Illustrating an American Monument

My name is Chad Gowey, and I had the great opportunity to illustrate Chronicle’s new book, Lincoln Memorial: The Story and Design of an American Monument by Jay Sacher. Here’s a glance at how I worked to create the 45 original watercolor illustrations for the title!

Gowey_LM02_Studio Above: A typical day in my studio.

All of my work is done from my home studio here in Boston (though soon to be in California). I’d previously rented a studio space across town, but happily transitioned to working from home as I could wake up, make coffee, open the door and get right to painting. I recently built myself a standing desk—I’m hoping to add a second soon—which especially helps with my watercolor painting, literally keeping me on my toes as I’m moving washes around. Even better, it discourages the cat from sleeping on my work! Side note: I always have a mirror handy so I can look at in-progress illustrations backwards and upside down—this is a great way to get a fresh point of view and help identify areas for improvement.

Gowey_LM03_LM-from-WM Above: “The Lincoln Memorial from the Washington Monument.”

This was the first full page, full-color illustration completed for the book. On the left is the initial rough concept sketch for approval alongside the finished watercolor painting. I produced a rough sketch for every illustration in the book, as well as an occasional alternate concept so that my editor could have her pick. Each image was designed with its neighbors in mind to lend a natural flow throughout, helping tell a story from one illustration to the next.

Gowey_LM04_LM-from-WM-Process Above: “The Lincoln Memorial from the Washington Monument,” in-progress.

Here I was in the early stages of the painting, laying down large, loose color washes before building back up to the higher contrast, more opaque areas. You can see that I had glued the paper to a board as a means of stretching it (a similar idea to stretching a canvas), and I had been testing certain colors on the edges, beyond the bleed.

To produce the 45 illustrations needed, I allotted one day per full page illustration to complete the drawing, so that I could wet and stretch the watercolor paper overnight and get the majority of the painting done the following day. With the smaller sepia vignette illustrations, I managed to do groups of four paintings per a similar 2-day schedule. Additionally, all of these watercolors were typically at least 150% larger than the final printed illustrations.

Gowey_LM05_Washington-Statue Above: “Thomas Ball’s bronze statue of George Washington in the Boston Public Garden,” initial concept sketch and finished illustration.

When the book project began, I wanted to go on a whirlwind reference hunting trip to Washington, D.C., but the timing never worked out. That said, this Washington statue illustration was a rare treat that allowed me to get out of my studio for a little while, enjoy a 20 minute walk over to Boston’s own Public Gardens and to snap some reference photos of the actual statue. I wish all my references were so accessible!

Gowey_LM06_Foundation Above: “Construction of the foundation,” finished illustration.

For the most part, when I was illustrating the Lincoln Memorial, there was a wealth of historical reference and photography to draw inspiration from, but in some cases I really had to fill in the gaps. This is one of those, where I got to illustrate just how deep the foundation had to be drilled before upward construction could begin. A unique, to scale, graphic cutaway of the building site; geology; era-appropriate, large-scale construction equipment—what’s not to love?!

Gowey_LM07_LM-at-Night Above: “The memorial and reflecting pool at night,” in-progress.

It was really important to show the building in as many different ways as possible, using different seasons, view points and times of day. On the surface it kept the material fresh, but subconsciously it helped the reader get a better sense of time passing and the wealth of history witnessed by one building. Over the course of the book, I was able to depict the Memorial in multiple seasons, including winter, spring, and high summer.

Gowey_LM08_The-Big-Six Above: “‘The Big Six,’ Civil Rights Leaders: A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, James Farmer and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” in-progress.

While I used more vivid colors to better portray a sense of modern time, the sepia vignette paintings and more faded, antique color palettes helped establish the historical significance of many of the illustrations. Approaching this project, it was actually the first time I’d used the sepia watercolor on its own—I really enjoy the way it adds warmth in an understated way.

Gowey_LM09_I-Have-A-Dream-Process Above: “Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering the ‘I Have  a Dream’ speech to over 250,000 civil rights supporters, August 28, 1963,” detail of final layout drawing.

Typically, before starting a painting, I digitally compile a mix of my initial concept sketch, reference photos, and additional sketch iterations to iron out the exact composition I want. For the “I Have A Dream” speech illustration, I wanted the crowd to nearly fill the image and to portray Martin Luther King, Jr. in a way that both clearly identified him by sight and communicated his power as a speaker. This required a variety of reference poses, sketches, and edits until I arrived at something that felt right.

Next I was able to create my final layout drawing on watercolor paper without having to make any serious unforeseen edits—this way the image stayed cleaner, devoid of eraser smudges or marks. At this stage the biggest challenge became drawing every individual in the crowd, which you’d imagine would pick up speed after thirty rows of chairs—nope.

Gowey_LM10_I-Have-A-Dream-Sketch Above: “Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” in-progress.

Once I finished the layout drawing, I ran it under cold water for several minutes, completely saturating the paper, then immediately stapled (or glued in other cases) it to my painting board. After drying, which can take several hours, the paper was taut like a drum and ready for painting. I started by laying in loose, organic watercolor washes, building up the lighter colors before the dark to prevent bleeding or lifting off the paper. The crowd was painted first, very slowly, person by person, row by row, and I always tested my brush before applying a stroke which is why the borders of my paper are typically full.

Gowey_LM11_I-Have-A-Dream-Final Above: “Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” initial concept sketch and finished illustration.

This painting was very much the biggest, most complicated illustration of the whole project, and I’ll admit that I saved it for last because I was a bit intimidated by it. In the end, however, it is one of my favorites, and I cannot express enough how proud I am with the final book, from the illustrations to the simple, classic layout and typography. It was a fantastic experience working with the team at Chronicle Books, and I hope to do so again in the future.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions on my process or are looking for what inspires me on a day-to-day basis, please check out my website:

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