CATCHING CATS ON PAPER: An Interview With Cathren Housley – Illustrator of The Christmas Cats

Nancy K. Wallace

Hi Cathren, it seems strange that though we produced The Christmas Cats (Pelican Publishing, 2011) together we have never met! I feel as though I know so little about you and the illustration process, I hope you can fill in some of the blanks for me and our readers. When did you first think you would like to become an artist?

I never actually thought that I would like to become an artist – Iust began doing it. I remember drawing things with my eyes before I laid pencil to paper. Other people would comment on the things that I created and that was how I got the idea it was something not everyone did or was drawn to. My understanding of what it meant to be an artist changed as I grew older and began to realize the difference between pure self-expression and producing art for a specific purpose, under deadlines. I became a commercial artist because I needed to pay the bills and I didn’t have a degree or training in anything else that people would pay me for.

Cathren Housley

Does artistic talent run in your family?

My great grandmother was a painter. She was an amateur but did some very Dutch influenced oils. My father had abilities to draw but never developed them. He really wanted me to be an artist.

It is always a bonus when you have your family’s support! What formal training do you have in art?
I went to four different colleges in my 20’s, but never graduated. I took drawing and intro to studio at all of them- S.U.C. at Brockport, NY, S.U.C. at Potsdam, NY, and the University of Buffalo. My entered my fourth school, RISD, at age 26. I was a sculpture major, but dropped out early in my junior year. I began a freelance multi-media career in RI that went all over the place. I finally went back to RISD when I was divorced and in my 50’s, and graduated in 2008 with a certificate degree in children’s book illustration, the best investment of time I ever made.

I actually had a minor in Art in college but my talents are limited to making bulletin boards and painting scenery! I’m sure you have also had life experiences that have enriched your talent.

Interestingly, catastrophic illness and injury have had more of an effect on my work than anything else. My natural energy has always been intense and somewhat scattered; but when I get physically flattened, it puts me into a frame of mind where everything becomes very basic. It’s a good state of mind in which to learn and focus.
I’ll share a secret with you here that I never told our editors at Pelican. About two weeks after I got my contract for The Christmas Cats, I took a 95 lb Malamute for a walk one morning and the dog lunged and ripped my arm out of the socket. A tendon was torn off the bone and my rotator cuff was damaged. Doctors told me that if I didn’t forgo the book and have surgery I would never regain full use of the arm. The pain was pretty bad and I could barely move the arm, but my biggest fear was that if the publishers knew about my accident, they wouldn’t let me try to do the book! I was absolutely certain I could find a way to do it, although I knew no one else would believe it. So, I hid my injuries from Pelican and went ahead and did the book. When my arm took a turn for the worse once I started the finished art, I just couldn’t admit defeat, so I pulled out all the stops and did nothing but physical therapy and the book. I got up 2 hours before I began to work and did yoga and meditation. I used creative visualization to transform the burning pain in my arm into “creative energy from the universe buzzing through my arm.” It made the sensations tolerable and my chiropractor and acupuncture clinic supplied additional therapy to keep me going. 

But here’s the important point- I was so limited that I was forced to come up with new ways to get the illustrations done. I really pushed myself to develop creative solutions and techniques that opened a whole new direction in my art. As far as the experience goes, my ‘tragedy’ turned out to be a catalyst for creative development.

After I finished the book, my arm was in pretty bad shape, but I have a daughter-in-law in Taiwan who is a very good physical therapist, and they are miracle workers there with injuries. I flew over after the last revisions and spent several weeks at a clinic in intensive therapy. I’ve had to do yoga and physical therapy on my own every day to continue the healing, but now, two years, later I have regained full use of my arm again. I can even rock climb again. After all that has happened, I’ve come to feel that there is no problem I can’t surmount if I set my mind to it.

That is an awesome story, Cathren! I can’t believe you were able to turn out those beautiful illustrations while you were so badly injured. I think that kind of experience might have worked in reverse for me. If I get it sick or hurt my creativity goes out the window. I am so glad you were able to work through that! Now, I know The Christmas Cats wasn’t the first book you worked on. What was the first book you illustrated?

My first book was an ebook version of Jemima Puddle Duck, originally written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. It was kismet- Beatrix has always been a hero of mine and we happen to share the same birthday!

The Christmas Cats

After Pelican indicated an interest in The Christmas Cats, they told me they were sending it to an illustrator. I’m assuming that was you. What kinds of things do you consider before taking on an illustration assignment?

As you can tell from my story, I was so excited at the idea of doing a book about cats for Pelican, that all I considered was how to get them to finalize the contract before they changed their minds. The established publication market was very difficult to break into at that point and I was thrilled to have an opportunity in my area of greatest interest.

Was there anything in particular that attracted you to The Christmas Cats? The story was based on an incident when my daughters were younger, so of course, it is very personal to me.

I thought that the story was very sweet. The book also gave me an opportunity to portray cats at every level of activity- from curled and purring, to hurling themselves down a flight of stairs! The antics of the kitties were so entertaining that I found myself laughing and talking to them as if they were real. I used to fear for my sanity when I did this, but I’ve since discovered that it’s an occupational hazard with many children’s book artists – we all end up carrying on conversations with the critters we draw.

I sometimes find myself doing that with the characters in my books. It must be part of the creative process! What do you enjoy most about illustrating animals?

I can feel the energy of animals when I create them on paper, and I like that.  I love their pure uninhibited expression of every impulse and emotion. I had many, many cats, and several dogs, when I was growing up. They are dear to my heart.

I love animals, too. I can’t imagine being without a cat. Okay, so who decides which scenes are illustrated in a book – the illustrator or the editor?

I think that varies from situation to situation. The two ebooks I did for MeeGenius had a very specific guidelines stating which scenes they wanted, along with the exact number of characters and objects that were in them, because they intended for children to be able to count.

In the case of The Christmas Cats, Pelican simply said to me- “send us the sketch layout when you’re done with it.” I was not told what to do other than that my pictures should portray the characters and the actions of the story. I was surprised! I thought that they would give me far more guidelines from the start. But once I turned the sketches in I quickly found out that they saved all of their criticisms and suggestions for the finished sketches, not the initial ideas. It’s only in school and critique groups that illustrators get the luxury of pointers and input before we hand our projects in.

I remember how excited I was to see the first rough sketches of The Christmas Cats! What medium did you use for those first sketches?

rough sketch

I always sketch in charcoal or graphite and then scan images into Photoshop and manipulate them in layers. In the past, I worked on many layers of ever-shifting tracing paper, but Photoshop is much less messy and adds the ability to instantly scale or skew drawings in seconds. I love Photoshop.

Can you explain the process between a rough sketch and a finished color illustration? What medium did you use for the final illustrations?

Everyone has their own process going from sketch to finish- I usually use transfer paper and trace outlines from the sketches onto gessoed illustration board. I develop the layers of color and detail from there, using water color, gouache, colored pencil and sometimes acrylic, ink or charcoal. Since The Christmas Cats, I have added a number of computer techniques for enhancing illustrations and using collage techniques. I always do the basic illustrations by hand… but the computer allows me to experiment and change my mind, take the image further.

Did you work through the illustrations in chronological order or did some scenes appeal more to you to start with?

Pelican wanted the cover first for The Christmas Cats, so that’s where I started. I generally illustrate pages in order because I can feel the story develop that way. It helps to create a flow in the narrative of the pictures. But in my third book, Winston the Water Dog by Mary Korr, there was a mix of black and white, hand tinted dream sequences and illustrations that were full color throughout the story. So I did all the dream sequences first, to keep the styles consistent and distinctly different.

What was the timeframe from start to finish for our book?

I was given a time frame of four months for The Christmas Cats when the contract was sent to me. But it was nearly 2 months after that before the text was finalized and I got the go-ahead to develop sketches. By the time I started the finished illustrations, I would have had only a month to finish the art if I kept to my original time frame. Naturally I had to ask for an extension; the finished art took about two and a half months, and then the editing began.

It was several months after I had signed my contract before I knew who was illustrating my book. Then, any communication between us was through Nina Kooij our editor at Pelican. Why do you think illustrators and authors aren’t encouraged to speak with each other during the illustration process?

I think that publishers understand the temptation that authors have to be involved with the art. The company already has a trusted professional staff to handle art direction and editing. An over-abundance of input can pave the way to mud and madness, so I think this is why writers are banned from the mix. But Nina did pass along one or two suggestions from you during the sketch phase, because she thought they were good ones.

Yes, I did send a list of the actual cats’ colors. I have a PowerPoint of my daughters’ cats that I take with me for school visits. The kids enjoy matching them up with the cats you drew in the book. Oddly, enough your illustrations included many things about my house that you had no way of knowing! The house in The Christmas Cats looks very much like mine and the porch has the same gingerbread trim. In the book, the kitchen has a checkerboard floor and the hall into my kitchen has a floor just like it! What helped you form an image of what the house should look like?

I didn’t know that until you told me! But it’s not the first time that has happened. When I am creating and another person is involved, I develop a sort of link to them. Sometimes when I’m working, certain details or images pop into my head for no reason and I have to use them. Later, I will hear: “that looks just like the sofa in my living room! And the same plants. How did you know that?” I didn’t, and I’ve never been able to explain it, but there it is.

That is so neat! I just got to see the illustrations last week for a new series called Abby and the Book Bunch that I wrote for Magic Wagon and a very similar thing happened there. You illustrators must all have ESP! What new projects are you working on now?

I am co-writing and illustrating a series of children’s books with Stacy Rubinowitz, about a tiny black dog – The Adventures of Rubi Star. More books about animals! I am also working with a clinical psychiatrist to develop a psychology board game that is intended for use in couples’ therapy. And I just received a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, to do a series of picture book workshops in the public libraries. It’s going to be a busy year.

It sound like you are in demand and that is a good thing! I hope we have the chance to work together again, Cathren! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I feel as though you have given me, and a lot of other authors, a much better understanding of the illustration process!

I would love to work with you again too, Nancy. I only hope that we can include your new cat, Emma Godzilla, in the next book.
I’m actually working on a book about Emma! Sometimes she’s a really bad cat but I love her anyway. That’s why we call her Godzilla! I’d love to have you illustrate her some day!

Emma

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About fairysockmother

I am a Harper Voyager, UK author. Among Wolves, the first in an adult fantasy trilogy was released 2015. Grim Tidings followed in 2016 and Before Winter concludes the series in 2017! I have 19 traditionally published children's books including: the Abby and the Book Bunch series and a 2 Readers' Theater series both published through Magic Wagon, a division of the ABDO Group, at www.abdopublishing.com. My first picture book, "The Christmas Cats" was released by Pelican Publishing in 2011. I have reviewed YA material for VOYA magazine for almost 20 years. Follow me on Twitter as fairysockmother and visit my website: www.nancykwallace.com.
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3 Responses to CATCHING CATS ON PAPER: An Interview With Cathren Housley – Illustrator of The Christmas Cats

  1. twigstories says:

    What a fascinating interview, Nancy! When I first saw (and loved) The Christmas Cats, I immediately thought of John Singer Sargent, an American impressionist. The art is so beautiful, Cathren, and gives the story a ‘turn-of-the-century’ feel even though it’s truly a classic story for every little girl who ever had cats. You are fortunate to have found each other! My daughter spends enless hours with photoshop, and also dream of being an illustrator. I’m sure this book will be a continuing inspiration for her. Best wishes to you both on your upcoming releases.

    • Hi Jo, Thank you for your kind comments! This was my innovative (maybe) idea to draw attention to my book. I haven’t found anyone to do an interview of me so I interviewed Cathren instead. I hope it was effective. I posted it as a new discussion of SCBWI on LinkedIn. I don’t know if they will include it or not. It was nice of you to be supportive 🙂 Best, Nancy > Date: Tue, 23 Oct 2012 21:27:55 +0000 > To: nancykwallace@hotmail.com >

      • twigstories says:

        One day I’ll start a blog, and you will be my first guest! In the meantime, sharing your news on my facebook page will have to do. Cheers!

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