Kid Lit Art Spotlight: Anna Cunha

by Lantana Publishing on October 15, 2020

A Story About Afiya has received so much love for its stunning illustrations, we thought it was about time we shone a spotlight on brilliant illustrator Anna Cunha. Here, she shares how she brought James Berry's evocative poem to joyful, magical life.

Congratulations on the publication of A Story About Afiya! Can you introduce yourself to our readers and tell them three of your favourite things about Brazil, where you live?

My name is Anna, I'm 35 years old and I'm an illustrator from Brazil. I live in Belo Horizonte, which is one of Brazil's biggest cities, but is very far from the sea. We are surrounded by mountains and waterfalls. I have already lived abroad, in a few different countries, but I love to live in Brazil, especially in my city. My three favorite things are: the people, mostly open, warm hearted, generous; the nature and weather, usually pleasant and lush all year round, and the food, delicious!

Drawing tutorial of how to draw Afiya, a Black girl
A step-by-step tutorial in pictures of how to draw Afiya! Step 1
 

What was it like to read A Story About Afiya for the first time and what made you say, “Yes! I want to illustrate this book!” Did you know it was a popular poem written by James Berry?

I felt very honored! Unfortunately James Berry is still not translated into Portuguese in Brazil and I didn't know him before Afiya. But I love poetry and felt very lucky and happy to get to discover his work. Recently, many Caribbean authors are getting more attention. Their cultural discussions and issues are so important and also very much related to our own history and racial debates. I was just reading Aimé Cesaire at the time and I felt it was a special synchronicity.

In these strange times where we are asked to stay at home, it is wonderful to read about a girl like Afiya, her brilliant imagination, and her connection to nature. What was your favourite scene to illustrate and why?

I think my favourite scene is the one of Afiya with the sunflowers. The text is poetic and powerful and I’ve tried to create a strong image as well. Afiya seems to be looking directly into our own eyes.

Drawing tutorial of how to draw Afiya, a Black girl. Step 2: draw curly hair using a black pencil
Step 2

 
Did you experience any challenges bringing Afiya’s story to life?

No, it was a very soft and flowing process. Afiya is a very dreamy girl, who sees the world with beauty and amazement. I tried to imprint this same gaze on my illustrations, creating images that could evoke her feelings, her own eyes. I felt her magic look inside of me.

Your illustrations are indeed very magical! We often talk about picture books having extra things that aren’t always in the text. What do you feel your pictures added that wasn’t expressed in the poem itself?

Thank you! I always try to add to the written text other visual stories, other layers for new interpretations, multiple approaches. I think my greatest challenge as an illustrator is to avoid being literal, creating other possible stories, moreover leaving gaps and blank spaces for the reader to put together her own story. James Berry is very generous at this point, as his poem has a lot of beauty, fantasy and absurdity, so it leaves the door open for an illustrator to explore the same feelings in the pictures, freely.

I suppose my biggest contribution was the very last image. I thought that maybe James Berry was telling us about the end of a magic summer, which could be the end of the magic of childhood. And I imagined a glimpse after the end of the story, a glimpse of Afiya after the lights have gone out, at nighttime, in winter, in the future, ensuring us that the magic will always stay with her, because it was not on her dress, but inside herself.

Ah, that's so beautiful and moving, Anna. Such a gift to remind us that the magic you bring to life through your art is actually inside each and every one of us. It shines through in Afiya's beauty. How did you decide what she would look like?

It was kind of intuitive... Some years ago, I spent some months travelling through Africa, and the figure of Afiya somehow got imprinted in the memory of my heart.

Drawing tutorial of how to draw Afiya, a Black girl. Step 3: use a pink pastel to draw the cheeks and lips

Step 3

You have a lovely way with words as well, Anna! But as for your illustration process, can you tell us how you go about making your illustrations? What materials do you use?

My work for this book was mainly digital. I use photoshop and a pen display. Sometimes I also mix pencils, pastel and paint on my work.

It's amazing how you are able to give your digital artwork so much texture. It's certainly an eye-opener for non-artists like myself! Can you describe your studio or workspace for us?

My workspace is at home. I have a small studio room at my apartment. I work at a long table with my computer and wacom tablet, where I also have free space to draw and paint. There is a lot of messy paper and art materials around. I also have a big cabinet and bookshelves. From the window, I hear my neighbors talking in the street, a lot of birds, and right now, I see a beautiful flowering tree.

Drawing tutorial of how to draw Afiya. Step 4: draw flowers in the shape of the dress

Step 4. Now you have a lovely drawing of Afiya and her magical dress!

What’s next? Any new books or projects that you can tell us about?

I am beginning to work on two different books. One is a collection of Andersen tales for a Brazilian Publisher, and the other is an original story for an American Publisher. 

And I'm delighted to share that your second Lantana book, Anita and the Dragons written by Hannah Carmona, will be coming out in Spring 2021!

If you could illustrate any kind of story, or any animal or thing, real or imagined, what would it be?

I love poetry, I'm always delighted to illustrate a good poem!

And finally, do you have any tips for aspiring illustrators?

Practice a lot, even (this is very important) when there are no commissioned works. I think experimenting is the only way you will find your own voice. And I keep experimenting. I keep on with the search. Because finding one's voice takes a lifetime.

Afiya, a black girl, dreams of a beautiful tree. Her white dress hangs on the well next to her bed.

Thank you, Anna! We hope you enjoyed this interview and the step-by-step tutorial on how to draw Afiya and her magical dress. Find out more about Anna's work or buy some of her gorgeous prints from her website. Keep up to date with her on Instagram @anna_cunha

 

Some people have dresses for every occasion but Afiya needs only one. Her dress records the memories of her childhood, from roses in bloom to pigeons in flight, from tigers at the zoo to October leaves falling.

Click HERE to see more from this joyful celebration of a young girl’s childhood

 

 

 

 

Anna Cunha is an award-winning Brazilian artist who has illustrated more than 20 books for Brazilian and international publishers. Her work has been shortlisted for the Jabuti Prize and received a João-de-Barro Prize honourable mention.

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