Behind the scenes of the making of a children’s picture book
Vietnamese water puppetry is renowned for its unique atmosphere that features friendly yet mystical settings and characters. Even viewers not familiar with the folklore portrayed by the water puppet performances are still drawn to the world this fascinating traditional art creates. However, water puppetry is rarely seen by the Vietnamese and is usually touted mostly as a tourist attraction. Given the incredible sense of imagination and creativity that exist in their performances, it is a regret that locals, especially children, rarely take an interest in this art form.
Through my illustrations for the Wandering Water Puppet project, I hope to raise awareness of the art. Together with me on this journey, providing the scriptwriting, was Tran Thi Minh Hieu, an experienced translator with Kim Dong Publishing House. A children’s picture book was chosen as the format to meet the project’s objectives, as it was the most suitable because it gives readers a sense of tranquility and wonder that is so unique to Vietnamese water puppetry.
Initially, various options were considered for the concept of the children’s picture book. One initial idea was to create a Vietnamese version of Pinocchio, telling the story of a puppet master and his desire to bring puppets to life. Another idea involved a little prince and his water puppet friends. Such story-heavy approaches, however, were deemed not suitable for this project, as they focus too heavily on the non-water puppet aspect. In these original ideas, most characters live, breath and work outside of the water puppet world, which lessen the sense of wonder for water puppet that the book is trying to create. A more thematic and mood-based approach was chosen instead.
With a more thematic approach, it was logical that all characters in the book should be part of the water puppet world to fully draw in the readers. The characters were designed to take on the form of water puppets themselves and share puppet-like characteristics to distinguish them as wooden puppets while still being visibly alive with varying expressions. Using actual water puppets as reference, characters in the book were created to resemble the Vietnamese of old, such as farmers, village girls, kings and nobles. The main character was set as a simple young wooden puppet boy with no special characteristic to shift the focus of the readers to the water puppet world surrounding the main character. In this sense, the protagonist of the book is a representation for the readers themselves, and his journey through the water puppet world is the reader’s journey. To emphasize the sense of wonder, the protagonist was set to be a lost puppet, wondering about this mythical world.
Early Scene Exploration
Influenced by traditional character designs, early scene concepts depict typical village life with farmers and fishermen hard at work. This again represents the problem of impact, as readers might be too familiar with such scenes and settings. Without a touch of something outside of the ordinary, the scene would fail to evoke curiosity and interest, which are vital components of a mood-based story. This is even more important as the primary target audience is children, who are whimsical and easily bored. To address this problem, the story would need to incorporate more fantastical elements. Fortunately, Vietnamese folklores are rich with such inspirations. Taking cue from Vietnamese folklore characters such as the Four Mythical Beasts and the common water buffalo, the philosophy guiding the composition of the book focuses on showcasing dream-like, magical characters that baffle the protagonist and create a sense of otherworldliness. This in turn aims to create a sense of being lost in another world for the readers as well. Another key decision is the use of water in the illustrations because water is a defining element in water puppetry. Every scene in the book is meant to be filled with water, which is a very conducive tool for establishing light and colors due to its reflective nature. While strange to the readers, walking in water is as normal as breathing air to the inhabitants of the water puppet world. Such subtle yet major differences further immerse the readers in the book.
The tranquil aspect of water, which evokes a feeling of calm and stillness, heavily influences the initial mood of the book. Pitch-black background was also initially considered to draw the reader’s eyes to core visual elements on the page. Such art directions were decided against due to the overly subdued mood that do not fit well with young readers, especially since children tend to prefer strong visual stimulation. However, one key mood element was identified from the start, which is reflection. By using reflection to indicate the presence of water, the scenes could simultaneously remain colorful and vibrant, while not losing the sense of tranquility. The final mood selection for the book was decided based on three key characteristics that were shared by all scenes in the book: dark background with a blueish hue to invoke the feeling of a water puppet stage, bright and warm colors to create contrast, and the stark difference in the level of details between the surrounding elements and the main character. The mood choice is also heavily influenced by the masterful usage of light, shadow and smoke in actual Water Puppet performance to draw in the audience.
With the core elements of character, scene and mood decided, final illustrations were sketched and colored in Photoshop, using pastel-based brushes. Each artwork took an average of eight hours to complete.