We had the opportunity to interview María Elena Valdez, a very talented illustrator and graphic creator. Valdez studied art at the Cristobal Rojas School of Visual Arts in Caracas. In 2006 she opened her graphic studio, Guanabana Mecánica, which specializes in illustration and digital retouching. She has worked with various Latin American publishers, illustrating various books all over Latin America. She has also collaborated with World Vision Costa Rica and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2016 her work Post Meridiem was selected for the VII Ibero-American Illustration Catalog, and in 2020 her illustration work on Niños was selected for the Nami Concours 2021 and was exhibited on Nami Island.
EBYR: What made you decide to become an illustrator?
MEV: What made me decide to become an illustrator was taking a fresh look at my own work and seeing its meaning and purpose in a different way.
Knowing the work of Brad Holland contributed to this new perspective on my work, due to its use of visual metaphor, its concepts, and the expressiveness of the pen and brush. Also, I saw in the picture book a new dimension for my work.
EBYR: What are you most passionate about in your work?
MEV: What I am most passionate about in my work is communication with images. Through the plastic language of shapes, colors and textures I turn my ideas and experiences into images to be shared. Each creative work session, each book or personal work has our messages printed on them.
EBYR: Where do the ideas for your books come from?
MEV: The ideas in my books come from what resonates with me, because I recognize myself in one way or another in it. I may be in awe of the Mars Perseverance exploration on Mars or David Bowie’s song “Life on Mars?,” which I like for its rarity. It can be a text of scientific knowledge that I try to understand, or it can be about the adventure of a child that captivates me.
Ideas can also arise from my curiosity about an object that I find in the antiques market or the helplessness I feel when I watch a documentary about endangered species. Or to raise awareness about how vulnerable we all are or the need to treat postal workers with kindnesss.
To stay in relationship with the world around us, we must constantly be communicating with it, and I think that my ideas arise from the questions I ask myself and the answers I give myself, which I approach from a creative perspective. It is a deliberate activity. Ideas come from what I need to understand, recognize, go through and communicate.
EBYR: How much research do you do before starting a book?
MEV: It really encourages me to investigate when I know that the end goal is an illustration. It facilitates a very organic research process. No subject is less interesting than another, but it is true that there are more demanding projects due to the complexity and scope of their subjects. For example, my recent projection on genomics required lots of research. The idea of this informative book is to introduce young people to the world of genomics with ingenious written and visual language. Starting from this premise, its pages contain very literal illustrations, such as that of Darwin’s tree, the recreation of photo 51 of DNA, the double helix of the DNA chain; and also conceptual illustrations, such as Mona and Lisa, The Twins, which were only possible to create after understanding the subject.
Visual documentation and anecdotes intertwined with scientific articles were essential to achieve the illustrations of the scientists. In his portraits I added details that were chosen with great care. Details that are associated with your specific universe. Charles Darwin, Mendel, Rosalind Franklin, Watson, and Crick are just a few of the geniuses represented.
EBYR: Where do you find your inspiration for new stories and characters?
MEV: Inspiration can come from my own resources, such as my sketchbooks, live drawings, and my photographs. Also, a technique can inspire me because it is very expressive, as in the book “Water”.
Another source of inspiration is the support for the possibilities it can offer to history.
I find inspiration in the people I know and love. Django is my inspiration for all my animal characters. He was a beautiful and intelligent German Shepherd. Memories of my grandmother’s house have inspired some illustrations.
Nature and its seasonal changes was a very important source of inspiration for the book Niños.
Notes from other trades such as a bird watching field notebook inspired me to create three bird watching characters for a story. An example is the illustration that occupies the front and back covers of Niños. I wanted to take advantage of this space in the book to portray the individuality of children. These small illustrations, mostly faces of my invention, are inspired by school ID photos. The different values in the lines, the textures with different intensities, the color details, enhance the particularity of each child. And also, they serve as an introduction to the poems where each one is the protagonist of their little adventure.
The composition that brings them together is inspired by the large mural found in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile, dedicated to commemorating the victims. Inspiration can be in the very beauty of a text that I am going to illustrate and in its content and in my own imagination.
EBYR: What is the process of illustrating a book: how does it go from an idea to a finished work on sale in bookstores?
MEV: The first thing is the idea, the concept becoming clear to me, knowing what I want to communicate.
Then the relationship that I can establish between the image and the text.
There are parts of the process that are the same for all books and others vary depending on whether it is an informative book, such as Same or different? Genomics; or if it is a narrative book, such as Water; or if it is an book of successive images, as is the case with Niños.
Sometimes the idea is made concrete in the first sketches, and they also reveal how to communicate it.
Generally, I work simultaneously on the story board, the study of the compositions and the creation of the concept of the images. From this large inventory I start with the full-scale sketches, the development of the characters and the environments. For this book, it didn’t take long for me to incorporate the technique and the color palette, which I choose for its visual expressiveness according to the idea.
My illustrations are analog. The passage from the sketch to the original allows me to improve details and others. I strive to recover an expressiveness that has been registered in the sketch. There are sketches that are wonderful.
Once the sketch is digitized, I check all the details and the cutting and folding guides. I deliver all the illustrations in digital format to the editor, who will continue with the design, final art, and printing.
During the conception of the book, the editor and I share ideas, review the progress and decisions made. I think that for the challenge of illustrating a book, time is one of the important factors, because it partly determines many of the decisions that are made.
EBYR: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
MEV: A highlight for my career comes from working on the book Niños. Much of this work consisted of describing complex phenomena. And the drawings served in a fundamental way, to make the reader understand and feel.
The book has been published in several countries and its reception means a lot to me. María José Ferrada, its author, has always been concerned with issues related to childhood, and with Niños she has exposed a very sad and sensitive story. To illustrate this book, I had to consider more carefully the proper use of my tools as an artist, not only to communicate in a captivating way, but also to be respectful and gentle. In such books, illustration can become very serious.
EBYR: What do you wish you’d have known starting out as an illustrator?
MEV: I would have liked to know more about picture books and the different ways they can create meaning. As I got more involved with the world of illustration, I came across books whose proposals were so diverse, so creative, so original and so efficient in communication that they became—and continue to be—very inspiring.
EBYR: What advice would you give to your younger self?
MEV: If your language is images, express yourself with images.
EBYR: What do you hope kids learn from Niños?
MEV: I hope that through Alicia, Samuel, Luz, Magla, Paola, Hugo and all the children who play and laugh in this book, our readers (young and old) learn that it is essential to live in a world of peace, freedom, respect, dignity, dreams and the future, a kind and loving world, a world that guarantees life.
Also, the literary beauty and aesthetics of these illustrations will invite children to develop sensitivity and imagination.