Design, Guest Authors

Tender Buttons: Objects

Our guest blogger today is Lisa Congdon—visual artist extraordinaire—providing insight into the beautifully illustrated edition of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: Objects that’s been recently released. If you leave a comment on the post you’ll be eligible to win a copy of the book that we’ll reward to a randomly selected lucky person (offer good in the US and Canada only).

The Making of the Illustrated Tender Buttons: Objects

Before I became an illustrator, I don’t think I gave much thought to how illustrated books came together. What I’ve learned since then is that illustrating a book is an iterative, collaborative process that often takes months and months of back and forth (concepting and sketching) between illustrator and art director (and sometimes editor or author). When I got the job to illustrate Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: Objects, I knew I was in for a treat. I’d been mildly obsessed with the life of Gertrude Stein since I was in my early 20’s and had recently been to see the incredible exhibit Seeing Gertrude Stein at the Contemporary Jewish Museum which featured her life and work. But I also knew Stein’s poetry, which is purposely nonsensical and bizarre, and so I realized the job would also be challenging. Her poetry reads like an abstract painting, and I was charged with drawing more literal illustrations. So the collaboration with my editor and art director to come up with just the right set of illustrations was key.

Step One: Concepting

The first step in most illustration jobs, at least when you are illustrating a book, is to concept. This just means brainstorming different ideas for what an illustration could be. This always happens after I’ve gotten art direction and know what my parameters are. For me, concepting happens on a notepad or in a sketchbook that no one but me ever sees. For Tender Buttons, concepting was an important phase since I was illustrating poems that were word play and had no central obvious theme. Brainstorming was a MUST! I needed to read each poem and then think about what words or phrases in the poem might translate into something more literal. For example, here’s the poem in the book called A Little For Pauline:

A little called anything shows shudders.


Come and say what prints all day. A whole few watermelon. There is no pope.

No cut in pennies and little dressing and choose wide soles and little spats really little spices.

A little lace makes boils. This is not true.

Gracious of gracious and a stamp a blue green white bow a blue green lean, lean on the top.

If it is absurd then it is leadish and nearly set in where there is a tight head.


A peaceful life to arise her, noon and moon and moon. A letter a cold sleeve a blanket a shaving house and nearly the best and regular window.

Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of ten. Count, count more so that thicker and thicker is leaning.

It goes on a few more lines, but you get the idea. It makes no sense! In this poem, while concepting what I could illustrate, I decided that Pauline was a boat (note the sea reference) and that she would be held up by a girl wearing a blue green white bow. I made sure to illustrate a moon above them and then include counting in the illustration. You can see there were many other directions I could have gone, but it was always impossible to include every visual reference in one illustration. Here’s how the final illustration came out in the end. As you can see, I got to use my imagination, which was great fun.

Step Two: Sketching

Immediately after concepting, I sketch. Unlike my initial concepting notes or super rough sketches, these sketches are sent to the publisher (art director and editor) for approval before moving to final artwork. When you illustrate a book, you almost always “roughly” sketch the image in pencil or pen first. That way, you don’t make the final artwork (which can often take loads of time) only to have it rejected or need massive changes. If you work on a book of 50 illustrations, you make 50 sketches. If a sketch isn’t approved off the bat, you make another and sometimes another! It can be a long process, but it’s necessary to get the sketches just right before moving to final artwork. Once a sketch is approved, you move on to final artwork. Below you can see the series of sketches I made for the poem A Petticoat. At first I concepted and sketched a horse in a petticoat and, after some back and forth with the team at Chronicle, we decided that the focus should remain on the dress (and not on the horse) so I changed the horse to a girl. That sketch was approved and I moved to final artwork, which is the final image below.

Step Three: Final Artwork

Once sketches are approved, I move on to making final artwork. This is perhaps the most exciting part of the process! For Tender Buttons, I used a combination of graphite (pencil) and gouache, which is a water-based paint. Once I completed a drawing for the book, I scanned it at very high resolution and then “cleaned it up” in Photoshop. When I clean up images digitally, that just means that I make color adjustments, correct any paint splotches that may have occurred while I was drawing, and make sure everything looks just as I’d like it to appear in the book.

Here are a few of my favorite illustrations from the book:

As you can imagine if you have read even part of it, illustrating Tender Buttons: Objects was one of the most challenging experiences in my career. However, I love a challenge, so it was also one of the most exciting. I think it’s a great experience to have illustration jobs that push you outside your comfort zone and Chronicle allowed me so much creative freedom with this book that I was able to tap parts of my brain that I had never used before. Thank you, Chronicle, for this opportunity, and thank you for having me as a guest blogger today. I hope you enjoyed learning more about making Tender Buttons: Objects!

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Lisa Congdon

Lisa Congdon is an artist, illustrator, hand letterer, and author based in Portland, Oregon.

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