Woolly Tales: The Needle-Felted Art and Magic of Holman Wang

5 May 2021

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Sometimes, when two seemingly ordinary things intersect, the most unexpected magic happens.

In the case of Holman Wang, Vancouver-based artist, author, lawyer, husband, and dad of two, this magic shines from every one of his unique needle-felted childrens book illustrations. His award-winning work combines wry wit, incredible detail, and a gentle atmosphere to create an all-ages appeal spanning more than fifteen picture books.

Holmans creations bring to life stories that range from the Cozy Classics (clever twelve-word retellings of classic books like Pride & Prejudice and Moby Dick) and Star Wars Epic Yarns primers—co-created with his brother, Jack—to his solo projects, Great Job, Mom! and Great Job, Dad!, that celebrate some of the unsung heroics of parenting.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Holman by email from his home in Vancouver about the art of needle felting, adventures in outdoor scene photography, and his plans for future creative adventures.

Image description: three images depicting needle-felted scenes in miniature. On the left, the setup in a studio. In the centre, the professional photo for publication. On the right, a similar image on a book cover.

(Left and Centre) From set-up to final shot. The soft flow and incredible detail of Holman’s work shine in this illustration from Cozy Classics: Pride & Prejudice by Jack and Holman Wang.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Michelle Woodvine: You and your brother, Jack, are both incredibly creative! Were you crafty as children?

Holman Wang: My brother and I were very crafty as kids. We built our own cardboard suits of armour, paper dioramas, full-sized space shuttle floats for the Sport Day parade, you name it. I honestly think that our creativity comes down to the mysteries of genetics, as our parents were not artsy types, and my kids are not particularly, either!

MW: How did your picture book journey begin?

HW: My brother and I were talking about board books, particularly word primers, about a decade ago. They were always organized conceptually—shapes, colours, occupations, barnyard animals, etc. Jack wondered why word primers couldn’t be organized around story. He floated the idea of abridging classic novels into just twelve words and twelve images. I thought it was a great idea, especially the irony that would be created for adults. The Star Wars series was something we pursued almost as fan art. We wanted to do justice to the original trilogy in terms of lighting and mood, even though we had our own unique medium. The Great Job books were my foray into picture books. I wanted to write beyond twelve words. Thematically, I wanted to honour all the unpaid “jobs” that parents do to raise their kids.

Image description: two images depicting needle-felted scenes in miniature. On the left, the setup in a studio. On the right, the professional photo for publication.

(L-R) Holman adjusts the placement of one of his figures before shooting this panel from Great Job, Mom!

MW: There are so many picture book illustration options out there, from paint and/or ink, to plasticine, found objects and beyond. How did you decide on needle felting?

HW: Though Jack and I could both draw a little, we didn’t feel we could compete with professional illustrators (he’s a college professor and I’m a lawyer). So, we needed to think outside the box to create books with a “signature style.” I had seen needle-felted objects before, and that came to mind for some reason. So, I jumped onto YouTube, watched a few how-to videos, and thought, “That might work.” Then I taught myself the technique and away we went.

MW: There aren’t many artists using needle-felting as an illustration medium in the publishing world. I would think that the sculptability in needle felting would lend itself to illustration (either as flat illustrations or 3D model photography like yours). Why do you think more people don’t use it?

HW: It’s a very time-consuming technique. For me, it takes twenty to forty hours to create a single figure. This immediately creates limitations. For example, large crowd scenes are impossible. You also have to have photography and set-making skills. Finally, in terms of the editorial process, revisions in the art are much more difficult compared to drawings, especially digital illustration. Publishers are almost working on faith that you’re going to deliver acceptable final art, and I think publishers like to have more control over the process.

Image description: three images depicting needle-felted scenes in miniature. On the left, the setup on a river bank. In the centre, the professional photo for publication. On the right, a similar image on a book cover.

(Left and Centre) Holman wades in to set up the river scene for Cozy Classics: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

MW: What are some of the pros and cons of needle felting as an illustration tool? HW: I like the needle-felting process because it is quite meditative, and I can listen to music or podcasts while I’m doing it. The big downsides are the time it takes, and the fact that changes are difficult to make. For example, once you’ve committed the time to felting a face, it’s impractical to try other versions. Or, if you do make changes, you can’t just go back to the first version.
Image description: three images depicting the evolution of a needle-felted character. On the left, the styrofoam frame around which the character will be built. In the centre, the character in the studio, setup for photography. On the right, the professional photo for publication.

(L-R) From internal structure to final illustration takes hours of work, but the results are magic! In this illustration, Luke Skywalker rides a Tauntaun in Star Wars Epic Yarns.

STAR WARS is a trademark of Lucasfilm Ltd. Images © Lucasfilm. Ltd.

MW: How do you create the posable structures for your figures?

HW: I use light- to medium-gauge steel wire from the hardware store as armature and put a couple of pieces together to form an extremely crude skeleton for each figure. The downside to felting with armature is that you bend and break a lot more needles when you hit the armature. But the upside is obviously that you can pose and re-pose the figures, giving them much more life and expression.

Image description: two images depicting needle-felted scenes in miniature. On the left, the setup in a studio. On the right, the professional photo for publication.

(L-R) A starry night set-up and final illustration. It’s all about camera angles and background tricks in this wonderful image from Great Job, Dad!

MW: Can you walk us through the process of taking a scene from concept to completion?

HW: Jack always takes the first stab at the twelve-word abridgement. Then, we work together to finalize the manuscript. After that, I usually take the lead in conceptualizing the illustration that will best capture a word and give the story momentum. So that involves a consideration of the necessary characters, and whether the shot will involve a scale-model set or a location shoot. Then it’s on to felting, building, and shooting.

MW: How do you go about capturing the scenes?

HW: The backgrounds are either scale-model sets or location photography. When I use real-life backgrounds, especially in the Great Job books, I use a lot of forced perspective. That means putting foreground objects close to a wide-angle lens. Foreground objects like felt figures then grow in size in the frame, and wind up looking like they’re the same scale as the full-sized background. It’s a B-movie technique used to make, for example, tarantulas look huge in a monster movie.

Image description: two images depicting needle-felted scenes in miniature. On the left, the setup in a studio. On the right, the professional photo for publication.

In the set-up shot (shown on the left) of this scene from Great Job, Dad!, the photo was taken at the exact moment that the model lighting fixture melted from the heat and fell off!

MW: What is the most elaborate scene you’ve ever built? Do you have a favourite scene or scene component?

HW: Probably the most elaborate set I’ve built is the hallway in the Blockade Runner (spaceship) for Star Wars: A New Hope. It took me many days to build, just trying to figure details out from movie stills. Most of the set pieces I’ve made have been recycled, as there’s simply no place to keep them all. But I’ve stored the Blockade Runner set in my parent’s crawl space, as I can’t bear to throw it away (yet)!

Image description: four images depicting needle-felted scenes in miniature. On the top left, a view of a setup for photography. On the bottom left, a close-up view of the same setup. On the top right, the characters in position, ready for photography. On the right, the professional photo for publication.

(L, top-bottom; R, top-bottom) The Blockade Runner comes to life for this pivotal confrontation in Star Wars Epic Yarns.

STAR WARS is a trademark of Lucasfilm Ltd. Images © Lucasfilm. Ltd.

MW: What has been your favourite behind-the-scenes adventure so far?

HW: Jack and I went down to Arizona and California to get some desert shots for the Star Wars books (for Tatooine), including going to the Imperial Sand Dunes, where George Lucas shot scenes from Return of the Jedi. That was a fun trip.

MW: Creating outdoor scenes must come with interesting challenges!

HW: When I was at the Imperial Sand Dunes, the wind was howling […] but I was only there for a few hours and had no choice but to shoot. I got my shot, but the set eventually blew down into a thirty-foot-deep trough in the sand dunes. Thankfully, an ATV rider came along and agreed to bomb down the dune to get the set for me. Otherwise, it would have been a slog up and down the dune on foot!

Image description: three images depicting needle-felted scenes in miniature. On the top left, the artist in an area of sand dunes. On the bottom left, the image set up for photography, the characters posed on a cardboard box. On the right, the professional photo for publication.

(L, top-bottom; R) Sand, sand, everywhere! Holman sets up for a shoot at the Imperial Sand Dunes in California, creating this illustration for Star Wars Epic Yarns.

STAR WARS is a trademark of Lucasfilm Ltd. Images © Lucasfilm. Ltd.

MW: How do you scale your scenes?

HW: I started working at random scales for Cozy Classics, but the figures were about 6 to 8 inches tall. For Star Wars, everything was done at an exact 1:7 scale, so that the relative heights of all the characters was correct (nobody wanted to see a too-tall Yoda or a too-short Chewbacca!). For the Great Job books, I went up to 1:6 scale (Barbie and G.I. Joe scale) so that I could incorporate dollhouse furniture that is often made at that scale.

Image description: three images depicting needle-felted scenes in miniature. On the left, the setup in forest. In the centre, the professional photo for publication. On the right, a similar image on a book cover.

(Left and Centre) Vancouver stands in for Endor in this scene from Star Wars Epic Yarns.

STAR WARS is a trademark of Lucasfilm Ltd. Images © Lucasfilm. Ltd.

MW: What’s your biggest challenge when creating a scene?

HW: Actually, there are so many challenges it’s hard to name one. The needle felting is labour-intensive, with a lot of self-stabbing! The set-making often involves an exhausting search for materials (I once carried a broken cathode-ray television home from a nearby back alley because I wanted the rusted metal inside). And the location shooting involves a lot of scouting and is highly weather-dependent. So, it’s a tremendously challenging process overall.

MW: Do you have any tips or tricks for creating scenes?

HW: You can’t shoot on a windy day! If you bring figures out on location and pin them to a piece of Styrofoam, they blow over with even a bit of wind. So, the trick is to be patient. Especially in a rainy city like Vancouver, sometimes you have to wait days for the weather to turn enough to shoot on location.

MW: So, what’s next? What will your next creative adventure be?

HW: My interests in terms of children’s literature have grown with my kids. They spend hours a day these days devouring novels and graphic novels. So, I’m actually working on a middle-grade novel at the moment. However, I’m always willing to go back to needle-felting if the right project comes along!

Image description: three images depicting needle-felted scenes in miniature. On the left, the setup in a studio. In the centre, the professional photo for publication. On the right, a similar image on a book cover.

(Left and Centre) Setting the scene for Captain Ahab. From Cozy Classics: Moby Dick.

STAR WARS is a trademark of Lucasfilm Ltd. Images © Lucasfilm. Ltd.
Photos courtesy of Holman Wang and Chronicle Books.
Cozy Classics and Star Wars Epic Yarns are published by Chronicle Books.
Great Job, Mom! and Great Job, Dad! are published by Penguin Random House Canada.

Please support your local independent yarn shops—and bookstores!

Copyright © Michelle Woodvine except as indicated.
Head shot of Michelle Woodvine

About Michelle Woodvine

Michelle Woodvine is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor on a quest to never stop learning and making. When not wordsmithing for others, Michelle can usually be found working on her trilogy of speculative fiction novels, learning a new skill, or goofing around with her family (including her very own rocket scientist, two teenage boys, and one feisty ginger cat). Follow the weird, wonderful, and wordy adventures @woodvinewrites or visit www.woodvinewrites.com

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