Saturday, April 4, 2009

A book, a brush, a brilliant sky. Need we more?

The Walking Nature Home Blog Tour is underway, and Brush and Baren is today's lucky venue. This stop in the tour focuses on the illustrations created for the book's chapter headings. Why? Because we're at the home of their creator. Fancy that.

Walking Nature Home is Susan Tweit's brand-new memoir, released just a few weeks ago by the University of Texas Press. Susan is a neighbor and a colleague, but above all a friend, and it was my great honor and privilege to be a small part of this very personal and long-crafted project.

To get the conversation started today, Susan sent me a list of questions about the illustration process. It's a little bit disconcerting for me to be the one on the receiving end of the interview, but I guess it's about time for Susan to turn the tables.

For more essays, reviews, and commentary on Walking Nature Home, visit the other stops on this tour, listed at the bottom of this post.

SJT: When you agreed to do the illustrations for Walking Nature Home, did you already have an idea of what they would look like?

SY: Oh, Susan! You know better than to ask this question! It implies some sort of planning, and have you ever known me to be much of a planner?

When we first talked about the illustrations, it was clear that the spirit of Walking Nature Home called for something quite personal. We agreed on a "field journal" style, and for me that usually means watercolor. So, I guess I had an idea of how I might get started... but that's usually as far as planning goes.

As for the actual subjects of the illustrations, that part was obvious. Walking Nature Home moves us through time and place guided by particular star constellations.

SJT: What was the biggest challenge in doing these illustrations?

SY: Aside from the terror of not pleasing the author, you mean? ;-)

I found several challenges in this project, actually. First, I am more or less astronomically illiterate. I can find the Big Dipper, Orion, and the Pleiades... but otherwise the sky to me is a mystery. Illustrating constellations that were more than connect-the-dot drawings meant some serious research.

I don't know how often readers have looked at stellar photography, but there are some stunning images out there. The galaxy in which we spin is an unbelievably complex, writhing, roiling expanse of light and vapor. How in the world does one put that feeling down on paper and still keep it personal? My little rectangles of paper and I seem very, very small.

To further complicate things, we were told early on that the illustrations would be printed in black and white. Ordinarily I'm the first to champion the graphic nature of black and white images, but yikes! This was, in my mind, a subtle textural effort, not bold expressive mark-making. I wasn't entirely sure I could pull that off in monochromatic watercolor.

Luckily, I do not own black paint. Period. It's an old bias picked up in my early painting lessons: no black, no pre-made grays. When I want to paint something black I use sepia (a dark brown) and either Prussian or ultramarine blue. Mixed together these make a quite rich dark that can be "pushed" to a warmer or cooler feel. (The complete irony of this, of course, is that when I'm working in lino I love my black ink.)

The nice thing about making a dark this way is that the two pigments "settle out" differently on the page. Using a toothier paper, in this case a cold press paper, allows the mixed pigments to separate and create some really interesting mottled textures without too much interference from me. It turned out to be a perfect way to approach a dark-but-varied expanse.

SJT: What surprised you about the illustrations?

SY: Completing these illustrations actually required me to step outside of my usual watercolor comfort zone. I made all the lovely rich sepia-blue sky patches, painted some constellations on to them, sat back and thought, "These are completely boring. Now what?"

Another of my early-painting-days biases was against mixing gouache (opaque watercolor) with transparent watercolor. It just wasn't "done," according to the artist I studied with. I let myself be influenced by such proclamations for a long time. Thankfully, I got over it in time for this project!

I decided that the illustrations needed some random starfield against which to anchor the constellations... so I rooted around in the junk drawer until I found an old toothbrush, squeezed out some white gouache, and went to town sprinkling stars across dark rectangles. Much better!

SJT: Are you pleased with how they turned out?

SY: Are you? Please say yes!

Really, I am quite happy. The images translated well to black and white, I think. And I learned a lot about constellations while I was working on them, which was a plus. If I can learn something and make successful images, well.... that's the best possible outcome.

SJT: Which illustration is your favorite?

SY: It would have to be the Milky Way, in part because it was the most challenging to visualize.

In the course of my research I was reminded that not everyone defines the image of a constellation in the same way. Some interpretations anchor the "drawing" in the sky with different stars. Diverse cultures have diverse names and stories to accompany astronomical figures.

The richness and intrigue of the Milky Way, to me, both invites and defies interpretation. I love that in Walking Nature Home, Susan finds anchors, signposts, and pathways in that rich expanse. She reminds me how wondrous it is to ground ourselves with the stars!


The Tour continues! Of course you can always check in with Susan at her blog, but come along and be a virtual groupie for week ahead.

Upcoming venues:
April 6: The Bicycle Garden
April 7: Women's Memoirs
April 8: Susan's Art & Words
April 10: Story Circle Network

Previous stops:
March 25: Women Writing the West
March 27: Riehllife
March 29: Independent Stitch
March 31: Love of Place
April 2: Sheep to Shawl


  1. Who's the writer here? What wonderful answers--you're so illuminating in what you say, and so funny and charming and just bloody talented. Thank you for doing this interview, and for hosting my blog book tour on Brush and Baren. I'm honored, and I look forward to "hearing" other comments.

    Oh, yeah. Do I love the illustrations? They're better than the icing on the cake, the shaft of sun piercing still water, the chocolate chips in cookies, the shimmer on a hummingbird's back.... You illustrated what I love about the constellations: the stars are real, but the figures we draw on them speak to our own dreams and longings, arrayed against that gorgeous infinity of the night sky. What's not to love?

  2. Sherrie, it's intriguing for me to hear about your creative process on this: the dimensionality of the watercolor, as opposed to the positive/negative that would have been the case if you'd worked in linoleum.

    Although yes, the images reproduced beautifully in black, and white, I am delighted to see some of them here in color.

    A question, if you have the opportunity to respond: how large are the original watercolors?

    Thanks for an intriguing tour stop.

  3. These watercolors are SOOOO beautiful.

  4. Hi Sherrie and Susan,

    Sherrie, It is fascinating to know how you did the illustrations: the thought, research, experimentation, and then the final draft. The illustrations in color are beautiful - especially the Milky Way.


  5. Thanks everyone... 'twas a pleasure to get to answer Susan's questions and show a little of the process.

    Deborah: The original paintings are just about the size they were ultimately printed... Maybe a tiny bit larger. I did try to work one oversized, knowing it would "tighten up" when reduced for printing, but it seemed to lose some of its personality that way.

  6. What fun to have a turn-the-tables interview with one of the creative collaborators on this project. Your illustrations added both charm and character to Susan's words. Thanks for giving us a look behind the scenes.

    Janet Rieh

  7. Love this interview - would like to print it to place in my copy of the book, if you don't mind.

  8. Hi Cathy- I don't mind at all, thanks for asking!

  9. I'm late visiting, but thoroughly enjoyed the interview. Nice job, both of you!



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