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Meet the illustrator: making children's books with Maria Sole Macchia

May 19, 2020 by s.nagele

What is it like to make illustrations for children? Maria Sole Macchia is a visual artist who specializes in creating picture books for young children. We were curious to get to know her and we asked her about her story, inspiration and approach to illustration.

Maria Sole Macchia

Interview with Maria Sole Macchia

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How did you become an illustrator?

I’ve always wanted to draw. It’s been an obsession since I was 3 or 4 and I’ve never really thought of doing anything else. When it was time to choose what to study, I opted for comic illustration (I was really into comics). Then I changed to illustration as it suited my style better but I have never stopped reading comics.

HRB: You have created a lot of books for young children. How is it different from illustrating for teens or adults?

Yes, though I have also illustrated for adults. It’s great fun working on children’s books. They are generally joyful and full of life. I really enjoy including extra details in the scenes that have nothing to do with the story but which might plausibly be there anyway (e.g. little animals and objects). I’d like the young readers to discover so much more when they are reading their story and have fun in other ways: exploring, remembering and learning new words and things.
On the other hand, books for older readers have less restrictions, you have more artistic freedom, regarding both  technique and visual storytelling. It’s more suitable for experimentation, too. I would like to work more on books for older readers. Even the use of colour can change a lot. You can choose a less varied colour palette or go for more striking or more relaxing colours.  

HRB: Which visual aspect of an illustration do you pay attention to when you’re working on a children’s book?

I pay a lot of attention to facial expressions, they are fundamental; even two little dots (eyes) and a few simple lines (mouth, eyebrows, nose) can completely change the effectiveness of an expression. And I try to create harmonious colour combinations: I usually try out a few different options before I am satisfied. 

HRB: You have illustrated two books (The Three Seeds and The New Class) for Helbling Languages. What was it like to create these books?

The first one (The Three Seeds) was more spontaneous and the second more planned. Let me explain. In The Three Seeds there are different settings, indoors and outdoors, landscapes and home environments, so with all this movement between inside and outside (colours, shades, warm light, cold light), the final effect is varied and the readers don’t get bored. Whereas for The New Class everything happens in the same classroom which made my job more challenging. I had to play more with point of view and perspective, with colours, effects and details. On paper it was probably a less interesting book to create but I actually enjoyed it more, and I am happy with the result.

HRB: What is your usual work process?

Generally I start with tiny (around 7x3.5 cm) pencil sketches of all of the spreads, so the story fits on one side of an A4 page. This way, I can get at a glance the general feel of the images, the movement between inside and outside, the different perspectives, etc., and understand if there are too many repetitions and if everything works together. Then I increase the scale to full size and improve the drawings, adding details. At this stage I scan the drawings and work with them on the computer and I may notice things that I still need to change. Then I send everything to the client and after any requested changes I move on to colouring.

HRB: Do you have a favourite technique or medium?

At this stage of my professional development, after many years of working by hand, I am very drawn to digital programs, such as Photoshop and Illustrator. I’m always learning and discovering new things. I find this very stimulating. 

HRB: Who has influenced your visual style?

Without doubt comics and  the many talented Italian comic artists of the 70s and 80s. I’m thinking of Pratt, Breccia, Battaglia, Liberatore, Pazienza, Frazetta, Toppi … although it is not very obvious in my illustrations.Today there is a kind of fusion between traditional comics and illustration (Gipi, Igort, Arsenault, Carlin, Jeffers, etc.), which is even more inspiring and fascinating for me. 

HRB: What were your favourite books as a child? And now?

When I was very small, I loved Leo Lionni and Richard Scarry’s books. Then, when I was a bit older, I got into illustrated mythology books and every Sunday I bought the Corriere dei Piccoli (an Italian weekly comic magazine). I also began to read whatever Manga comics I could find in the 80s and 90s. Now I love Isabelle Arsenault, Oliver Jeffers, Serge Bloc, Chris Sickels, Felicita Sala, Franco Matticchio, Julia Sardà, Sarah Green and many others. They are all sensitive and ironic and share the same delicate approach to style and colour. 

HRB: What are you working on right now?

At the moment I am illustrating  a series of stories that are a lot of fun, though I can’t reveal anything else. And at the same time I am working on my own project. I’ve been working on it for years as I have so little free time, and I often change my mind about things, so instead of moving forwards, I seem to be going backwards. I wonder if I will ever finish it.

HRB: Many thanks for the interview!

Maria Sole Macchia was born in Padua in 1975. She is an illustrator, scenographer and stage costume designer. She studied at the Scuola del Fumetto (School of Comics) in Milan and has illustrated books for a wide variety of international publishing houses. She has been one of the official illustrators nominated by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage since 2000, In 2006 and 2008 she was chosen to take part in the Italian Illustrators Annual  by the Illustrators Association. She has illustrated 3 books (one still in progress) for Helbling Languages and we hope many more. She lives and works between Milano, Padua and Paris. 

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