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Talking Ancient Wonders with Avalon Nuovo

I’m sure we can all agree that the artwork for Ancient Wonders, our latest non-fiction Flying Eye title about the mysteries and marvels of the Ancient World, is absolutely stunning.

Fully illustrated throughout by Avalon Nuovo, you can feel the awe-inspiring nature of everything from the Pyramids of Giza to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon emanating through the pages. The depth and sense of scale that Avalon creates in her illustrations is incredibly impressive – bringing a monument to life that hasn’t actually been seen for thousands of years is no small feat! 

To celebrate the publication of Ancient Wonders we decided to dig a little bit deeper into Avalon’s working process, and she let us in on some of the secrets behind how she puts together her illustrations.

Avalon was also generous enough to send us some of her work-in-progress videos, which document her entire drawing process. See below for a time-lapse of one of her double page spreads coming to life!

So how do you begin your illustrations, do you use one program for every element? 

For the roughs, I always work in Photoshop on a big Cintiq monitor. The roughs of each page are really more about design than they are about drawing, so I’ve found it really important to do the roughs on a large screen, where I can view each spread at the same size as the printed book while I’m drawing. If I don’t, I often make something that looks nice at half-size, but when it’s enlarged to actual size, it might look totally awkward! 

I tend to make the rough illustrations really, really detailed— they’re in black and white, but I basically paint in all of the darks and lights and make it look pretty finished. Sometimes it feels like a lot of work for something that really only a handful of people will see, but it’s so helpful to to be super clear when showing the designer/editor what exactly what it’s going to look like, so that we can do all the decision-making before the final illustration. 

It’s also a lot more enjoyable for me to make all those decisions in the sketches, so that when I do the final illustrations, I get to sit back and let my mind wander and just enjoy the drawing (and some music/podcasts/netflix to keep me company!)

And what do you do when it’s time to move on from the roughs?

Once they’re all approved, I turn the photoshop files into flat JPEGs and send them to my iPad. I use Procreate on my iPad Pro to make the final illustrations, and as you can see from the time-lapse videos, I basically use the rough sketch as an underlay. 

I usually draw over all the linework first with the sketch at low opacity underneath. After that, I keep the sketch layer turned off while I fill in the color, but I continue to use it as reference for all the lighting and darks/lights that I’ve already figured out in the rough sketch. I send it back to my computer when I’m done, change the document from RGB color mode to CMYK (Procreate only support sRGB at the moment— hopefully that changes soon!), and it’s done! 

What makes you prefer using an iPad over a computer? 

I could definitely do the final artwork on my computer, but using my iPad really just became a habit because— aside from the fact that I LOVE the workflow in Procreate— I had to do a fair bit of traveling for Christmas holidays and other jobs while I was working on Ancient Wonders, and working on my iPad meant that I could be working on final illustrations pretty much anywhere. 

That’s made for some really nice memories associated with the book, personally— when I look at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon spread, I remember working on it while watching an (American) football game with my family in northern California while visiting for Christmas, and when I look at the Inspiration: Artemis spread, I remember making it while on a trip to Finland to meet my partner’s family for the first time!

And what about the analogue vs. digital debate, are you firmly a digital person?

I actually really love working with analogue media— I’m a really dedicated sketchbook keeper and when I’m making illustrations just for fun, I still find it most satisfying to use ink, gouache and colored pencils. 

I have two desks in my home studio— one with my monitor/computer, and one that has a tilting top for good old-fashioned drawing. I haven’t used it a lot these days though— ultimately I’ve realized that because my work is so detailed, it’s more realistic to work digitally for my professional work. 

As a result, I haven’t used traditional materials much lately— nowadays my drawing desk is where my partner sits so that we can keep each other company while we both work late into the night (or, now that my partner has finished their thesis, so that we can still hang out while I work and they play Skyrim!)


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Sally Deng On Skyward, WWII History, and Supportive Parents

Skyward: The Story of Female Pilots in WWII is Sally Deng’s debut book, which published earlier this year. What started as a scroll through Pinterest developed into this beautifully-illustrated passion project about three young women who wanted to reach great heights—Hazel is an Asian American living in San Francisco, Marlene is a young woman living in the English countryside, and Lilya is from a small town in Russia. Here Sally tells us all about the fascinating stories she learned while working on this book and answers questions about her creative process, how she conducted her research, and her chocolate-filled studio space.

Nobrow: How did Skyward start? Did you already have a fascination with female pilots in WWII?

Sally: “I was looking through Pinterest in college and found a vintage photo of Hazel Ying Lee—the first Asian American female pilot in the United States. I didn’t think it could be real—how could a woman, especially a Chinese American woman, be allowed near a plane during that time? I spiraled into an internet research hole and came out with a whole series of paintings and drawings inspired by these pilots.”

Nobrow: What kind of research did you do while creating Skyward? Did you get to meet any WWII vets?

Sally: “I checked out quite a few books from my university’s library, and had to dig into out of print books about female pilots from other countries. One of my professor’s mothers was a WASP pilot, and he had hours and hours of recordings of her talking about her experience. One of her stories made the book: she was in her plane, and the oil started to leak. She needed a quick fix, so she took off her shirt to clean the oil off the plane.”

(Note: this is referenced in Skyward on page 54, when Hazel has to make an emergency landing and wipe down the windshield with her blouse.)

Nobrow: Are the stories of the three girls based on anyone in particular? If so, who?

Sally: “Yes. The Asian American pilot is based on Hazel Ying Lee, and Lilya, the girl from Russia, loves to draw, which is also what I love to do. Each one is sort of representative of me in some way.”

Nobrow: What’s a favorite story that didn’t make the book?

Sally: “There was a young girl in America who wanted to be a WASP pilot. She had scheduled her physical, but knew she didn’t meet the minimum weight requirement, so hours before her physical, her mother took her to a nearby diner and she ate until she couldn’t eat anymore. She barely passed the physical, but she did eventually become a pilot.”

Nobrow: Which character in Skyward was the most difficult to create?

Sally: “The character that was the most difficult to draw was Marlene. The English women pilots that I saw photos of always looked so beautiful, like models, with their amazing hair and makeup. That’s totally not me, but I just tried really hard to make Marlene look cool.”

Nobrow: In your research, what little-known facts about the female pilots of WWII did you find?

Sally: “I learned a lot of things. First, doctors in WWII didn’t know much about the female body—all the requirements for passing the physicals were in accordance with male bodies. Also, a lot of flying was learned on the go. The pilots didn’t have time or proper training to learn how to fly each air craft. The UK pilots (the ATA) had manuals they would tuck in their boots, basically ‘Flying This-Type-of-Plane 101.’

In America, many of the women who were pilots came from wealthy families who could fund their pilot lessons, but for those who weren’t, they had to go back to civilian life with little hope of having the money to continue flying on their own. In a lot of their interviews, the women pilots didn’t want it to end. They wanted to keep flying.”

Nobrow: What’s your ideal drawing space and what kind of snacks/beverages does it include?

Sally: “I just moved to a bigger shared studio space, but it doesn’t have windows like my last space. So windows and plants make the space ideal, and I always have chocolate around—it’s probably a vice.”

Nobrow: When did you start drawing? What’s pushed you to keep going?

Sally: “Ever since I could remember. My parents told me I started holding a pencil at 3. My parents really supported me from a young age with drawing. When I was a bit older, I couldn’t sit still, and I kept bothering them, so they sent me to art lessons. When I was trying to choose between colleges, my dad saw that I was hesitating between a studio art school and a regular liberal arts college. He encouraged me to go to the art school. I’m really lucky in that way.”

Skyward: The Story of Female Pilots in WWII is out now. Find a copy at www.penguinrandomhouse.com or www.flyingeyebooks.com