Sara InfanteIllustrator

Listen Now: Mother Maker Podcast - #7: Sara Infante, Illustrator in Portugal

Sara Infante

Illustrator  •  Lisbon, Portugal

  • Interviewed by Emma Koi
  • Edited by Alissa Zimmerman-Exley

I actually met Sara through the Mother Maker Facebook group, Mother Maker: Artists Raising Humans. She had been following the Mother Maker interviews on the website and on our Instagram account, and when she began posting some of her work in the Facebook group, I really fell in love with it. I love Sara's illustrations for their bright colors and her use of line, but also for the way she draws her characters: through a lens of fun and whimsy, full of life and complexity. Sara has two children, ages two and nine months, and one on the way, due in September. Sara's first child was born prematurely at 29 weeks, and because he came so unexpectedly, Sara had to continue working nearly immediately after he was born. I love her perspective on how she dealt with such a challenging period in her life. Just a note, we talk in the interview about Sara’s new website launch. Well, it has launched since we recorded this interview, so be sure to check it out. Thanks for reading. Love, Emma

Where do you live? I live in the suburbs of Lisbon, in Portugal. And we live in the greater area of the city in one of the suburbs. 

That must be beautiful. It’s quite simple, actually. It has nothing to do with the American suburbs. It’s a bit different. It looks almost like a small town, a small city, a small version of the main city. It doesn’t have as many trees and lanes as your American suburbs. It’s really different. 

Custom illustration by Sara Infante for her husband when she was pregnant with their son.

When did you know that you wanted to illustrate children’s books? It’s funny because sometimes I talk about this when people ask me for a biography for a website or something. I always tell them that when I was very young, I used to love writing stories. That was my starting point. And what I found out is that I would spend more time drawing the characters of my books and maps of the lands that I imagined than actually writing. I have tons of files back at my parents’ home where I would do a little amount of writing and lot of drawings, with all the details that I imagined and I wanted to turn into reality. It started quite early. 

“…when I was very young, I used to love writing stories…And what I found out is that I would spend more time drawing the characters of my books and maps of the lands that I imagined than actually writing.”

Then it was almost like it fell asleep, because I was in high school. Here in Portugal we have to choose one of four major areas. One of them was art. I chose that because it was obvious to me that it was where I could do the best, bringing my ability, my own capacities and talent. It was obvious, but it was very hard for me at that time to imagine a life as an illustrator, because I thought it would be very difficult economically. I always envisioned something more like architecture or graphic design, and I went in that direction. 

I went to art school to study communication design. In my last semester I had to choose an illustration course and I just fell in love with it again. I wasn’t expecting it, but I went to those classes and they filled me with so much joy. My final project was my own version of a series of illustrations for a tale by Oscar Wilde, “The Happy Prince.” I could see that it was not only me that loved it. My colleagues loved the illustrations that I made. My teacher praised them. And I could see that there was something there that I was in love with and I was actually capable of doing and making with a certain degree of quality. And that was very exciting. 

Illustrator Sara Infante with her son Estêvão on summer vacation.

Kind of like a light bulb moment. Okay, this is what I’m meant to do. Yes. That was the feeling. At that point, I was not ready to take that step, because since I had spent so many years envisioning my future as a designer, it was difficult for me to even understand what it meant to be a full-time illustrator, a freelance illustrator. It was really out of my plans, and I didn’t understand what that looked like on a daily basis. So I didn’t go for it immediately. Right after school, I started an internship at a web design company, and it was also quite fun, because I was learning a lot, and everything that we did there was very cutting edge. It was back in 2010, and we were making graphics for apps, and I still didn’t have a smartphone or an iPhone. That was very thrilling, but six months into the internship I said no, I have to work with illustration. That’s what I want. When they offered me a position as a junior designer, I said no. I politely declined. I said, “Thank you so much, but I have to make my own path, and find out how I’m going to do this.”

“Sometimes it sucks to be the one who knows less, but at the same time it makes you want to grow.”

Wow, that’s really commendable as a young person, to have the maturity to be able say no, I don’t want that job. I know what I want to do. I think that’s kind of rare, to be willing to follow your own heart and your own passion when somebody is offering you money. Yes, of course. It’s very tempting, because on one hand, it feels good to start making your own money. And it’s good. You can do so much with it. On the other hand I knew that I would be doing something that was not fulfilling, and that I didn’t do as well as the others around me. Yes, my graphic design wasn’t bad. It was good. It was not brilliant. In a way, I felt I would be robbing them. Robbing the world, and robbing everyone the chance to see what I could do much better than that. 

Yes, it meant that for the next six months—the end of that year—I had to be at home working on a portfolio, because I had no portfolio. I had only that final project from school, but it was very experimental and free. It was good that it was experimental and free, but maybe it was not the right thing to apply to show or to a postgraduate illustration course or an illustration job. I knew that I had to learn much more. I spent those next months working on a portfolio, working on new illustrations, and I applied for a postgraduate course in Barcelona, at a school called Eina. 

It was one of the best decisions that I made because I learned a ton there about the reality of the market and the reality of the publishing world. I had great teachers. I had great colleagues, and I was one of the youngest, and least experienced with illustration. Some of my colleagues were published authors. Sometimes it sucks to be the one who knows less, but at the same time it makes you want to grow. It makes you say, “I want to be as good as them. I want to be better.” That was very inspiring, and when I came back one year after that, I was developing my own style. My graphic voice was very different, and it helped me a lot. 

Illustration by Sara Infante for picture book 'What Kind of Clouds?', for Cantata Learning, US.

And where in the scheme of your career did you become a mother? I had a few years working as a freelance illustrator and then I got married. When I got married I knew that I wanted to have children, and it was very natural. It just happened. It was the natural course of things. 

What did you think it would be like to fit motherhood into your illustration career? I was very wrong on my perspectives. Actually, I think I was delusional, because I thought that it would be so much easier. I thought it was only about changing routines, and it’s not. It’s about giving up routines, because there are so many surprises. This is what I think people who don’t have children don’t know. There are things like a kid being sick and having a problem that you have to attend to when you have a deadline, and all those things conflicting in a short amount of time. So many surprises, and some of them I’m not very good at. And you have to deal with them and forget your deadlines, but work with them in a very different way. 

How many kids do you have now? I have two kids, a little boy, and a baby girl, and actually I’m expecting our third baby. 

Yay! And when are you due? I’m due September if all goes well. 

Sara Infante, with her husband João and children Estêvão and Esperança on Christmas morning.

What are some of the specific challenges you faced the first time you became a mom, and trying to balance being an artist at the same time? Especially as a freelancer. At least for me, I didn’t think I would need childcare, so it took me a year to figure that out. But going back, I would have probably put that into place at least once a week, you know? What are some of the challenges you faced? Well, it was a rough time, actually, because one week after my first child was born, I was already working. That had to do with a difficult situation. You see, my firstborn was born prematurely at 29 weeks, and he didn’t weigh even two pounds. He was very little. And because of that, he had to be in the NICU. He had to be there for two and a half months. There was not much that I could do to help him to raise him in those first months of life. In the beginning, of course I wasn’t breastfeeding because he wasn’t able to nurse. In the beginning I was pumping the milk, but then milk ran out because, as a doctor once said to me, “Milk is made in the brain by the mothers. It needs the stimulus of your newborn child. It needs a peaceful mind, and a peaceful environment,” and I had none of that. I didn’t have my child beside me, and certainly didn’t have a very peaceful mind. So the milk ran out, and there wasn’t much that I could do besides be by his side. And so, I worked. 

“So I had this choice: to be there, by his side, crying, thinking my life was a disgrace, or to see that his life was a grace, and that he was fighting, and that I should do the same.”

Actually I had a deadline that I had because I had a contract for a book. It was my first series of books after I was chosen to be represented by an agency. This is a bit confusing, because it happened all at the same time. But a few months before my first baby was born I got this chance to start being represented by an agency, The Bright Agency. And I insist that I’m actually not a freelancer. I was freelancer for some years, but now I’m a represented artist, and this was my first big opportunity with them. They found me this series of four books. The client was very good to the project, and everything was well, because the deadline was within my schedule. That is, the deadline was before the baby was supposed to be born, but then the baby was born before the deadline. So it all got very confusing.  

So I had this choice: to be there, by his side, crying, thinking my life was a disgrace, or to see that his life was a grace, and that he was fighting, and that I should do the same. I should pick up my pencils, and fight, and do these books. And actually, of this series of four books, the one that I made while I was there by his side and at home when I came home to rest and to shower and to eat, that first book actually is my favorite. Really, for me, it has the best set of illustrations of the four of them. What I learned is that you don’t control everything, and that being a mom brings its own surprises. The bad ones, and the marvelous ones. 

Sara Infante with her son in the NICU.

Why do you think that you were able to produce your favorite work under such trying and difficult circumstances? I think that’s what an artist does, many times. We can take something that is rough, and is hard, and is messy, and you can turn it into something that is smooth, and that is aesthetically pleasing, and beautiful. And I see that very well in sculpture, for example. When they are hitting those hard rocks, or in pottery when you have that bit of clay, and they turn it into something unexpected. As an artist I have the capacity to do that. Every one of us has. 

“I think that’s what an artist does…We can take something that is rough, and is hard, and is messy, and you can turn it into something that is smooth, and that is aesthetically pleasing, and beautiful.”

That’s really beautiful. And emotionally, were you tending to your trauma? Or did you do that through your art? Well, I think both. We are very blessed to have a community. We are Catholic Christian, and have a community of friends and family who are praying for us. So that was essential, but also my art, yes. I could use my work for relief and to express myself, even if I wasn’t expressing my own thoughts, because as an illustrator, I always have the text from the author. Sometimes illustrators are both authors, but that’s not my case. At least until now. I’ve never written my own book, my own story, my own text, but I could take those words and use that transformation from words to image almost like a therapy. Some people like to write as a therapy tool. Some people like to cook. And to me, of course, my work helped as a therapy instrument. 

Sara Infante's newborn son Estêvão in the NICU.

How’s your little boy doing now? He’s great. Actually. He had a wonderful development both in the NICU and outside. These two years, he has blossomed. He’s very funny, a little rascal, and of course he’s little. He’s not as big as those other kids in his daycare from the same classroom, but he’s very smart, and I’m very proud of him. 

Was your transition to having two kids any different, in that, did you take time off? Or did you once again start right back to work right away? This time it was a bit different. I decided to take a bit of time off, and it was impossible because I had to do some amendments to another book, but it was different. It was more relaxed. It was not like in the first experience that I had four books to make. Now I had to make some alterations to previous illustrations. It was different. It is always a bit unnerving to have to do that, but the world doesn’t stop moving because you had a child, when you’re in this kind of business, when you do this kind of work. There was a publishing date. There were deadlines, and the difference was that I already had the talk with my clients saying that I wanted to have a more relaxed after-birth season, because I understood that with two kids I needed that, and I was very fortunate to have that. Although I didn’t stop working, no. 

Sara Infante and her son Estêvão, pregnant with her daughter Esperança.

I’m kind of trying to figure that out for myself with baby number two coming. Everything in me is telling me: “Take time off. Take a long time off, maybe six months, even.” But there’s always this fear that you’ll disappear from the world if you do that. People will forget about you. People will find other people to work with, and it’s kind of like, what I want personally is that time to transition. For me, what I had to do—and I did that, and I’m very happy that I did that—I had to give up something. I couldn’t give up my work. When that book was finished, the one I was talking about with the amendments, I didn’t accept anything for a few months. Yes, I had to rest. I had to take care of this new baby that needed me. What I did was give up social media for six whole months, or more. Because you have to give up something. You don’t stretch to infinity. That was my choice, and yes, the world keeps going round and round, and maybe the clients will find another provider for their needs, and maybe people will find new blood to follow, and that’s okay. The life of your child is more important, at least for me. Everyone is free to make their own choice. 

 “What I did was give up social media for six whole months, or more. Because you have to give up something. You don’t stretch to infinity.”

Have you ever had a point in your creative career where the creativity was stopped or stifled? Where you were having trouble being creative, because the brain space was now filled with caring for others? Yes. Something like that. Not exactly that. It was a few months ago, actually. It’s very fresh in my memory. This winter was really hard because my son started daycare last September. I think it’s normal when kids start daycare to get sick very often. And he was sick at home so many times, and of course that reflected on my work and my schedule and my plans, and everything. And then the baby would get sick as well, and we are having some problems with her health because she’s suffering from convulsions. It happens mostly when she has a temperature, and so it was always very scary when the eldest one got sick because the baby could get sick and have a temperature and have a convulsion. It escalated. Sometimes I found myself two weeks straight without being able to focus on work and I started to be very afraid to start working again, you know? It was stupid, but what I thought was, “Why am I going to begin again? Why am I doing this? Because something will happen and I will have to give up on this for another week.” And well, it’s not a very prudent thing to do, to give up, but that was what I felt, and it can bring you to a very dark place.

Illustration by Sara Infante, made during the 2017 summer fires in Portugal.

And what do you think is the solution to managing that? I think that for me, and that is something that I have learned over the process of being a mom one time, and then two times, and now I’m pregnant with the third, is that like I already told you, you have to give up something. You have to find time in things that you give up. For instance, I leave my house not as tidy and clean and perfect and beautiful as I would want it. And that’s okay. The house is not tidy, and if people enter and find it strange, well, that’s their problem. You have to find time in things that you used to use time for, and that’s a very good exercise for an artist. You have to be creative and see, where did I use time before that I can now cut, and turn it into an hour or two hours or three hours where I can just sit at my desk and do something? 

How do you see that work and creative life balance changing in the future as your children get older? I don’t like to think too much in the future. I don’t want to sound cliche, but you’re only sure of today. Of course you have to make plans. That is sensible and wise, but what I’ve learned from this story that I was telling you about the birth of my first child, an even these problems that my daughter is having with the convulsions and those surprises, bad surprises, is that thinking about the future too much is not a wise use of your time. I prefer to focus on today. 

“Now they need my time and affection. It’s almost like food and water to him, and I imagine that when he is older, the things he’ll need from me will be more manageable.”

I imagine that when they get older they won’t need me as much of course. My kids are like sponges of affection. They need me so much. It’s never enough. Sometimes I am playing with my eldest boy for an hour, an hour and a half, and I’m really focused on it, and it’s fun, and we’re singing and laughing, and then I get up to do something else, and for him it’s not enough. He needs more. That’s okay because when he’s 12, 13, 14, he won’t need me as much. Of course he’ll need me, but he won’t need my affection as much. Now they need my time and affection. It’s almost like food and water to him, and I imagine that when he is older, the things he’ll need from me will be more manageable. With my work schedule, I don’t know. 

Illustration by Sara Infante for the picture book 'Apina & Fuchetto', for Corsare Edizioni, Italy.

That’s such a beautiful perspective. I often find myself trying to escape playing with the toddler, because for me it’s boring to sit and play dinosaurs and trucks and trains. But you’ve opened my mind to realizing that yes, it’s a basic need for the child to have you there on the floor, with them. It’s important to remember that it’s not going to be that way always, and for right now, you’re setting them up for the future if you can sit with them and give them that affection that they’re begging for. That’s great. 

What projects are you working on right now? Right now I’m working on two projects. I’m working on a new book that I find very interesting because it’s a book for the same age range as my eldest boy, and it’s the first time that I’m doing a book that he will be able to read with me and be able to understand fully. That’s very exciting, and he will be almost like my critic. Actually I’m really thinking of using him as a helper to choose the best colors to use on the illustration. He’s not very eloquent, but he certainly will be able to tell me which one he prefers if I show him two versions of the same illustration with different colors. That will be very fun. 

I’m working on that book for an American publisher, and I’m doing a project that I’ve been avoiding for two years, three years, almost since my first child was born, which is the renewal of my website. Part of it is a personal project, but it’s also a professional project. It’s so important to have a good website where your clients or future clients can come and see your work and know a bit about you and your approach, so it’s essential. In the beginning of the year one of my resolutions was: This year, you have to renew your website. I’m doing it, and I’m very happy. 

 “I believe to raise a child, it takes a village and less pride. Or, if you prefer, it takes a village and less need to control everything.”

What advice do you have for other Mother Makers? Ask for help. Everyone knows that African saying “to raise a child, it takes a village.” I believe to raise a child, it takes a village and less pride. Or, if you prefer, it takes a village and less need to control everything. You won’t control everything, so you’d better make peace with it as soon as possible! Just ask for help. You need to find a strong community, and community can mean so many things. It can be your parents, your in-laws, your siblings,  your girlfriends, people from your church, your new friends,  a community of mothers that you have found at Mother Maker. It could be anything, but you need a community, and you need to ask for help. Alone, it will be impossible. 

Photo: Yellow Savages

  • Published May 10, 2019
  • Interviewed by Emma Koi on March 26, 2019
  • Edited by Alissa Zimmerman-Exley
  • Photography from: