The Fan Brothers, Eric (also known as Opifan) and his brother Terry, have been delighting us for years with their whimsical and imaginative art that includes note-breathing whales, over-worked bears, and bubble-blow elephants. In the Fan Brothers world, the door is always wide open to creating enchanting works.
In their latest endeavor, they’ve joined their creative talents with astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield to create a charming children’s book which shares the story of always following your dreams.
"It’s natural to get attached to something you’ve done, but when you’re collaborating with another person you have to be open to the ebb and flow of the creative process, and allow the piece the necessary space to transform into something else." Eric Fan
Would you share with us how the idea came about to collaborate on this book, The Darkest Dark?
Eric: The editor at Tundra/Penguin Random House, Tara Walker, was familiar with our work and thought our style might be a good fit for the text, so she suggested us to the Hadfields, and thankfully they loved our work and wanted us onboard as well.
Terry: It wasn’t really our idea to collaborate, that was just a given because we had worked on The Night Gardener together, which was our first picture book. So we already had a reputation as “The Fan Brothers”. Actually, Chris and Helene had seen our work on The Night Gardener and that’s one of the reasons they wanted us for the project.
How did you first meet Chris Hadfield?
Eric: When we were first chosen as the illustrators for The Darkest Dark, we met with Chris over dinner to discuss the book. I had always admired Chris Hadfield, even before the Space Oddity YouTube video went viral and introduced him to a global audience, so it was a real honour to meet with him. I’m a bit of a space nerd too, so we had a lot of questions for him.
Terry: Our agent, Kirsten Hall, met Tara Walker (an editor at Penguin-Random House Canada) in New York during a conference I think. They got to talking about the Hadfield project and then somehow our names were brought up. Tara was already familiar with our work and thought we would be perfect for the project, so things just went from there. Back in Toronto we met Tara and the co-writer, Kate Fillion, to discuss details etc. Our first contact with Chris was through a Skype conference call. Eventually we met him and his wife, Helene, in person.
How did you collaborate your individual artistic illustrations with the storyline?
Eric: For our collaborative work we will sometimes work on a single illustration together, or we’ll plan out the illustration and then each draw individual elements of it which we then bring together in Photoshop.
Terry: With The Night Gardener we developed a pretty streamlined system for collaborating on the artwork. Sometimes we work together directly on an illustration, but we often work on individual elements and then combine them in Photoshop. Then a lot of work is done in Photoshop as far as the colouring, composition etc. and often we’ll tweak or refine each other’s work. Usually almost every element in a scene will have been worked on by both of us in one way or another.
What is your favorite page/illustration in the story, The Darkest Dark?
Eric: For me it’s probably the spread towards the end of the book, when Chris is sitting on his bed looking at the moon out his window, and realizes that the darkness can be something wonderful instead of just frightening. It’s a quiet moment, and I like the mood of contemplation, and the sense that the shadow “aliens” that he was so frightened of are now, in some sense, his allies.
Terry: My favourite would be a spread near the end when the young Chris is sitting on his bed looking out at the moon in wonder, with the monsters gathered around. It’s a quiet, contemplative moment that has a lovely mood to it. He has finally conquered his fear of the dark and the monsters, which once seemed threatening, are now like friends. It’s not that the monsters have changed, but Chris has changed.
"I draw a lot inspiration from all the other talented artists out there, but really, inspiration can come from almost anywhere." -Terry Fan
What was the experience like of working with Chris Hadfield? Were there ideas already in place or where you given creative freedom?
Eric: Working with Chris and his wife Helene was a wonderful experience, and they did give us a lot of creative freedom. They were both very generous with their time, and both had some very helpful feedback. When we asked if it would be possible to visit Stag Island, where the story actually takes place, they very graciously invited us up to their cottage there so we could see for ourselves the cabin where Chris watched the moon landing from, and see the room he slept in as a child. It was incredibly valuable reference for us, as artists. He also took us flying in a Cirrus four-seat airplane, and let me pilot the plane for ten minutes – which was both thrilling and terrifying.
Terry: It was really wonderful working with both Chris and Helene. They definitely had a lot of input and gave us very helpful advice and feedback. They also had some specific ideas that were used. They encouraged us to think of ways to enrich the story and to inject our own ideas. Tara also had a lot of input as well as Kate. So it was a very collaborative process, more so than usual, because usually you’re just working with an editor and art director in most projects.
How does this differ from working on projects solo?
Eric: When you’re working on a solo project, the entire creative burden is on your shoulders, but with a collaboration there’s the sense of being a team, so the work isn’t quite as daunting.
Terry: With solo projects I’m able to experiment with different styles more and there’s a creative freedom when it comes subject matter. As The Fan Brothers we’re known for our distinctive style, so there’s a certain pressure to do something in a similar style when we sign on to a new project.
What secrets can you share behind your collaborations?
Eric: One secret is developing a lot of flexibility. It’s natural to get attached to something you’ve done, but when you’re collaborating with another person you have to be open to the ebb and flow of the creative process, and allow the piece the necessary space to transform into something else. If you’re too much of a control freak it can be difficult to relinquish that control, which is an impediment to true collaboration.
Terry: When you’re collaborating you have to be flexible and keep an open mind. I’ve learned to not get stuck on my ideas as much. It never hurts to try different solutions when facing a problem and to have some options, even if you feel strongly about a particular idea.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Eric: Inspiration is a funny thing. I think it’s a common fear among artists that inspiration will abandon you, or you’ll lose access to it. It’s not something concrete, like knowing a scientific formula, so you’re relying on something ephemeral and somewhat quixotic. I think inspiration is like a subconscious accumulation of whatever influences and experiences you’ve had over your lifetime, compressed by time, the way prehistoric life is compressed into petroleum over millennia. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to “strike oil” but I don’t wait around for inspiration. I think it’s more important to just put in the work, and if you’re lucky you’re there when it happens, but it doesn’t tend to happen without the work. The process itself, of working on something, can thread together connections that trigger a moment of inspiration, but if you sit around waiting for it to come you might be waiting a long time.
Terry: I draw a lot inspiration from all the other talented artists out there, but really, inspiration can come from almost anywhere.
What are some positives of working together that you’ve discovered?
Eric: I think one of the positives is that when you’re collaborating on a book you always have someone there to bounce ideas off of, and each of you can act as an editorial filter for the other person, in addition to the feedback you’re getting from the publisher. You’re also drawing upon each other’s artistic strengths, so hopefully the finished work will be a synthesis of those strengths.
Terry: Yes, I enjoy it very much. Our styles are somewhat similar, but for sure there are some significant differences. What I find interesting is that when we collaborate another style comes out of it. It’s kind of like when musicians form a band and have a distinctive sound, but individually they sound quite different and often have different tastes. Another advantage is simply a practical one, in that there is half the work to do. Picture books are incredibly challenging because of the sheer amount of work involved so I think that’s definitely a big positive. Also it always helps to have someone you can get honest feedback from and when I get stuck with something, Eric will sometimes have a solution and vice versa.
What other books have you collaborated on and published?
Eric: Our first published picture book was one we wrote ourselves called The Night Gardener (Simon & Schuster 2016)
Terry: The Night Gardener was our first picture book collaboration.
What type of media do you most enjoy using for sharing your art?
Eric: As far as social media, maybe Instagram, because it’s quick and easy and you get a fairly quick response to whatever you post.
Terry: Well, I’d have to say picture books
Will you be publishing or illustrating any other books that we can look forward to in the near future?
Eric: We’re just finishing up on the illustrations for a wonderful book called The Antlered Ship, written by Dashka Slater, to be published in Fall 2017 by Beach Lane Books. After that, we’re working on our own book, Ocean Meets Sky, which is being published in 2018 by Simon & Schuster and then we’re illustrating a lovely book called Scarecrow written by Beth Ferry, which is being published by HarperCollins in 2019.
Terry: We have three more projects in the pipeline – The Antlered Ship, written by Dashka Slater, Ocean Meets Sky, written by us, and Scarecrow, written by Beth Ferry.