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Meet the Illustrator: Estella Guerrera

December 03, 2019 by s.nagele

"I am a developmental psychologist, and I have worked for over ten years in the psycho-educational and social field, and am involved in the management, planning and coordination of services and initiatives aimed at children, families and people with disabilities, both in Italy and abroad. I'm passionate about stories, art and illustration, I give creative workshops and laboratories using artistic mediation techniques, as well as working as a freelance illustrator. I currently live in Bologna and I am specializing in Art Therapy and Integrative Psychotherapy, specialising in  psychological and psycho-educational support for individuals and groups."

Estella has illustrated two Helbling Young Readers:

Estella Guerrera
Estella Guerrera

Interview with Estella Guerrera

When I started preparing for this interview with Estella, I had at least thirty questions I wanted to ask her. The fact that she is not only an illustrator, but also a psychologist and art therapist made me think that I can get some inside information about an illustrator's creative process and the benefits of using illustrations with children, teenagers, or any of my students. I also wanted to understand how an illustrator thinks about a story and how they see the relationship between text and image.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): Do you remember your first illustration?

When I was four years old, my family moved. At that time I started drawing houses, lots of different houses, dozens of them. I still have them. When I think of my first illustration, I think of any of those houses and how they were a silent narrative of feelings and thoughts which were obviously very important at that time.

HRB: What is the biggest challenge when you are working on a children’s book? What is the most fun?

The biggest challenge is to create a coherent world, both in terms of style and atmosphere, a place in which people can live and move around. The most entertaining thing in the working process is following an unforeseen detail or an unexpected image during the working process to see how they end up.

HRB: How much creative freedom do you have when you illustrate readers?

Estella: Working on a book means establishing a dialogue with the text, forgetting about the people who will read it. If I have written the text, I have more creative freedom because I have the same narrative sensitivity. I feel more constraints when I work on texts written by others, but when I illustrate them, I always try to be match the text, as best possible, to my vision.

HRB: You also work as an art therapist. How does it influence your work as an illustrator?

The expressive therapies effect the way I perceive creative work. Working as an art therapist leads us to focus not only on the result – which can be very different from our expectations and sometimes can be disappointing – but also on the process, on how an image develops. In this sense, each imperfection and error has a beauty of its own that escapes the constraints of usual beautiful-ugly dichotomy. My favourite illustrations, the ones I feel are more ‘me’, are sometimes experimental and bizarre, and probably will never be published. I like them, because I know where they come from.

HRB: Do you recommend art therapy to anyone in particular? What are the major benefits of taking part in workshops?

There are several reasons to approach courses in art therapy. These can range from a desire to discover more about yourself or change something that makes you feel bad, or a difficulty in expressing your feelings in words alone.

HRB: Can picture books work as a kind of art therapy?

Working as a psychologist I often use illustrated books. Just like the images that come out during an art therapy course, a picture book speaks to us on many levels: from the more formal interpretative levels to deeper-rooted emotional and instinctive ones. Picture books are an excellent tool for activating empathy, reflection and the ability to share universal feelings.

HRB: Le’s talk about your creative process: How do you read a story for the first time? Do you already imagine colours, contours and lines? How much do you concentrate on mental visualization?

In a story or a poem the words strike me at first. I reread, repeat and think about them all day. I think about them at night. I can spend days and weeks mulling over a text without forming a clear picture. It takes a long time for the words to ‘settle’. Then, suddenly, there’s an image, maybe from just one word or sentence. When I manage to see it, I can also make a sketch. This is the fastest part, once I have the image, I can usually arrive at the final drawing in a short time. (Sometimes the panic of the deadline helps me, speeding up everything!)

HRB: What about the interplay between image and text in children’s books? How much does the illustration influence the text itself? (How does it change the meaning and the atmosphere of the text?)

When I was training to be an illustrator, I was always struck by what the teachers were saying: text and image are in a constant dialogue with each other, each element must tell a different aspect of the same story. There are books without words, and books without images, since both elements can exist on their own. When text and image meet in a book, there should be balance between them, they should weave together easily, following the same rhythm, to give life to the dance of the story. If one of the two elements dominates, the book becomes heavy, boring or artificial.

HRB: How do you feel about the relationship between quality and marketability in publishing today?

Whenever I go to book fairs I also come out more confused than when I went in. There is so much - too much, maybe of everything. Publishers are influenced by trends and market demands, often recreating the same  fashionable ‘moods’ in a variety of books, while quality proposals are often ignored by publishers and public alike, just because they are not in line with the trends of the moment. It’s like a sea in which you find myriads of fish, rusty cans and mismatched shoes. However – fortunately – there are also pearls.

HRB: What is your pet hate as an illustrator?

The times when I cannot draw because I get hung up on other things. I also have to face my technical limitations and it’s sometimes hard to understand that sometimes there’s nothing we can do.

HRB: What is your biggest inspiration?

I think observing and reflecting on the world around me.

HRB: We really like picture books for adults. Can you recommend any?

All Shaun Tan ‘s books are wonderful. The Arrival is an extraordinary book.

HRB: What was your favourite book as a child?

The Neverending Story and Momo by Michael Ende.

HRB: Do you have any stories you would like to put on paper?

Always! Ed. Estella is currently developing one of her own stories for the Helbling Young Readers series.