Li Jian graduated from China's Hebei Normal University in 2001, majoring in Chinese Painting. He now owns his own studiospecializing in illustrating children's books. Prior to that, he was a middle school art teacher, an editor of children's books, and partner in another illustration studio.
Jian lives in the large city of Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province, China.
What does the story of The Water Dragon mean to you?
Well, when I was very young I would listen to the folk stories told by the elders in my family who had also heard them from their parents. The stories varied, ranging from mysteries to history to myths. In my memory, the brave, strong and kind dragon always appeared in these wonderful stories. However, it is a pity that I cannot remember the plots very clearly. Only some fragments of the stories now live in my mind. There are no written records, so it is difficult for me to find them again.
I wrote the story exclusively for myself and I did not expect to publish it. Nobody knew I was writing it. Later, when an editor from Better Link Press asked me whether I had written some new stories, this one came to mind instantly. It did not occur to me that the publishing house I was illustrating for also wanted to publish some books on the Chinese Dragon. Thus, those pieces and fragments of stories obtained from my elders are now written into a brand new story.
How would you describe your artistic style and what is your favourite medium?
Part of my job is to draw illustrations for the books for publishing houses. Before drawing, I need to understand what the story is, because the descriptions paint different scenes in my mind. These scenes, fantastic or ordinary, flash back and forth in my mind like movies. In my opinion, it is not me, but the story itself that dictates my artistic style. I like seeing those scenes appear in my mind through the words I read. This is also the main reason why I like my job. However, when I wrote The Water Dragon, I had no available reference. I therefore had to tell myself the story from scratch.
I practiced Chinese painting for many years and those painting skills influence me far more than pencil sketches, watercolor paintings and oil paintings. When I was ready to tell the story myself, I thought those traditional Chinese paintings might be very appropriate and started drawing at once.
The drawing process did not run smoothly. Some pictures appeared rather strange because there are many symbols in Chinese paintings that look like Chinese character strokes, which have various meanings. But they were too abstract for children to comprehend so I got rid of these paintings. I am very happy that at last, all the finished paintings express the story plot very well.
You have worked in the past as a children’s book editor. How has that affected your perspective as an illustrator?
The job as a children’s book editor offered me the opportunity to appreciate a great number of scripts of picture books. Some of them were drawn very well but eliminated, while some were roughly painted (from the perspective of an illustrator) but published without any difficulty. All these scripts made me reflect on the creation of children’s books, especially the relationship between illustrations and words.
Probably, such thinking may seem a little excessive and amateurish to other experienced writers of picture books. But it was a style rather unfamiliar to me when I first encountered it.
Soon afterwards, I gave up my job as an editor and shifted my priority to illustrating and writing picture books.
Can you describe a typical day in your studio?
Many of my friends think that my job is boring, because I start to draw at a set time every day, and drawing takes up most of my time. In fact, they cannot see what I see in my mind. The experience of drawing is so fantastic and absorbing, yet I am unable to express it with words. What I could do is reproduce them with my paintbrush.
I tend to be obsessed with the pictures I draw because they all appear clearly in my mind.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
As I mentioned before, part of my job is to illustrate for publishing houses and I am busy with creating my own new stories in any time left over from that. Mostly, my writing is a little bit slow; I spend a lot of time selecting topics.
Now, I am working on a picture book about family love and bonds, and am busy collecting books that cover similar topics. I hope to find a suitable plot to tell the story. The experience of others will undoubtedly provide me with many vivid inspirations. As usual, I won’t decide on the illustration style too early, because like before, it will come naturally once the story is finished.
Next, I may think about some topics regarding life and death. But because this subject is a bit grave, I am not sure whether I will go on to write such a story in the future.
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