Art + Design

Art Book Process: An Interview with Author Samantha Hahn

When painter and illustrator Samantha Hahn’s proposal for Well-Read Women came across my desk, I knew it had to be a Chronicle Book. The art was stunning and it was a dream gift for literature lovers—I thought it was the perfect match for Chronicle’s aesthetic and editorial sensibility, and I really wanted to work with her on it. That was way back in December 2011. We worked on the book for over a year, sent files to the printer in February this year, saw the first copies off the press in May, and now are selling the book around the world. Check out the window display currently installed at the New York Public Library featuring the book (it’s stunning). I thought I’d ask Samantha to reveal what transpired on her end between proposal and finished product.

Kate: Where did you get the idea for your book Well-Read Women?

Samantha: The idea for the book followed a series of my favorite literary heroines for a solo gallery show. The show featured my illustrations of various incarnations of Helen of Troy. I was fascinated by the idea of her beauty having so much power. This led me to illustrate a series of vignettes for the show including my favorite literary characters. At the opening I noticed people discussing the portraits and sharing their feelings about their favorite character, and their memories of when they first read her. The more I thought about it, the more I concluded how similar they are to each other and how relatable they are to us, even today. They were girls and women trying to find their voice, find love, and navigate their culture. I started thinking of them as friends. To choose the characters I portrayed in this book, I cast my net across the Western canon, and a bit beyond. Some of these stories were new to me and some were treasured favorites. Now each of these characters is as familiar to me as a close friend. They come from novels, plays, and poetry, and each is, in her own way, profound. I learned so much about myself from getting to know each of them. It was a pleasure evolving this project into a book.

Kate: Can you tell our readers how you put together your proposal and pitched it to Chronicle?

I mocked up about 10 spreads with hand lettered quotes (with the characters and quotes I already painted for the show). I printed them on matte photo paper with archival inks and even mocked up a cover featuring Helen of Troy (who didn’t make it into the book). The working title at that time was The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships: Literature’s Greatest Heroines Illustrated referencing the famous Christopher Marlowe poem about Helen of Troy’s beauty. I had high hopes that the proposal images would speak for themselves. I wrote up a little synopsis of the book idea and Chronicle quickly came back with an offer.

Kate: Can you tell us about creating all the artwork for the book? Did you use any visual reference, or just the original texts? How much revising did you do?

Samantha: To create each character I first thought about the moment I wanted to convey. Many of the portraits are very cropped-in close ups. I was most concerned with capturing the emotional state of the character. Once that moment in her story was chosen, I set out looking for historical reference for all the details from hair style to clothing to any contextual information. I also looked for photo reference for physicality. I often used multiple references to capture a simple expression or pose. I based physical details on textual descriptions where possible.

Above left: the original painting for Daisy Buchanan with dark hair. Above right: the final Daisy in the book is a blonde.

There are a number of instances where the author didn’t describe the actual hair color of the character but rather her persona (as you can see, I went back and forth on Daisy Buchanan. Did Fitzgerald think of her as a blonde or brunette? There are some conflicting passages describing her physical traits. Fitzgerald describes her as light and bright. I made her a blonde after much consideration). When a character was described as having auburn hair I went with that.

Above left: the original painting for Antigone. Above right: After revisions, the final Antigone image that’s printed in the book.

Using watercolor means you only have one chance to get the illustration right. I often did 4-5 versions just to capture the energy and emotional state of the character and to keep the watercolor loose and the lines delicate and not overworked. Sometimes I’d get it right the first time. I often did the background separately so I could play around with composition on the final file.

Above left: the original painting for Emma Bovary. Above right: the final Emma Bovary image in the book, with the background layered behind the portrait.

Kate: Where did you work on the illustrations for the book? Do you have any special rituals around making new artwork?

Samantha: I work from my home studio. I love working this way. I spend the morning with my family. Take my son to school and then come back and jump right into the work day. I can work again at night if I have a lot to do. In the case of this book, I worked for over a year on the portraits and other details of the book including cover, end papers, seeking permissions, revising and modifying all of the images etc.

Kate: We went through A LOT of different cover ideas. Can you share a bit about what that process was like for you? Do you have any discarded cover designs that you still love?

Samantha: At the time I found that process really stressful, but in retrospect I feel that the multiple rounds of back and forth were worth it to arrive at the current cover. I was so very lucky to work closely with one of Chronicle’s designers, Kristen Hewitt. I’ve known Kristen for years so it was an honor to finally work together. I am a big fan of her design work and completely trust her. The cover went through a big review process with the Chronicle team. I got to mock up a bunch of ideas for the cover board to review and then make more revisions based on their thoughts. I tried a new cover with a girl reading the book but at the end felt very strongly about featuring one of the interior characters.

Above: Four of many cover directions we considered, but discarded in the end.

Overlaying typography was actually very tricky. The covers started to look a bit muddled with my hand lettering. After the character (Brett Ashley from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises) was chosen as the cover girl, I mocked her up with a starry sky background evocative of some of the dreamy night sky scenes from within the book. Then I created a cover inspiration folder with tons of inspiring covers from Paul Rand to vintage Deco books. Kristen, the genius she is, found some amazingly beautiful fonts that were evocative of the Deco era (there are a number of Jazz age characters in the book and Brett Ashley is a Jazz age character). Kristen Hewitt and my editors Kate Woodrow and Caitlin Kirkpatrick worked tirelessly going back and forth with me and the board until one of the covers really sang!

Kate: The cover of your book has a debossed title and the spine is cloth with silkscreen printing. How did you decide on those details?

Samantha: I knew right away I wanted the book to have a special vintage feel. I pulled a bunch of reference for the Chronicle team of cloth bound books with gold embossed designs on the spines and embossed titles. Chronicle was completely receptive to making the book evocative of a vintage book but re-imagined for contemporary taste, with a cloth spine silkscreened in a graphic pattern, debossed cover, and 4 color printed illustrations on watercolor paper.

Above: Three designs we considered for the spine silkscreen.

Kate: How did you feel when you held the book in your hands for the first time?

Samantha: It was amazing to see it all come together. After creating the art and working digitally with the Chronicle team for a year… or more… it was really thrilling to see it all together. When I was a little girl I wrote novels in marble notebooks and illustrated books to be staple bound, so seeing a real book that was completely my idea was beyond thrilling. Chronicle did such an amazing job making it an art object. I started the book right after my dad passed away suddenly so it was really emotional to work on the book and honestly helped me focus attention away from my grief. Getting the finished book in my hands really marked the passage of time. It was a challenging but also healing process and I’ll always treasure the finished product. I hope it will speak to people and entice them to follow the characters back to their books.

Thanks, Samantha, for giving us such insight into the making of your book. We couldn’t be happier with the way the book turned out.

Kate Woodrow
Senior Editor

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All photos by Samantha Hahn.

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