Meet the Illustrator: Kathryn Hewitt

Photo KH 2Kathryn Hewitt has illustrated numerous children’s books, including Harcourt’s Lives of series, collective biographies about presidents, musicians, writers, and others. This year, Harcourt published a new edition of Lives of Extraordinary Women, which explores the lives of famous women leaders throughout history. Kidsbiographer took this opportunity to catch up with Kathryn Hewitt about historical research and her love of caricature.

Indira GandhiKidsbiographer: Can you tell me about the research you did to illustrate Lives of Extraordinary Women?

Kathryn Hewitt: Researching all the visual details in each of Kathleen Krull’s manuscripts is one of my favorite parts of the project.  I recall finding pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “sporty blue convertible”; tracking down images of Catherine the Great’s “extravagant palaces with roller coasters on the lawn”; pouring over all the references for the elaborate costumes worn by the queens and rulers, as well as historical portraits of the women themselves.  I think research is always much more exhilarating than buckling down and actually painting the pictures.  All my information was found in books in various libraries in the Los Angeles area, especially the extensive reference library at UCLA.

Sometimes I find an abundance of material, as was the case with Indira Gandhi and Queen Victoria, and sometimes there is very little, as with Cleopatra.  After Cleopatra died her enemies destroyed most of her likenesses, so I ended up relying on images of her on coins and statues that have recently been excavated from the Mediterranean Sea.  In many cases where portraits are scarce, I find primary source descriptions of each person, which can be very helpful with hair and eye color as well as other physical characteristics.

Eleanor RooseveltKidsbiographer: Neither reverential nor ridiculous, your pictures of the book’s subjects trod the line between state portrait and caricature. How did you maintain this balance, and what were some of the unique challenges of doing so?

Kathryn Hewitt: When painting the caricatures, I want to impart a sense of fun for the readers—after all the text is loaded with fascinating and often amusing anecdotes—so I exaggerate their pose and emphasize their personality through their expression and demeanor, and of course—the big heads.  But since these are introductory biographies, I want the faces to be recognizable to children when they read subsequent books, so I don’t include distorted facial features.

I first fell in love with caricature when I was getting started as an artist, living in London, and I happened upon the famous caricatures in the old Vanity Fair magazine.  The portraits by Leslie Ward and Pellegrini were so appealing in a quiet understated way, but still playful, which is the general theme of our Lives of… books: these individuals may be brilliant and terribly lofty, but they are still human like the rest of us.

Kidsbiographer: This edition of Lives of Extraordinary Women has a new cover. It depicts 8 of the book’s subjects on a barge, presumably on the Nile as the pyramids of Giza are visible in the background and Cleopatra towers above her passengers at the helm. The other women, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Indira Gandhi, and Harriet Tubman regard their surroundings with excitement, curiosity, or pleasure. How did you compose this extraordinary picture?

Kathryn Hewitt: The new cover for the book took many false turns.  I started with a group gathered around Queen Elizabeth I, but found no central focus.  Then I tried scenes with Harriet Tubman, but that didn’t quite work.  Finally I reread the chapter about Cleopatra’s golden barge with the splendid purple sails; I put her at the helm, included a group of colorful, congenial passengers, and there it was—the big entrance.

Kidsbiographer: Which woman did you most enjoy painting?

Aung San Suu KyiKathryn Hewitt: I think my favorite was Aung San Suu Kyi.  At the time we were working on the book, she was still under house arrest in Burma, and I continually thought of her courage, intelligence and ability to carry on.  To know that her life has recently taken such a spectacular turn for the better is extraordinary.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects?

Kathryn Hewitt: Lives of the Scientists will be coming out in 2013.  It’s filled with stories about Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Edwin Hubble, and other great over-achievers.  And we are currently working on Lives of the Explorers, which includes adventures about Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Mary Kingsley, and Matthew Henson among others.  I’ll be sitting behind my drawing table for the next six months vicariously travelling along with all of them.

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