Illustrator’s childhood love of manga, anime blossoms into whimsical art

Hello, my name is Lavender Vroman, and I’m a children’s book junkie.

I’ve always loved this genre of literature with its deceptively simple, fantastical stories and whimsical art that plunges you right back into childhood. After my daughter was born, it just gave me more of an excuse to fill my bookshelves with volumes that remind me of those wondrous days of youth and imagination.

One of my favorite children’s book illustrators also happens to be my sister-in-law. Her name is Mai Kemble, and her artwork is some of the sweetest, most smile-inducing you’ll ever see.

For Christmas, she gifted the family with beautifully personal, unbearably cute animal-themed paintings that will soon be framed and adorning the walls of several homes.

Mai’s artistic journey began at a young age as she shared a world of imagination, manga-reading, and hours drawing with her twin sister, Mei. This close-knit bond blossomed into an education in illustration and a vibrant career resulting in several published children’s books and a variety of freelance art projects.

Of course, Mai’s love of childlike playfulness and fantasy has led to many geeky fascinations, from a passion for classic Disney, Japanese, and stop-motion animation to fandoms including Star Wars, Star Trek, SuperWhoLock, and Harry Potter.

And then there are her obsessions with Adam West’s “Batman” and “Magnum, P.I.” …

You’re definitely going to want to hear about that!

You’re a freelance illustrator who specializes in art for children. What are you currently working on, whether professionally or personally?

My current projects were Christmas-themed paintings for friends and family. I tried to choose animals that I knew each person thought was cute and then add little Christmas ornaments or decorations.  Thankfully, these were all finished in time for the holiday.

I am also trying to complete some newer illustrations that are mostly digital, or created in Adobe Photoshop. The last time I was able to create new images for my own portfolio that were not something a client designed was far too long ago.

I decided to take a few images I had sketched for some of these clients and use parts or sketches that were rejected but I still thought would be cute illustrations. I decided to place them on Society6 in hopes some might sell as gifts during the holiday season. I will have to continue to create more illustrations even after the season ends in hopes that I can revive my portfolio.

Twins Mei Stewart, left, and Mai Kemble.

Did you show artistic inclinations as a child? You have a twin, Mei Stewart. Is it true the two of you kind of existed in your own creative world?

Oh boy, did I ever! I always like to say that I drew as soon as I could hold a crayon. All of my family are excellent at drawing, although the interest was fiercest with myself and twin sister, Mei. I am not exaggerating when I say that our entire childhood consisted of drawing as much as we could.

We enjoyed drawing different characters and passing the sheet of paper between us as we staged the next part of the story … creating the story as we went and long into the night when we could. We were immersed in manga and comics, as well as other cartoons we liked to watch. Most of our early creations were like the modern day fan art/fan fiction, where you take an existing character and make up your own storyline. It helped us practice drawing and was a fun way to refine our skills.

Art by Mai Kemble.

When and why did you decide to pursue illustration as a career?

I walked the halls of the art department at my college and saw the illustration work up on the walls. I also began to go back to story that went along with images like the manga I used to read. I was older though and my interests weren’t exactly the same, though I wanted something that still held that imagination and story I used to love.

I decided to take a class on sequential art because I had heard that the assignments were challenging and also were about story. The professor became one of my personal heroes and showed us children’s books as examples for our assignments. It was a defining moment for me when I realized that this was the exact profession that held all aspects of what I loved about art.

My nephew also was born around this time and I became infatuated with him and all things related to children, now including the books. Illustration in general was interesting, but it was specifically children’s illustration that grabbed at my heart.

What was it about children’s art that appealed to you?

Children’s art is fundamentally bursting with imagination and challenge. Children’s minds are so wonderful because they just soak up everything shown to them and they are so delighted by art and story. You can make your art incredibly realistic or the completely opposite route and have stick figures — it doesn’t matter so long as it matches the story being told and makes a point to the child.

The challenge there is really to decide how best to approach each script or story and really make sure it reaches these children the best way possible. I love all the styles and approaches — the classics to the newer books. However, I think that what can only be found in children’s art is a kind of joy that relates specifically to the fact that you know your audience are children. They become a huge influence on how you approach your assignments and in that way it is unique.

A work in progress.

You earned a bachelor of fine arts in illustration at California State University, Long Beach. What was your experience of studying there like?

I have a soft spot in my heart for CSULB.  Although I really only liked the two or three years spent in the illustration department, it was like being surrounded by like-minded, mind-boggling talented people. Totally cool. Nothing beats being able to walk into a room and get instant feedback on your work. Nor being able to hang out with people who also get super excited seeing a well-executed illustration or design.

Mai and her husband, Joshua Kemble, indulge in a Star Wars selfie.

CSULB is also where you met your husband, comic book artist, illustrator, art director, and vlogger Joshua Kemble. What’s it like living with another artist?

Living with another artist is the only way to go if you are an artist. They will understand your deadlines, your weird hang-ups about brushes and paints to the type of lamp bulb you use. Of course, the other side to that is shared space in mostly small spaces is hard … as well as having weird quirky things, like not being able to work if there are certain tunes playing. I also like to have an organized workspace –including the surrounding space — and so seeing a messy desk across from me can make me totally freak out. I’ve learned to cope in that arena, mostly!

Your style is very sweet and whimsical and childlike. How did you develop it?

I believe it cannot help but be a bit manga, no matter how much I try to avoid it. I also had a lot of interest in animation movies, including Disney, so I was taught to make sure everything was very round and full when sketching characters.

I like cute. I like images that are sweet and make people happy. I also really love watercolor and that always invited a kind of brightness to my paintings that I enjoy. Although I am now trying to move away a bit from full and round to invite more flat, shape-based images, as well as other textures with the help of the computer, I still want to stay in the realm of sweet and whimsical.

Who and what are some of your influences?

To narrow it down quite a bit, I would say that Gyo Fujikawa, Mary Blair, Jon Klassen, Maurice Sendak, Tove Jansson, Masashi Kishimoto, Julia Denos, E.B. Goodale, Julie Morstad, and Ezra Jack Keats are the illustrators I spend a lot of time looking at.

Mai and her son, Benjamin, who is dressed as Max from “Where the Wild Things Are.”

For those of us who are unfamiliar with how illustration works, can you describe your process when you sit down to illustrate something?

It really depends on the assignment (book vs. single illustration) and whether it is personal or for a client, but I will try to narrow it down to the things that fall across all situations.

I spend time sketching … almost like brainstorming. I also look at tons and tons of images on the internet if it requires a certain animal or person to make sure I know any details that are important. I might print a sheet with several of these images on one page and pin it over where I draw and paint.

Once I finalize the image, I will transfer the image as best I can, using transfer wax sheets, to watercolor paper. Wax sheets are smooth on one side while the other is just smothered graphite (the stuff pencil lead is made of) so that when you press on the smooth side, it presses graphite onto your watercolor paper. It is hard to use and I feel like I still haven’t nailed down the best way to get my drawings/sketches to my painting sheets.

I spend time cleaning up this drawing and making sure it is perfect in pencil. Then I have to prepare my palette by wetting each color. I will paint all the larger or general spaces before working into the details. This is probably the hardest part as your painting can look pretty crappy during this phase — almost like mid-haircut.

Once all is painted, I might scan it and clean it up in Photoshop before sending the file to whomever or posting it somewhere online.

Mai’s home art studio.

Where do you find inspiration for the images you create?

Books and movies … memories of stories I love. Children that are in my life. I look at and read a lot of children’s books as well and so I sometimes imagine what I might have done if I were asked to illustrate the story instead.

What materials do you typically use?

I love watercolor, but I also like to use a mechanical pencil for any details or line work. I like using colored pencil on top of watercolor for textures, too. I want to get a bit more mixed media and use fabric pattern or paper textures in my work that I will do on the computer.

One of Mai’s children’s book illustrations in process.

You won an illustration contest in 2006 held by the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. You were also one of their featured artists in 2008. What did it feel like to be honored in this way?

It was a long time ago now, but I was very surprised mostly. I didn’t see myself actually winning things that soon after graduating. I had a good feeling about the illustration when I submitted it, but I thought there certainly would be another that was better.  It was very flattering and a great push to do more.

You wrote and illustrated your own adorable book, “The Moon and the Night Sweepers,” which was published as part of a program for college students. It features a character modeled after your nephew and is obviously influenced by “Peter Pan,” “Mary Poppins,” and Japanese animation. Tell me more about that.

This book was supposed to be so much more in my mind’s eye. I really wanted a story that took elements of black and white movies — a mix of Buster Keaton meets Fred Astaire. I wanted it to have funny signs like they have in silent movies and have a sing-song feeling.

However, my lack of knowledge with publishing meant that I didn’t know how much the illustrator did and how much the book designer was supposed to add.  I thought that we would be working together on designing these extra elements not just text placement, etc.

However, that being said, it did still capture a lot of what I wanted the story to be about … especially since it did include pages with no text and some dancing and humming. The little boy is, indeed, my nephew at the same age, and the Night Sweeper is actually my Grandpa, who always had an adorable mustache.

I wanted them to come together and dance — tap dance, really — because it was something I loved. Much like the above mentioned “Mary Poppins,” I love musicals, especially ones aimed at children, and I really wanted my story to be that in a new genre. I also saw Maurice Sendak’s “The Night Kitchen” animated and I thought it was brilliant.

You’ve illustrated several other published children’s books, including “I’m So Not Wearing a Dress,” “I Can Speak Bully,” “Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten,” and “Lou Lou.” What do you enjoy about the process of collaborating with an author on these kind of books?

Working with a book editor vs. the author are two different animals.

The first few were with publishers who had experienced book editors who understood story and pacing and how the pages printed, the page count, where text needed to fit, and were the best people. I could send them different sketches and they had good feedback and a good idea for what might sell as well. It was great fun being able to take these notes and revisit sketches before seeing these images in print.

Working with an author on other books was only harder because so many were unfamiliar with the little details that goes along with publishing books. Their stories and ideas were also precious and so often still evolving so there was a lot more editing than creating. I also didn’t feel like I had as much of a say in what worked because I felt I was more hired to do only exactly what they wanted — very few seemed interested in my influence.

That being said, some were incredibly motivated and passionate, which made it well worth it. You wanted to make something that made them happy and really nailed what they wanted their work to pair with.

You also freelance for a company that features your illustrations on fabric and clothing. What’s that like, seeing your creations on something people will wear?

I never really imaged anyone would print watercolor on fabric, so when I finally saw the clothing, I thought it was so cool. I was sent a sweater with one of my paintings and thought it was very unique and looked awesome. People kept asking where I got the sweater from, too, so I was pretty sure that people didn’t often see paintings on clothing.

A few of Mai’s pieces from Fadenrot.

What’s freeing about freelance, and what are the challenges of freelance?

Freelance means you are your own boss and the perks of that are being able to say “yes” and “no” when you want, as well as changing your style as you see fit. You decide everything. The challenges are then you must also manage money, scheduling, and be hunting for work. I think freelance along with a stable job is the best route, although there are some that think this will hinder your drive for work — like a crutch and keep you from getting better work.

If we wanted to purchase some of your art, where could we do that?

For prints or merchandise with my personal work: https://society6.com/maikemble.

For clothing with my paintings printed on them: https://de.dawanda.com/shop/fadenrot (note: not all images on the clothing are mine, as she hires many illustrators).

You’re a fan of animation. I know you like Laika (“Coraline,” “The Boxtrolls,” “Kubo and the Two Strings”), Aardman (“Wallace & Gromit,” “Shaun the Sheep”), and of course Disney. What do you like about this genre?

Well, mostly it is unique. Laika’s stop-motion has a tactile feel, much like hand-painting, that you cannot achieve with digital art … probably why I have avoided learning Photoshop for so long. All the characters are lovable and teach lessons that are worthwhile and not sugarcoated. Laika and Aardman didn’t avoid making the movies because it would be hard, but rather enjoyed making it the hard way … because it was the best way for the stories. I can appreciate that the most.

Disney animation is a mix for me only because the best stuff is, of course, the older movies because you see the drawing … and boy are they drawn well! Also, they are exceptional at background and color — just look at “Sleeping Beauty” or “Alice in Wonderland”! Each movie is specially designed and the drawings and backgrounds are untouchable when it comes to classic Disney.

Mai and Mei, dressed as Coraline and Wednesday Addams for Halloween.

You’re also very into Japanese animation. What are some of your favorite series, movies, and franchises?

Because I read manga as I grew up and less so now, my favorites are probably a bit dated. Ghibli anything of course has to make the list — who didn’t love “Spirited Away” or “Ponyo”?

Also Naruto (the manga more than the anime, and more Shippuden era), Deathnote (animated series — it is excellent), Saki Hiwatari’s Please Save My Earth (a romantic science fiction … although the manga is very good and probably better than the anime), Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop, and Akira. I grew up watching Dragon Ball and stuff like Ranma 1/2 long before anyone knew about anime.

How did you become interested in this particular cultural art form? What do you love about it?

My mom is Japanese and we were attending Japanese language school every Saturday until we were sophomores in high school. The school had other students who were into manga and anime as well. We all visited the Japanese shopping center near our home, which had a video rental with recordings of Japanese TV shows, including anime, so we watched tons of these videos. We also had a little book store in the same center where we could buy or order manga.

We were interested because we loved the stories. Mei and I always loved the hero vs. the bad guy and all the corny stories that anime seemed to be steeped in. We liked the great friendships and the triumphs from enduring trials. We were very invested in these themes and cared deeply for every character’s tragedies and victories. We were nerds. We couldn’t help it.

As I mentioned, your husband is a comic artist. Are you into comics or comic books?

My love now is mostly children’s picture books, but I do enjoy reading comic books. I just don’t seem to gravitate toward that genre anymore unless someone else hands it to me.

Baby Benjamin does a little “Doctor Who” cosplay.

You’re into some seriously geeky stuff. For instance, you are a SuperWhoLock fan. What is it about those series that appeals to you?

I love a series that can take the corny messages and keep it cool. I like a show that can laugh at itself and its fans can laugh along with them. I also like that the shows are all intelligent. You have to follow some pretty fast-paced story arcs and know some history to appreciate the character’s situations.

But most of all, I love the friendships. They are totally saturated with the kind of faithful, self-sacrificing, heroic types of people that I grew up adoring when I was a little girl watching anime, where the good guy always wins. These people are always far from perfect, but their friendships are perfect because they make each other whole. Watching this makes me happy and I can’t get enough of it.

Who’s your Doctor?

Matt Smith, all the way.

Mai and husband Joshua Kemble.

You’re also a fan of mysteries in general, including “Columbo” and “Sherlock Holmes.” What do you like about mysteries?

Mysteries are fun because I like to try and solve them before the detective does … I like guessing whodun’it! I also like the quirks of the type of person that has this knack of solving horrible crimes and yet remains lovable and straight-laced. It is fun to watch them deliver their verdicts, see them watch people, and then reveal all that they saw that you didn’t. Fascinating!

Who’s your favorite Holmes?

Jeremy Brett.  It is hard to watch anyone else play Sherlock … although I have reasons for any exceptions. Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock” passes my grade because it is modernized and is well written.

Mai, dressed as Magnum P.I. for Halloween.

On another important subject, you are probably the world’s biggest “Magnum, P.I.” fan. What are your memories of watching that show? Why does it hold a special place in your heart?

Oh, Magnum … I fell in love with “Magnum, P.I.” because he uses words like “snacky-poo” while eating hot dogs and chill, but is still very intelligent. I began watching this show when my son was still only about a month old and during night feedings, I would watch Netflix. My husband actually showed me the first episode and I thought it was brilliant.

What an oddball storyline to have some mansion (owned by an author because authors can get this rich!) in Hawaii, of all places, with an ex-Navy officer now private investigator … but it works! The friendships between these characters, the silly personalities on the show are all so foreign to television that I see now.

It didn’t seem to pander to a stereotypical show and yet it had stereotypical things about it — like the busty ladies or the flashy car — because the busty lady would sometimes reveal to be the opposite of what you expect, while the flashy car isn’t even owned by Magnum, much to his chagrin. It is hilarious and lovable for these reasons and so much more.

You love Harry Potter. How did you discover J.K. Rowling’s series?

My sister and dad, oddly enough, were reading it before me when the first movie was going to be released in the theater. I finally decided to read the book after seeing the movie on DVD. Once that was rea. I had to read them all and still wish there were more. I cried when it was all over because I simply never wanted it to end.

What’s your Hogwarts house?

Gryffindor!

Art by Mai Kemble.

You’re one of those rare fans of both Star Wars and Star Trek. Tell me your personal Star Wars saga. How did George Lucas’ franchise change your life?

It’s really sad to me that so many choose to be one or the other when both are so awesome!  But, I can talk about Star Wars. My whole family, when I was little, watched the Star Wars trilogy on VHS obsessively.

I loved the idea of the force as well as the defeat of evil. I think that how the Force was described really described the same types of feelings you might feel when contemplating real life. I thought it made a lot of sense and made me want to find out what this world was all about — was there something like the Force in reality?  It sure felt like there was …  I think it made me think about the meaning of life, really. Sounds over the top, but it really did.

Which incarnation of Star Trek is your favorite and why?

The “Next Generation” is my favorite because of the crew! Although Kirk and Spock’s friendship is hard to beat, the other characters didn’t reach me as much. However, all the episodes and characters on “Next Generation” were less cheesy than the original Star Trek and gave screen time to every crew member. There were threats as big as Nero and Khan with the Borg and Q, and it also had the holodeck! It had a mix of female and male, old and young, alien and human that I think made this series the most rich.  And Patrick Stewart.

Benjamin as Batman, then and now.

You also have bonded with your son over the Adam West “Batman” TV series. Tell me about that.

This is so late in the game, but I remembered Josh liked the show … then I bought it as a gift for him. Adam West had also recently passed away when I bought it. We decided it was friendly enough for our 4-year-old and he immediately loved it as well.

It had all the same things I already loved but it was a Batman I never knew, for sure! I had seen Batman portrayed only in dark and serious ways, but this was by far the best. We enjoyed the weird scenarios and gadgets and the straight-faced delivery of “stay in school” type messages to the audience. Good fun. And our son thought Batman was cool because he wore a costume, which made it even more lovable.

Does your family share your love of geek culture? What are some of your shared and individual interests?

Mei and I were the only ones obsessed with anime and all its good-guy heroism. We all seem to like books, as all my family are avid readers of science fiction and fantasy. However, sadly, they do not like to cover their whole house in any merchandise related to these. My husband and my twin are the only other collectors and have statues and posters and clothing related to all our geeky interests.

Mai’s mantle at home reflects her family’s geekier interests.

What are some of your other personal fandoms?

I really like “Anne of Green Gables.” I have read the book many times, watched the series featuring Megan Follows, drawn Anne many times, and fantasize about wearing her clothes. I have a fascination for Victorian houses and love to look at pictures of them. I used to have a folder on my desktop of different ones I had collected off the internet, but sadly had to delete to make room for other things. I also really love looking at doll houses in this style. It probably stems from “Anne of Green Gables,” somewhere down the line, too.

Would you say that being an artist affects the way you consume or view geeky entertainment?

I am not sure if it affects my views because I’m not a snob (an art snob). I like a well-made movie or anytime design is thought-out and used well, but I can like things simply because it made me feel good.

As a woman, is there anything you’d like to see change in the world of fandoms and geek culture?

I would like women to be able to be funny, gross, silly, demanding, and weird as much as possible. I adore a character that doesn’t seem to notice if she’s pretty. I would also like there to be more movies and stories that have the story be totally unrelated to love and have women main characters. I would like there to be card game swindlers, gun toting bad-asses that are solving crimes, etc., and have them all be women that don’t have to be face beautiful. Probably why I love “Bridesmaids” so much.

A portrait of Mai, in the style of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, painted by her husband, Joshua.

What’s the next big release (books, movies, TV, etc.) you’re looking forward to?

Maurice Sendak is having a new book out, post-death.

What’s your absolute favorite “Magnum, P.I.” episode?

The Christmas episode when they are stranded on an island that is used for test bombing … the ending is them flying away in TC’s helicopter singing carols while bombs are going off behind them. It’s the best. On a more serious note, there is an episode where Magnum is stuck miles out at sea, treading water, while his friends desperately try to find him.

Art by Mai Kemble.

 

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