Successful college students master the art of the juggle: multiple classrooms in multiple buildings, multiple courses with multiple projects, plus roommates and classmates and jobs and on the best days, eating and sleeping. After finishing her second year in the film and animation program at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she's focusing on 3D animation, student Alyssa Minko decided to take it up a notch: She agreed to illustrate a children's book.
Minko and writer Rachael Bindas knew each other from middle school days in Pittsburgh. They reconnected online, and Bindas sent Minko the outline of a simple rhyming poem, attempting to lure her artist friend into a joint children's book project. One read-through and Minko's mind started racing. She immediately felt the poem — a simple narrative reminding children of the many ways they are loved — could be combined with visuals to broaden the book's message.
"I suggested we make the main character racially ambiguous and gender neutral," she told Spine. "The story itself has nothing at all to do with the complex politics behind race, gender, or family structure, which was an incredibly important part for us when developing the book. Instead of forcing young, impressionable children to think about these mature topics, we wanted to instead encourage an implicit awareness of equality."
Working together, Bindas and Minko pushed forward with the narrative, originally Before The Sun Comes Up and finally Before The Sun Wakes Up. "The book developed into a hugely collaborative piece, in which neither the text nor the illustrations could serve alone to create the same story and meaning," Minko said.
Deciding what form the illustrations would take presented Minko with the project's biggest challenge, and involved several rounds of trial and error. "We knew we needed to find a unique style to accompany this book since the visuals were going to play a huge role in deriving meaning." She eventually decided on a papercut look.
Each of the book's images begins with a sketch in Photoshop. From there, Minko moves into Illustrator, finessing color and shape with a constant eye toward gender neutrality and racial ambiguity. Color concept solidified, Minko moves back into Photoshop for texture and pattern work, relying on real-world materials to add authenticity.
"All of my textures and patterns are photographed from scrapbook paper," Minko said. She accrued a library while developing the book, and makes full use of it to ensure each illustrated element is unique. "I tried to find a balance between soft, tangible and clever when assigning textures and patterns to parts of the illustration. For example, the blanket on the sun has a pattern on it, whereas the sun herself is mostly a soft texture. The clouds have a paper/fabric texture and are quite heavily layered."
Textures assigned, Minko moves into After Effects, applying her 3D education to give the illustrations depth and dimension. She noted that while her Photoshop-Illustrator-Photoshop-AfterEffects process likely sounds excessive, it's necessary to creating the "soft, paper-cut world" of Before The Sun Wakes Up.
Undertaking a technically complex work project while tackling a full course load proved as challenging as it sounds. But Minko had mastered the student's juggle, and successfully threw another ball into the air. "I work on our book as well as my other projects wherever I am at the moment and find a moment of time. Sometimes it's in a classroom, waiting for the class to get started; other times it's at the campus coffee shop, Java's, while I kill time between classes, meetings, and more."
Minko credits her eating habits with her ability to stay on top of everything. "I'm powered by iced coffee and healthy foods, and I cook a lot of meals that are either vegan, paleo, or just sugar-carb-free. Without my healthy diet and my French vanilla iced coffee, I wouldn't have the energy to work so constantly and manage so many different projects at once."
As Minko finishes the final illustrations and pushes with Bindas toward their self-publishing date this spring, she's also working on several school-related projects. In partnership with fellow 3D animation student Amy Adams, Minko made an animated short film examining food production and consumption. And as part of RIT's "Character Mosaic" project, Minko created a young, half-black, half-white, animated female character who will be available for use by 3D film students around the world.
Despite the full schedule, Minko said the past year has centered her as an artist. "I've realized what I want to contribute to the world, and the messages I want to share. It's been equally exciting and challenging, as like any other artist my work is an extension of myself, but for that same reason, I've loved every moment of it and cannot wait to create new things."
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.