A Tried-and-True Tradition

by Victoria Ritter

For Sara Stedner, there’s something special in using traditional methods to create art. The Syracuse, NY-based illustrator creates colorful manga using Aitoh products, many of which are handmade in Japan.

Stedner first became interested in manga when she was 14 years old, shortly after she bought her first manga book. One of her biggest influences was Clamp, an all-woman Manga group led by Nanase Ohkawa with artists Mokona, Tsubaki Nekoi and Satsuki Igarashi. “Their art style was just so beautiful, mesmerizing and detailed,” Stedner said. “It just developed from there.”

At first, Stedner simply dabbled in manga as she created basic drawings. As her interest grew, she honed her skill, practicing drawing and referencing how-to-draw books. Eventually, she developed her own style, using mixed media with traditional Japanese papers, watercolors, inks and markers. Today, she is eager to share her process with other artists.


Right tools for the job

In her day job, Stedner works for The Art Store in Syracuse in its Amazon e-commerce division. She also shops at the store a couple times a week for supplies. At the end of the workday, she will go home and illustrate for hours. “I usually work on my art until midnight or 1 a.m.,” Stedner said.

One of the managers at The Art Store, Joe – who also works with vendors – recommended products to Stedner. She became interested in Aitoh products when she noticed a rack of beautiful paper with blossoms in the design. Stedner took some home and started experimenting. In return, she brought in her artwork for Joe, who was very impressed.

“He sent my first exaggerated kimono pattern to Beth at Aitoh and said, ‘Hey have you seen Sara’s work?’ Beth wanted to meet me and from there we emailed each other,” Stedner said. “She asked me what products I used and sent me a huge package of their watercolors, manga markers and paper.”

Stedner appreciates the quality of Aitoh’s products. The family-owned and -operated company provides a large selection of art products from Asian countries. Its catalog features inks, decorative paper, watercolors and origami paper from Japan; bamboo paper tools from China; and art papers from Nepal. Stedner uses Aitoh’s Manga Liners for detailing her art and drawing thin lines, its colorful papers for collage work and watercolor sets for accents and background filler. One of Stedner’s favorite products is Aitoh’s Aurora Gensai Watercolor Set which has a surprise in store for users. “They look like one color when you apply it, but when you turn it, it’ll turn a different color,” Stedner said. “They’re really fun to work with.”

Another favorite product is Aitoh’s handmade paper from Kyoto. “It’s not like a typical drawing paper or printer paper,” Stedner observed. “It has a nice texture. They give the picture a lot of dimension.

“I respect things being made in the traditional ways,” she added. “It means a lot to me that it’s made in such small batches that it’s unique. One paper might be a little different than another, but I know that the quality is never going to fail me.”

Stedner not only uses authentic products from Japan, but has seen firsthand where they come from. She has traveled twice to Japan with friends for two weeks each trip. Their tours started in Tokyo and included stops in Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Niijima – Stedner’s personal favorite destination. “It’s beautiful over there, from the temples and traditional architecture to the culture,” Stedner stated. “I was mesmerized by everything.”


Imagining into being

Creating manga can take Stedner any time from a few days to a few weeks to finish. She starts with what she calls a “detailed stick person sketch” that takes about 5 to 10 minutes to complete. Stedner will draw a basic outline of a person to determine where their body will be and how the fabric and hair will flow. She draws inspiration from kimono patterns, a traditional Japanese garment. “I find Japanese culture very mesmerizing, beautiful and tranquil,” Stedner said. “A lot of my designs are very elaborate with a lot of flowing, exaggerated fabrics. I love the detail work.”

Stedner is most proud of her series depicting yokai – monsters, goblins and demons in Japanese folktales. Her favorite piece is of a kitsune, a fox demon. “I’ve been taking their lore and turning them into characters.”

With a rough sketch outlined, Stedner will start on the main illustration. Typically, she works on 14- by 17-inch paper, which is large enough to get in sufficient detail, but isn’t overwhelming for her to fill. Occasionally, she’ll go up to 19- by 24-inch paper. She will copy the initial design, creating another anatomy sketch in light pencil.

“Once I get the body proportions the way I want them, I overlay it with the hair and fabric,” she said. “The drawing part is my favorite. Depending on how detailed the drawing is and how large the paper is, it can take me a day or two to complete.”

Stedner makes the pencil marks permanent by outlining them in pen. This process takes a little longer as she goes slower – about a week. Next is the coloring which could take five to seven days, that is, if she doesn’t get distracted by other illustration projects. “I like working with a lot of different pictures at the same time,” she said.

The coloring stage is where the mixed media comes into play. Some parts may be filled in with watercolor, others with decorative paper or marker ink. If Stedner decides to fill in the background, she always uses watercolor so she doesn’t draw attention away from the main focus – the dress.

“There’s so much to look at,” Stedner said. “You might look at it at one moment and see one thing and then come back to it and see something you didn’t see before.”

Stedner mainly creates manga for the fun of the process and to enjoy its aesthetic appeal. This year, she participated in her first NAMTA show at Aitoh’s demonstration booth. She does illustrate a limited number of commissioned pieces of either her own characters or another artist’s character drawn in her own style. She is also contemplating producing prints of her manga for sale. “I’m trying to get out there with prints. It’s still a new process for me.”

In the meantime, Stedner’s work can be viewed on her Instagram and Tik Tok accounts, both under the name @Swaying_Sakura_Art. Her finished pieces can be viewed on Instagram. She will post live videos of the illustration process while hosting Q & A sessions.

“The whole enjoyment for me is being able to use the art supplies, have fun with them and try them in different ways that others may not have thought about,” Stedner said. “Then I share those methods with others.”

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