Illustrator Spotlight: Kristy Caldwell

© Kristy Caldwell

Feb. 15, 2019

We are pleased to feature picture book illustrator Kristy Caldwell and her new book, AWAY WITH WORDS: THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD, by Lori Mortenson (Peachtree Publishing, Mar. 1). Be sure to enter to win a copy!






Tell us about yourself and how you came to illustrate for children.


My dad didn’t want to spoil us with too much TV, so I was always either reading or shoving my own writings and drawings in people’s faces. I remember my brother and I submitted drawings to Highlights magazine together. I was definitely more aggressive about self-promotion when I was a kid.


In college I majored in studio art but was always trying to get closer to book illustration, without realizing it. For my studio assignments I would paint details from books I was reading for other classes. By this point I realized illustration was a real career, but I thought Maurice Sendak was the only person with that career. I just wanted to be near it. After college I started working as an editorial assistant at a publishing company. I continued to work in publishing in different capacities, and I was always hacking illustration into my job. I’d stay late to teach myself the software the graphic designers were using, and I made myself a kind of pinch-hitter when there was a creative void that needed filling.

© Kristy Caldwell



In 2008 I was accepted into the School of Visual Arts’ Illustration as Visual Essay MFA program, and that was the turning point. I don’t think grad school is the path for everyone, but it was great for me. It gave me a reason to move to New York and gave me much-needed direction and support. I started pursuing children’s books in a more direct way, and my portfolio slowly, slowly expanded over years of nights and weekends. 

My relationships with my publishers eventually came from my online presence. Margaret Quinlan of Peachtree Publishers contacted me because she connected with a particular image on my website. That led to illustrating Flowers for Sarajevo by John McCutcheon. My work on the Bobs and Tweets early reader series with Scholastic came out of my portfolio on the SCBWI website.


Congrats on your new book, AWAY WITH WORDS: THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD, by Lori Mortenson. Tell us about it and how you approached the illustrations.


Thank you! Away With Words tells the story of Isabella Bird, an English woman who became a celebrated world traveler during the Victorian era. The challenge was to take a chronologically presented picture-book biography of a historical figure and make it feel alive and emotional. The story follows Isabella Bird through almost every stage of life, and deals with her mental and physical health. A big part of my job was to heighten the impact of her point of view.  

© Kristy Caldwell

Many of Isabella’s conflicts were broad or internal, so I wanted to bring as much context to her journey as possible. You can imagine that a lot of research went into the illustrations.


Isabella published books based on the journals she kept while traveling, and she definitely put a dramatic flair into her descriptions of her adventures. She liked to shock. Throughout Away With Words there’s a push-pull between her sense of duty to her family and her desire for a different kind of life. When I first read Lori’s manuscript, I knew right away that I wanted to use panels to help communicate that tension, which is so key to Isabella’s internal experience. When she’s locked into the routine and expectations of home, those moments linger. When she’s traveling she’s breathing it all in, grasping at the details, and those moments fly by. And then some moments, hopefully, bloom.

© Kristy Caldwell



What is your illustration process (medium, etc.)?


One method I like is to start with one-inch thumbnails and then tighten them up for sketches. Starting so small helps me keep my focus on the big picture. If I try to fill a whole page at the beginning I’ll start worrying about the patterns on the teacups, and I’ll never get anywhere.

© Kristy Caldwell



The medium of the final art differs from project to project. For Flowers for Sarajevo I worked with brush and ink, charcoal, and some pencil, and digital color. Away with Words is all digital. I knew I wanted fine lines with a lot of detail and color. I would characterize the way I ink with a brush as “impatiently.” But that doesn't mean I won't use a brush, or other materials, in the future.

© Kristy Caldwell



What are the one or two things that you did that most helped your illustration career? What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?


At a certain point I deliberately simplified my life so I wouldn’t exhaust myself as much, and the effect has been noticeable. I’m more focused and more present, and as a result the quality of my work, and the experience of making it, has improved. I think the people working with me and living with me probably have a better experience now, too. So I would recommend attempting work/life balance.

© Kristy Caldwell



What is one thing most people don't know about you?


I don’t sketch in my sketchbooks. I buy sketchbooks with nice paper, fully intending to draw in them and to casually post the drawings to Instagram with hashtags like #bedtimedoodle or #warmupsketch, but instead I write notes for stories and hoard them away.


Where can people find you online?


My website is kristycaldwell.com. I’m also on Instagram @kristy.caldwell. Follow me, and I’ll work on my casual doodling skills.

Kristy Caldwell is the illustrator of Flowers for Sarajevo by John McCutcheon, Away With Words by Lori Mortensen, and the Bobs and Tweets early reader series. Her next picture book, Thanks, Frances! by Deborah Hopkinson, will be out next year. She lives in New York.

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11 comments:

  1. Very interesting to learn about your process. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. It helps to read about other creative journeys from illustrators. Thanks for posting

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  3. Thank you for sharing your work with us. The life/work balance is something I still struggle with each day, and I'm trying to make my life simpler to help.

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  4. I'm unfamiliar with the story of Isabella Bird!

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  5. This story sounds intriguing. I want to read it!

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  6. Love your illustrations! Good tip on simplifying and focusing. I need that! Congratulations!

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  7. I love your advice for simplifying and focusing. think I'll incorporate more of that into my life. And yes - Isabella Bird is an intriguing person. I read one of her books (about Colorado) - have never seen a kid's book about her. Can't wait to read this one.

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  8. I really like your style of illustration & after reading both about yourself & this amazing woman, I can't wait to get my hands on this book!

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  9. Bios are such a challenge because there's no actual plot line or character arc. You never realize how much happens in a person's life till you try to fit it into 32 pages! I'll tackle one one day. Can't wait to read this book in the meanwhile!

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