What If… Mike Curato Used Mixed-Media to Make a Book?

h1 March 27th, 2018 by jules

Illustrator Mike Curato visits 7-Imp again today to talk about how he created the illustrations for Samantha Berger’s What If… (coming to shelves in early April from Little, Brown). As you’ll read below, his process was a bit of a wild ride (involving no less than marshmallow fluff mortar and “a clown car of never-ending leaves”), fitting for a book about the power of imagination and the drive to create, no matter what stands in one’s way. In the book, written in a buoyant rhyme, we meet a girl who tells readers about her commitment to creativity, no matter the obstacles facing her.

Let’s get right to it. I thank Mike and Samantha for sharing, particularly Mike for a peek into his process. …

Mike: Today, I’d like to talk about illustrating this fabulous book written by Samantha Berger, which comes out April 10th with Little, Brown. It’s all about how we can use the power of creativity to overcome any obstacle. Working on this book was a liberating experience. I pushed myself technically and stylistically, and I would love to share some of the behind-the-scenes making of the book.



I was very inspired by the story of how this manuscript came to be (and for that you can visit the first stop on the blog tour at Nerdy Book Club. Cliff notes version: Samantha’s apartment flooded, and she had to live with friends until she could find a new place. She had no art supplies but still managed to create art every day with found objects. This experience (as well as several people she will be talking about tomorrow on Pragmatic Mom) inspired her to write What If…

One of her ongoing projects was this “Dress a Day” series.


(Click to enlarge)


I was really living for these fashion designs, which she created using whatever she could find: oatmeal, pecan pie, leaves, pasta, coffee grounds, a broken Christmas ornament, paper shreddings, a cracked CD, flowers, pine cones, and more. There were many different flower dresses (my favorite one is in this line-up). These inspired a spread I’ll share later.


(Click to enlarge)


The little girl in the story is determined to express herself, no matter what. If she can’t draw, she’ll sculpt or build, carve or collage. If she can’t do that, she’ll turn her world into a canvas. And if everything around her is taken away, she’ll sing, dance, and dream.

Reading the manuscript, and considering Sam’s experience, I knew that we had to incorporate the actual things that the girl interacts with somehow. That’s what prompted me to try mixed media.


(Click to enlarge)


Here is the first sample I did for Little, Brown when we were getting started. We wanted to make sure that we were all on the same page in terms of style, since this would be a departure from my usual process. The wall is actually torn paper, and I Photoshopped in a photo of a paint-chipped wall into the negative space and colored it yellow to create that sun. The floorboards are details from photos I took of old barn wood. The texture in the girl’s tutu is a photo of a luffa, and her sneakers are glitter. Her hair is colored pencil, while the rest of the line is ebony pencil with digital color. We were all really happy with it, and this set the tone for the book.


“And what if there wasn’t / a chair here at all?
I’d chip and I’d peel / at the paint on the wall.”

(Click to enlarge spread)


Here is the final spread. Though I added all of those clouds to create a wallpaper that helped connect the story visually, little else changed between the beginning and end.


“But what if that pencil / one day disappeared?
I’d fold up the paper / till stories appeared.”

(Click to enlarge spread)


In response to this text (“But what if that pencil one day disappeared? I’d fold up the paper till stories appeared …”), I knew I had to create real origami. Interesting fact I learned while watching many, many origami tutorials: origami designs are copyrighted! So, even though there are videos for how to make a pegasus or unicorn, I couldn’t use those designs! So, I took a traditional horse design (copyright-free) and had to create my own wing design to make this “pega-corn.” It took many days and several paper cuts to get it right.


“And what if there wasn’t / a wall anymore?
I might build a story / from boards in the floor. …”

(Click to enlarge spread and read text in its entirety)


One of the earlier pieces I finished was this scene of the girl rocketing into an imaginary spacescape. Though there wasn’t an art note for this to be a scene about outer space, I was working with the themes of flight and sky as a visual through-line for the book. This spread was pivotal, because it bridges the girl’s physical space with her imaginative space. For each spread, I tried to reference something in the previous spread. So, here we have the sun and clouds repeated, but on a grander scale. The floorboards have been leveraged to make a rocket ship, but it’s her imagination that’s carrying her to a different world.



To make this, I had an actual box of dirt sitting in my studio. I used marbles as planets. I drew in the orbits with my finger but ended up overlaying that purple pencil line to help make it clearer and more playful. The cloud is pillow-stuffing, and the top of the rocket is a photo of a bowl. In this making-of clip, you can see my reflection taking the photo of the bowl, which might be Sam’s favorite part of the book. (She loves a good Easter egg.)


“I could still shape the leaves / I could still sculpt the snow.”
(Click to enlarge spread)


This spread seems to be a crowd favorite. As I mentioned earlier, flight/sky is my visual through-line, and since I started out with an origami “pega-corn,” I wanted to include other mythical flying creatures, so a dragon was a must-have addition. I thought of using it for this spread, which features leaves, since I could picture layering leaves like scales. At first, it posed some interesting challenges, like: Where will I find all these dried leaves in the spring? How would this fit on my studio floor? How will I photograph a giant leaf dragon directly from above and light it properly? I could photograph outside, but what if the wind blows all of my work away mid-shoot while I’m standing on a ladder? I turned to online shopping for my solution. Apparently, you can buy dried leaves in bulk! They are exactly like pressed flowers. A set of 100 arrive in a very tiny envelope. It was like a clown car of never-ending leaves, which I scanned and arranged in Photoshop. The brown backdrop is a crumpled brown paper bag — to give it an earthy feel. (I didn’t want to use soil again, since I already pulled that trick in the previous spread.)



For the right part of the spread, I wanted to create a sugary winter wonderland. The igloo was the hardest part, and I had to rebuild it after my first attempt utterly failed. Apparently, sugar cubes with marshmallow fluff mortar do not make for a stable structure. So, I used a small round Tupperware as a base — and built around it. The igloo ended up living in a tin in my refrigerator until the final proof was approved, because I was not going to rebuild that a third time. I covered my desk with a base of all-purpose flour, topped it with refined sugar, and sprinkled that with different-sized glitters. The snowman is made out of marshmallows and toothpicks. Finally, I think I used my fingers to create a little sugar snow angel for my drawing of the girl to nestle into. I used a photo of a knit hat for texture in the hat and mittens, bubble wrap for the coat, foil origami paper for the pants — and the scarf is fabric woven by my friend, Pidge Pidge.


“I could still plant the flowers / and make kingdoms grow.”
(Click to enlarge spread)


Remember those flower dresses Samantha made? Here’s where I ran with her idea. This spread is comprised of many floral magazine clippings to create a flower dress and cape. I used real moss for the background and ink paintings of the hummingbird, dragonflies, and butterflies. The water is tissue paper, the sand is sandpaper, and those are real shells and a sponge scattered throughout the right page.

Here are some other spreads that were a bit more straightforward. …


“If there was no light, / I would still use my voice
to sing out my stories — / to chant and rejoice!”

(Click to enlarge spread)


This songbird spread was created with linocut, which I hadn’t done in over a decade. It was so fun! You’ll notice references to different spreads in the book throughout the iconography. I painted the color mesh with inks on watercolor paper, scanned it, and overlaid it on a scan of the linocut print.


Linocut detail
(Click to enlarge)


“I’d still have my body to twist and to bend —
to dance out my stories, beginning to end.”

(Click to enlarge spread)


Let’s boogie! I wanted this dance spread to burst with energy, so I chose to create some action-packed splotches and streaks with ink, which were later recolored in Photoshop.



Our little friend is sporting a Janelle Monae-inspired ensemble, complete with saddle shoes. I listened to “Tightrope” a lot while working on this one:



Here’s a list of all of the mediums and materials I worked with (I think). The image shows some of them and is part of the last spread of the book, accompanied by author and illustrator notes.



  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Colored pencil
  • Ink
  • Photoshop
  • Origami
  • Collage
  • Linocut
  • Crayons
  • Cutting board
  • Wood shavings
  • Barn wood
  • Dirt
  • Marbles
  • A mixing bowl
  • Dried leaves
  • Brown paper bag
  • Sugar
  • Glitter
  • Marshmallows
  • Marshmallow creme
  • Sugar cubes
  • Toothpicks
  • Luffa
  • Cotton t-shirt
  • Knit fabrics made by a friend
  • Bubble wrap
  • Foil
  • Pom-pom
  • Magazine clippings
  • Sandpaper
  • Seashells
  • Starfish
  • Tissue paper
  • Moss
  • Sponge
  • Band-aid
  • Twine
  • A feather
  • Denim patch
  • Rhinestones
  • Plastic bag
  • Leather
  • Stuffed animals
  • A picture of my dog
  • A painting I made of my friends

Keep an eye out for all these in the book!



* * *

For more information about the book, you can visit Mike’s or Samantha’s site.

Here’s the information on the rest of their blog tour:

Also, you can check here to see if they’ll be in a town near you on their upcoming book tour.



* * * * * * *

WHAT IF … Text copyright © 2018 by Samantha Berger. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Mike Curato. Published by Little, Brown and Company, New York.

All images here reproduced by permission of Mike Curato.

Photo credit for image of Mike and Samantha: Leo Moreton.

5 comments to “What If… Mike Curato Used Mixed-Media to Make a Book?”

  1. Wow.
    This blog constantly displays what artists…do… and the Elliot books showed us one thing, one side of this illustrator’s professional moon, as it were. The other side of the moon is AMAZING.

    I wonder why he chose the character to be a little brown girl, but I love how much she changes – hair color, outfit colors and styles, etc. This is the type of book which would have just immersed me as a kid; you can kind of live in the illustrations!

  2. Incredible! Loved his post.

  3. I was mesmerized! There was no way I could stop following Mike’s evolving journey until the very end. Amazing! What a treasure this book will be.

  4. […] 3/27 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast: WHAT IF…Mike Curato Used Mixed Media to Make a Book? […]

  5. […] WHAT IF…Mike Curato Used Mixed Media to Make a Book? […]

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact sevenimp_blaine@blaine.org. Thanks.