art & design
webesteem magazine | nr 6 | presentation
art & design

Case Study

LeUyen Pham



LeUyen Pham

I was born on August 10, 1973, in Saigon, Vietnam. My family fled the country just a month prior to the fall of Saigon, and came to the United States in 1975, where we settled in Southern California. I attended UCLA prior to transferring with a full scholarship to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where I graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Illustration and Fine Art in 1997. I was immediately hired at Dreamworks Feature Animation as a traditional and computer layout artist. The Studio was just beginning to emerge as a fantastic animation studio, and the early work I did helped to break new ground in the combination of traditional animation and the newly emerging computer animation. I worked on the first two feature animation films, The Prince of Egypt (1998) and The Road to El Dorado (2000), as well as doing early development for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), before leaving to freelance full time in the fall of 2000.

Since then, I've gone on to publish over a dozen children's picture books, including the award-winning Can You Do This, Old Badger?, by the prolific author Eve Bunting, and Whose Shoes?, named one of Child Magazine's Best Picture Books of the Year. My first self-authored and illustrated book comes out next year, a book recalling memories from childhood called Big Sister, Little Sister. As well as children's books, I've been published in Spectrum Fantasy Art and the Society of Illustrators of both New York and Los Angeles, and I've painted numerous book covers such as Seven Tears Unto the Sea, by Terri Farley. I also teach a graduate Children's Book Illustration class for the Academy of Art University of San Francisco.

  • The Sugarcane House by Adrienne Bond, Harcourt Inc, 1999
  • Can You Do This, Old Badger? by Eve Bunting, Harcourt Inc, 2001
  • Whose Shoes? by Anna Hines, Harcourt Inc, 2001
  • A Perfect Name by Charlene Costanzo, Dial Books, 2001
  • Little Badger, Terror of the Seven Seas by Eve Bunting, Harcourt Inc, 2002
  • Which Hat is That? by Anna Hines, Harcourt Inc, 2002
  • Little Badger's Just About Birthday by Eve Bunting, Harcourt Inc, 2002
  • One Little Mouse by Dori Chaconas, Viking Books, 2002
  • Sweet Briar Goes to School by Karma Wilson, Dial Books, 2003
  • Before I Was Your Mother by Kathryn Lasky, Harcourt Inc, 2003
  • Piggies in a Polka by Kathi Appelt, Harcourt Inc, 2003
  • Sing-Along Song by JoAnn Early Macken, Viking Books, 2004

To be Released:

  • 21 Elephants by Phil Bildner, Simon and Schuster, 2004
  • Big Sister, Little Sister by LeUyen Pham, Hyperion Books 2005
  • Sweet Briar Goes to Camp by Karma Wilson, Dial Books 2005
  • Hanukkah, Schmanukkah by Elme Raji Codell, Hyperion Books 2005
  • A Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare, Dial Books, 2006


© LeUyen Pham

The Russian Tea Room
The President Crosses
Through the Lower East Side
The Butcher Shop
Hannah Makes Her Case
The Zoo
Afraid of the Dark
She Goes First
The Peanut Gallery
France Sketches
Angkor Wat
Round the World


LeUyen Pham

Born: on August 10, 1073, in Saigon, Vietnam
Location: San Francisco, California, USA


LeUyen Pham

I have always considered myself to be a traditional illustrator with roots grounded in the classic Golden Age of Illustration. While at Art Center, I became greatly inspired by artists such as N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Edmund Dulac, and Dean Cornwell, to name a few. My first few picture books reflect that history.

My primary and preferred medium is watercolor, though I admit to never having taken a watercolor class. I usually work very small, often times exactly to scale, in order to maintain the high turnover rate of books that I do. An average children's picture book contains about 32 pages, with images on each page. Often time, the page number can go as high as 40. Though publishers generally allow illustrators a year or two to complete their books, I usually do three to four books a year, and therefore have learned to paint much more quickly. I've discovered that the best way to do this is to plan accordingly, and be very thorough with my early sketches. I begin with a fairly elaborate thumbnail of the entire book, in which I lay out in miniature the full story, divided into the appropriate page number, and taking into consideration the basics of a book (title page, copyrights, etc). I also layout where I would like the type to be, if it influences the composition of my book. When a book is laid out in such a manner, one can see how the images will keep the written story flowing. It is my belief that as a children's book illustrator, my main function is to be an effective visual storyteller, to extend beyond what the script indicates, and to build a believable and beguiling environment for the characters to come alive.

The primary function of the thumbnails is to ensure the story and composition are working. Action flows from left to right, to convince the audience to want to turn the page. This is unique in picture book illustration, the desire to keep movement in pace with how one reads. From the thumbnails, I go on to fully rendered drawings that establish light sources and exacting design. The finish to follow in watercolor adheres to all the rules established in both the thumbnails and the drawings, as you can see in the progression below.

Unlike most watercolorists, I never stretch my paper. Commonly, before one can begin to paint on watercolor paper, the paper must be soaked and stretched and dried flat, in order to prevent warping when one begins to paint. This can sometimes be a timely process, and so rather than spending much time stretching my paper, I generally tape the paper down to a board and brush the entire sheet profusely with plain water. I then accelerate the drying process by using my hair dryer to blow dry the paper. As the paper has been adhered to the board, it dries flat and quickly. I'll repeat the process if I know the piece to be done will require great washes of color. I then take a photocopy of the drawing to be painted, tape down an edge, and transfer the image using a colored transfer paper. I then lay down simple washes of the image, taking into consideration where I want my shadows to fall, and where I want my light to be most obvious. Between washes, and to accelerate the drying process, I continue to blow dry cautiously, being careful to not allow puddling to occur. Watercolor is simply about layering, and as it is very difficult to change a color once it has been laid down, it requires being fairly sure of what you want to put down. The value study of the line drawing is invaluable at this point, as it defines how dark and how light I can go with certain colors. Often times I might touch up the art with gouache highlights.

I am known among my editors as the girl with many styles. One enjoyable thing about doing picture books is that since I never work on a book for much more than four months, my subjects and styles are constantly changing. I love pen and ink, and am usually able to employ these techniques when doing younger books for toddlers. Big Sister, Little Sister, to be released next year, employs a chinese brush pen with simple flat washes done in Photoshop. A limited pallette and great use of line made this book a fun contrast to the heavily researched and more realistic 21 Elephants, painted with traditional watercolor. Before I Was Your Mother used collage techniques and simplified brush strokes against broad flat colors and patterns. For Piggies in a Polka, I took the best of both worlds. The styles is flat and geometric, which was to work well with the technique I was planning. I painted the initial images first in watercolor, taking it to about a 90% finish. I then scanned the entire image into Photoshop, where I added light effects and text images (posters on the walls, flyers). I then printed out the image directly onto watercolor, using my printer from home. I then worked back into the image with color pencils to get a more textured feel. This was my final piece that I then sent to my editor. I very much enjoy the use of the computer and its advantages, and as the children's publishing industry begins more and more to accept this as a medium, I plan to integrate more of it into my work.

One aspect that I very much enjoy is research. For 21 Elephants, a story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, I spent a good few weeks researching the New York and Brooklyn Public Archives, to try and reconstruct the feeling of the time. In my next book, Hanukkah Schmanukkah, a Jewish re-telling of A Christmas Carol, I researched extensively the Lower East side of Manhattan, as the story takes place around the turn of the 19th century. I am also scheduled to write the story of Horatio Nelson Jackson, the first man to cross the United States in a car, in 1903. I plan to take the same journey myself next year, to get the sensation of a man long gone. Though I rely heavily on photo reference to develop a believable background and design, I don't use photographs to get final images. I find that over use of photo reference usually stiffens or deadens a picture, and my main joy in illustrating is being able to create, to pull from my imagination an image that allows others into my head. It's a wonderful gift to be able to do that, one that I hope to never take for granted.


© LeUyen Pham

The Circus
The Stepmother
The Fiddler Piggy

The Mean Reds
Ruby and I

Gift of the Magi
The Bird with Two Heads
The Bridge Opens

Telling Stories
Seven Tears Unto the Sea
La Horla

My Katie
Auco and the Dragon
Halloween Card

Morning Bird
Christening Day

Byron vs Shakespeare
Construction Years
Premature Burial

The Invitation
The Two Moles
A Bad Day

The Midas Touch
The Tell-Tale Heart
The Piggy Hootenanny

The Dream Tree
Sing-Along Song
A Perfect Name

The Jewelled Slipper
Young Allen Say

21 Elephants

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LeUyen Pham

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