By Elisabeth Norton
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations
Providence-based illustrator Rongyuan Ma is originally from China. She is a graduate of the Children’s Book Illustration Certificate Program at Rhode Island School of Design, an elected member of Art League of Rhode Island, and an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
She has won a series of awards that include 3×3 Contemporary Magazine (Bronze Medal), Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles (Gold Award), China Animation & Comic Competition Golden Dragon Award (Gold Medal), winner of Ann Barrow Scholarship, and finalist of Art Idol Figure Design Competition.
Congratulations on your illustration “Daughter of the Dragon” being selected as the winner of SCBWI’s Bologna Illustrators’ Gallery! How long have you been illustrating?
Honestly I cannot remember exactly how long. I grew up in China when most parents felt slightly ashamed and deeply concerned to have an emerging artist in the family.
My mother used to take drastic measures to stop me from becoming one. Of course that did not work. In fact, it made me more determined to pursue my dream of art. Looking back, I am quite content with what I have become through these years.
Do you have a favorite illustration medium and/or tools?
Recently I have a newfound interest in watercolor, besides my long-time favorite of brush and ink. I am planning on using only charcoal pencil for my next project. Not to mention that I like computer graphics, too, and am pretty familiar with it.
In fact, I am really fascinated by all media, tools, and techniques. I don’t want to limit myself by drawing a line between what I can and cannot use. If possible, I would like to have opportunities to try all sorts of new medium, as I love the feeling realizing “Oh that’s how it works.” It’s just like gaining a new friendship.
What is your typical process for creating an illustration?
Brainstorming the overall composition, posture of the characters, sources of lighting and the vision angles. This is my “Step One”, and then there it is, the long creation process. To me, this initial part is the most challenging.
As an illustrator, I am creating something out of thin air: from an abstract concept to a depicted visual image. I really value the instantaneous inspiration that strikes me, showing me the composition and the perspective of the picture, what visual angle applies, where the light comes from, and so forth. That instant blueprint flashes in my head usually determines what my final work looks like. And, with such a scheme, the following part of the process, such as outlining and coloring, will flow naturally, which makes the whole creative process quite enjoyable.
However, as much as I try, that transient Eureka! moment does not guarantee to honor me every time I brainstorm.
Does this process or the tools you use vary between projects?
Yes, and no to this question. “Yes”, with my great curiosity in diverse methods and approaches, the creative process itself or the media/tools involved in it may vary significantly. Every artwork has its “voice” to be heard, and it demands distinctive interpretation.
I personally don’t think there is a panacea for all tasks: solution α might be the least effective for problem β. As I said, I am keen on finding the particular expression that makes the voice stronger.
Yet, “No” is that no matter how different the projects are, there is something unchanged in all processes: the brainstorm at the very beginning, which I called “the enlightening phase”.
Is this how you created your winning illustration, “Daughter of the Dragon”?
Yes, “Daughter of the Dragon” went through such a process. It is the first spread of the whole storyboard, so I figure it has more responsibility than other pages in terms of fulfilling purposes such as introducing the character, setting the background and atmosphere of the story, and appealing to the reader in a visual way.
Technically, the illustration was done mainly with traditional media of brush, ink and gouache on 22″ x 11″ board paper for the drawing part.
I even used a tooth brush to create a certain richness of texture before scanning into my computer for finishing up.
“Daughter of the Dragon” is beautiful! Can you tell us about your inspiration for this particular illustration?
“Daughter of the Dragon” is a retelling of a Chinese folktale about a
young dragon girl leaving the sea to join the much loved Lantern
Festival but having underestimated how different and complicated the
human world could be.
To be more believable, the main character was modeled after my daughter, who was born not too long before the making of this illustration.
I was trying to blend in metaphors and symbolism to this piece in order to best interpret the manuscript: I use lotus, a Buddhist symbol which grows up from mud, through water, into air, still remaining stunningly beautiful with faith, to signify the characteristic of transcendence of our protagonist.
So daughter of the dragon must triumph over all challenges and follow her heart to go somewhere she had yearned for. In particular, the red scarf hints at her passion and determination.
Is it part of a larger work such as a picture book or was it created as a stand-alone piece?
The illustration is from the same titled children’s picture book that I
cooperated with my husband. He writes and I illustrate. “Daughter of the
Dragon” is the first full spread among other illustrations in the
Where do you like to create?
It depends on what phase I am in during the process. Though the “enlightening phase” requires full alert and deep contemplation, I strangely prefer to do it somewhere outside home, likely with crowd and noise, for instance, a small cafe or even a busy restaurant. I feel more engaged and motivated with such populous effects, thus I am more efficient in finding the idea that sparkles.
After succeeding in getting the satisfactory design of the project, my choice for creative space is the least flexible: home and home only. I think many may agree with me that the creating process itself can get very lonely and stressful. So an environment that is familiar and also comforting and supportive will help tremendously.
I do have my work space at home, with all my equipment, tools, supplies, and references handy. Every so often more stuff crams in and I constantly feel that I am running out of space. Lighting is super important to me when comes to work, as I need to have sufficient yet comfortable lighting to do my job well. Maybe because my space is pretty cozy, it becomes a hub where everyone in the family, my husband, my daughter, and our cat, like to hang out.
What is the typical illustration process like for you?
My work habit is to make plans and to stick with them. I believe
participation is quintessential for an artist, for it broadens one’s
horizon by practices such as professional critiquing and/or peer
networking. Therefore, I try to be active in my field signing up many
art activities during each year.
I make both general plans and detailed schedules, usually prior the year to come. According to the different artistic missions I sign up, my illustration session can stretch to a full-year-long, with multiple sub-sessions, each with a precisely timed beginning and due-date.
In order to prevent procrastination, I make day-to-day schedule for the sub-session to proportion my project and to specify my daily task. Whether ahead or behind, it shows clearly where I am in the process. Also, it feels great to check off things from my to-do list every day.
Even during each illustration session, I am not always switched on to the “work mode”. Instead, I try to allow life intervene occasionally: running errands with my husband, playing with my daughter, feeding my cat or the squirrels and birds in the backyard, making dinner plans or simply mopping the floor…these small but peaceful moments help refresh my mind so that I can stay sharp and sensitive in art.
Thank you, Roya.
Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity of being interviewed! I am truly happy and flattered that my artwork is appreciated by many.
Elisabeth Norton grew up
in Alaska, lived for many years and Texas, and after a brief sojourn in
England, now lives with her family between the Alps and the Jura in
She writes for middle grade readers and serves as the regional advisor for the Swiss chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
When not writing, she can be found walking the dogs, playing board
games, and spending time with family and friends. Find her on Twitter @fictionforge.