a little chat with master soup artist gianna marino

#24 in an ongoing series of posts celebrating the alphabet.

 Animal prints available in three sizes may be purchased here.

To celebrate the launch of alphabet soup back in August 2007, I gave away a picture book called Zoopa: An Animal Alphabet by Gianna Marino (Chronicle Books, 2005).

After all, when considering soup books and alphabet books, Zoopa was one of my all-time favorites — it contained so many of the ingredients I wanted to serve up via this blog: fun, whimsy, gorgeous art, fresh perspectives, renewed appreciation for the alphabet, and of course, delicious food for thought.

In the world of children’s literature, there are alphabet books and there are ALPHABET BOOKS. Along with Carmine: A Little More Red by Melissa Sweet, Zoopa remains at the top of my list. This wordless visual feast, which begins with one tiny Ant eyeing up a bowl of tomato-y soup, and progresses with an entire alphabetical menagerie crawling, romping, leaping, trotting, splashing, and bounding all over the pages, inevitably begs repeated servings. Who can resist a mischievous chipmunk, a border of elephants cavorting on the rim of the soup bowl, a grasshopper wearing pink sneakers, or a monkey with green eyeglasses? Best of all, I love all the pasta letters floating around however they please in the bowl.

I was thrilled when Gianna contacted me a couple of months ago, asking if I had heard of Zoopa. Heard of it?! How do you tell an artist she’s created a book with your name written all over it, the contents perfectly evoking a vision you’ve tried for years to express in words?

You can see why I’m souper excited that Gianna has stopped by today. I asked her about the genesis of Zoopa, and a little about her new book, One Too Many (Chronicle, 2010), which was just released this Spring. It’s the perfect companion to Zoopa — a whimsical Seek & Find Counting Book featuring beautifully drawn animals rendered in a gouache palette of black, white, and greys. Both books reveal Gianna’s deep love for animals, who always appear on the page with distinct personalities and the most engaging expressions (look at the eyes).

Gianna is visiting today from San Francisco, where she lives with her husband, stepchildren, two dogs, a fat cat, and Nabu, the brilliant horse.

Join me in welcoming Gianna to alphabet soup with a few enthusiastic slurps!

J: Gianna, where did the idea for an animal alphabet come from? 

G: I took a class through UC Berkeley Extension years ago on illustrating children’s books. Though I had been an artist for years, I knew nothing about making a book, about the flow of pages, the number of pages, the size, the subject. Everyone has a great idea for a children’s book (which is why I took the class) but when you sit down to actually do it? Different story altogether. It is much harder than it looks!

In the class, one of the assignments was to create an alphabet book, just the first page with an idea for the rest of the book. I was working at a toy company at the time in the preliminary design department. I was taught to think things through to the final product in order to create toys that worked when finished. So, instead of drawing just the first spread, I had an idea for the entire book.

 Original Zoopa illo Gianna made for her UC Berkeley class.

I had also worked as a designer of dinnerware and I was very comfortable looking down on a round plate! It started with A is for Apple and an apple on a placemat. It was all kitchen related, I think. B is for bowl, C is for cracker, etc. But what I really love drawing is animals and soon decided to use creatures coming onto the placemat. The alphabet soup was a given, since it was an alphabet book. The title, Zoopa, is a combination of the Italian word for soup, zuppa, and zoo. The title was thought up over a bowl of soup by Jim Averbeck (In a Blue Room, Harcourt).

 Early Zoopa sketch.

J: I LOVE that you were a dinnerware designer! And the title, Zoopa, is absolutely perfect. I’m particularly curious about the hedgehog. The other animals approach the bowl and placemat, but the hedgehog swims in the soup. Any particular reason for this?

G: Hedgehogs have a very keen sense of smell and good hearing, but poor eyesight. Though most hedgehogs like to eat insects, our little Zoopa hedgehog was enticed by the smell of soup and couldn’t see exactly where it was, so ended up in the bowl! Once submerged in the warm soup, it felt good on his coarse hair. Hedgehogs also LOVE to swim and why not swim in a warm bowl of Zoopa!

J: Which was the hardest animal to draw? 

G: Each animal had its own challenge to draw since I chose the odd top perspective looking down onto the soup bowl. I didn’t want to just show them from their top view, as I wanted to see the expressions on their faces and more interesting views of their bodies. So, I played with perspective a bit to stretch the view – to see more than the eye would naturally see. The simple animals, such as the snake, the little dogs, the frog, were easy to manipulate, but others were harder, such as the Chipmunk when standing, the Monkey who is sometimes up-side-down, the Nanny Goat who is really side-ways and not seen from the top. Some of the animals with a lot of fur detail were also hard, like the Chipmunk, the Monkey and the Hedgehog.

J: Do you have a favorite animal? a favorite spread? 

G: I just love the final ta-da! spread of the zebra. When I am showing the book to a classroom, everyone comes close-in to find all the small animals and we spend a lot of time going through the details of the illustrations: the tennis shoes on the Grasshopper, the bows on the Pigs, the little Elephants around the bowl rim. Before I turn to the Z page, I pause and say, “Look close. This one is REALLY hard to find!” When I turn the page they are all looking for something tiny and WHAM! There is a giant Zebra across the entire page. I always get a big laugh and it makes everyone smile. I guess my goal, you could say, was to make people smile and it worked.

J: Can you briefly tell us how you created the illustrations? 

G: All of my illustrations start with thumbnail sketches. They are called thumbnails because the idea is they are small like your thumb. Because of the detail in Zoopa and its progressive nature, I had to work a little bigger just to be able to see the process from page to page. These initial sketches, about 5″x10″ were very, very loose and sketchy. I use them to get a feel for composition. Detail comes later.

          Ant used to wear glasses!

 “H” used to be a hippo (it’s a hedgehog in the finished book).

After I am satisfied with the layout/feel of the sketch, I blow them up to full size and start to make tighter and tighter drawings. I go back and forth between illustrations, making sure the characters look the same, are moving in the proper direction and all work together. Once that is done, the final sketches are transferred onto watercolor paper and painting begins. I paint with gouache and there is little (NO!) room for error. I go through the book, painting all the backgrounds first, then paint all the soup color, then all the ants on each page, then all the butterflies on each page, etc. If I made a mistake, it would be hard to go back and fix just one page. So, as is my motto, mistakes are not an option.

J: How many bowls of soup did you consume during the making of this book? ☺ And what is your favorite kind of soup? 

G: I LOVE soup, especially in the winter when it is cold. I could not say exactly how many bowls I consumed during the making of Zoopa, but I would guess more than a caseload! I have to say, I should never, ever, ever have liquid around my artwork. Gouache would wash into a mess of color if anything were to spill. But I like to tempt fate and I did have glasses of juice, bowls of ice cream, plates of fruit, and yes, bowls of soup, closer than I should have to the art. Luckily, fate was on my side and nothing spilled. Favorite soups? Carrot/ginger, minestrone, miso. Oh, and of course, alphabet soup . . .

 Early color direction.

J: What stands out in your mind when you think back to the making of Zoopa?

G: I had only one month to finish the paintings (after the sketches were done and transferred). I decided to paint one animal a day, so all the butterflies one day, all the chipmunks the next, etc. That is 26 days, plus the days for all the background, all the soup bowls, tablecloth, etc. There really was no room for error!

I also remember my hand cramping up, ligaments snapping across the top of my hand on those last days. Luckily, a few weeks rest and all was well.

I remember sending off the artwork and just praying that nothing would happen to the art, especially when it went overseas for scanning/printing!

Just a last word…… I had a wonderful time working on Zoopa and I hope those readers who have not yet seen it will go out and find one to look at. During all my school visits and readings, I have found it is fun for so many ages. The youngsters learn the alphabet and we adults can delight in the characters’ interaction. Fun for all!

J: Tell us about your new book! Was your process any different?

G: My new book, One Too Many – A Seek & Find Counting Book, is a companion book to Zoopa, similar in that animals are coming around a water trough. It starts off simply with One Flea on the page. The second page is Two Cows and One Flea. The third page is Three Horses, Two Cows and One Flea. It goes all the way up to Twelve Bats, then a surprise ending which reveals which animal is just one too many! There are 545 total animals in the book, so a counter’s delight. I can’t wait to read this to schools and have 200 children counting backwards as we go through the book. I was thinking of having them all sing in a 12 days of Christmas sort of tone — “On the farm, in the barnyard, my cowboy gave to meeeeee . . . a tiny flea that’s one too many . . . ”

The process of this book was similar to Zoopa, starting with thumbnail sketches, then tighter drawings and so on. This one was a bit more of a challenge as all the animals are black and white. I wanted to up the difficulty of finding the new animal, more of a maze of black and white. In fact, after I sent in my final sketches for approval, my editor emailed back to say, “We are counting an extra Goose on page 10 and two extra chickens on page 11!” I was so worried I would add too many animals. It was confusing to paint and I still have to look through carefully to find everything. The search and find part will be fun for everyone.

J: Thank you SO much, Gianna, and congratulations on the release of One Too Many! It was fabulous finally meeting you!



♥ Visit her official website to find out more about her background in fine art, murals, and toy design.

♥ Signed copies of both Zoopa and One Too Many are available for purchase at Gianna’s website. You can also purchase a signed copy of Zoopa along with this print (final spread showing all the animals), just perfect for alphabet fans and art lovers:

♥ Also check out her portfolios featuring children’s illustration and fine art. Lots of beautiful gouache and mixed media prints and originals available for sale, such as the animals at the top of this post, and these gorgeous botanicals:

♥ Finally, Gianna was featured at 7-Imp back in 2008!

How about a slurp of minestrone in honor of Gianna?

 Recipe for this heart healthy soup is here (photo by ric_w).

Buon Appetito!!

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.


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