Illustrator Interview: Sergio Bumatay III

Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Today, I have the great privilege of interviewing Filipino children's book illustrator Sergio "Serj" Bumatay III. Serj is the illustrator of:

Basta Ayoko Pang Matulog!/I Don’t Want to Go to Bed Yet! by Luis Gatmaitan (OMF Literature, 2005)

Tight Times by Jeanette C. Patindol (Adarna House, 2007)

The Boy Who Touched Heaven by Iris Gem Li (Adarna House, 2007)

Naku, Nakuu, Nakuuu! by Nanoy Rafael (Adarna House, 2008)

and Tuwing Sabado/Every Saturday by Russell Molina (Lampara Books, 2009)

Serj, welcome to Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind!

Please share a bit about your childhood. In an interview with PaperTigers, you said that you always knew that you wanted to draw and paint. What were you like as a young artist?

When I was young, I loved to create many things and try interesting stuff like science experiments you can do in the kitchen, home made toys, and collecting many things. That curiosity and creativity motivated me to try art. I discovered I could draw by grade 2 when we were asked to draw a scene for the parables we had just heard. My scene wasn't stick figures like my classmates did. The figures were all complete with details and in side views, although they weren't that proportional. It was the start of my art career in school.

What motivates and inspires you to illustrate children's books?

When I was beginning to illustrate children's books, I thought doing this was just for the fun of it. I can make cool stuff I can share. But later I felt a deeper motivation, I thought illustrating children's books is a kind of advocacy for me. For me, illustrating children's books is a big challenge and responsibility, you just don't make beautiful pictures for children to see but also make them understand difficult issues. I believe this is now part of my contribution to the development of culture and literacy in our country.

Who are your favorite artists, graphic designers, and children's book illustrators? How have they influenced your own work? What else influences your artwork (books, movies, TV shows, songs, etc. - if any)?

I love Philippine vintage art and ephemera, especially ethnic motifs. There are so many interesting stories going on if you study them. I draw lots of inspiration from our own masters (Juan Luna, Carlos Francisco, and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo) and culture: from the streets of Quiapo, old ancestral houses, pop art, contemporary painters, to tribal and theatrical costumes, charms and jewelry, everything is so magical.

Please guide us through the creative process you use for illustrating children's books.

The conceptual process for each book is similar, but the creative process differs in the sense that each book has its own style and medium. I like each of my book projects to be different, because I believe each story is unique and therefore needs its own visual treatment.

The initial procedure is to internalize the story well. I tend to place myself in the shoes of the main character, and think of how he looks, what he feels, where in place or time he exists. From there I decide on the details and then research for the accuracy of visual images. Sometimes I also ask kids, especially my nephews and niece, about what they think and what they like.

After gathering enough materials, I plot down thumbnail ideas for each spread for the entire story. I make sure that the composition goes well with the text, I find composition to be the most important and challenging element in illustrating children's books. It's difficult to balance everything while maintaining a dynamic and interesting visual. The thumbnails will make completing the final artwork easier, allowing more room for adjustments if needed as I go along. Finally, the finished artwork will then be scanned and retouched if necessary, then sent to the publisher.

Do you think that your children's book illustrations can be labeled "Asian" and/or "Filipino"? If so, what makes them "Asian" and/or "Filipino"?

Yes, I always make it a point to get a Filipino feel in my illustrations, either visually or contextually. Sometimes I put small details that represent the Filipino identity: positive quotes as labels or text, customs and behavior, decorative objects we find in a typical Filipino home, dresses, or significant places.

Can you give more examples of the "Filipino details" you put in your illustrations?

Some of the details I have used are: air vents and tile patterns from Filipino ancestral homes, things you can find in a jeepney, and laces and patterns from old paintings of women.

I embody Pinoy customs and behavior in the illustrated characters or objects. For example, I illustrated a piggy bank as a character to represent our being thrifty and the value we give to hard-earned money. We (Filipinos/Asians) also place value on the closeness of our family. Most of my books portray that closeness within the family.

What are the challenges and rewards of being a children's book illustrator in the Philippines?

Some of the challenges I've encountered are: finding time to fit a production schedule (illustration is a very time consuming profession), foreign competition (foreign titles are being pushed more than local), printing technology - the original artwork doesn't match the printed output (although we already have several printing houses that provide good quality at par with global standards), and only a few are open to unconventional illustrative ideas (but it’s very rewarding if you can assert your ideas to the appreciative).

One of the profound rewards is when children and people in general appreciate your work, and they remember them. You will be able to positively influence them through your work.

What are the current trends in children's book illustrations in the Philippines?

Most of the illustrators I know are going the digital path, exploring the possibilities of the technology while maintaining their own illustrative styles. Some are already pushing other ways of illustrating in terms of medium, format and ideas, offering more innovative ways of reading or learning.

What are those other ways of illustrating?

Some of the things I have observed in local books: some books are positioned as more than just storybooks - counting, interaction, reference, all integrated in a single storybook; a book that turns into a toy; postmodern illustrations or illustrations that are typically unexpected in local children's books (in terms of color, style, technique and representation), e.g. collage, black and white illustrations, three-dimensional illustrations.

What are you working on now?

I am very fortunate that I'm currently working on some of my dream projects: an almost worldess children's book, a collector's edition book, and a children's book written by one of our national artists.

Thank you, Serj. I really love your work!