By Silvia Torchio
Sep 22, 2022

What is behind the scenes of artistic creation? This is one of the most common and hard to answer question about art and creativity.

Artistic creation is often considered as a mysterious process, but from time to time it happens that something let people come close to this mystery, have the opportunity to explore the process and find it marvelously entertaining and deeply engaging.

This is what exactly happens in The Dream and Reality of Picture Books, where Jimmy Liao, the renowned Taiwanese picture books author, shares the story of his career path since the beginning for more than twenty untiring years, providing the readers with a great insight to his thoughts and methods behind his amazing work.

Jimmy Liao is one of the most famous Asian contemporary adult picture book artists. Since the publication of his two first books Secrets in the Forest and A Fish with a Smile in 1998, Jimmy has created almost sixty books and his works have been translated into twenty foreign languages and have sold over a million of copies all around the world.

How has he succeeded in keeping this astonishing creative energy for all these years? In The Dream and Reality of Picture Books, without reservation and with richness in details, he tries to answer this difficult question.

The book starts with how Liao began to create, describing in great detail and with great warm his childhood and youth, his education (and self-education) background and his previous work as an editorial illustrator in an advertising agency. The tale is enriched by the sharing of meaningful anecdotes about his life, from the choice of his nom de plum to the farseeing encounter with a “well informed” fortune teller in 1993 and to the beginning of his battle with the illness in 1995, that completely changed his personal and professional life. About this, he says: “I started to create picture books because of a serious illness, and creation gradually turned into my daily task.”

The book is divided into three big sections. The first one, called “Thoughts”, is about the process of creation and all the achievements and the difficulties that Liao has, respectively, reached and faced for more than twenty years as a picture book author, with many examples taken from his own experience and his works. Liao compares the creation process of a picture book to the work of gardening: the care that the gardeners have to take of their field is the same type that the artists must take of his work. The result is not guaranteed, perhaps no flowers will bloom for the gardener and there will not come out a satisfying work for the artist, but taking care is the only way. And Liao reveals his “gardening” secrets to his readers wholeheartedly. In addition, Liao warns: creation is difficult, it is like climbing a high mountain. At the beginning it is very hard and needs much patience and concentration, but as soon as the highest point has been overcome, the process increases faster and smoother. In other words: only by constantly doing and lifelong learning, an artist can truly enter the field of art.

The second section called “Methods”, discusses the various means and techniques used in the creation process of a picture book, the importance of how the illustrations are assembled and how the story is built up. There are different ways to develop a plot and what really is important is to find the suitable technique to the story. Liao himself has tried many different creative methods for all his works and he considered himself lucky to have experienced many techniques, that lead him to create different kind of picture books. As far as he concerned, artists must always experiment with themes and styles during the creative process, in a constant challenge for themselves and their abilities.

He explains how to organize inspiration, to build a storyboard, to set a layout, and, very importantly, how to make text and images work together. With reference to this essential aspect of picture books, Liao thinks that the story must be simple and the plot not too complicated. What people are mostly attracted are images, that must always spark different feelings, every reading, even when the reader already knows the story. In this way, Liao provides those who want to create picture books with sound advice and powerful suggestions, inspiring them with his experience and letting them not to waste energy and to save precious time to focus on their projects.

The third part, called “Case Studies”, extensively analyzes seven of his most important works: Turn Left Turn Right, The Sound of Colors, Starry Starry Night, The Rainbow of Time, So Close Yet So Far, One More Day with You, and I’m Not Perfect. Liao reveals the background of the development of the books, the idea or the anecdote which inspired the story, the entire creation process, the difficulties (the so called “bottlenecks” and “low tides”) and the solutions that sometimes come up like epiphanies. He sincerely unveils the pain, the doubts, the questions behind every painstakingly choice he made. Nothing must be taken for granted. All the cases are equipped with illustrations from the related book and other original and interesting documents, such as drafts and maps.

In the final part Liao shares his experience beyond the creative work, such as how to interact with editors and publishers, how to deal with comments after the book is published, how to handle the fact that books can turn in successful cartoons, movies, musicals.…

All the works of art are our attempts to understand the chaos of life and fervently give it a shape. All the creative works can only try to suggest. Creation can only suggest, can only symbolize, and picture books are the creation of symbols and suggestions. There is no answer in life, and the final meaning of riddles seems to be the process of solving the riddle itself, not the answer. — (from Case Study 4: The Rainbow of Time)