China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair (CCBF) is honoured to invite Mr Zhou Xiang to join the jury of the 2019 Golden Pinwheel Young Illustrators Competition. Zhou is a picture book author and the president of the Eastern Babies Magazine.
For more than 30 years, Zhou Xiang has been producing prolific works in the world of children's publishing. Such works have been showcased in exhibitions of original paintings, and are now found in modern Chinese picture books. As Director of the Jiangsu Sino-Japanese Children's Literature and Art Exchange Association, Zhou has also engaged in cultural exchanges with Japan. Using Eastern Babies as a platform for his work, his repertoire includes the creation of picture books, concept editing, the promotion of picture book reading practices, mentoring Chinese local picture book editors, as well as talent scouting. Zhou creates illustrations for children's picture books. Among them, One Garden of Greens Turning into Spirits and The Morning Market of the Lotus Town were both inspired by his childhood experiences and won both the Jury Award of the first Feng Zikai Children’s Picture Book Award, in addition to the Excellent Children's Picture Book Award.
CCBF interviewed Zhou to gain deeper insight into his teaching and practice.
CCBF: You are an illustrator and a publisher. How do you find balance between these two different roles? And how do they relate and influence one another ? Which role do you like better? What is the best part of these two positions?
Zhou Xiang: In the publishing process, an illustrator’s work is more up-front and the editor’s role is more behind-the-scenes. As an artist, I understand the characteristics of the book and how to express the theme; whereas, as a publisher, I must try to adjust the content to the best state. As an illustrator, desire to create is strong. However, as a publisher, thanks to my own creative experience, I can better grasp other artists’ thoughts – in terms of how to communicate and understand them. Both of these roles are required to achieve the best outcome for a book or an illustration. I like both positions, as they are just like my left and right hands. Both illustration and publishing require compelling and spontaneous idea generation. It is this process that makes me most happy. Creativity brings me excitement and also allows me to appreciate the talents of other illustrators and feel happy as a publisher.
CCBF: Some of your books have achieved great success. What factors do you think are important? Did you ever anticipate this result in the process of creation?
Zhou Xiang: I didn't expect my books to be appreciated by children, which it makes me very happy that they are. Perhaps you could be referring to commercial success, but for me, failure is a common occurrence. The creative process is like the fate Sisyphus, who pushes the stone up the mountain every day, and then watches it roll down. We don't know whom God will bring success to. A young girl who won the BolognaRagazzi Award told me that she painted in a hut every day, exhausted her physical strength, and had only loneliness following her. The illustrative journey is almost like a meditative practice for her. I agree with her statement. Creation is a practice. You can only work hard at it day by day. We shouldn’t think too much about the results. "When is the northwest wind coming? It depends on God."
CCBF: Through Eastern Babies, you have helped many illustrators grow and develop their careers. Do you think a good illustrator should maintain a consistent style? How should one form one’s own characteristics, especially for illustrators who keep experimenting with different styles?
Zhou Xiang: The illustration should illuminate the text’s meaning; as such, the illustrator needs to adhere to the theme being expressed, so that the meaning of the text can extend. The process of illustration is like the development of a photo, which requires the photographer to repeatedly wash the negative to allow the blurred image to appear. Similarly, in the journey of illustration, the text is “the negative”, and the illustrator is “the photographer” who repeatedly flushes the story to become a clear image. The process of this rinsing depends on the tension experienced by the illustrator, which in turn determines the texture of the illustration. The illustrator's style is inherent in his creation. The illustration is created for literary content. It is a proposition for painting. It is necessary to communicate with the literary style and to show the original features of the illustration. Therefore, the illustrator should adapt the visual style according to various literary themes. This adaption is the natural expression of the illustrator’s style. Of course, when you appreciate a single piece of illustration, it conveys the meanings of the literary work and presents its own charm.
CCBF: For you, what are the key factors in judging whether an illustration is excellent?
Zhou Xiang: Looking at an illustration, it is important to see if you can have a dialogue with it. Is it a chair that can comfort the mind? Can it guide the viewer to beauty through appreciation? Furthermore, are there unexpected ideas? Or, is it deliberately pursuing a so-called style? A deliberate style is a distortion of the aesthetic – it is ugly.
CCBF: Could you recommend a favourite children's book? Why?
Zhou Xiang: I would recommend Nine-Colour Deer. It is created by Taiwanese illustrators Lin Xiusui and Liao Jianhong. First of all, the book is very creative; reinterpreting an ancient story through a bird's flight and perspective. The authors subtly blend their ideas into the relationship between tradition and modernity. Secondly, they use the style of Chinese portrait bricks to express the picture, combining the two different artistic techniques of intaglio and graphic design. The result is a powerful visual presentation with new ideas.