal weight to each aphorism, but this was proving impossible. At this point, I had to face the reality that the book as I had originally envisioned it was not going to materialize. I had a long discussion with my publisher Claudia and had to think hard about what the core of the book was all about. I came to the conclusion that the main point of this book is to present these timeless sayings to a new generation of readers in an approachable and interesting way. So I decided to put the focus on the visuals, and to include flaps and die-cuts since I really wanted to engage younger readers. Interacting with the book helps explain the meaning behind each saying, and some are purposefully left more open ended so the reader can use my images as a spring board for their own narratives. I hope this will be a book that ages well and one worthy of repeat readings.
Did any aphorisms not make it into the book, though you wanted them to?
One that I wanted to include but didn’t make the cut was: “Fish and visitors smell after three days.” I love the humor and the truth of this saying. But in the end there just wasn’t enough room.
You not only create the beautiful illustrations for your books, you design the book yourself. How does that process work?
The simple answer is that it’s a big headache! But one that I voluntarily take on since when I come up with a book idea I have a vision for it from cover to cover with every detail taken into consideration. I think this stems from my background in printmaking and being aware of the book as an object.
The way I create my images is a direct translation of what I used to do when I did screen printing during my college days and I would separate out the layers by hand drawing with India ink on transparent sheets of plastic. With my books, the machine now does the printing rather than my arm muscles, and being able to harness this is very exciting. It’s the traditional principals of printmaking in action on a massive scale. And the results with the off-set machine printing can be beautiful when the overlap is done right.
Your books are printed with only two or three Pantone colors, which are often overlaid to build darker hues. How do you decide which colors you’ll use?
This is informed by my experience doing traditional printmaking. There is a lot of trial and error with mixing inks and overlapping colors. You can only learn what works by making lots of mistakes. But I also think my brain is more comfort- able thinking about colors in layers. For me it’s like a puzzle, figuring out where to put each color so when the two overlap it makes a coherent image. I find this comes more naturally to me than mixing paint on a palette.
The artwork in your books is created via a mix of hand drawing and computer. Where does one end and the other begin?
When I work by hand it’s a time for experimentation. The computer is a way to organize the energy generated during these sessions. I mainly use the computer as a tool for editing and composing. I do draw directly into the computer as well, but I actually only have a very basic knowledge of Photoshop, so a lot of what I do is a combination of the solid round brush with the lasso tool.
How long does it take you to create each page?
It’s hard to say. With books I tend to look at the whole, rather than the individual spreads. Making a book is such a long process. My fear is that the first piece I finish will look nothing like the last one. To prevent this, I jump back and forth between different images. Also if I get stuck on one I can work on something else while I let my subconscious mind figure out the other visual problems.
I also revisit pieces after having some time away to refresh my eyes. Because I do the design for my books, putting every- thing into the layout gives me yet another chance to scrutinize the illustrations, which leads to another set of edits. There’s always a point in the process where there seems to be never ending passes of fine tuning. It ends when the book goes to print and it’s too late to fix anything further. Although there is always the next print run.
So, start to finish, how long does a book like this take?
A book where I generate the idea and pitch it to my publisher usually takes around three years to become a reality. If I am given a text to work with it’s usually much quicker. Probably one year or so. But I tend to be very picky with texts by other writers. I have yet to do a book with a living author, since my sensibilities seem to be more in tune with people from the past. But I am not opposed to working with someone contemporary. It all depends on the text and my connection to it.
There’s quite a bit of humor in your work — certainly in the way characters, creatures and even inanimate objects are drawn. Do you have comedic influences, illustrative or otherwise, that inform your sense of humor?
It’s true humor often seems to seep into my work. I loved to read from an early age and was fascinated by comics. Calvin & Hobbes was a big one, and I also read a lot of Archie and The Adventures of Tintin. Roald Dahl was a definite favorite when I was growing up, along with Louis Sachar and Ellen Raskin. Later on I got into the writing of Patrick Suskind, David Sedaris and Miranda July, who all have a wry sense of humor and a great grasp on the absurd.
I think there’s a huge satisfaction as a reader when you get a joke and understand what’s going on. I want to give my readers that sense of pay off when they look through my books. In Up Down Inside Out there is a lot of underlying humor, and also the sense of a bigger narrative that occurs within the pages, since some of the characters make repeat appearances. I like to think my characters have a life of their own and my job is to create the world they inhabit.
I’ve noticed some interesting people are following and interacting with you on Instagram. You clearly have a ton of fans in the illustration, art and editorial worlds, but then I’ll see someone like rapper/chef/ TV personality Action Bronson commenting on one of your posts. Have you had any interesting interactions as a result of your work?
That particular interaction came about through an editorial illustration I did for The New Yorker. I was commissioned to do a portrait of Action Bronson to accompany an article reviewing his TV show. When the piece went live there was a very positive response from Action Bronson and the people from the show got in touch wanting to use the portrait as part of the set decor. In the end this didn’t happen, but now whoever is in charge of his social media occasional likes my posts and writes nice comments.
The internet is such a strange place. I try to limit my intake of social media since my general feelings are of sensory over- load and bafflement. It’s crazy how much Instagram has changed our behavior and the way we interact. As a freelancer working in the visual field, I think it is a necessary tool to have, but I try to look/post as minimally as possible. I’ve found it’s better for my sanity and I want to live life outside of the digital realm as much as possible. Most of my inspiration comes from looking at things that aren’t illustration related — walking in the park, architecture, observing people on the street, going to museums, reading, traveling.
You’ve relocated to various points around the globe over the last few years. Does your location affect or influence the type of books you want to make?
My environment definitely has a direct influence on my art. Being somewhere new helps me gain perspective and generate ideas. I think of my books as a snap shot of who I am at that particular point in time. I have a tendency to get bored by doing the same thing, and since a book requires such a long time commitment, I try to find ways of working that are different and new for me. This keeps me on my toes, and the best is when I surprise even myself in the process.
What are your favorite kids books, both from your childhood and the present day?
I have too many to name! I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by books from an early age thanks to my mom who loves to read. It gave me a great appreciation for the power of words and pictures. My favorite books in general terms are ones that contain a dash of humor, surprise and a great story. Two books I loved as a child and still enjoy to this day are Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig and Miss Nelson is Missing, written by Harry Allard and illustrated by George Marshall.
Along with your mom nurturing your love of books, you received a lot of encouragement from your parents to pursue your interest in a career in art. Do you have advice for aspiring young artists?
Hold on to your curiosity. Don’t give up.
Up Down Inside Out is available now, just in time for the Brooklyn Book Festival.