Stephanie Wong: Beyond Illustrations

This month’s Gathering Books Special was inspired by one particular book: The Diary of Amos Lee. We here at GB were delighted when its Author and Illustrator agreed to be this month’s feature. Below is our interview with the Illustrator Ms. Stephanie Wong. All pictures/images of Stephanie are copyrighted by her.

Thank you, Stephanie for agreeing to be our Featured Illustrator for the Month of October. We are very excited to have a real-life artist in our pages, answering our questions.

Just a little note, Gathering Books put some of Stephanie’s Work into the collage for easier viewing.


You’ve mentioned in our correspondence that you were a designer before you became an illustrator, could you tell our GatheringBooks readers about your background in design.

I’m firstly a designer before an illustrator. Illustration is what I do to either compliment/enhance a design when needed or something that I do for fun,

I studied visual communication in Temasek Polytechnic (TP) and went on to do my degree at Swinburne, National School of Design, Melbourne.

I’ve done design work for many private and corporate clients as well as projects for galleries. Some recent clients include NUHS, MOE,



Capitaland, Bodyshop, Objectifs and so on.

You have also mentioned about a work that you have done with a friend entitled “The Little Nightingale who can’t Sing” could you tell us a little more about this?

We were actually ex-colleagues, who felt, given our weird sense of humor as well as chemistry, she being a copywriter and me being a designer/illustrator, if the chance were to come, we should do a children’s book together.

That’s when we applied for the First-Time Writers & Illustrators Publishing grant awarded by the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA) and the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS).

We threw about a few ideas and ended up with the ironic story of a nightingale who can’t sing. We changed the story from the nightingale being electrocuted (after running away from being teased by her siblings), which changed her to a rock-star to being loved for who she actually is, don’t matter if she could sing or not. (The panel from MDA and NBDCS didn’t think having a bird being electrocuted is funny or having much point.)

I designed the book in a way that allows the story to unfold like a film. So there is no break and you can literally watch the story unfold, until it hits a transition (like an intermission in an Indian movie) and carry on the story. It comes in a box (makes a great gift and for traveling on the road) with activity cards that links back to the story.

It was something fun and something that we can both experiment. There was no client and no limits. So we went all out and made it different. Our book was not really a book but more of a book that works with the story.

I understand that you also work at Epigram, could you share with us what kind of work you do for Epigram and how it allows you to illustrate children’s books?

I’m a senior designer at Epigram.

Epigram is a local design house that has been around for about 20 years and is known for its well-designed, well-worded annual reports. Aside from Annual Reports, the company also does corporate identities, magazines, commissioned books and signage.

Stephanie's Workspace at Epigram

Edmund Wee, Boss of Epigram, has a deep love for books, words and design, so Epigram books was a natural branch off from corporate/commissioned work to do work that the creatives could do for fun with little restrictions.

I first approached him for permission to work on the nightingale because there might be a conflict of interest in my contract. After I got the grant, I approached Epigram to be the publisher so that I could work on it during working hours and I could tap onto the company’s resources, still knowing that I could have free play on that project.

Two years later, Adeline approached me to do Amos and she was looking for a publisher as well, so I recommended Epigram, knowing that I could have control of the work that was going out and a boss who values good design.

Among all the multiple roles that you do, which do you enjoy the most?

Design when I’m not designing, Illustration when I’m not illustrating and Photography when I’m not taking pictures. It’s difficult to choose one over another.

Early Influences

How long have you been doing drawings and illustrations (if you could share with us some of your earliest work from when you were a child, that would be wonderful)?

I don’t really remember when I started or when I develop an interest in drawing. Its just a natural progression from unrecognized crayon scribbles, to copying characters, to copying things I see, to getting influenced by others and constantly evolving my style/work through experiment and practice.

Was drawing a natural interest or did you receive any kind of special training for this?

I believe that everyone can draw. We were all born to draw, we were encouraged to make pictures, to color and so forth when we were all kids. But as we grow older, we were made to write more and draw less, count more and color less. Then we were told how to draw, and what to draw.

Stephanie in her grandparents' living room with an easy-sketch board

I was sent to art classes in Yamaha as a kid and was encouraged to draw. We were exposed to many different medium, from Chinese ink to clay. Despite all that (classes and interest), I got a “C6” for art for ‘O’Levels. Goes to show that art is very subjective and you can’t judge whether you can draw or not based on a score. What is important is to carry on doing what you are comfortable with, what you like, use the influences, experiment, improve and develop something that is your own style.

Could you share with us how you were like as a child? How were your obvious talents in the arts developed at home? How about in school?

I was a terrible kid, major terror.

I grew up in an extended family. They were all my dad’s relations, his brothers and their wives + kids, about five families in total. In addition to that, at one point, we had seven puppies and two adult guard dogs. We all stayed in a house in Mountbatten with a giant field out front, a basket-ball/badminton count, laundry area and a huge canal behind that floods after a heavy rain which = no school!!!

Stephanie's Brother with their dogs

Every time it floods, we would arm ourselves with paper cups and “go-fishing”. Once, a snake ended up in the back garden. All the kids were huddled into the room while the men of the house went to deal with the snake. It was eventually caught and I believed made into a handbag.

Stephanie (in pink) with children in the extended family

Having so many kids and space, with little adult supervision means more time for fun and games. We kids would collaborate and gather resources (imagination or toys) to embark on our next adventure/game/mission (getting into trouble). We had to be creative to find interesting things to do (a new version of hide and seek) and even more so to get out of trouble (when we couldn’t find someone). My mom used to say I could be a lawyer because I have an explanation and argument for everything.

Childhood was very noisy, very entertaining and getting into all sorts of trouble and injuries. There was always something interesting to do or see. I think things would be different if I didn’t have the childhood I had. A lot of design/ ideas/ illustrations that I do, takes influence from my childhood and the games we made up or played as well as the outings and movies we watched.

I was a teacher’s nightmare in school. Results were average or below average. Having fun, playing games and watching TV was way more exciting then mugging for spelling or maths. But there were two things that I would happily do, reading and art. My mom encouraged reading. She would buy me whole sets of books, “Peter and Jane”, “Peter Rabbit”, “Famous 5”, “Enid Blytons”, Roald Dahl and so forth.

I love my books, I love holding the pages of the books, bringing it everywhere reading it everywhere. It’s a good way to escape the world and good “research” for a new game to play. Its great (and still is) meal time company and toilet company.

I didn’t really do well till upper secondary when someone came to talk about design.

It seemed interesting, fun and different. I could draw (roughly ok) and thus I could design (or so I thought) you don’t need to count (or so I thought) or memorize formulas or spell (or so I thought too). So I made it my purpose to get into design.

I studied enough just to get into TP. Scored 14 pts for my “O”s, went for the interview and thus started my path into design.

Did you have any arts mentor whom you believe to be highly influential in your development as an artist?

I wont say I have been highly influenced by any single mentor or educator that have taught me art. But I have learnt different things from each of them.

My art teacher in school yells her famous quote almost daily.. “Girls should be seen and not heard” taught me to be the exact opposite. However, I’m still rather quiet when you first meet me, only shameless when you know me.

I had a foundation lecturer who smashed/destroy my projects/development booklets and failed my print-work (yet hung it on his wall) that taught me that work is not personal. I had one who told me that I can’t draw (Thus I had to stay back for extra classes..again…) but I had another who predicted that I will be a children’s book illustrator, which was the most uncool thing to say to a 18 year-old aspiring designer.

Have you always been interested in children’s literature?

Yes. We all grew up reading children’s literature. They are linked to our childhood and memories. I still remember being terrified by blue beard, going on adventures with the secret seven and laughing along with Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

Good children’s books are direct yet complicated. When you read them as a kid, you understand it as a simple story, with simple values to learn. But when you re-read them as you get older, theres a different perspective to that same story.

Who are your favorite illustrators for children’s books?

There are a few illustrators that I get inspired/admire/love are not necessarily limited to children’s books.

Rilla Alexander part of Australian design and art collective RINZEN is one. I love her use of lines, the characters she creates and her approach to illustration and design. (http://www.byrilla.com/about.html)

The late Saul bass for his use of type and graphics that has transcended across all media (from film to books). His style is still an influence to a lot of work that is done today and there is a timeless quality to what he do.  A line that I would love to quote from him “Design is thinking made visual”.

One style and feel that I have taken to love since childhood is a set of books written by Joy Wilt and illustrated by Ernie Hergenroeder, titled “The Ready-Set-Grow Series”. The set of 24 books teaches kids from the age of 4 onwards social skills as well as handling “serious adult stuff” like death, relationships, discrimination, money and so forth. I’m happy to report, I still have the complete set and take them out for a quick flip once in awhile.

Other influences (in no special order) ranges from Edward Monkton, Andy Riley, Paul Frank (Yes the monkey), Yoshitomo Nara (for his evil looking sweet characters), animations by Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli), the Pixar group, Emily the Strange, Penguin books just to name afew.

How about children’s book writers?

Anything by Roald Dahl (I love his wit and imagination), “Where the wild things are” by Maurice Sendak (again, imagination and the hidden message within the story),

“The little prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

and the Beatrix Potter series of stories.

Medium and Styles Used in Illustrating

What is the medium that you usually use as you do your illustrations? Do you use any special software? Pens? Inks? Colors?

My most used tool would be the pencil or ball-point pen. It’s cheap, easy storage and accessible whenever. Currently, because of amos and time constrains, its my wacom tablet.

I do also use coloured pencils, markers and sometime crayons. I do love experimenting with different mediums, when I have the time. Its fun and gives a new dimension an illustration. I’ve done Silk-screening, print-making and played with Plasticines. I love happy accidents where you can’t really predict the outcome.

What are your thoughts on digital pens and inks? Do you prefer working using this medium or do you still make use of the traditional mode of doing illustrations? Could you share with our readers what makes you decide to either use one (old-school, traditional means) or the other (modern technology) in your designs?

Digital pens and ink to me is just a tool. Depending on purpose and the kind of feel that I am looking for, as well as timeline, it is sometimes easier.

What is more important however is the idea, the character, and the basics of drawings. That does not change regardless of medium. The medium is just a tool used to enhance/ is an expression of that idea.

I used colour pencils and pencils, to give the diary a very sketch-book like feel, but it didn’t really work. Everything came out week, messy and took up too much time. It didn’t help that the font that I have chosen for Amos is very complicated and its also rather text heavy. I didn’t want to compromise the font, so I had to change the style of the illustration. Therefore as a contrast, I kept the illustration simple using bold lines and solid colours. This makes page cleaner and clearer.

(Here are some Initial sketches for The Diary of Amos Lee shared by Stephanie)

For the Nightingale book, it was the other way round. It was set out to more more illustrative then text, therefore experimented with different mediums. I tried going digital, but didn’t manage to bring life into the character. It was rather stiff. So I went back to what I was comfortable with, colored pencils.

Could you provide us with a graphic illustration of how your workstation looks like?

Another angle of Stephanie's work station

On Amos Lee

When you first started working on the Diary of Amos Lee, did you anticipate just how well-received it would be by the general public? What were some of the first thoughts that came to your mind when Adeline talked to you about collaborating on Amos Lee?

I didn’t anticipate how well it would do. I knew however Adeline and my boss had a lot of faith that I would do this job well. So I did what I could in the time given, put in a lot of heart, cross my fingers and hope for the best. I’m happy that the book is so well received and has done so well, makes everything worth it.

First thoughts when Adeline told me were very practical thoughts actually. When is the deadline (first question that I always ask), am I doing the design as well, who’s the publisher and is it a conflict of interest to my current job. I did think that the idea was workable and interesting, but it was not something that I can pull off as a side-line job. So I got Adeline to approach my boss, Edmund Wee and the rest is history.

Works out for the best actually, because I’ve got the full support of my company and don’t have to worry about the business and promotion side of things.

What were some of your inspiration as you did your images for Amos Lee?

The best inspiration is from the world around you. Sitting at your desk will at times get you nowhere. The text gives you a clue about what kind of character that character has and how he/she would react to the situation (ie. happy/sad/angry/disappointed)

A mirror helps for expressions. Observing people helps as well (I’ll go work at a café, or the public library on weekends). Watching movies/TV, playing games (for body language and illustrating style) and going out-doors.

You are constantly thinking on how certain part of the text would/could be better enhanced by an illustration and how will the things/object around the character gives the reader more depth into what the character likes, how they live and behave. We are very much influenced by the things surrounding us.

The people/places/things that I’m are most familiar with or that I like best will do a silent cameo in the book. (note: the paul frank monkey in every book,

the polaroid camera that amos used in the 2nd book and

Amos’s cat Tom is very much like my friend’s cat, Astro.)

How much time do you spend in creating illustrations for the Amos Lee books. I noticed that the books are image-filled and I believe that it is also one of the attractions and the strengths of the book. How long did it take you to complete the first Amos Lee book? How about the second one?

I get about 3-4 months for each Amos books. That’s including designing, illustrating, amendments and edits. Which is very little time. So that always equates to no sleep, no social life and no weekends till the book is done.

The Amos Lee books are largely monochromatic (with colors found only in the cover page) – did you have any inspiration for this?

It was more of a cost thing rather then a reason. (Its cheaper to print in one-colour, and therefore, we can keep the price of the book low).  But that being said, design and illustration should not be compromised by cost. You just have to see it as a challenge, work around it and still be able to deliver something different and something good.

The Wimpy Kid series also make full use of a great deal of illustrations in its pages – would you say that your artwork has been influenced in large part by the Diary of a Wimpy Kid?

I have yet to read a copy of wimpy kid but I’ve seen it.

I don’t really like Amos being compared to wimpy kid, because then Amos wouldn’t be an original. So, no, I have not been influenced by wimpy kid.

They are just two different boys, in two different worlds. A diary is just a way of expression and it so happens that Amos was released just after wimpy kid and share the same title of “The diary of” that most people tend to make that comparison.

So I try to keep the design and layout different and I hope the kids will appreciate that Amos is not a copy of wimpy kid.

End notes

What are the joys of illustrating books for children?

It’s also fun to do what I like, with little restrictions and great to see the end product being so well received in the hands of a kid engrossed in the story. That’s an  appreciation of a job well done.

What are some of the difficulties that you have encountered so far?

(The answers are for design/illustrations jobs in general).

People who are not designers or illustrators trying to be or think they know better then the professionals. People or clients who are not appreciative of the blood, sweat and tears we as designers/illustrators put in each and every project and just reject the work as a “I don’t like it” without listening to the rational and offer no solution or reason.

What are the top three important lessons that you have learned in your trade especially after both Amos Lee books have reached national bestselling proportions – truly a major feat here in Singapore?

1)      I work better and do better work at night.

2)      It is more productive working in cafes/libraries/friend’s offices or houses then my bed at home. (I don’t have a work station/table/studio in my room or at home so currently i’m either working on my small ikea table or on my bed)

3)      Its important to work with people who share a similar vision with you and allow you to go do your thing. Support you when its needed, listen to you, inspire you and pull you back straight when you are too blind to see otherwise.

What are some of the new things that your fans should expect from your in the next few months to come?

Amos 3 is in the works and should be out in November (Fingers cross). Its looking better with bigger and improved illustrations (as noted by the author). Adeline and me will be launching the book at Kino and Borders so keep an eye or ear out for us.

Any advice for young artists out there?

Don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t care what others say (even if your teacher fails your masterpiece), just keep drawing with a smile on your face and have heart in your work.

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