In 2010, Scott Dawson illustrated Fearless, Barb Rosenstock’s picture-book biography of auto-racing pioneer Louise Smith. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with Witchita-based Scott Dawson about the special challenges of biographical illustration, including drawing real people and being historically accurate.
Kidsbiographer: In addition to Fearless, you’ve also illustrated biographies of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. How does illustrating a biography differ from other illustration projects?
Scott Dawson: Research is the biggest difference. I wouldn’t want to illustrate, say, the wrong car (as in Fearless), or even the right car but wrong year. That could easily happen. I remember when I was working on sketches for Fearless, I included a man using a power mower off in the distance. I wasn’t thinking, I guess. They didn’t even use power mowers yet. Luckily, the editor caught it, and I changed it to the push/rotary type.
Also, illustrating actual people – rather than made up – is certainly another difference. Getting a good likeness can be critical, assuming there are reference photos from which to work. Sometimes I have needed to illustrate a famous person, but at an earlier age than we know them and have any photo reference from. Then you need to become a kind of ‘police sketch artist and just do the best you can to imagine what they might have looked like. This is all assuming the If stories may be folklore, well, you probably have a bit of leeway visually on how you depict things, even if they are purportedly true stories.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate Louise Smith’s life story? What sorts of visual resources were particularly valuable?
Scott Dawson: Initially, the publisher sent over quite a few photos via email. Some of the publisher’s photos I found on web search sites as well… some of them I didn’t. I did a lot of my own research online. I wanted to get the cars right. I also wanted to get the “environment” pretty accurate: race tracks, clothing styles, etc.
One thing I found, and I’m not sure I remember where I initially saw it, was a collection of 4 DVDs about the history of NASCAR. I ordered the DVD set and it was really nicely done. Came in a round tin. Very cool. I still have it sitting on my TV stand, mainly because it so attractively packaged. It had a ton of info to get the wheels turning. Pun intended!
Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received for this project?
Scott Dawson: There has been a lot of great feedback, happily. The author, Barb Rosenstock, was very pleased. The publisher was also very pleased. There have been many favorable reviews mentioning both the writing and the illustration since last October, when the book came out. Those are very nice to read. I also heard, through the author, that some of Louise’s living relatives saw the finished product and were happy about how it represented her. That was great to hear, as well.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming illustration projects?
Scott Dawson: I have just finished illustrating the interiors for the 5th of a 6-book series called I Survived, published by Scholastic. It is a historical fiction book series. They are written about actual events in history, likePearl Harbor, the Titanic, Hurricane Katrina, etc. but involve fictional characters that live through these events. The author, Lauren Tarshis, writes from the viewpoint of the main character, which is a different adolescent boy in each book. She really knows boys’ minds well. She has several sons, who, she told me, give her some insight into boys’ ways of thinking.
I also just finished my 6th book cover for a series by Guideposts. There is potential for as many as 25 titles, depending on response. The series is called Mystery and the Minister’s Wife and is a compilation of books by several different authors, but involving the same characters. These covers depict mostly scenery in a fictional town called Copper Mill in theSmokyMountains.