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Special Edition 2011 (Page 56-58)
An Evolving Vision
Children’s Book Illustrator
Kim Dong-sung
By Eom Hye-suk

I met with illustrator Kim Dong-sung, whose children’s book, Waiting for Mom (2004) has had great success among young readers since its publication. Beginning with his first work, Bike Trip with Uncle (1998), he has illustrated numerous picture books such as Echo (2001), Nightingale (2005), The Wildflower Kid (2008) and storybooks such as Dal from Binari (2001), The Firefly that Could Not Fly (2007), Flower Shoes (2008), and The House Where Books Dwell (2009). Kim is also working on stamps, posters, films, comics, and animated feature projects.
      Time flew as we discussed his work. We were able to have a meaningful conversation on everything from the identity of an artist to the relationship between artist and audience, text and illustration, the author’s role model, the matter of telling one’s story, and his future plans.

      Eom Hye-suk: Nice to meet you. I first encountered your work at the J’aimimage exhibit on Faces of Koreans. The ink paintings were warm and memorable, and then I saw them again as illustrations in Bike Trip with Uncle. How did you get involved in illustrating children’s books?

      Kim Dong-sung: Well, first off I’d like to clarify my identity as an artist. I studied oriental painting in college, but I wasn’t much into the fine arts confined to the galleries. I happened to discover illustration as an option, and I liked the close proximity between illustrations and audiences. Illustrations allowed direct and instant communication. Illustration projects naturally led to publications and picture books. Illustrations for publications afford communication with an audience while the author’s artistic complexity is offered as collateral, and the children’s book was my first step into that world. It has its charms because it’s such a unique medium. Half my illustration projects are ads and the other half are books.


illustrator Kim Dong-sung and critic Eom Hye-suk

      Eom: I’ve read somewhere that you were influenced by Charles Keeping and Lee Uk-bae, who have very different styles. Could you tell us about your influences?

      Kim: It wasn’t so much their style as their philosophy and attitude as artists that inspired me. Charles Keeping’s work invalidates the notion that picture books are for children. His work is aesthetically picturesque without losing his style. He pushed the boundaries of what a picture book could be. Lee Uk-bae is another artist who staunchly

sticks to his style and has achieved an admirable level of professionalism. His pictures have an element of wit. Both artists leave a particular, strong impression. I’m currently in the process of trying different things and finding my style, and they’re my role models.
      Picture books can be limited in expressions because they’re for children. But people forget that although picture books are mainly for children, adults read them, too. Of course, there are certain things that artists must keep in mind when illustrating for children. For instance, children take in the image they see as it is, so it is important to express the message or theme from their point of view.

      Eom: You’ve worked on quite a few projects. Do you have any favorites?

      Kim: I don’t have favorites, but I could name a few that I enjoyed working on. Waiting for Mom is one. This was truly my first picture book. Echo and The Wildflower Kid were picture story books where pictures themselves told the story. But in Waiting for Mom, I expressed the impression I got from the text. The text was short, but different emotions arose every time I read it, and the ending was memorable. I wanted to keep this open conclusion in the illustration. So the real world was done in monotone, and the imaginary world had color, so that the reunion with the mother could be imaginary or chronologically real. I left it to the readers to decide. I visually emphasized the child’s yearning for his mother as he waits for her on a cold day. The second piece I enjoyed was Nightingale. The text drew clear lines between East and West, the humble bird and the emperor, simplicity and extravagance, and the natural and the artificial. The project taught me the joys of putting all the elements together.

      Eom: Could you tell us a little bit about your illustration process?

      Kim: First, I think about the relationship between the text and the illustration. Illustration can offer something greater than the text, enhance it, or depict exactly what it says. Sometimes, there are texts that do not need illustrations because the text says it all. The works of Hyeon Deok and Kwon Jeong-saeng, both wonderful artists, are such examples. For the artists, good texts leave holes here and there for the pictures to fill. In picture books, sometimes the picture plays the main role and the text plays the supporting role, or vice versa. So an illustrator has to understand the text and contribute his own ideas in the illustration.

      Eom: So textual analysis and interpretation is an important part of the process. It must be a challenge for the novice illustrator to decide whether to go beyond the text, emphasize it, or express things word for word. I imagine one would have to develop an eye for such things. You did the illustrations for Shin Kyung-sook’s “Blue Tears” (From the collection, Li Jin) when it was first serialized in a newspaper. What was your approach to that project?

      Kim: Keeping in mind that this was for a newspaper, I went for a flashy style. The illustrations were taken out for the short story collection. I don’t think the illustrations would have complemented the story in book form.


      Eom: Artists Yi U-kyeong and Hong Seong-chan were also involved in many newspaper and magazine illustration projects. Illustrators usually receive commissions. Could you tell us about the process?

      Kim: When I am offered a commission, I pick projects that move me in some way. I don’t work with texts that don’t suit me. I think an illustrator’s better off not working with texts that don’t inspire any feelings or images. I received an offer to illustrate a picture book version of the movie Old Partner, but I declined because they wanted to recreate the film in book form.

      Eom: What kind of projects would you like to work on in the future?

      Kim: I want to start telling my own stories. So far, I’ve been able to express myself indirectly through illustrations, but from now on, I would like to take a more direct approach, whether I’m meeting the audience through books or exhibits. I don’t have a style yet.

      Eom: What do you mean when you say you don’t have a style yet? When I see your illustrations, I can tell right away that it’s yours.

      Kim: Well, I change the style to cater to the text. I go with whatever the text is trying to convey. In Dal from Binari, Cheongsongni was a special geographical location, and Father Jeong Ho-gyeong, is a real person. In such cases, I can’t draw them however I want. So I went down to Cheongsongni and met the priest and the three-legged dog, Dal, to use as reference points. The Wildflower Kid is an autobiographical tale, and I was drawn to the purity of the text. The text did not make superb literature, but it spoke to me, and I tried to convey that. With The Firefly that Could Not Fly, on the other hand, I focused more on the message and the lyricism of the text rather than the factual details.

      Eom: Isn’t it a good thing if the author is able to find an appropriate style for each text? Why is that something you need to fix?


1. The Wildflower Kid
Lim Gil-taek; Illustrator: Kim Dong-sung
Gilbut Children Publishing
2008, 45p, ISBN 9788955820829

2. Nightingale
Kim Su-jung; Illustrator: Kim Dong-sung
Woongjin ThinkBig Co., Ltd.
2005, 42p, ISBN

3. Echo
Lee Ju-hong; Illustrator: Kim Dong-sung
Gilbut Children Publishing Co., Ltd
2001, 36p, ISBN 9788986621938

4. Waiting for Mom
Lee Tae-joon; Illustrator: Kim Dong-sung
Hangilsa Publishing Co., Ltd
2004, 38p, ISBN 9788935657124

5. Flower Shoes
Kim Soyon, Illustator: Kim Dong-sung
Bluebird Publishing Co.
2008, 155p, ISBN 9788961551045

6. The House Where Books Dewell
Lee Young-seo; Illustrator: Kim Dong-sung
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.

2009, 192p, ISBN 9788954607346

7. Dal from Binari
Kwon Jeong-saeng; Illustrator: Kim Dong-sung
Little Mountain Publishing Co.
2001, 60p, ISBN 9788989646006

8. Bike Trip with Uncle
Chae In-sun; Illustrator: Kim Dong-sung, Jaimimage Publishing Co.
1998, 46p, ISBN 9788986565515

      Kim: Artists such as Dick Bruna or John Burningham have their own distinct styles. They create powerful works by breathing narrative into their own characters. They tell stories only they can tell.

      Eom: So that’s what you mean by your style. But when I was translating John Burningham, a book on his life and works, I did some research on his early works and noticed that he used to have a completely different style and content. They gradually changed. I think that yours will go through similar changes. Whose career or works do you follow closely for inspiration?

      Kim: Oh, many artists. I’ve been marveling at the directing of Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, and Woody Allen. As far as contemporaries go, I admire Baek Heena’s imagination, Bae Hyun-ju’s documentary-like style, and Yi Hye-ran’s style as well. Kwon Yoon-duck’s approach is also inspiring. When I look at the works of contemporaries or the generation below me, I have no doubt we will see picture books with an even more wonderful sense of imagination in the future.

      Eom: What kind of picture books would you like to make?

      Kim: I have a few things I’m working on at my desk right now, but I’m not at liberty to discuss them in detail. One thing I can tell you is that I would like to work on documentary picture books, which isn’t a big field but quite vital in my view. Seoul, Geumgang Mountain, or Han River, for example, can be the topic of these books. “King Jeongjo Goes to Hwaseong” could also be made into a picture book. Another direction I’m considering is picture books that reinterpret the beloved classics of Hans Christian Andersen or Oscar Wilde. There’s a few that I have in mind right now. Yet another project I’d like to work on is a picture book that depicts a child’s life and the way he or she thinks. Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, for instance, is about a boy who says “I don’t care” to everything until he is eaten by a lion. After that, he says, “I care.” I want to make picture books that play with such a psychology, are fun, and have twists at the end.