We are pleased to share with you our interview with Eileen Ryan Ewen, the illustrator of Miss Colfax’s Light, our Bookstorm™ this month. This book is a perfect example of the text and illustrations enhancing each other to make a picture book biography that is more than the sum of its parts. Have the book open near you when you read Eileen’s responses. With our interview, we hope to help you look more deeply at the illustrations.
In the first few pages of the book, when Harriet is walking through the door, why did you decide to draw her with one foot poised on the threshold? And was this picture always like this?
Yes, as I look back through my early sketches, Harriet’s foot is always on the threshold. Little is known about Harriet’s personality (though a bit comes through in her logs), and I was trying to imagine what it must have been like for her on that, her first day at the lighthouse. I tried to think about what it must have been like to be a woman in the 1860’s. How many women would have stepped away from a job as demanding as a lighthouse keeper? How many women (and men, for that matter) would have voluntarily stayed on for as long as Harriet did, as well as completed the job so thoroughly each day? I have to imagine that most women of that era never would have entertained such a livelihood. Yet Harriet, a former music teacher and typesetter, didn’t step away. She stepped up.
You have many period details in your artwork, from a five-panel door to a log holder to changes in clothing styles. How do you do your research?
I love history! My father was a historian, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the subject. As far as research, I had the good fortune to visit the actual Michigan City Lighthouse, where wonderful docents gave me a tour, and provided great information about what the lighthouse looked like back in Harriet’s day (it wasn’t as large!), clothing from her era, and the tools she used. Combined with that information, I used the good old internet to make sure the fashions I was using were appropriate. For instance, if you search women’s clothing from the mid-nineteenth century, very formal ball gowns will be the most likely results. Harriet would have worn no such thing. So then a more refined search is needed, often with trips to the library to scour books that might fit the time period I’m trying to capture. I know some illustrators who look to period movies, and will study the costumes and sets for inspiration. In the end, I usually have loads of information about the time period, and only end up using a small fraction of it in my illustrations—just enough to hopefully give the piece an authentic feel, and accurately capture the era. The research side can be tedious and time consuming, but because I find it so interesting, it’s a lot of fun as well!
Are you in charge of deciding where you have two facing pages with different scenes and where you’ll have a two-page spread? What determines this for you?
It’s probably different for each Art Director and publisher. I have great appreciation for the trust that my Art Director at Sleeping Bear Press showed me. She gave me the manuscript with the text somewhat arranged on each page, and let me loose. I was allowed to move text if I wanted to, in order to fit my illustration ideas, and I had free rein to chose vignettes, full-page illustrations, or two-page spread illustrations. Now, all that said, I had to run all of my ideas and sketches by the Art Director, Editor, and Publisher, as well as a few other people, before I could start the final art. Sometimes they approved my decisions, and sometimes I had to tweak something small, and other times I had to do an entire illustration over. The cover of Miss Colfax’s Light was done twice.
In the scene where Harriet is filling the lantern with whale oil, the light is shining up from her lantern on the floor. How do you determine where the light will originate, and where it falls, in your illustrations?
If I have to be honest, this is something I’m still working on—lights and darks. For the illustration mentioned above, I guessed. I reverted back to my figure drawing days in college, remembering studies of the planes of the face and folds of fabric, how subtle angles can be thrust into complete darkness, while a slight curve can create a sharp, bright contrast. Looking at illustrators and artists who’ve mastered lights and darks also helps (and intimidates!). I know of several illustrators who actually make models of their characters, and then place lights to mimic the lighting of their piece, and draw from that. This is something I hope to try in the future.
In the double-page spread filled with small vignettes of Harriet working, how did you think how to lay out that page?
This was a challenging one for me! A lot of important information is being revealed, and all deserving of a visual component. One illustration per page just wouldn’t cut it. Add the fact that Aimée is describing the typical work Harriet would do in any one day, made me want to capture the feeling of what it was like for Harriet from sun up to sun down. For this reason, I chose to arch the vignettes around the words, starting with Harriet tending the light at the first crack of dawn, to Harriet lighting it again at dusk. But until I came up with that solution, I struggled with this spread quite a bit. I’m not sure why the solution came to me when it did, but it sort of popped up as I was walking my daughters home from preschool. I immediately had the image of clock hands, the passing of time, how the hands (and sun) arch and rotate from Point A, to Point B. It dawned on me to try to use this movement in the piece. Just goes to show that sometimes ideas pop up at the strangest moments. I wasn’t thinking about the problem that fall morning, or so I thought, but apparently some little part of my art brain was still churning, unbeknownst to me.
I love how woeful the postmaster looks when Harriet is reading the letter telling her she’s being replaced. When you begin an illustration, do you have in mind what the expressions will be on various characters’ faces?
Yes and no. Sometimes, I feel like I know the character right away, and other times I really have to sit back and let the scene marinate in my mind, create a few really awful sketches before I start to feel the true spirit of a character, even a minor one, like the postmaster. I remember reading Harriet’s obituary, which described the people of Michigan City as absolutely loving her, and holding her in high regard. So while there were some naysayers at the beginning of Harriet’s career, it seems as if almost everyone felt she was a beloved, stalwart fixture by the end of her career. The latter feeling is what I was trying to capture in the postmaster’s face.
You begin and end the book with that doorway. When did this idea for framing the story come to you in your process?
I think it came fairly naturally, and the framing is largely in Aimée’s writing, which made my job easy! And of course, doors make such nice analogies, don’t they? Comings and goings, beginnings and endings. I almost feel like this aspect of the storyline was a gift. It just made sense to me to start and finish the book with that door.
What did you want readers to know from the pages of illustrations you created for this book?
History can be such a dry subject. Until we realize that it’s all just a series of stories, made up of real people doing extraordinary things. So I hope that when people read Miss Colfax’s Light, they see a person who was courageous, and tired, and determined, with calloused hands and a smile for a friend or a cat who’s chasing the chickens again. I hope that I helped to make Harriet’s world a real, tangible place for readers, especially children. I hope to inspire someone to try something that might be out of their comfort zone, or to not back away from something they want to try just because someone says it’s not meant for them. There is so much to be learned from Harriet and her life. In some ways, her story is a small one, historically speaking. In other ways, it’s huge, and absolutely deserves to be told. It has been such an honor to be entrusted in helping bring her story to life!
It’s always enlightening to hear about how much thought and research go into the illustrations of a book, especially one based in another time period. All of your hard work paid off in illustrations that capture the setting of this story so accurately and elegantly.
Thank you, David! I’m a huge fan of your work-it means a lot to me to read your comment!
This is a fantastic interview. I love hearing how illustrators come up with their ideas and solve problems when illustrating a children’s book. Eileen did a great job of making the story of Miss Colfax’s Light understandable for children.