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Thursday, June 15, 2017

An interview with the illustrator of MAYA LIN...Dow Phumiruk

I recently contacted Dow Phumiruk to ask her some questions about the work she did illustrating her debut picture book entitled MAYA LIN.  

MAYA LIN is the story of the artist-architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Here is a paragraph of what the book MAYA LIN is all about (as taken from its description on the Internet).

"As a child, Maya Lin loved to study the spaces around her.  She explored the forest in her backyard, observing woodland creatures, and used her house as a model to build tiny towns out of paper and scraps.  The daughter of a clay artist and poet, Maya grew up with art and learned to think with her hands as well as her mind.  From her first experiments with light and lines to the height of her success nationwide, this is the story of an inspiring American artist; the visionary artist-architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial."

It was such a delight to interview Dow!  Here are my questions and her answers:

Q: Can you describe for us the process you go through in illustrating a book from concept to final art? What are some of the challenges you face along the way, and how do you overcome them?

A: First I'll create a storyboard - basically thumbnails (tiny, really rough blobby sketches - "blobby" is the best word I can think of!) of the entire book. I use a template I found online along with Photoshop for this. I try to vary layout and composition for interest and keep the pace of the book in mind. I'll ask myself several questions:
- What do I want in the middle of the book? 
- Where do I want to use full spreads with lots of details for the reader to pause and dwell on the art?
- Where should I use a series of quick spot illustrations to move the story along?
- Which parts of the story have very obvious images that comes to mind? Those images will be my anchors, and then I can draw in the rest of the storyboard around them.

Some stories can be challenging if there are so many important scenes that I want to draw too many spreads. Sometimes text lends itself to an abstract image, and this is very tricky figuring out how to incorporate abstract sequences into the rest of the more realistic art. For example, Maya Lin imagined a giant knife slicing into the earth for her memorial design. I had difficulty thinking how a big knife could be drawn into a picture book for young children - without being too scary! Ultimately, my editor gave me some feedback, and we made it work. Often times before I ask for feedback from my editor, I'll run it by my online critique group buddies. Their advice is very helpful, and so many times a fresh look at the art is all that's needed to lead us to a novel solution.

Next I'll draw out a dummy using my storyboard as a guide. I might submit the dummy in color unless the art director specifically asks for black and white. I'll carve the "blobby" sketched shapes down into recognizable people or scenery. My kids laugh at my sketches, because they are often funny-looking. A person in the background might look more like an octopus or loaf of bread than of human form! After the dummy and individual spreads are approved, then I put in all the details, shading, texture, and lighting.

Q:  Do you have a favorite page or series of drawings within the MAYA LIN book? If so, what is it and why?

A: My favorite spread is the forest scene. She sits on a rock and waits, hoping to befriend the wild animals. I love drawing greenery and animals and soft lighting. I also love the thought of sitting peacefully in the woods, catching glimpses of woodland creatures. My family and I enjoy nature hikes in our beautiful state of Colorado.

Q:  What was it about this particular project that resonated with you and made you want to work on it?

A: The most realistic answer is that it was my first opportunity to work with a traditional publishing house (Christy Ottaviano Books of Henry Holt/Macmillan), and I probably would've said yes to a book about almost anything (slugs/bugs, the inventor of the stapler, etc). But, wow! What a perfect fit this project turned out to be for me. I loved drawing Maya. As you might guess, I've spent a good part of my artist life drawing Asian girls and women!

Q:  What do you hope readers will take away from the book MAYA LIN, and specifically the way that you portrayed the storyline?

A: This story is an inspiration for readers of all ages! I recently attended a book signing with my daughters for two of their favorite young adult authors, Victoria Aveyard (Red Queen) and Colleen Oakes (Queen of Hearts). These lovely ladies told the teens and tweens present not to think that their dreams were for someone else - not to think that writing a best selling novel was for someone else to do. We moms in the audience listened and were inspired, too. Similarly, I hope the message from Maya Lin's story will inspire readers to do the best they can, take some chances, and reach for their life goals. Successes like Victoria's and Colleen's and Maya's could happen for any of us, because in many ways, these successful people are much like ourselves.

Here are some links to help you get to know Dow and her artwork better.  
Twitter and Instagram: @dowphumiruk
Facebook page: artbydow 
 MAYA LIN on Amazon:

Note to Dow--It was a true delight to hear how you create your artwork, and I enjoyed the personal thoughts and insights you shared with me in the answers to my questions.  Best wishes to you with this beautiful book!


  1. Mindy, thank you so much for the interview! I enjoyed answering all of these questions. It was very fun! <3 Can't wait to work with you some more in the future... !!

  2. Yes, I look forward to working with you, too!!