Learning on the Job by Renée Kurilla
It didn’t take me long to discover that one of the best, albeit sometimes most challenging parts of being an illustrator is the research. Regardless of working on a fiction or nonfiction project, studying your subject is imperative. If you’re lucky, during the process you might actually end up learning a thing or two about yourself.
Usually, “studying” comes in the form of observing my two year old niece decipher a new toy… or watching my cat brush up against everything in the room before he finally settles on a spot for a nap. But when your subject is nearly 9,000 miles away in the Borneo rainforest, you have to get creative.
I will admit to knowing very little about just how amazing orangutans are when I was presented with this project. This is what makes illustrating a manuscript different from writing one. I’ve had many story ideas in my head for years and they are special to me. My task here was to take someone else’s special idea and figure out a way to also make it special to me. This is an important thing to realize before any project begins because, when your work has meaning, it becomes very easy to pour your heart into it.
And the best work has heart written all over it.
What I had to reference from the start were some photos and a lovingly crafted manuscript provided by Margarita. I absorbed her tanka poetry and learned about orangutan families. The facts that Margarita called out on the last page let me know that orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans. This caught my attention because another book I illustrated was about Zebrafish, who share 98% of their DNA with humans. That was my hook, the universe obviously wanted me to learn about genomes. (Side note: I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me next!)
After this revelation, it was then up to me to dig a little bit deeper. I did this in a multitude of ways:
- I watched Bear Grylls get dropped off onto an extremely high treetop by helicopter and survive the rainforest on season 5 of Man Vs. Wild.
- I found endless vacation movies on YouTube of Borneo Jungle Boat Tours.
- I borrowed pages and pages of reference material from my friend, Maris Wicks, who illustrated the graphic novel PRIMATES, written by Jim Ottaviani for First Second (Thank you, Maris!).
- I spent a great deal of time on the Orangutan Foundation website, which has countless photos, videos, and facts.
I found video reference to be the most helpful for deciphering how to draw orangutan movement. I became entranced. Have you ever really watched an orangutan climb or swing? Here is my favorite video of all; baby Rickina being introduced to her peers for the first time; it’s incredibly moving (her face at 3:03!).
Video credit: Orangutan Outreach @ redapes.org
Pardon me for getting so excited, but you can see that, through study, I succeeded in making this project special. What I learned about myself is how thankful I am for opportunities to learn something new through my art. I can only hope the heart I poured into the illustrations shines through on each page!
What’s left, now that the work is done, is the hope that children everywhere will be orangudancing for years to come!
Renée Kurilla has illustrated many books for children, none of which include this much fur. She, her husband, and their fluffy cat, Timmy, can be found in Boston, Massachusetts, approximately 9,410 miles from the Borneo rain forest. You can find her online at www.kurillastration.com and on Twitter as @.
Check out the other two Trifecta posts celebrating Orangutanka today!