Ehsan Abdollahi is an acclaimed illustrator and animator from Iran whose books have been widely celebrated in the UK. Ehsan illustrated A Bottle of Happiness by Pippa Goodhart, the first of Tiny Owl Publishing’s intercultural projects. He discusses it here.
A Bottle of Happiness was the first book I worked on with a non-Iranian author. When the publisher first sent me the translation of the work, I read the story over and over again. I was surprised to see how close our worldviews can be, even though we are from different cultures. I was keen to start working on it as soon as I could.
My drawing style in this book was very simple. I just took a pencil and I drew. I feel like there is such a pure feeling in pencil drawings, similar to the atmosphere in the story, and I wanted to put that feeling in the book. I used watercolour for the characters so I could paint transparent colours layer by layer onto the pencil drawings. That way the colour wouldn’t cover the pencil lines completely. (The subject was about love and peace, and the purest material to use was watercolour, I thought.)
I wanted the illustrations to represent all ethnicities so I decided not to use any colour for the characters’ skin and just leave the colour of the paper. The dress style for the people in the story is also a combination of different global dresses. However, I was born in south of Iran and I think this influenced me to use bright colours, because the people of south Iran wear dresses with patterns and bright coloured fabrics. If you look at the book closely, you’ll see I’ve also used my fingerprints on the dresses. It gives me a feeling that they are my close friends and that they are part of me.
The next thing I had to consider was how to show the poverty of one town in contrast with the wealth of the other. Although the poorer people had less money, they were happy and they saw the world beautifully. So, I made their clothing beautiful but with more patches of fabric. I also included many dandelions in the poor people’s village, and on Pim’s hat. Dandelions are a symbol of hope and happiness in Persian culture and you can see them spread into the wealthy village towards the end of the book.
When the characters were illustrated and coloured, I scanned them. It was time to put them all together in the story. I wanted a simple background that wouldn’t detract from the characters so I used strong colours with watercolour drops.
I wanted the background colour to give a feeling for each village so I used a purplish grey for the wealthy village, and a strong orange for the poorer but happier village. I thought this was a good choice, until I got to the spread where both people came together. This spread couldn’t be grey or orange. It needed a stronger colour, like love: red. I thought only red could show the feeling of that moment.
It was a very special experience working with Pippa Goodhart. I loved creating a book that crossed national and cultural boundaries, and that celebrated people coming together from different sides of the mountain. I look forward to many more projects to come.
A Bottle of Happiness is published by Tiny Owl, 978-1-9103-2820-0, £12.99 hbk and 978-1-9103-2826-2, £7.99 pbk (out 9 January 2018)
In 2018, Tiny Owl will publish Ehsan’s next book Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me by the acclaimed African-American poet Eloise Greenfield.
Find out more about their intercultural projects.