On November 13th, 2021, SCBWI Japan members as well as members from invited SCBWI Asia regions joined through Zoom to get insight into the creative process of illustrators Kana Urbanowicz and Mateusz Urbanowicz.
The event was in two parts with Kana and Mateusz each giving presentations of their respective illustration processes, followed by time for questions by SCBWI members.
Designing Characters with Kana Urbanowicz
We previously learned about Kana’s illustration process in March when she joined with author Andrea Wang to talk about their award-winning nonfiction picture book Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando. In the Q&A session of that inspiring event, I asked whether Kana creates character sheets for reference, because it seems like a good practice for longer picture books and stories, so I was surprised to find out she was willing to specifically focus on this in a presentation about her character designing process.
A character sheet is a compilation of pictures from different angles of a character, to be used as reference in order to be able to draw them with a consistent look throughout the story. Kana doesn’t recommend the popular but dry and unexpressive anime character sheets that pop up when one searches for character sheets through Google. Her reason is that those do not give enough information about a character’s personality, their emotions, and the way they behave and look in different situations. What she really likes is a sheet that focuses not only on the details of design but instead on the essence of the character—even if in the form of rough sketches like those of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki (closer to the imageboards in this NY Times article).
Since her work on Magic Ramen she has been doing two monthly serialized comics (manga). One is about the everyday lives of people living in a shared long-house in Edo (old Tokyo); the other is about a tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) who learns about small everyday life mysteries. Kana employs a relatively simple drawing style and makes a note of giving each of her main characters distinct visual features that are prominent even if they are drawn only as a silhouette—that way the reader will readily recognize them even if they’re just drawn as a shadow seen from the back! For this purpose she likes to have a roster sheet—not only to establish those characters’ features, but to easily be able to recognize how they relate to each other size wise. Handy when one of them is a raccoon, and also a smart tip for any illustrator. But she also emphasizes giving clues that represent a character’s personality traits or habits as well. For example, a granny always wears warm clothes because older people are colder, or a technician who always goes barefoot gives a hint that he does not work with heavy objects that can fall on his feet. She actively tries to omit stereotypes and represent real people.
Painting Tangible Backgrounds with Mateusz Urbanowicz
Mateusz’s specialty is background painting, and he began by telling us a bit about his art journey—he went from watching anime in Poland and feeling nostalgic about places in Japan that he had never been to, to actually living there and painting backgrounds for anime movies, including one of the most famous in the world—Makoto Shinkai’s Kimi no na wa (Your Name). I can attest to them being stunningly beautiful, but in the end Mateusz felt like they lack life and do not have a feeling of realness to them. Even though he was making beautiful pieces, he felt they weren’t much more than copying from photos. So
when he started his freelance journey, he set out to give more life to his backgrounds, in the way that backgrounds of Studio Ghibli’s animated movies feel alive, even though they depict not entirely real places.
The gist of his process is to reference real places and combine with his imagination into new imagined places that incorporate elements of real places. He gave us examples of how he achieves this in different illustrations. Someone might say, “Oh, he just took a photo and painted it,” or “He’s just collaging photos,” but such thoughtless statements would be far from the truth. The way Mateusz paints and combines references is only a product of long and rich experience of drawing and painting, in which after much research and drawing he creates a library in his mind, which contains an understanding of how all kinds of human-made and natural elements work and connect—not only with each other, but with colors, light and shadow. So when he creates a new illustration, he is extremely thoughtful of all the elements that he puts in it, and I dare say that in result he is also a wonderful designer, which was made clear when he described his process in making some of the imaginary Japanese storefronts he showed us.
I’ve been admiring Mateusz’s work for a while now; he’s a great environment painter and it was a treat to learn about his thinking process. The way he described his process is both funny and insightful—painting tangible backgrounds depends on what you put in your “artistic cold storage” (that artistic library in your mind)—and when you need to paint, you just pull what you need from that fridge!
After the presentations Kana and Mateusz graciously remained half an hour longer for an extended Q&A session where they answered various questions like going into deeper details about parts of their talks, explaining what tools, devices and software they use and how they organize reference material, and even giving us a tour of their studio setup!
One of the questions asked was about their use of the ubiquitous nowadays social media platforms for showcasing and advertising their work. They agree that a successful artist is quite a different thing from someone who is successful in social media. Kana uses her social media as a portfolio, so that whenever someone opens her page, they will instantly see her best work, which would work in her favor if viewed by a potential art director or publisher. Mateusz, on the other hand, uploads more work in progress and sketches to his social media. He has a substantial following and that way he creates a more human connection with his followers.
They use social media differently, but both agree that the algorithmic propagation of instantly but only momentarily likable content is a viscious cycle. Perfect but unreal images of characters only serve to make people feel bad about themselves, so Kana is especially thoughtful about how her illustrations will make the person who sees it feel, and also hopefully make their life feel better somehow. For example, if she draws a schoolgirl, she will deliberately reference real and imperfect people, contrary to the pretty and polished anime or manga versions of schoolgirls that most real schoolgirls cannot ever relate to, even though such depictions sell better.
I believe anyone can appreciate this sentiment, and I found Kana and Mateusz’s answers and perspectives thoroughly wholesome and thoughtful. I was delighted to get a peek into their creative thoughts and appreciated the extra time they gave us. It was thought-provoking and inspiring for any illustrator.
Kana’s cute Edo and Tanuki manga can be accessed to read online (in Japanese) from her website, and you can also learn about the award-winning Magic Ramen book, as well as see the animations she made that resulted in her becoming the illustrator for that book.
Mateusz uploads not only beautiful backgrounds on his website, but he has also published books of them, as well as videos of how he made them on his YouTube channel. In his latest one he demonstrates how he made a DIY portable sketching table-box, which is sure to stir some creativity in the so inclined.
Petar Tasev is an illustrator, animator, toddler educator, Bulgarian folk-dancer and aspiring voice actor. Visit his website: petartasev.net