• @Lee-White I would love to hear about this topic! Many of the illustration ideas that I have involve different cultures and countries that I have visited, or come from my husband's country and culture. While I would love to write and illustrate these stories, I would also love to hear how the greater book publishing world looks at an illustrator from one culture illustrating about another. I understand it's a sensitive subject with many varying views. But, coming from a multicultural marriage and raising a multicultural family, I am continually looking for ways to teach not only my own children, but others as well that these conversations can happen and, when given respect and allowing each voice to air in a judgement-free zone, no matter how different the perspective, they provide greater understanding and compatibility.

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    @jimsz while I see where you are going with your reply, I think that might be a bit too simplistic of an answer.

    Questions that aren't as easily answered:

    Should someone from one culture illustrate something from another culture without truly understanding that culture? Will they even be able to illustrate it without that viewpoint? And would it be better to hire someone from that culture anyway as a first step? This is also a chance to talk about topics like "Is there a bias in the way illustrators are hired? Does racism/gender/sexual orientation bias affect our industry as much as others"?

    There are a TON of other questions like this that would be fun (and scary!) to dive into.

    So While I agree that "illustrations should just work", there is a lot of context around this subject that isn't as easy to figure out.

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    Love seeing all the answers here. Thanks so much for giving some feedback. I think it would/will be an awesome podcast, but man are we nervous about it!! It's just so loaded and there isn't an "answer" per se that we will even attempt to get to with it. Just maybe have a conversation about it and see what people think? I'm really not sure. Which makes me want to do it even more.

  • Pro

    @jimsz I agree with Lee's response that your viewpoint is incredibly simplistic. Yes illustration is about talent, but if you don't ask yourself what makes an illustration good in the first place you won't ever get to the highest level of quality. That includes questions like "Does an artist from within a specific community better equipped or a better fit to illustrate a story about that community?" and Will they be able to capture more truth, realism and emotion?" Questions of appropriation or sensitivity (so we don't accidentally offend people) have to do with the business side and also the readership. Again, very important for a talented artist to be business savvy and and to think about their audience and how their illustrations will be received.

  • @Lee-White

    Respectfully, I don't see my answer as being simplistic but rather your question being overly complex.

    If you are looking for an illustration for a story about a white lower income Ukranian boy (or any other specific demographic) many hear are saying you have to be a white lower income Ukranian boy. A middle class white American of Ukranian descent certainly couldn't know what it means, etc.

    This is simply political correctness run amuck. Good art is good art and that is all that should matter. Anything else is an insult to the artist.

  • @NessIllustration

    Respectfully, I do not go through my day worrying about "offending" someone. If you are speaking about art as whole, there are times create work will be offensive as one of the roles of art is to push the limits and create discussion and make the viewer or participant think/react/examine. In that regard, I can see a discussion but only within that limited scope.

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    @jimsz I'm still not sure I agree with that, but I do respect your opinion. Here are a few situations where your statement might not fit. (I totally agree that in a perfect world, talent would be the only issue and it would easily be decided who is the best. But there are whole host of areas that are more complex than political correctness run amuck. I don't think it's an insult to artists to discuss this and ask these questions. It's not a simple black and white answer.

    For example, what if there is a story from Mexico and there are two equally talented illustrators available for the job. One is white and the other is from Mexico. Should the artist from Mexico be given preference? (this is what I'm calling an "authenticity" argument). I agree with your sentiment that illustrators have to be given the freedom to draw other stories from other cultures. It's fiction and we can't possibly know everything about what we are writing about. If that were the case, I'd need to murder someone in order to write a murder mystery. Obviously that makes no sense so when writing fiction we have to have a certain amount of freedom.

    What if a studio wants to use a Japanese Kimono as a basis for their costume in a new film. The kimono in Japan is very traditional and comes with a lot of meaning. How far can or should the studio go before it's offensive to the culture they are taking the design from? What if that studio wants to make the "bad guys" in the movie wearing the Kimono design and their whole goal is to destroy humanity? That would probably be horribly offensive to anyone from Japan. So just saying that artists shouldn't worry about anything they design would not hold true here. I know this is an extreme example, but I'm just using it to illustrate my point.

    To not acknowledge that stories, designs, and symbols have meaning is not realistic. If you are using a Japanese kimono in your designs and don't think it has meaning, you would be mistaken. Not worrying about offending someone doesn't mean that you aren't offending whole groups of people without even knowing it. I'm not talking about little silly overly PC things, but things that have true meaning in different cultures or to different people.

  • SVS OG

    @Lee-White I think this is a fantastic subject and I hope that you are able to put together something. I can't wait! Here are my thoughts.

    Should artists be able to draw characters from different genders, cultures, body types and ability levels? YES! I feel like it necessary in today's diverse environment. Representation is important, especially in community or classroom spreads. I want it to be part of my wheelhouse. The question I have is how? How to do it respectfully and well, naturally. There are a couple of nuances here that I have thought through.

    Level 1: Physical Attributes
    I have noticed there are is a lot of media that solves this problem with what I call the "Magic School Bus Fix" Each character representing a different hair color/skin color/ethnicity/personality. (Think "Rogue One" for movies). That seems to be a pretty accepted approach. So where do we get into trouble?

    Problem 1. Is each character is presented in a stereotypical way across a body of work or the industry? (Is the black kid always in gym shorts and the Asian always super smart and the blonde always popular and dumb?) (@Will-Terry did a great podcast on this with Tyrus Goshay https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56UfBZzaM0w )

    Problem 2. Are the characters drawn using recognized, unflattering stereotypes. Or contributing to something that is known to be racist or discriminatory. How do I know what things to avoid? Are there resources for this?

    Problem 3. Is the main character always the same gender/color/body size/ability level (ie- Is the kid with the wheelchair or glasses always the supporting character?)

    Most illustrators I would guess would be expected to be able to pull this method off well, if they can tackle those three problems. Where it becomes difficult is when we add culture. In the "Magic School Bus" everyone is essentially Americanized. They wear t-shirts and jean and act and act in a similar way. If we want to branch out to make a richer illustration how do we do it without offending? This is such a difficult topic! And I don't have the answer. Partly because we all have different experiences and want to be represented. Here are some things I have picked up on.
    Level 2: Culture

    Point A: We ALL have different experiences. Ignoring that leads to stereotypes again. Not every black person is from the American South, some are from Brazil, or Africa or Europe or, well anywhere, and they don't all have the same story or background. So it would not be authentic to give their stories all the same treatment.

    Point B: Should the story be told by a person with that background?

    Louisa May Alcott famously found her place in the writing world when she took her publishers advice to write about her own experience. I can see how a picture book written by someone who has experienced something can be potentially more powerful than one written by someone who has only researched it. That being said, illustrators are often paired with authors because of their skill to tell a story. And I believe that we can and should learn about the experiences of others and it builds community to work together to create something beautiful.

    It also depends on the story being told. If the story is about Mrs. Frizzel and the digestive system is it really important to include more diverse cultural clues than hair color? If the story is about a Russian family immigrating somewhere, should the author/illustrator be Russian? When it comes down to it, do all books with minority main characters need to be explorations of origin? "The Snowy Day" by Ezra Keats was groundbreaking because his main character was an African American boy doing normal play-in-the-snow-kid-stuff. It wasn't a book with social commentary, and the pictures aren't that detailed. It is an enchanting snow day book and he decided to be inclusive with his art by choosing a look for his main character that would reach more kids. Keats is white. His take on diversity was powerful!

    Point 3 Research and Collaboration: Where can we find resources?
    If we do take on a book that deals with culture and experiences outside of our own we need to be prepared to do a lot of research and collaboration to create to best thing that we can. Get outside and find a group of editors to check to make sure it is not offensive. (Think Disney and "Moana" they worked very closely with the Hawaiian people to make a movie they both could be happy with.) Are there groups for this?

    Point 4: Retelling can be Compelling
    So is it okay to tell stories in your way if you are clear that is your intent?
    We retell fables and stories all of the time, and I think it is beautiful. I have seen Cinderella done and redone with different cultural twists. Telling someone they can't share a story seems counterproductive, and a good way to forget culture. Maybe that is cultural appropriation? Giving credit can help ( for example state "This is a retelling of the parable about the chessboard and the rice.") This is such a sticky thing!

    I think that if you are going to tell someone's story, be their voice by learning what they want you to say. And encourage lots of people to tell their own story so the whole world can be richer.

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    @juliepeelart great points. And love what you said about Keats (one of my favorites!).

  • Pro

    @jimsz I also don't go about my day worrying if I'll offend people. But when I make an illustration, of course I think about this. If my goal is to make an illustration for children that will make them laugh, and instead when they see it they feel mocked, teased, belittled, then I have done a very bad job. Of course if your intent is to offend, like an edgy caricature, then go right ahead. But no matter the intended effect, not ever considering your audience's reaction when you are drawing something for them would be doing a poor job.

    Not wanting to offend is only one of many questions related to this topic. I notice you completely ignored the whole first half of my message. I do agree with you that of course you don't have to be exactly like your character to be able to portray them. A lot of times, a bit of research is enough to understand the topic/culture. Not every story features very specific cultural things either. I could easily illustrate the story of the Ukrainian boy if it's a simple story about him not getting along with a friend, for example. But how about if it's a story about a Ukrainian ceremony deeply rooted in their culture, an event which I myself have never attended, experienced or witnessed? What if it will feature a specific church I've never been to and can only reference a couple pictures, what if it features a prominent Ukrainian person I've never met and don't know what they're like? Will my rendition ring true to someone who has in fact participated in that ceremony, attended that church and met that person? Will they find factual mistakes in my rendition? Will I be able to capture the real essence of it? As a professional illustrator if you're not asking yourself these questions, I'm not sure what level of quality you can even hope to achieve.

  • SVS OG

    @Lee-White Thanks! I think this is a really interesting topic! I think about it in terms of character designs. We have some norms especially in animation. The main character needs to be the most appealing, and the supporting characters appealing, but not quite a cool and the bad guy kind of alarming so forth. This is so engrained that we can usually spot a potential, villan, love interest or main character just from the movie poster. Do we then end up casting or drawing in a stereotypical way because that is how storytelling works to achieve that? It would be an interesting project to create a classic squad that works together. (Leader, brains, plucky comic relief, techie, emotional compass) and a Nemesis core (Bad guy, second in command, Enforcers). And then mix up the physical characteristics from the typical mix. Sometimes we see that done purposely (short bad guy etc) But it would be a good experiment. Maybe put them on dice and see what you get over and over. This would be easiest with skin and hair color, but body type and ability gets more challenging. Usually our main character is very cool and fit. 🙂

  • Like a lot of others, I also feel that this would be a great topic to discuss and one I would definitely listen to.

    I think that there are a lot of shared experiences that people of certain genders/races/cultures have, and by hiring a person of that gender/race/culture they would be coming in with a view of that shared experience which would help them to create a book that can relate to those genders/races/cultures more authentically than if made by someone who has not had these experiences. Although I think it's all really dependent on the subject matter. If you're asked to create an educational book illustrating aspects of a certain culture, I feel this can be achieved by anyone with the right research. However, if the content is geared more towards the experience a character has while growing up that is prevalent to a particular culture/race, it might be better to have someone of the same culture/race who can empathize with that content to create illustrations for it. Perhaps if the content was about a shared experience or an experience the artist/author is able to research well or get insight from people who had experienced it, it could be illustrated by anybody. Overall though, I think representation in children's books is important and having characters that resemble the children we meet in life helps them to feel included and connected to the stories we read them. I would also like to think that it helps other kids develop empathy and sympathy by allowing them to relate to characters that don't look or act like they do.

    Two writers/illustrators that come to mind for this topic would be Ezra Jack Keats (he was mentioned in a previous comment as well) and Lio Lionni (particularly his book Little Blue and Little Yellow).

  • I would love to hear a podcast on this topic. Though I have been to a lot of conferences and listened to other podcasts tackle the subject as well. Vanessa Brantley Newton does a great job talking about diversity and representation within publishing if you could get her as a guest that would be awesome!

    For me, I think research and understanding is important and I can list a handful of author/illustrators that did an amazing job with representation, telling stories about people outside of their own backgrounds. Ezra Jack Keats, Jessica Love, and Francis Vallejo just to name a few. But for books like Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut I really don’t know how this book would have been illustrated if it was from someone outside of the black/African American community. There’s a certain experience needed to illustrate this story accurately and I believe the art director knew this and they needed an illustrator who fully understood this experience, getting a fresh cut at a black barber shop. Which is why I think the book did so well within the community it represents. A connection was made, an authentic connection, so why wouldn’t you want that for the book?

    And while I say research is great looking up photographs and reading articles just isn’t enough sometimes. Getting someone who is a great writer/illustrator with an authentic experience that relates to the story seems to make perfect sense. Why wouldn’t you want your story to be as authentic as possible? If you’re only doing surface work what’s the point?

    I think @NessIllustration is 100% right, illustrating is only part of the job asking yourself these questions, as she stated, is very important AND is part of the job as an illustrator. We’ve seen there have been many books created that did not represent specific groups of people or cultures accurately and that can be a career ending mistake these days. So if you’re not asking yourself these questions then why are you illustrating? Just to create a pretty illustration? All stories demand more than that. So, why do you feel you are the right person to write or illustrate these types of stories if that's all you are going to contribute? Authenticity allows a story to make a deeper connection for the communities, the kids, the adults, the people, the places, and the cultures it is representing. Representation matters but if you can not do that authentically and you offend rather than inspire then you are not the right person to be writing or illustrating these stories.

  • I would also like to hear that talk! I was struggling a bit this Inktober when I drew a character resembling an indiginous person from South America. How similar does she have to be to a certain people, (in her case, I got inspired by some fotos of Yanomami), if I depict her in an environmet, how closely does it have to sesemble their natural habitat; their tools, their traditional food ... If I had done this for a bigger project, not just for single fast drawings, I would have done more research on the topic. Is it offensive to draw indigenous people withought knowledge of their culture? I would like to know your opinions. I'd like to continue drawing them. I am fascinated by their ways of life (the few things I read so far). I think it can help to get feedback from someone of the community you're depicting. Which might be difficult in that case.
    An illustrator has a certain responsibility: He delivers an image about what he draws to society. They might believe in it as true! Still today, most people think that native Americans are like what Karl May described in his novels (edit: Well, this might be rather german - anyone out there knows Winnetou & Co?). In any case, I would not want to only draw (fe)male white people all my life! That's completely boring 😉

  • I think it is very valuable to discuss this topic! 🙂

    Often I take my kids to the library hoping to find books that show main characters who are of a race other than white. One time I went on a mission to find books with no white characters whatsoever and spent three hours searching until I had a basketful. It is so difficult to find books like this, unless they are about historic figures or events, or books that pay homage to the great sufferings that people groups have endured and are enduring. These are fantastic books too, but I hope that my kids will grow up not thinking twice when they see black heroes, or a brown scientist or doctor or executive or king or queen or principal or wealthy person, or an interracial family, in a picture book that has no intentional tie to race or history.

    In the American culture, there is great emphasis on the white race being “the norm”, even though on a global level that isn’t true. I hope, as illustrators, we can help the upcoming generations consider the whole earth as their home and to have a more honest global consciousness.

    The images kids see play into their subconscious beliefs about who they are, what they can achieve, what they and others are “supposed” to be like, and what is considered acceptable in society. In a world that fills their minds with advertising and other media, I’d love to see illustrators challenge some of the stereotypes that are so thoughtlessly promoted in other forms of image making.

    Thanks for considering this topic and for bringing on guests! Great idea! I’m interested in many of the questions others have brought up.

  • SVS Instructor Pro

    I think this is a great topic! The more places this is part of the conversation, the more it will be an issue considered which will only elevate the books out in the world.

    I have been listening to the Kid Lit Women Podcast as a resource for the Picture Book class I teach. https://www.kidlitwomen.com/http/kidlitwomenpodcastlibsyncom

    And the recent Episode 99 about #ownvoices seems like it would be appropriate to this general topic.


  • I would definitely like to hear a discussion on this and I think a guest speaker is also a great idea. I completely admire you at svs for tackling such a difficult subject.
    I think these issues are also incredibly important, especially considering some of the disturbing political trends lately. I think kids need to grow up seeing lots of different types of people and cultures, so the more diversity there is in illustration, the richer we all are for it.
    I’m currently reading some amazing Japanese fairy tales to my kids, who are absolutely captivated by them. If I was to illustrate this I would be nervous about getting it wrong, without expert advice and critical feedback from Japanese people.

    One question that has worried me;
    Is there a point where it can be seen as exploitive for an illustrator to represent a different culture than the one they’re from?

  • @Aleksey And people with disabilities 🙂

  • @danielerossi ugh yes! Sorry I should have mentioned them as well.

    Side note It would be amazing if there was closed captioning on the svslearn videos because people who are hard of hearing communicate visually and enjoy art!

  • I’d be interested in learning about how to ensure the research you do of the other cultures/experiences is optimal.

    For example, I’ve always been interested in Inuit culture and would love to write/draw a graphic novel taking place in the Canadian Arctic with Inuit characters. Do I ask any random Inuit person and assume they have all the answers by default* or go to an Inuit studies department in a university or a tourism board? Or perhaps the answer is to consult as many sources as possible. The more research the better, no?

    A plan B I have is to simply tell a real story of whoever it is in the other culture/experience. For example, one of my Inktober drawings was about a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair and is Ethiopian. I was inspired by an experience she shared on Instagram and drew an illustration around her words. I included her words and a drawing of my friend. Before posting, I showed the illustration to her and she said it was fine. So it became more of a collaboration.

    Come to think of it, how does Disney do it?

    *I speak with a stutter and I’m often asked what causes it, how to treat it, etc. but I don’t have all the answers. I’m also second generation Italian but only know so-much about my heritage and there are variances throughout the country due to history.

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