March 5, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #100: Kristy Caldwell

Kristy Caldwell's style is part picture book illustration, part comic illustration, and it was so great to pick her brain about how she balances the two. With several paneled illustrations, Away With Words: The Daring Story Of Isabella Bird, written by Lori Mortensen, pays tribute to Isabella Bird, the first female member of the Royal Geographic Society. I got a chance to talk Kristy about the book and her research on Isabella Bird, and I'm happy to share that interview here today!


About the book:
"Isabella Bird was like a wild vine stuck in a too-small pot. She needed more room. She had to get out. She had to explore."

Exploring was easier said than done in Victorian England. But Isabella persisted, and with each journey, she breathed in new ways to see and describe everything around her. Question by question, word by word, Isabella bloomed. First, out in the English countryside. Then, off to America and Canada. And eventually, around the world, to Africa, Asia, Australia, and more. 

Watch the official book trailer:



Let's talk Kristy Caldwell!


LTPB: What kind of research did you do (factually and visually) to get the images right in Away With Words? How did you mix in the realities of your research with your own unique art style?

KC: I was lucky to have a bestselling author as my subject. Many of my questions were answered directly by Isabella Bird, in her own words and through her sketches and photos. Isabella was the first female member of The Royal Geographical Society, which has a great online archive.


Besides the events that drove her life, Away With Words also deals with internal realities like Isabella’s mental and physical health and her relationship to her social environment. So, even though I researched things like period furniture and clothing and card games and flowers native to Yorkshire, I looked outside of that when thinking about how everything should feel. For instance, I looked at art created during her time period. Isabella visited Japan just 20 years after ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige passed away. His landscapes were popular, and influenced how Westerners of the Victorian era thought of Japan. Isabella saw his Japan, his Mt. Fuji in person. Now it’s 2019, and I live in New York and have a small book of Hiroshige’s prints on my shelf. Although we don’t show the Japan of Isabella’s time in Away With Words, I took inspiration from Hiroshige’s colors and compositions, and there’s something of that floating around the book. I was also lucky enough to see a couple of David Hockney’s Yorkshire paintings in person last year when his retrospective traveled to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of course, that’s contemporary art, but I stole one of his pinks to use as the sky after the rain in Isabella’s Yorkshire. When I’m working on a book it feels like everything in the universe is talking to me about it.





Away with Words is a biography and deals with serious themes, but the moments of humor and wonder were what first attracted me to Lori Mortensen’s manuscript, and those are the feelings I wanted the reader to leave with. I mean, can you imagine riding a camel in the desert in the mid-1800s? I see Isabella as someone who was always watching, always taking notes, no matter how bad things got. Even in a snowstorm with no shelter. Even when hanging from a cliff. I wanted that part of her to shine through.

LTPB: You have panels in your illustrations that are reminiscent of comics: why did you choose to illustrate the book in this style? Is this something new for you?

KC: I’ve actually used panels in all of my books, in different ways. And I didn’t realize it until just now. It wasn’t a premeditated choice, just a way to solve problems that made sense to me. In Flowers for Sarajevo I used them to isolate and heighten certain moments. The early reader series I illustrate for Scholastic is designed with a mix of full-page illustrations and smaller illustrations wrapped in a frame—I want to call them spot art, but they are full scenes—and occasionally I’ll inset one of those smaller images into a full-page spread. Away With Words is the first time I’ve played with panels in this way, where it really dictates how you follow the information. I’d already developed a great working relationship with Peachtree, and they really gave me their trust. I was nervous about the process of introducing panels to this extent because now I was also chopping up the text and placing it above panels, inside panels, into dialogue bubbles. They aren’t my words, and I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. But the whole team was really supportive. Nicki Carmack, my art director, really ran with it and made it look great, and Lori, too, was extremely complimentary about the result. So I’m really grateful for that.



Isabella sees and experiences so much. Her entire first trip to America is contained in one spread. There’s a later scene where she commits to travel as a way of life for herself, and that spread is what convinced me that panels were the way to go. In two pages she travels on a steamer across the ocean, rides four different animals across five continents, and writes nine books. A paneled approach allowed me to represent something of each of these experiences, and I think together they help communicate the range of emotions.



LTPB: You use color very strategically, building colors up to certain moments. Is this something you knew you were going to do going in? What surprising opportunities did this book create for you?

KC: I struggle with color if I don’t know why it’s there. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Once I saw how the panels were taking shape I knew I’d need to lean on color choices to help steer the reader. And, also, because so much of the story is about Isabella’s internal experience, I thought this was a situation where color could help reflect the psychological rhythm of the story.



I also designed a pattern for the endpapers, and that was a lot of fun. I based the design on Victorian wallpapers, and decided to draw items Isabella might pack for her trips. For instance, I read she always traveled with a 10-pound bag of tea. In one of her books she also recommended “Liebig’s extract of meat” for long trips in rough country. So I included a tin of meat extract, which is gross. I love it.



LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

KC: The illustrations for Away With Words were all made digitally. The process was old-fashioned in a lot of ways: I made very tiny sketches so I wouldn’t overcomplicate things. Then I expanded them and drew on another layer with a pen, like using a light box. I can show or hide the sketch layer as I need it. I filled in grayscale values, and then I added color on top, almost like tinting a black and white photograph. I tend to make a lot of revisions, and working digitally helps move that along, but I also knew I wanted a clean look with thin lines and a lot of detail, so it made sense. I was really aware of not wanting to weigh everything down with unnecessary flourishes.





Generally, I think of myself as someone who uses a few different materials. For Flowers for Sarajevo I used brush and ink, charcoal, and pencil, with digital color. I wanted the moodiness and the textures. Brush and ink is something I used consistently, for years, and I’m not done with it. The Bobs and Tweets series for Scholastic is totally digital, but I approach it differently. Every page is bold and energized, like a Saturday morning cartoon.


I’m always dying to integrate paint into my process. My undergraduate focus was oil painting, and I miss it sometimes. But I want to wait for it to feel right.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

KC: Right now I’m working on art for the fourth Bobs and Tweets book, which takes place at a scout camp. It’s really fun, and I just illustrated a poster to promote reading, featuring all of the main characters. Next, I’ll be illustrating a picture book by Deborah Hopkinson, titled Thanks, Frances! I can’t wait to get started. I’m so excited to be working with her. I’ve been doing a lot of research to prepare for it, but I’m still in the early stages, where anything is possible.



LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

KC: I was such a stinker of a kid. I wish I could see the manic, Chuck Jones version of my childhood. I would love to see a Chuck Jones picture book, period! But also, Vera Brosgol. I just read Anya’s Ghost, and her characters rip me up. She could convince you to take pity on me.


A million thanks to Kristy for taking time to answers some questions! Away With Words: The Daring Story Of Isabella Bird published last week from Peachtree!

Special thanks to Kristy and Peachtree for use of these images!




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