In conversation with children’s book illustrator Anna Forlati – on muse, success and failure, and illustrating “My Dad, My Rock”


Anna Forlati was born in Padua, Italy. She studied contemporary art and film history in Venice and is now a prolific children’s books illustrator, who has worked on at least 40 books. Anna exhibits her work widely, both in Italy and internationally. She also teaches at “Ars in Fabula”, the Picture Book Academy for aspiring illustrators, based in Macerata, Italy.

During our conversation I asked Anna how her illustrating career started, what motivates, inspires and challenges her, as well as her illustration process for her latest book “My Dad, My Rock” written by Victor D.O. Santos. Enjoy getting to know this fabulous artist, as much as I have.

1. How did you get started in art and illustration?

I have always been interested in art, in its different forms (sculpture, painting, photography, art history, cinema…). But it was quite late in life when I realised I wanted to be an illustrator. Almost by chance, I got a commission for an illustrated book. It didn’t come from too close to home but from a Palestinian organisation working in Israel with whom I am still collaborating. After that, I enrolled in a Master’s course at Ars in Fabula (Macerata, Italy) on illustration for books, and from there my career started.

2. What do you find appealing about a career in illustrating children’s books? What are its biggest challenges? 

The good parts, I guess, are quite straightforward: it’s a very creative work, where your ideas, fantasy, style and conception of the world can be put into play… The work is shaped under your hands, and at times it can be profoundly satisfying.

The more challenging parts of a career in illustration emerge after a while, especially in a country like Italy where the profession itself is very poorly recognised. I could list many struggles I have been experiencing, but the biggest challenge is probably the feeling of solitude and isolation. It can be hard to cope with it, but at the same time, such retreat is also necessary to the creative process.

3. Is illustrating your full-time occupation or do you have other work? Please tell us more about your teaching role at the ‘Ars in Fabula’ the Picture Book Academy, based in Macerata, Italy.

Illustrating is pretty much my main occupation, apart from laboratories and other interventions in schools and teaching programmes, especially the Ars in Fabula one you mentioned. In the latter, I follow the pupils through the end phase of a 6-month ‘Entry Level’ programme. Throughout the course, the students can interact with different illustrators and other professionals of the book industry, while developing a personal book project.

I really love to mentor students, and I am filled with emotions when I see their progression towards finding their own voice. Sometimes I feel I am better at guiding others’ work than my own.

4. How many books have you illustrated so far? Is there a particular genre that appeals to you when considering illustration commissions (eg. fantasy, realism or stories dealing with emotions)?

My publications must be around 40 so far. My favourite texts are of a kind that may be described as magic realism; they can be found in the writings of Samad Behrangi and María Teresa Andruetto – authors that I had the privilege of illustrating – or in some popular tales that have not been too manipulated by modern writers.

In this type of narrative, magic permeates reality in a more subtle and pervasive way than in fantasy or supernatural tales. Such an enigmatic, uncanny atmosphere really fascinates me and stimulates my imagination profoundly.

5. What is your favourite artistic medium and why? Does digital medium play a role in your illustrative process? 

My favourite artistic medium is mixing a lot of mediums… Experimenting with different materials – even the ones not meant for artistic purposes – is truly satisfying and I wish I did it more. Often the results are bad, but there is always something that can be saved and re-used.

In general, I employ acrylics a lot, often mixed with pencils and oil pastels. I love oil and ink and would like to learn to use watercolours at some point.

I frequently use the digital medium, which I enjoy and find extremely versatile and helpful. I think nevertheless that it is crucial to keep your hands ‘dirty’, and not to quit hand techniques.

6. What are some of your most memorable (good, bad or challenging) illustrating projects? What made them so memorable?

My most memorable books started from texts that truly spoke to me at a precise moment in my life. For example, The Fox and the Aviator by Luca Tortolini, which came out in 2015, has been a very meaningful story and I feel that the illustrations I produced, still with the many defects they might have, truly represent me.

A very challenging experience has been The Flowers’ Tale, a book about gardens (ironically, the text is also by Luca) that was very difficult to research and design. The publisher abandoned it in the process; it has not found a home yet and sadly I think it never will.

7. What was your favourite book when you were a child, a teenager and now as an adult?

When I was a child my favourite book was the Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, along with the Gnomes books by Huygen and Poortvliet. The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov and the Invisible Cities by Calvino have been truly meaningful books when I was a teenager. Now, as an adult, I don’t think I have one favourite book, but some collections of poems by South American authors like Neruda and Borges are very special to me.

8. What artists, authors or mentors have influenced your artistic development? Name three that you would love to invite to dinner? What are the most burning questions you would love to ask them?

This is a very difficult question! Luckily, I had a lot of mentors guiding me through my artistic development, from Florence Faval (my teacher of sculpture and photography when I was a teenager) to Joseph Kosuth (he has led some of the most explosive art courses I have taken part in).

I try not to know too personally the artist and authors I truly worship. If I had to organise a special dinner with my favourite ones – assuming I should choose living ones – I would love to have along William KentridgeFabian Negrin and Helen Maurer. I would trouble their meal by asking them: Did you ever feel an impostor in your work? What are you afraid of? What does ‘learning art’ mean to you? What does failure mean to you?

9. They are great questions Anna and obviously spark your curiosity, so then may I trouble you by asking, did you ever feel an impostor in your work? What are you afraid of? What does ‘learning art’ mean to you? What does failure mean to you?

Yes, most of the time! I have a chronic impostor syndrome, which is only moderately easing with age.

What are you afraid of? 

Well, I guess, I am afraid of being an impostor…and moreover, I am truly scared of a lot of things: cruelty, indifference, driving a car, being unheard, my vegetable garden, darkness, atomic war, poverty, dancing in a couple, extinction, tramways, loneliness, failure. But on the other hand, I’m not so scared of many others: insects, spiders, walking alone at night, confronting my feelings, rats, travelling alone for more than a week (well, a bit still…), skiing.

What does ‘learning art’ mean to you? 

Mine is more a very personal concept, rather than a precise and universal formula. ‘Learning art’ to me means studying the techniques and subjects of an artistic discipline (and especially illustration) to reach a point where you are so sure of yourself that you can loosen the control and make errors. In errors lies an enormous artistic potential and I think artists throughout history have acknowledged that.

There is a famous quote attributed to Picasso “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Although even with 100 years of practice I will never be able to paint like Raphael, this quote expresses quite well what ‘learning art’ means to me: reaching towards a utopic level of freedom where your hand and your imagination are so strongly connected that they flow together, unfearing of errors, as does (I imagine) a small child when creating.

What does failure mean to you?

Failure is like error, but in more existential terms. It is terrifying but, in some ways, I feel it is crucial to the creative work. 

I don’t want to play on the sometimes dangerous aesthetic of the doomed and depressed artist. I think that the quest for success and recognition is a truly positive and vital attitude. But you have to embrace the possibility of failure if you want to be artistically and personally free. That means that your motivation lies not exclusively in the quest for success, but on more deep and stable grounds. This is what I mean when I say, further along, that to me success and failure are truly entangled concepts. 

10. Can you describe your process for illustrating “My Dad, My Rock”? How did you start? Did you model your characters on any real-life people, your friends or family?

The quest for the boy, Oliver, was quite straightforward, and entirely made-up. On the other hand, the dad took some time to define. My real-life starting point for him was the actor Jean Reno.

From the beginning, there was a lot of helpful dialogue with the publisher over the stylistic approach and all other aspects of the book. I seldomly find such involvement and effort in publishers, and I really appreciated it.

I started my steps with a mockup full of visual references provided by the publisher himself. It was a very helpful tool for the first part of the design process (the various storyboards etc.) which took a fair amount of time.

Other conversations we had considered whether or not the boy’s mom would appear. We decided not to, thus keeping the possibility of a single parenting family and focusing entirely on fatherhood. 

We discussed furthermore the choice to represent racial diversity in the final family (Oliver’s partner and children), as well as on the use of the tree (a Maple species that is common in Iowa, where Victor is based), seen throughout the book in its growing phases, to make a clear visual connection between generations.

11. Victor Santos dedicated his story of the loving relationship between Oliver and his Dad to all fathers and his son. This book appears to be charged with the energy and the emotions of the author’s personal experiences, did this make it more challenging to illustrate than a fantasy genre tale? If yes, why? If not, why?

The book was inspired by an actual, short dialogue between Victor and his son one night at bedtime, which can be found on the very first page of the book. Although many texts contain some degree of personal experiences, it was truly quite peculiar to deal with such a deep biographical reference by an author. The dialogue with Victor has been very intense and I think he’s been extremely generous in letting me go my own way, even when illustrating such personal matters. Then of course I was able to connect it to my personal history and relationship with my father, which is especially important in this moment of my life.

12. Where do you turn to for ideas and inspiration? People, place, books, music…etc. Do you have a muse?

Places, architectures, faces, atmospheres are great sources of inspiration. Music saves my life but cinema is my muse.

13. You say that cinema is your muse and you noted earlier that your inspiration for the dad character was the actor Jean Reno. 

Would you say your illustrations and art were inspired through a cinematic lens? 

Cinema is a passion and a great visual and poetic source of inspiration. Although the language of cinema has a lot in common with comics, it holds some crucial differences with the illustrated book: while a movie can rely on thousands of photograms to tell a story, the illustrated book has a very limited number of images, generally 12 or 16. So obviously the choice of what to illustrate has to be very careful, often selecting iconic scenes, or even merging multiple moments in one frame.

Moreover, dialogues work really badly in illustrated books (visually, I mean). But the most important difference lies for me in the use of time. In a movie the timing is decided and fixed, the spectator doesn’t truly have a choice on it. And you generally don’t watch the same movie more than 3 or 4 times in a lifetime. 

Instead, I think the purpose of a picture book is to be continuously re-read and re-watched. And not necessarily from the first page to the last, but choosing your own order, your own timing, scrolling quickly through the pages or lingering and exploring one single image for as long as you like. 

So, to finally answer your question, no, I wouldn’t say that my illustrations are inspired directly through a cinematic lens, but precisely the differences I see between the two mediums help me greatly in putting into focus the peculiarities and purpose of the illustrated book, and of illustration in general.

Do you often start character development with an actor or film character in mind? 

No, not very often. But when I am stuck with ideas I often turn to cinema. Actors have usually very interesting faces. 

And I couldn’t let you get away without asking, what is your favourite movie?

There are so many movies I’ve loved immensely, and the first one that comes to my mind is a great classic, The Third Man by Carol Reed.

14. In terms of your illustrative career, how do you measure success, and where would you like to see yourself in ten years?

I think success and failure are truly entangled concepts. An example of success would be receiving a prize and knowing that you earned it, or, more broadly, being truly satisfied by your work and knowing that the satisfaction is shared by people you value.

In the future, while keeping on with illustrated books (among other projects, I will very soon start working on another picture book with Victor Santos, called “What Makes us Human”), I would love to differentiate my portfolio and work in slightly different fields, like illustration for magazines or newspapers, and animation.

In ten years, when hopefully the pandemic will be just a memory, I would love to be travelling to teach illustration and participate in creative projects all over the world.

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Victor D.O. Santos (author of My Dad, My Rock)

Great interview with Anna, Natalia! Even though I am the author of the book, I had no idea Anna had based her illustration of the dad in the book on the actor Jean Reno! It’s so great to learn new things about your own book sometimes! 🙂 It was also great to discover a little more about Anna’s previous work through this interview with her. Thank you so much!

Gavin L. O'Keefe
2 years ago

Thank you for such a fascinating interview with Anna – and thanks to Anna for giving us an insight into her life and work. It is enlightening to hear another illustrator talking about their work, approach, and influences.

2 years ago

Another great interview with such a talented and articulate artist. I love getting an insight into the creative process of creative people like Anna, and to hear what makes them tick. Never for one minute did I think I would come away from this interview with a movie recommendation “The Third Man”. A classic cinematic masterpiece that I had not previously seen. Thank you Natalia and thank you Anna.

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