I Am Farmer: An Illustrator’s Journey

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

Today’s post comes courtesy of illustrator Elizabeth Zunon, who shares her process for creating the magnificent collage artwork in the new picture book I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon.

Here’s Elizabeth:

As an illustrator, I strive to bring stories to life on the page with color and collage.


But first come the sketches—and what better way to draw people in the way that I imagine them to be than to photograph myself acting out their roles in the story? Before each sketch, I take some reference photos by setting the timer on my camera phone to take a picture after 10 seconds, run, pose, wait for the “click,” run back to the phone, look at the photo just taken, determine if it will do, and probably take a few more photos until one or more seem like they will help inspire a good sketch.

Reference Images

For this book, I was lucky to have plenty of reference images from the authors, Baptiste Paul and Miranda Paul, who traveled to Cameroon in early 2017 as part of their research process. They provided photos of Tantoh, his family, his gardens, and his home, which really inspired me and helped me to imagine the art for this book. But I still needed to act out lots of parts of the story. Why? The process of imagining, posing, and striving to take a better photo is a way for me to get to know the characters. I imagine their internal dialogues and their feelings in the moment—because I rarely get to meet the subjects of my books as I’m working on them.

In addition to reference photos from the authors and reference photos I take myself, I also make use of websites with reference photos for images of things I don’t have readily available at home, like the positioning of a toddler’s limbs while crouching, cows drinking from rivers, the bacteria that causes typhoid fever, etc.


During my research and sketch phase for I Am Farmer, my dad happened to give me a few onions that had begun sprouting in my parents’ kitchen. These would be perfect for me to observe how an onion starts sprouting, then shrivels up—as Farmer experiences in the book! I photographed the onions as they were changing in color and form and used printouts of these photographs as the collaged onions in the book. (I sped up the shriveling process by placing them near my fireplace. I ended up photographing these two onions every week for 5 weeks!) 


Choosing Colors and Patterns

I love picking out the colored and patterned paper to use in the final illustrations. It’s like going shopping in my own closet! I thought that orange would be a good choice for Tantoh’s shirt in the image below because it’s a nice contract to the dark brown of the dirt. The papers I chose to collage his grandmother’s blouse and scarf are inspired from a beautiful photograph of her from Miranda and Baptiste. I just found papers in my collection that were the closest to what she’s wearing in the photo!


To create a final illustration that will be dynamic and interesting, there’s a lot of acting involved on my part . . .



And sooo many reference pictures taken . . . even of my own gardening tools! I could just draw these things without having real objects to look at, but using as many elements as possible from my own life helps make the story even more real for me. I’ve never been to Cameroon, have never grown vegetables, nor have I ever built a well or a water catchment system, but knowing that the tools that I happen to have at home might be some of the same ones that Farmer Tantoh uses to do his work makes me feel like I know him just that tiny bit more. 


The scene below was one of my favorite scenes to illustrate, trying to show Tantoh working and studying, and on the facing page show his influence on others around him and the passage of time. 



The Collage Process

As you can probably tell, I created the color illustrations for I Am Farmer with collage. Rather than paint the characters and backgrounds with oil paint as I usually do, I cut out every character, sky, ground, and plant from a piece of paper, then glued those pieces onto my backgrounds. To transfer my sketches onto the papers for the final illustrations posed a bit of a conundrum: the brown paper that I had chosen for the skin tones was too thick for the light of my light table to pass through it and allow me to trace the sketch onto it. I had some moments of panic! 

I ended up tracing each sketch, in reverse, onto a sheet of tracing paper using white pastel pencil instead of regular pencil (meaning that I placed the pencil sketch face down on my light table to trace). Then, I placed my white pastel pencil tracing, face down, onto the brown paper, then traced over the white pastel pencil lines that were face down touching the brown paper, with my regular mechanical pencil. . . . It was tricky because the white pastel pencil smudges easily, but it worked! Once I had my white pastel pencil drawing transferred onto the brown paper, I went over the white lines with black and brown pens and markers. I then added the shadows and highlights in the faces with light brown, beige, and white pastel pencil that I smudged with my fingers and with Q-tips. I love adding highlights on faces! 


Next, I traced and cut out the shapes for the clothing, background and foliage, and glued them onto the brown paper background. All of the foliage you see in I Am Farmer come from photographs of foliage that I have taken. My desk turns into a chaotic mess during this whirlwind of collage, but I love it! However, I do not love cleaning up tiny scraps of paper after I’m done . . .

Here are some of the photos I used for foliage throughout the book. Clockwise from top right: tulips in Albany, New York; a huge leaf at the New York Botanical Garden; palm trees in Florida; green plants in Florida.

One of my favorite parts of creating the illustrations for I Am Farmer was experimenting with watercolors to create the skies. Using a spray bottle filled with water and thick brushes, I dabbed strokes of blue and purple watercolor paint onto white paper and light blue paper to use as material for the stormy skies in the book. I threw a couple sprinkles of salt onto the still wet paint to add some extra texture in some areas. 


And that’s the story of how the art for I Am Farmer came to life. I hope Tantoh’s story inspires your creativity as much as it did mine! 

The photo shows Farmer Tantoh with his grandmother, his wife, and their three children. On the right is Elizabeth Zunon’s illustration of the family on the final page of I Am Farmer.

More posts by Carol are here.

2 thoughts on “I Am Farmer: An Illustrator’s Journey

  1. Laura Purdie Salas

    What a fabulous post! I love learning how illustrators connect their own lives with the books they’re illustrating, and how they do research and process everything. This book looks amazing!

    1. carolhinz

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Laura. I am just blown away by all that goes in to Liz’s art–she’s amazing!

Leave a Reply