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Jocey Asnong lives in Canmore and is the author and illustrator behind the Nuptse and Lhotse picture book series about two curious cats exploring landscapes both in Canada and across the world; and a board book series that takes the littlest readers on a journey across Canada (including the locally beloved Rocky Mountain ABCs). Both series are published by Rocky Mountain Books.
Her newest book, Prairie ABCs, showcases the diversity, habitats, native animals, and outdoor activities enjoyed across the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
We got a special sneak peek inside Jocey’s studio to see just where and how she makes her bright, whimsical illustrations.
Where do you create your artwork? Is there anything unique about your studio space that makes it work for you in particular?
I work in a loft space in our condo that I affectionately call ‘The Art Cave,’ which is a little misleading as there are no full height walls in it! Almost every square inch of the cave is covered in visual inspiration, toys, or art materials, including the floor if I am in the middle of a book project. I pack a lot into a pretty small space! The open concept space works really well for my creative brain, and I have an incredible view of the mountains from The Art Cave.
What types of books do you prefer to work on, and why?
I do both a board book series and a picture book series, and they are both uniquely challenging and also enjoyable to work on for different reasons. I think my sweet spot though is creating picture books for children ages four to nine. These take a much longer time to research, write, and create. I love adding layers of hidden details in the backgrounds and textures of my illustrations that relate to the story. It’s a fun treasure hunt for kids (or adults) to discover, or grow into and understand a whole new layer of the story. All of my books have one thing in common: exploring amazing places!
What materials did you use for Prairie ABCs? Why did you choose to work with them?
I do all my illustrations in chalk pastel with mixed media collage elements. Most of my illustrations have several layers, manipulated photographs, fabrics, textured handmade papers, paint, and I have even used sticks, string, leaves, wheat, tinfoil, and cat hair in my illustrations! For Prairie ABCs and all my other board books, I try to rein myself in a little, using primarily chalk pastel and a few patterned papers for some details. This medium really resonated with me during my art training as an illustrator and I have continued to play with it over the years. It’s highly forgivable and I love the effect of chalks and the colour blending I can get working with them.
Do you use computers and digital tools in your art process? Why, or why not?
I rarely use computers or any digital programs in creating my artwork. Occasionally there might be a small detail that I create digitally. I do tons of research online for my stories, and I actually love using Instagram for my photo reference library. My phone is always near me when I am creating, so that if I suddenly need to check what a prairie dog looks like, I have immediate references to work from. I am also obsessed with regional accuracy, so even though my stories are imaginary and playfully illustrated, I want to make sure I am not placing a species of animal or plant in a place where they are never found.
Can you take us through your process for creating one page or spread for Prairie ABCs, step by step?
My process for creating an illustration for Prairie ABCs was very similar to how I do all my illustrations. The first steps happen way before I start drawing. I am very sensory inspired, so seeing the places I will be representing in my books is essential…road trip time! I do lots of side trips, detours, and stops to explore, walk, and gather as much as I can about how a place feels, as well as how a place looks.
Then I read oh so many books, researching the animals, the history, and the geography of the region. With the ABC books, I start to make lists of everything I can think of for each letter of the alphabet while I am researching. Then it’s doodle time!
When I am happy with the line of text and my conceptual illustration idea, I do a pen line drawing rough. Once the text and roughs are approved by my publisher I start the final illustrations, playtime!
After a quick sketch in white pencil, I block in large areas of colour with chalk, then I add and blend in shadows and highlights. I do all of this with the side of my tiny pinky knuckle. Then I start adding in all the details with small chalk pencils, markers, and paint markers and pencil crayons. The last details are usually the collaged elements which I glue on last.
Once all the illustrations are done, I scan them, and email them to my publisher. I don’t actually work this linearly ever though! I am often working on multiple illustrations at once. I like letting them rest, and I have a clothesline in my cave that they hang from at various points of completion. If I am unsure how to resolve an effect I want to achieve, it might hang up on the assembly line for a while. I do lots of problem solving by just having them around looking at me.
Which part of your art process is your favourite to do? Is there a part that you dread?
One of my favourite parts of the process is looking for and adding all the layers of collage details that will tell more of the story. I hunt for maps, charts, old books and diagrams in antique stores, second hand book stores, thrift shops, etc. In one illustration for one of my West Coast books, I had found this fabulous old yellowed sea chart which inspired the concept for an illustration and I also used it as a background. I nerd out and get really excited when I find these visual treasures and I am able to add them into my illustration as I had envisioned.
I dread the inevitable one illustration in every book that just does not work, and after spending days on it, that I know I have to start over. There is always one! I keep them, as they are part of that book’s history for me, but no one gets to see them!
What is the first thing you do when you receive the final, printed book from the publisher? Does it usually turn out the way you expect it?
The first thing I do is roar through it looking at the illustrations, to see how my artwork reproduced for print. I usually receive the book about a year after it was submitted, and about eighteen to twenty-four months from when I first started working on it, and I almost always have the same emotional reaction… I have to pinch myself that I created these illustrations!
My illustrations often feel like they have come through me from some bigger creative source, I just happen to catch the idea and get it onto paper as it goes flying by. Plus I am always working on the next book project when I receive the finished book, so flipping through it feels like this intensely personal time capsule. I can even remember the music I was into when I was creating them.
The books always turn out better than I expect, which I have the team at Rocky Mountain Books to thank for!
Studio Secrets is a column that gives art-enthusiastic readers a sneak peek into the studio spaces and processes of Alberta’s phenomenal book illustrators, artists, and photographers.
The images in this post were provided courtesy of Jocey Asnong, unless otherwise captioned.