Cover image courtesy of © Hervé Debaene
ver since she was a little girl, Sassafras De Bruyn knew she wanted to spend her life illustrating. After secondary studies in Greek and Latin, she joined St. Lucas School of Arts in Antwerp, where she did creative research, guided by inspiring illustrators and designers that she admires. After she graduated as an illustrative designer in 2013, her first picture book Cleo was published by Clavis Publishing in 2015. Today she works as an illustrator and graphic designer at the youth theater KOPERGIETERY in Ghent. She also provides illustrations for a range of other projects and does her own work.
What made you decide to become an author?
Long before I wanted to write stories, I dreamed of becoming an illustrator. There was nothing I would have rather filled my days with as a child (basically from the moment I could hold a pencil) than drawing. I would make up elaborate stories with lots of characters and details that were full of life. From the early age of four or five I dreamed of making books when I grew up.
Aside from having an extensive imagination, the many beautiful books my parents brought into my young world were a powerful stimulus for that dream.
What’s a typical workday like?
I get up between seven and eight in the morning and decide what projects I have to/want to work on that day. I often go for a walk after lunch—the isolation of working on my own sometimes gives me a weird feeling. There are days when I feel like I’ve been living in my head and missing the outside world. That’s why I incorporate walks and yoga in my workdays. An occasional meeting in the city, a workshop, lecture, or live drawing session has the same result: dragging me out of my head into the real world. On the other hand, there is nothing more worthwhile and ravishing than spending a whole day inside my imagination, feeling it extend and creating a whole world that I can share with others. Usually my workday ends at five or six in the afternoon.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
Sometimes they come from the publisher, sometimes from the author I work with. Sometimes they have been growing inside my head for a very long time, waiting to take form. Or sometimes they come all of a sudden, while staring at a tree, an old lady in the grocery store, or when I tie my shoelaces. That’s the beautiful thing about inspiration. A simple word, a color in the bus, or a squirrel crossing the road can lead to a story or an illustration. Some days it’s harder for inspiration to come to me. Then I have to “force” ideas. I do that by browsing books, looking at old photos, listening to classical music…
Do you have any advice for would-be authors and illustrators?
When it’s hard to get your work published in the beginning (and oh yes, it can be really frustrating and demotivating!), don’t always try to start at the bottom of the stairs and climb up. Don’t just send your illustrations to a publisher, waiting for them to offer you a good story, but dare to jump high. Jump to the upper edge of the stairs. Ty to show more than loose illustrations, make up a story, draw sketches for a whole book, take action. That’s what worked for me. Once I was bold enough to come up with the idea of a book, everything just sort of worked out fine. More than fine—before I knew it, I got one book after the other published and was doing my dream job!
What characteristics do illustrators need most?
A wide imagination, for sure. A lot of patience, to let you lose yourself in one drawing for a whole day—also to cope with the frustrations of failure. How many days have I had when I truly believed “I had lost it”! When I believed the ability to draw was somehow gone forever.
Aside from patience: trust that it will come back. That the process of going wrong is a much-needed process; it’s sometimes a way you have to take before you arrive at a good illustration. For me it’s also important that I don’t just start over with a blank sheet of paper when a drawing goes wrong. It’s by persisting, adding layer after layer, cutting out pieces or painting over them with thick white paint that a good image comes into the world. The biggest failures and accidental outcomes lead to new discoveries and bring you further.
Also, being a perfectionist and not settling on things you already know bring you further (although that can make your life really frustrating too).
Lastly, in my experience most illustrators are quite sensitive—I’m definitely no exception (in fact, I often wish I was less sensitive)—which makes them able to really crawl into people’s stories and experiences and capture things in a strong, clever, and poetic way.
Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
Four years ago, I stopped buying fast fashion. I only buy ecological, fair, and/or secondhand clothing. I have the same tendency when it comes to paper: reduce new paper to a minimum. I use the backs of failed drawings, old prints and basically every empty spot of paper lingering in my workplace. There’s a big pile of scraps and cut up paper on my drawing desk. Apart from being ecological, it also provides a story to begin with. Every piece of paper has a history and is therefore an inspiration for a new image.
What is your favorite thing about being an illustrator?
Diving into imaginative worlds. Swimming through stories, flying above illusive landscapes and bringing characters to life just the way I want it. Being allowed to read, write, and draw all day long. Feeling my world expand through all the stories and realizing the stories will never end. It’s the best feeling there is.
What do you do to shake the rust off or get new ideas?
Like I said earlier: welcoming failures and unexpected results. Allowing them to take me to another place I hadn’t visited before. Also, being stern with myself. When there’s a tight deadline it’s sometimes appealing to use a technique or a visual motive that most definitely will succeed—because I have done or used it before. It’s important to keep challenging myself. By using a new material for example, or by combining two colors that don’t go together. Or, when I’m really stuck, I often go for a walk. Taking some distance is the best remedy for being stuck. Suddenly the pieces come together in a brilliant new way, just by pushing everything aside and taking some fresh air.
What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
The day I heard I could make my first book. The happiness I felt back then was something out of this world. The feeling still overwhelms me every time a new book arrives, when I get to turn over the pages for the first time and smell that fresh book air.
The last months were also very exciting: I got permission to write a book. A real, 200+ pages book, a compilation of more than thirty stories. This feels like another highlight for me. The start of something new. And of course I’m also going to illustrate it!
What is something you wish someone had told you when you first started illustrating?
I wish someone had told me about the complex practical regulations when being an author or illustrator. I spend a few years finding out and piecing together the best system for doing this job, for combining different incomes and getting by at the end of the month. It’s not that easy for us illustrators. I guess it’s the same thing for all artistic jobs. It’s quite unstable, and there are no big budgets. But if I had had some more information when I started, it could have saved me a lot of stress and sleepless nights.
Tell us about The Hunter and His Dog? What inspired you to write this book?
2019 was a special year: “Bruegel Year.” It was the 450th anniversary of his death, so Lannoo Publishing asked me to make a book about him. I have always been a big fan of Bruegel’s magnificent paintings. His playful and bizarre imagination, with rich colors and never-ending details, the expressions on the faces, the monsters and humorous creatures, the many layers of meaning… You’re just never finished with his world.
I did a lot of research for this picture book and ended up making up a story about two characters in the painting “Hunters in the Snow.” I’ve always liked the idea of characters leaving their story, painting, world, and getting lost. So that’s what I did with the poor hunter and his dog. They are lost, standing in an empty page/painting, trying to get back to their familiar place. And so their adventurous search for their own painting begins, traveling through well-known scenes from Bruegel’s paintings.
I also always liked books and things where something “meta” is done—something with the medium itself: that’s why sometimes in this book there are rips in the paper, or the paper is folded in the bottom, as if the hunter is holding up the page to escape to the next one. It makes you think about the “book” as a medium.
What’s up next for you?
Books, books, books! I’m busy with a huge project (hopefully it will be translated into English) about metamorphosis in myths and folk tales around the world. But that’s not the only book I’m working on. I’m working on three books this year, and that’s enough for now. It’s the best job in the world!
I hope to work on writing more books (until now it was mostly illustrations) and of course, illustrating them as well.
Anything else you’d like to share with aspiring authors?
Never be afraid to share your ideas with the world. Although that’s easier said than done. These things can feel so personal. Also, don’t compare yourself too much with others, but be true to your own unique style.
Keep up the good work, colleagues! And remember you still got it, even though some days you won’t believe it.
The Hunter and His Dog by Sassafras De Bruyn
This wordless book introduces young readers to the Flemish Renaissance artist and his most beloved works, including The Hunters in the Snow and Children’s Games. Includes informational endnote on Bruegel and an index of the paintings that inspired each illustration.