A lot of stories begin with some kind of pursuit, whether it’s trying to find a lost manuscript, a missing person, or a lingering memory. If there’s any single place where the most numerous, meaningful, and profound pursuits are all collected, it’s undoubtedly a museum.
Page Tsou is an artist who frequently wins international awards and whose work has been selected five times for the Bologna Illustrators Exhibition. He is also a huge fan of museums. The mechanical factory in his hometown made him particularly fond of the precision and rationality behind machinery, and he believes that museums are similarly specialized, conscientious places. However, when he received an invitation from the National Taiwan Museum to create a picture book on the theme of Formosan clouded leopards, Tsou was faced with a stack of cryptic, stilted historical documents that gave him a huge headache.
“My works tend to be quite different from those of other illustrators, as I often branch out into different fields and draw on other art forms as well,” says Tsou. Living as a graphic designer, illustrator, curator, and even an interior designer, he’s extremely familiar with business language and knows exactly what the market likes, but picture books are different. He sees creating picture books as a kind of fate, so he only wants to work on projects that he finds interesting and feels strongly about.
“You can easily find information about Formosan clouded leopards on the internet. What I wanted to do was give the reader something that sparked their interest.”
Just as Tsou was getting worried, a member of staff at the museum introduced him to a painting of the leopard and uttered a sentence which touched him deeply. In that moment, Tsou immediately knew: “This is the story I want to draw.”
“Although the Formosan clouded leopard hasn’t been found, it still lives on in paintings.”
The Formosan clouded leopard, which belonged to the same big-cat family as tigers and lions, was Taiwan’s largest and most ferocious wild animal but it typically stayed hidden in the forest, and its image as a brave, mysterious animal has made it a sacred symbol in some indigenous cultures.
A staff member at the museum showed Tsou a scientific illustration of the leopard by Robert Swinhoe, a British diplomat who was stationed in Taiwan during the nineteenth century. Swinhoe was a naturalist as well as a diplomat, and during his tenure he discovered and recorded a large number of local Taiwanese species. He longed to find a Formosan clouded leopard but it continued to elude him, so he had no choice but to entrust someone to draw this illustration according to the fur he collected.
More than a hundred years later, an employee at a technology company called Chiang Po-jen happened to see an adventive leopard at the zoo and joined the ranks of those who were actively looking for the animal in the wild. Even with the help of his modern technology, humans still haven’t been able to see the leopards with their own eyes.
The two men might have been from different eras, but it was the same pursuit and the same failure. However, in Tsou’s eyes none of it was in vain. Instead, it created a dramatic “needle in a haystack” search that spanned multiple time periods which added a romantic sense of destiny to the serious subject matter. Tsou took the Formosan clouded leopard as the main basis of the book and then used the two failed pursuits as parallel stories, which was how he managed to pull an emotional core out of the cold historical data.
Although the Formosan clouded leopard hasn’t revealed itself in real life or in the picture book, Tsou transformed the sense of regret into hope by using an absent protagonist to create space for imagination and bring a stagnant period of history to life, sparking the reader’s curiosity and getting them to contemplate it in a way that may even spur them into action.
Tsou’s Rationality for Planting Easter Eggs
In addition to his unique perspectives, the main thing that makes international brands like Gucci, Disney, Michelin Guides, etc. line up to work with Tsou is his meticulous and undeniably exquisite illustration style.
In this book, the game of hide and seek doesn’t just relate to the concept of finding the leopard but is also part of the reading process itself. From the black and white photos of the restored museum exhibits and the feathers of the bird specimens inside, to the design of the locks on the windows and the structure of the buildings and vehicles, his paintings are almost like precision scanners where every detail is so realistic that you feel like you’re in the scene, while the nostalgic tones and brushstrokes add an enchanting sense of mystery.
“I like to include Easter Eggs in my work where I hide messages in the picture that can be understood without being explained,” says Tsou.
It is hard for readers to look at his books and illustrations only once. He uses so many details to build such vivid worlds in each of his illustrations that readers keep coming back to the same images again and again because they want to play detective by comparing the different pages and worlds to try and decipher the hidden clues in the pictures.
Tsou was in constant contact with the team at the museum during the revision process to ensure that the information in the book was still accurate when he changed certain details for plot purposes. For example, it would actually be impossible to have a transmission tower on the mountain where the camera is installed, but it was important for visual flow to have these man-made constructions gradually appear in the lush mountain forests. Meticulous design like this allows the reader to discover the real reason that the leopard disappeared for themselves without explicitly stating it: mankind.
Using Hide-and-Seek to Convey a Larger Message
Although the book tells the story of a species losing its habitat due to human exploitation, Tsou didn’t want it to be too on the nose. Instead, he chose a game that people of all ages and nationalities could understand so the story’s universal message could be conveyed in a way that children could genuinely enjoy.
“It’s a local issue, but really it’s a global problem,” says Tsou.
The moment when the staff member at the museum told him that the leopard “lives on in paintings” was a creative spark for Tsou. In turn, Tsou might not have expected that his picture book would come to play the same role as the original scientific illustration: that by using a paint brush to capture the legend and elegance of the Formosan clouded leopard, he has inspired people to keep searching.
Maybe one day, this endless game of hide-and-seek will eventually end in a surprising grand finale. After all, what could be more haunting than unfinished business?