Interview with Illustrator Laura Ljungkvist

Since Laura Ljungkvist was one of the 100 contributors to The Exquisite Book, I had the pleasure of getting to work with her this past year. Her gorgeous modern illustration style has graced everything from the pages of fashion magazines to adorable kids products. She is the genius behind the Follow the Line series of picture books which have quickly become a favorite among children and adults. Laura just published a new children’s book Pepi Sings a New Song and Laura has graciously answered some questions about this book, and the rest of her work in my interview below. She’s also given us a sneak peek into the new Follow the Line to School book and another very different project she’s been working on. So read on. Thanks so much Laura for sharing!

Can you tell me a little about your background. Where did you grow up? When you moved to America and how did your career start as an illustrator?

I was born and raised in Sweden. After graphic art school, I freelanced for 5 years as an illustrator and taught illustration in Stockholm.

In 1993 I came to NY for a month to take my portfolio around. The response for my work was fantastic, better then I ever could have hoped for or imagined. This was before everybody worked on computers and the perfect shapes of flat color that I painted in gouache was an instant hit. Clean, simple, graphic, scandinavian, people would say of my work.

New York loved me. I loved New York and in that month I felt like I had only scratched the surface of what I could do here. So decided to come back. What was supposed to be a year turned in to forever… And I am still in love with New York!

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Images from Follow the Line

Your Follow the Line series of books has had so much success. There’s even Japanese and Chinese versions. How did you get the idea for the the first Follow the Line book? And why do you think these books have become so popular?

I am very happy about the all foreign editions of my Line books. Now there are even Brazilian and French editions. But there isn’t a Swedish one, which makes me a little sad…. That would mean a lot to me.

Back in my “editorial days”, when ALL my work was in one line, I got the idea to do a children’s book. It was natural for me think of a concept based on that. I am not an author per se. I don’t write stories. I come up with an idea/concept that I build on. My very first Line dummy was an accordion fold with just a black line. No colored shapes at all. When I started working with the very talented editor, Joy Peskin at Viking, she suggested adding the shapes and the counting questions that are in the first book – Follow the Line. Joy is fantastic to work with and has elevated my ideas and added a lot to my books.

I think what people like about the Line books is that there is a lot there. Once you read a traditional picture/story book you know the story. And unless you absolutely love it there might not be a reason for many more reads.

However, there are many ways to go back and re-read the Line books. As a parent, on the nights you just want the day to be over, you simply read the simple text, kiss goodnight and turn out the light… Other times you may ask the questions, follow the line with your finger, think up new questions, talk, compare and discover.

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Images from Pepi Sings a New Song

Your new book Pepi Sings a New Song is about a bird who goes on a mission to find new things to sing about. Where did the idea for Pepi come about?

My VERY first children’s book idea, which wasn’t a “Line book”, is where Pepi shows up for the first time. That book was about different animals and their owners.

My brother’s cat was living with me at the time when I, one day, on an impulse, adopted a shelter dog. My life turned upside down and this cat and dog were pretty much all I talked about for a while… That made me wonder what they would say about me and our life together if they could talk! And that was was that book was about. That was around 1995 and over the years I showed it to many different editors, but never got a commitment. With all the comments that I got, I reworked this book. Out of all the animals in that first book, I focused in on the parrot and developed a concept around it. Finally, I got interest from a publisher: Beach Lane/Simon and Schuster.

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Image from Pepi Sings a New Song

It’s the first book that I have done that is not a Line book and really the first time I am developing and digging deeper into a character. It’s still not a traditional story, and it’s similar to the Line books in the way that it’s more of an interactive concept book.

I learned a lot working with Andrea, my editor. A reader doesn’t really get an emotional connection to a line, and here I was working with a character. I found that to be a different challenge. Emotional satisfaction was my mantra working on Pepi, but it was important to me that Pepi had an edge and didn’t become cheesy and flat. I preferred that him to be a little obnoxious, messy and selfish. I think kids can relate to that, and I think it makes him adorable and funny. I am very proud of Pepi!

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Images from Pepi Sings a New Song

Your illustration style is very modern and graphic. What is your process like for creating one of your illustrations? Do you do a lot of sketching before you start working or do you draw directly into the computer? I noticed you’ve been adding some fun textures and patterns into your illustrations. How do you see your style developing in the future?

Painting flat fields of color in gouache is a waste of time nowadays. In my VERY first published children’s book- Toni’s Topsy Turvy Telephone Day, the main character wears a dress with a simple checkered pattern. That dress took me more than a day to paint, not to mention the time it took to paint all those big flat backgrounds! I was very reluctant to get a computer. I resented the idea that a computer and some software would make you an artist.

When I finally gave in, I learned that that the computer is a great tool! But it is JUST a tool… I am very glad I have the background that I have; that I know how to mix a color, what it consist of and how it breaks down.

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Images from Pepi Sings a New Song

I love my MAC and the computer has really helped my work to evolve. My work strangely enough looks more “hand made” now then when I actually “worked by hand”. (can I also say how much I love the guys at Apple tech support? When I first got my MAc I called them 10 times a day!)

I work in photoshop, on a Wacom tablet, which allows me to sketch, draw and erase, just like I am used to. Sometimes I scan in paper sketches.
I can now indulge in my passion for patterns and textures. I have a huge library that I created so that I can pick and choose and add a pattern in a matter of minutes. It’s so much fun!

I have also started to use photography in my work. It started out with photographing textures. But now I am incorporating actual objects that I have photographed. The next Line book will have a lot of these objects. It comes out next summer and is called Follow the Line to School

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Spread from forthcoming book Follow the Line to School

What are some of the projects you are currently working on? What’s a dream project you would love to do?
I just finished my latest children’s book and trying to recuperate. I am getting in to product design and licensing, so there might be some interesting things happening there.

And I am trying to get something “out there”, that is not really what I do at all… In 1986 I was able to get into an abandoned prison in Stockholm and photograph. The negatives have been in a box all these years, and I am now trying to get them published somehow… It’s sort of become my obsession…

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Samples of abandoned prison images taken by Laura. If you are a publisher interested in working with Laura on this project contact her through her website here.

I really don’t have ONE dream project. I have MANY…

My dream is to keep on working, with as many different things as possible, as much as possible! Working and getting it just right, makes me happy. I have been very, very fortunate to be able to work with great people on such wonderful projects as I have over my career.

Thanks so much to Laura! You can check out more of her work here and pick up Pepi Sings a New Song here and her Follow the Line series here

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