In Conversation With Hatem Aly
last updated 17 February 2023
Talk us through your creative process. How do you approach a brief?
When I’m preparing to illustrate a book, I read it several times to get a feel for the story and the characters, and to identify the book’s central themes and what makes it stand out from others. I try to take notes or write down keywords to help me focus, I have a natural tendency to come up with new ideas after I finish some spreads.
Your work is aesthetically unique to you. How do you approach translating your ideas to the page?
I’m not the most methodical or organized artist. There is a strange mix of excitement and frustration. I still feel like I’m looking for this uniqueness, or rather rejecting it and becoming annoyed by it when it comes to me, in the same way you cringe when you hear your voice recorded. Never mind the source, sometimes getting an idea is like catching a fly: you’d be better off letting it land on you rather than trying to catch it. The persistent thought that I really ought to try to get it right this time around is a driving force, but I can’t afford to take my time. So, I’ve found that the best way for me to get started is to make a rough draft (or two) on a small scale and without any details, allowing ideas to come to me as I work and analyzing the results to determine the most effective impact, composition, and flow for this page. At this stage, or even before, I make very rough sketches of a few characters as I try to figure out how they should look. It’s more like putting together a piece of furniture: you leave some of the screws undone until you’re sure everything fits together correctly, and then you go back and tighten them.
Who/What have been your key influences as an illustrator?
Although I now enjoy being a bookmaker, I didn’t initially pursue making picture books because I grew up reading mostly comics in magazines and some old-fashioned children’s books with few pictures or poor printing quality. I owe a lot to my childhood reading of comics and books in general. I’d like to do more comics but, for the time being, I’m content to experiment with various aspects of being a visual storyteller while also honing my writing skills. But that’s not all: I find my family, friends, pets, and everyday life to be very inspiring, and they have a significant impact on my work.
How did you begin illustration? What was the spark of inspiration?
I studied Fine Arts but wasn’t sure what I’d do with it, but I hoped to be a cartoonist or graphic novelist one day. I worked for magazines, animation studios, and advertising agencies with a few opportunities to illustrate books but, once I did, I fell in love with picture books and illustrating books for all ages. It took years to get anywhere with my work but I was able to keep myself busy by taking on projects of varying sizes until I was ready to specialize. Moving to Canada in 2007 slowed down the pace of my journey, and while maintaining relationships with previous clients, it was difficult to feel confident about the future. Thankfully, things have gone well so far, and I am thankful for everything that has happened and excited for what the future holds. It’s strange to say, but I believe that when life becomes difficult you want your loved ones to feel like they supported you for something worthwhile, so you activate some kind of turbo mode to get somewhere safe for them. This gradually gives you more freedom to work better, much like a paved road full of stores after a muddy rural one.
What’s your favorite part of the illustration process?
I usually say the beginnings, when all ideas rush in and all possibilities are still open. I enjoy the sketching phase, but my favorite parts seem to come in waves. When I first start doing something I’m excited about it, then I get frustrated with myself, then I finally figure it out and feel euphoric. Then I have second thoughts, then I make a decision and try to move forward and enjoy the process, telling myself I can always go back and change things if I want to, but usually running out of time and trying to look at everything objectively and deciding it’s not too bad after all.
To an up-and-coming artist, what’s one piece of advice you would give?
If I had to give one piece of advice to aspiring artists it would be to keep working, communicating, and learning, in order to get better at what they do and eventually succeed in whatever it is they set out to do. If you want to be somewhere, it will have a center of gravity, similar to a celestial object or a tornado: the closer you get, the more you’ll be sucked in with less effort. Do not wait for it to draw nearer.
What would be your dream brief?
Occasionally I ponder what I would consider to be a perfect creative endeavor. I have a lot to say right now but, as I think about it, I realize that my ideal brief would be one that I crafted myself. This is, I hope, my goal over the next few years.