August 22, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #37: Katey Howes and Rebecca Hahn

I am quite the lucky girl today. Today is the day I get to brag about the amazing people I work with! Author Katey Howes and I work together over at All the Wonders, so it was a no-brainer that I was dying to see her debut picture book Grandmother Thorn. What I didn't know at the time, though, was that it would quickly become one of my favorite books of the year (I mean, the story? Those illustrations? Yet another no-brainer for me). So I immediately called up Katey and asked if she would be willing to do a joint interview with Grandmother Thorn illustrator Rebecca Hahn. Just wait until you see these gorgeous process images — they're going to blow you away!

About the book:
Grandmother Thorn treasures her garden, where not a leaf, twig or pebble is allowed out of place. But when a persistent plant sprouts without her permission, Grandmother begins to unravel. A dear friend, the passage of seasons, and a gift only nature can offer help Grandmother Thorn discover that some things are beyond our control, and that sweetness can blossom in unexpected places.

Peek underneath the dust jacket here.

Let's talk Katey Howes and Rebecca Hahn!

LTPB: Katey, can you tell us about the inspiration behind this story?

KH: It’s kind of a funny story! There was a garden bed by my back patio where nothing seemed willing to grow, until the day we put in one raspberry and one blackberry bush. Whatever hadn’t worked for every plant before clearly did wonders for them. They started to take over the patio, reaching out thorny tendrils to wrap around the barbecue grill or to trip up kids playing tag. We tried to train them to climb a trellis, and they pulled the trellis down. We fought back, driving 10-foot poles of rebar into the ground and tying the trellis to those. At one point, the blackberry bush climbed over 13 feet high. I suppose some people would have torn them out, but THE BERRIES! 

Oh, my heavens! The most delicious berries, right outside my back door, all summer long. Blackberries as big as my thumb! Raspberries as sweet as candy! So I engaged in regular struggles with the unwieldy beasts. And one day, after coming back from a 2 week vacation to find branches stretching out to my patio table, I started cutting back the raspberry bush with clippers. I got a huge scrape on my arm, and another on my face, and I found myself shouting at the bush, “Sooner or later, everything meets its match!”

Then I froze. I thought, “Is that a message for the bush, or for me?” And then I realized, I needed that lesson. And I needed to write that story.

LTPB: Rebecca, when you received this manuscript, what about it appealed to you? What did you think you could bring to the story Katey had crafted? 

RH: The first thing that drew me into Katey’s story was Grandmother Thorn’s struggle with perfectionism and the final healing act of letting go, accepting and even enjoying imperfection. As you will see I am quite a perfectionist myself when it comes to my artwork. I always look at looser illustration styles with a bit of envy, since the way I work out my art is so tedious. I did TRY to embrace the imperfect with my artwork for this book – a different paint tone here, a glue mark there, reminding myself of the gist of the story. The second thing that felt right about this story was the Japanese setting. I use a lot of geisha inspiration in my own personal artwork. 

I thought I could bring my own understanding of the struggle with wanting life to be a certain way to the book, bringing Grandmother Thorn and her garden to life.

LTPB: Katey, how do new story ideas come to you? Where do you draw your inspiration from?

KH: Well, clearly, sometimes nature draws blood, and there we have it. But seriously — I often find inspiration in my own flaws and fears — I think being human and aware of our humanity is its own endless well of ideas. Other times, I find inspiration in my children’s play and art and laughter, in history and science, in the rhythm of certain phrases. If I’m being totally honest, I’d say that my writing life suffers from too much inspiration and too little discipline.

LTPB: Rebecca, how do you create your illustrations? What about it appeals to you? 

RH: Many people think that my illustrations are done on a computer. They are actually all done by hand. Hand-sewn, painted and pieced together. I graduated from college with a BFA in Printmaking. My final show before graduation included an animation and sculptural elements. After I graduated I spent four years working for Disney. I do believe that my time drawing their characters sculpted how I draw my own characters with clean tight pencil type outlines. During my early years freelancing I had to have a quick turn around. I scanned many fabrics and papers into my computer and after inking my drawings I would add the color / textures by computer instead of by hand. It wasn’t until a few years before my son was born that I finally had the opportunity to start showing my work in galleries. I got to go hog wild and make artwork the way I wanted to completely by hand. I was able to combine all of the different chapters of art that my life had been writing into one united style.

I love telling a story with more than just the image. I love that I add papers to my artwork that mean something. The wraps on Grandmother Thorn's hands when she is pulling the weed are sewing patterns that were hand drawn by my Grandmother. There are pictures taken from my father’s childhood piano books. I also love being able to bring sewing into my artwork – it connects me to my childhood.

Working this way is like putting together a puzzle in more ways than one. I think every piece of artwork is a puzzle that comes together through a sketch, final drawings and then the chosen art medium. When I have my final drawings done, I know that I will be painting the characters, but so much is still up in the air as to how the papers, fabrics, textures and details will all come together. Each layout speaks to me a different way.


LTPB: What is your process like? How long does it take you to create one spread? 

First I do a lot of research. I cannot really draw something repeatedly and from different angles until I really know it. So I make a Pinterest board and do lots of sketching to just get a feel for the subject.


Next I get to know my characters… This was a collaboration between the Publisher, Rob Broder and myself. We went back and forth several times to get Grandmother Thorn and Ojiisan just right.


After my page thumbnails I work with layers and layers of tracing paper over my rough drawings to get the final images just right. 

To create the characters after the final drawings, I transfer them onto paper to paint and then cut out. 

Then I pick out papers, colors and textures that might go well with each page and start the process of piecing together. 


The parts are sometime cut out like pattern pieces for a quilt. I plan out the stitches and pre-poke the holes for any sewing that will need to be done. The paper would tear and I would never be able to get a needle through the layers if I didn’t. From here it’s all just a trial by error process of creating my "puzzle pieces" as I go. I mostly use Yes Paste to combine the parts of my illustrations. It works the best with all of the different materials and thicknesses of papers. 


LTPB: Wow! So how long does it take you to create one spread?

RH: I should know this – but I usually wear so many different hats, not one week was ever the same while working on GT. I also worked in a bit of an assembly line fashion – I painted all of the people for the book at once before I moved on to piecing the the pages – just so that I could keep my colors consistent. I’m going to estimate that each spread took 35-40 hours each, not counting any of the drawing. It’s a true labor of love.

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

KH: I have an idea that I’d like to write about the traditions of weaving and tapestry, in a sort of metaphorical way but very accessible for a young child. I don’t have a huge knowledge base for that, so I’m basically drowning myself in books about looms and yarn and the anthropology of weaving. And visiting weavers. And listening to the sounds of a big, old fashioned wooden loom on repeat in the background while I do mundane things like fold laundry. Hopefully, it will turn into something I can sell and people will want to read. If not, I will still have some interesting stories for the times I run out of small talk. Plus at least one new friend with sheep. So that’s something.

RH: My next project is still top secret. What I can tell you is that I’m working with my close friend, the wonderful writer Kelly Thompson to create a picture book series. We are both very excited.

LTPB: Last question! If you could choose anyone, dead or alive, to illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why?

KH: You mean, to illustrate ME? I’m not sure I can handle that. I once cried for days over a caricature of myself. Of course, I was about 8 at the time, and the artist had made my ears really big, perhaps to make my gigantic glasses look smaller in comparison. But if I’ve got to choose, I’ll take Quentin Blake. First, because when faced with a hypothetical question, you should go big or go home. And secondly, because I adore his sense of the ridiculous and feel my life is quite full of ridiculous. I also trust that if I had any problem with his depiction of my ears, he would be kind enough to fix it.

RH: James Kochalka and Scott Campbell. James Kochalka because his Johnny Boo series is just smart and hilarious. We laugh out loud reading Johnny Boo books in our home. There are so many antics and laughable moments in our daily lives and I would love to see how James would illustrate them. I would also choose Scott Campbell because he does heart-achingly beautiful work that has the best little details. We love Hug Machine, XO, OX and East Dragon West Dragon.

A huge shout-out to two of my favorite people Katey and Rebecca for helping me put this together and showcase one of my favorite books of the year. Grandmother Thorn publishes next week from Ripple Grove Press!

Special thanks to Katey, Rebecca, and Ripple Grove Press for use of these images!

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