In this post, you will learn about how I illustrated the classic Middle Eastern folk tale of Aladdin for Learning A-Z.
Everybody knows the story of Aladdin and more particularly the Disney version. Chances are you also memorized the songs and watched the movie a hundred times in VHS if you were a true-blue Disney kid in the 90s like me! But this e-book is based from the original tale and it is part of the middle grade reading program package offered by Learning A-Z. Since July this year, subscribers of the program may already avail of the e-book.
Unless you are a subscriber, you won't be able to purchase the e-book. So please allow me just treat you to some of the pictures I created for the classic tale as well as my art process.
This project gave me the opportunity to play around with patterns, Middle Eastern aesthetics and character development that is sure to amp my illustration portfolio. Fresh from Dubai, I was able to use all visual references as well as experiences I had of that city. My interest in Arabic and Islamic art also made creating the illustrations all the more exciting.
The client particularly liked my Cleopatra, Ice Queen and Birdie artworks (see mood board above) and those gave me key visual style direction. Since this is a retelling of the original folk tale, I also gathered Persian and Indian miniature art references to steer away from the more contemporary and popular Disney renditions. The epic poem Shahnameh or the Book of Kings by Ferdowsi was a great resource and boy, I indulged myself in devouring those delicious centuries old pictures! It opened me up to the intricate and magical world of Persian art.
The first thing I noticed is the predominance of ornamental elements and then the use of bright colors such as cotton candy pinks and ultramarines, which you will see in the mood board I created for the book.
It was also fortunate that I have had some experience in creating Islamic patterns from my Global Patterns project that became life savers towards the end.
The first requirement were character sketches of Aladdin as well as the rest of the cast. I was instructed to maintain the Arabic aesthetics and be careful not modernize the costumes. Searching for the right Aladdin was also tricky. He was described as “a boy around 18 years old; he has unkempt longish dark hair and wears street clothes that have seen better days (a loose-fitting white shirt and pants).”
My initial sketch, based from images of young Middle Eastern man, had shorter hair than what the art director imagined and so I had to extend and ruffle it a little bit to get that rugged look. Meanwhile extra research was done for the attire of the princess, whom I fashioned from Zand & Qajar paintings popular in 16th century Persia whereas the other characters were based from monochrome portraitures of Middle Eastern people. Can you tell that I am enjoying the patterned trimmings and details on the clothing?
Once the characters were approved I moved onto the rough sketch stage. There was a clear art direction and notes that I had to follow but I also took some liberty in changing the perspective in some scenes for I wanted to maintain that eye level view (oftentimes no perspective at all) of Islamic art. Since this a middle grade book, the dimensions of the images vary unlike picture book interiors where the entire page is illustrated. Part of my job as the illustrator entails fitting a complex scene within irregular layouts.
Working traditionally, I also had to scale up my work space on paper, about 1:2 to 1:4 from the intended picture size to allow me the detailing, which sort of complicated my process but once configured sketching went smooth sailing. For example, if the image on the page was 11.5 cm (W) x 5.8 cm (H), at 3 times that dimension, my illustrations on paper would measure 34.5 cm x 17.4 cm excluding bleed. However, the minuscule difference between centimeters and inches became problematic in a few frames especially the cover that I kept on adjusting my borders and aspect ratio. In the end I decided to just use inches in my working space in Photoshop. Note to self, the US uses imperial units while the EU metric system! The watercolor paintings were scanned at 600 dpi to capture the hand painted details and organic textures.
In some scenes I was able to relate for I have a little bit of experience living in Dubai and have attended a traditional Iftar feast after Ramadan. Specifically was the dining scene with Aladdin and his mother where they were supposed to feast around a table according to the art direction. However, the Arabs/Middle Eastern people traditionally eat on the floor strewn with carpets and eat with their hands together from one large plate. I have suggested this to the art director through the rough sketch and was met with a positive feedback later on to then proceed to color the scene.
As the story progressed to a more luxurious lifestyle for the hero, the scenes also transformed from desert landscapes and drab interiors into more elaborate and colorful palace settings. Bright pinks and deep purples popped up shamelessly in the colored illustrations as well as the ornate details in clothing and backgrounds echoing ancient Persian artistry. It was marvelous!
However I was becoming more concerned with my timing and had to inform my agent and client about possible delays. In fact I was working on this book alongside two other picture books, “Praise Him!” and “Morning on the Farm” with overlapping schedules from November 2021 until February 2022 including Christmas holidays and only weeks between project deadlines. It was admittedly an oversight on my part on the project due dates and at the same time over confidence that I would be able to manage all three of them. I did say I wanted to test myself, didn't I? On the brighter side I had a great excuse not to plan a birthday party for me.
The due date was approaching and I still needed to work on the backgrounds, which were intended to be Islamic geometric patterns similar to Moroccan tiled interiors. I remembered I already had a library of such patterns that I decided to create seamless tiles in Photoshop instead of painting patterns from scratch. This move has reduced my workload significantly and even achieved that Islamic style of interiors that I have always wanted to create in children's books. Thank goodness for my organized library design elements!
Through all of this, I often wondered if putting so much details would be worth it knowing that the final print would only be much smaller than post cards or be viewed only on screen. Would the more discerning middle grade readers appreciate the pictures in the same way I appreciated illustrations in text books when I was the student?
You know what? It did not matter. It was a great opportunity to draw the tale of Aladdin in my own style while still remaining faithful to the art of the culture in that era. The beauty of that culture was what I wanted to show the young readers anyway.
The three weeks of January was blocked for Aladdin and by February I was able to submit on time. Indeed, picture book illustration schedules can be grueling but it was a great learning curve. I have grown into an even more professional and time efficient illustrator after this and have developed a solid workflow that I am now using in all my book projects. It was also a lesson on practicality versus ambition.
It was a great opportunity to draw the tale of Aladdin in my own style while still remaining faithful to the art of the culture in that era. The beauty of that culture was what I wanted to show the young readers anyway.
Once I received my clients’ final feedback I was over the moon. It was truly a collaborative work with my clients who were not only clear in their directions but were also open to suggestions. It only proved that great efforts yield great products. I will cherish this experience that was truly humbling and enlightening. What I love most about making picture books is that I always come out more educated and much wiser than when I began the entire process.
“Absolutely beautiful art!” noted one of them and that was a great push to continue what I am doing.
“Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” was adapted for Reading A–Z by Katherine Follett from the original tale of the Syrian storyteller named Hanna Diab in Paris to a French writer named Antoine Galland, who in 1704 published a series of Middle Eastern folk tales collectively called The Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights. This e-book is part of the reading resources program package offered by Learning A-Z for K-5 educators. You may check out their offers here.