Above: Painting from How the Dinosaur got to the Museum by Jessie Hartland.
I’ve known and loved Jessie Hartland’s work ever since I worked with her on assignments for Martha Stewart Kids magazine. She was one of our go-to illustrators because she always nailed it. Jessie is the author and illustrator of several fantastic non-fiction picture books. She has also illustrated travelogues for Travel & Leisure Family magazine, designed window displays for Barneys and Bloomingdales, and created illustrations for Fishs Eddy dishes and Swatch watches. Today we bring you an inside peek into Jessie’s downtown Manhattan live-work loft space and check out a few of her current projects.
The Scoop on Jessie Hartland
Hometown: Washington, D.C
Now lives in: New York City
Alma Mater: Boston Museum School/Tufts
Tools of the trade: Winsor & Newton gouache as well as other brands (Schmincke and Holbein), Winsor & Newton sable brushes (When I see a woman wearing a big sable coat I think, “Wow that’s a lot of brushes!”
Caffeine of choice: They actually roast beans at my neighborhood Whole Foods so I select the beans most recently roasted.
Workspace: Home studio, lower Manhattan, near the Brooklyn Bridge.
Cat or Dog?: a standard poodle named Django
Favorite children’s book…
…as a child: All Falling Down by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham. Long out of print. I was lucky to find a copy on Alibris or Abe books.
…as an adult: I especially love the Alvin Tresselt/Roger Duvoisin collaborations: Wake Up City, Follow the Road, etc., and Harry the Dirty Dog and other book collaborations between (married couple) Margaret Bloy Graham and Gene Zion.
Favorite thing to read: old Holiday magazines from the 1950s and 1960s
Typical Day: Work all day, 6 days a week. Take dog out for an hour every day. Yoga and bike rides for exercise. Lots of kayaking in summer, swimming too.
P&O: I sat in the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show this past year and read Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child cover-to-cover. I loved it.
Jessie: Oh you did. Oh really?
P&O: Yeah, it is so great!
Jessie: The Julia Child book was such a joy to do. The funny thing is that I had wanted to do this years ago. I pitched it and I was working with this wonderful editor at Bloomsbury and I wanted to get a series of biographies going. People were saying, oh, nobody cares about Julia Child any more. But then that movie came out, you know, the woman did the blog. If it had been done when I wanted it, it would have come out when the movie came out.
P&O: That would have been perfect.
Jessie: But it’s all right. At least I got to do it.
P&O: I remember the biographies in school growing up; there was usually just an illustration on the cover and then all text inside. When I was reading the Julia Child book I was like, oh my God, if I had these in school I would have been psyched. I loved reading biographies.
Jessie: Me too. Me too! I wasn’t a good student as I was very day-dreamy, with my head in the clouds, doodling constantly. I suspect I have A.D.D. Yes, this kind of book then would have been great and would have sucked me more seriously into reading.
P&O: What are you working on now?
Jessie: I’m just about to start painting for How the Meteorite got to the Museum.
P&O: How did you come up with the idea?
Jessie: I was at the Museum of Natural History here in New York and I was thinking a meteorite would be really cool to write about. They have huge meteors there, like, what is it called, Ahnighito is this gigantic one…
P&O: Oh yeah from Greenland…
Jessie: So you know. It’s from around 10,000 years ago. The size is really impressive but where’s the interesting story with lots of steps? Who knows? There was no one around. So, I’m looking around and then I see a sign that says “local fall.” There’s this meteorite about the size of a bowling ball that landed on a woman’s car about 20 years ago up in Peekskill, New York. It’s such a great story. So I said, “Oh my God, this is it!” you know?
It was fall. It was a warm night and people were out with camcorders at football games outside. So people recorded it. There’s a website with lots of film of this thing. So then it hits this car. The woman is inside her house and she comes out. At first, of course, it looks like criminal mischief—somebody driving by. I mean, what would you think? You would never think a meteor!
P&O: Right, of course!
Jessie: So, anyway the police come. The fire department comes because it’s hot too. And then the geologist comes and blah, blah, blah…yeah this is a meteorite.
P&O: What was your research process like?
Jessie: It started at the museum. Then I met with some geologists at Lamont-Doherty Lab because there were these questions I had and I could not find the answers in a book. This rock—it’s a chunk of some bigger asteroid that was between Jupiter and Mars—is orbiting around the sun for like 4.4 billion years and then something happened.
So what happened? The geologist said, well, nobody knows exactly why. It could be like a little grain of sand or a little puff of gas coming off the sun that pushes this rock off its orbit and it changes course.
P&O: Just a little puff of gas after four million years.
Jessie: Some of this information is in the back matter because it’s just too complicated to get into it in the book but anyway I had to redraw this.
P&O: I like how you work in these plastic sleeve notebooks. I don’t think I’ve seen this before.
Jessie: Yeah these are actually from Staples.
P&O: Do you start with thumbnails first or do you start big like this?
Jessie: No, I start big. I work big and I sketch it out.
P&O: Most of your books are nonfiction right? Why?
Jessie: It’s because I’m a big reader of nonfiction. I love science and you had asked what I would be if I wasn’t doing what I do now. Maybe some kind of scientist like with animals, zoology or marine biology or something like that. I especially enjoy the challenge of simplifying complicated material– using words and pictures—for children and other readers.
P&O: How the Meteorite got to the Museum is the third in your series of books about the provenance of museum pieces. How did you start working with this particular format?
Jessie: The way the series started is kind of interesting because the Getty Museum out in LA wanted to do a book with me about night time at the Getty. The idea felt too sweet and precious and I was trying to think of some other idea that I would prefer to do. I came up with this idea to do a story about an object at the Getty and how it got there. I picked out some statue on their website and I kind of wrote it out and sent it in.
Then right around that time, they were getting into trouble with how they got some of their antiquities. So they were like, oh, no we can’t do this! I never even heard from them again. I had this idea that I thought was good, using the “This is the House that Jack Built” format. I just didn’t have a place for it. Then Blue Apple heard about it and called me up and wanted to do it. So, all right!
P&O: Which was the first one?
Jessie: How the Sphinx got to the Museum, and then How the Dinosaur got to the Museum. I am working on the meteorite book now and then the next one is kind of in the works. For the first time a museum approached Blue Apple and wants me to do a book. MoMA wants me to do one of these provenance-exploring books about their Green Helicopter. It’s in their design collection.
P&O: Oh that’s cool.
Jessie: Yeah. In fact I had already approached MoMA because, through the AIGA, I had gone on a behind-the-scenes-tour of their conservation department. I was already thinking I wanted to write about a piece there and I found out about Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel.” Do you know about this? That this was stolen? This is an incredible story! It was about 20 years ago, before there were surveillance cameras all over the museum, a man came in and just snatched the sculpture, ran out the front door, jumped in a cab and sped off with it.
They were chasing him but they couldn’t get him, and then they didn’t want to publicize it. If you go online, it’s really hard to find out anything. Forbes Magazine wrote something. I thought, this is so great! What a great story! The next day the MoMA gardeners are out in the sculpture garden pruning hedges, raking leaves and clipping branches and they find it! The thief must have had second thoughts about it and he threw it over the MoMA garden wall. It got busted up and had to get fixed by the conservation department.
So I approached MoMA. I finally got up to this big curator and she said, well, we can’t stop you from doing this but we’re not going to participate because this is really bad publicity for the museum. (They don’t want potential donors to think that priceless artwork can get up and run out of MoMA!) So that was the end of that. I have yet to hear much about this helicopter and I’d be surprised if it has a better story, but we will see!
P&O: Couldn’t it end with “and now the museum has lots of guards and cameras and the art is very safe!”
P&O: It won’t get out again. It has a happy ending! The art came back!
Jessie: Yes, I think it’ll be great but still…
P&O: I wonder why he chose that piece.
Jessie: They never found out who it was. It is really strange.
P&O: Your work is so fresh and loose. how do you go from sketch to a final?
Jessie: I use a light table.I usually make the sketch really dark with the copier so I can see it.
I transfer just the loosest bit of the sketch and then mostly I’m just kind of painting out of my head. That’s what’s good about using the gouache; I can go loose because then if I make a mistake I can paint over it.
P&O: Your colors are so great. Do you start with a specific palette for each your books? I associate certain colors with you and your work. Is that a conscious thing you’re establishing at the beginning of the book?
Jessie: I just kind of start – I mean it’s almost like the hardest. The first page is always the hardest because you’re kind of establishing the palette in a way. I just sort of go crazy. I start doing everything. I’m doing laundry, I’m snacking, I’m dusting, I’m walking the dog again. After all this procrastination I finally sit down and tackle that first page. I don’t really think about it in advance and I may just have certain colors I like and I use them. I just kind of dive in.
P&O: What’s the perfect gouache consistency? Can you compare it to something? Like yogurt or heavy cream?
Jessie: Maybe like mayonnaise.
P&O: Mayonnaise, alright.
Jessie: It shouldn’t be too liquidy though so it’s dripping all over the place.
P&O: And these are all your brushes…
Jessie: I have one which is made up of squirrel fur which is really interesting. I love squirrels. I don’t use it but… it’s kind of horrifying.
P&O: Maybe he died of natural causes…
Jessie: It’s interesting when we look and see what the source of the hairs are. Some of these brushes are from thrift stores and yard sales. I go to yard sales in the country and pick up things there. I’m just inspired by old things, yard sales. I just love them because you never know what you’re going to find.
P&O: I was at the SCBWI Conference and Mo Willems gave us a tip. He said, start in the middle of the book when you’re illustrating your finals; don’t start at the beginning. When you start on the finals, do you start with the middle, or do you start with page one?
Jessie: It wouldn’t be page one. I sort of pick one that’s easy. I definitely don’t start at the beginning and then work through. Once I do one, I’ll put it in my notebook. Then I’ll look at it so I can see the flow and how the colors are working.
P&O: How long did Bon Appetit take you from start to handing in final art?
Jessie: Yes that’s a good question. It probably took at least six months to write it and then the whole thing was done within a year. I did all the art in the summer, but there’s a lot of back and forth to get it accurate and my editors, Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade of Schwartz & Wade Books, Random House are just fantastic. Their comments are just right on. They’re very, very good.
P&O: How did you make the transition from doing illustration to doing store windows? It’s such a different medium.
Jessie: Well, I went to Japan during their boom years and my great friend Isabelle Dervaux was there so she introduced me to some art directors. I was there for a week visiting her and I went around and I showed my portfolio. I came back with all these incredible jobs like designing window displays for Japanese department stores.
Nobody here would take a chance, but the Japanese were and they had plenty of money. So then I took those pictures from those Japanese jobs and I went to see Simon Doonan at Barneys and he gave me work. First, I did the windows at the 17th Street store and then they gave me this job doing ALL the windows in ALL the stores all over the country. There were a lot , so they set me up in this big warehouse and I think that’s where Google is now. It’s on 8th avenue just above 14th street.
It’s an amazing building where you can bring a truck up in an elevator. So, they had me there and I was designing and painting all these pieces. Then I took that work and bicycled up to Bloomingdales to show them and the art director said, how would you like to do the Christmas windows for this Christmas coming up and I said sure. If you look at my website it’s all on there. I haven’t done anything like that since. It was such a huge amazing job and so refreshing to be working on a BIG scale for a change.
Jessie is also working on another book: a graphic novel/biography of Steve Jobs. Stay tuned for another post in which Jessie tells us all about that book. In the meantime, you can see more of Jessie’s work at jessiehartland.com.