Harriett's Homecoming: An Interview with the Illustrator

While the focus of this blog is primarily on our custom books division, I couldn't help but shine the spotlight on the illustrator of a commercial children's book we are doing this year. The book is Harriett's Homecoming: A High-Flying Tour of Cincinnati, and it is the entertaining story of Harriett, a Peregrine Falcon chick, and her adventures (and misadventures) in downtown Cincinnati. Harriett's discoveries—Eden Park, The Newport Aquarium, The Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and many more—are woven throughout the narrative in brilliant watercolor illustrations. Erin Burchwell, illustrator, took some time to talk to me about her artistic history and training, her process in creating the unique, layered illustrations, and her personal relationship with her work:

How did you become an illustrator, and what brought you to watercolor illustrating specifically?

Well, I believe a person’s art is a reflection of their whole life in some way—from childhood experiences, to schooling, education, etc. And my life is no exception to this belief.

I grew up in an artistic family, although I was the only visual artist of the bunch. My father taught voice and directed operas (my sister followed in his path), and my mother taught Shakespeare. So while many of our friends were going to summer camp or weekend ballgames, my sister and I were going to operas, art museums and Shakespeare plays. We also travelled in the summers with a choir that my father directed across much of Europe. The travelling, especially in eastern Europe, I think had a huge impact on my artistic ventures.

When I was 13 years old, I got my first set of watercolors at an outdoor open market in Moscow. I had no clue how to use them “correctly”—in fact, at the same market I bought wooden boxes and things to paint with the watercolor. Somehow, I managed to get the paint to stay on the wood, and I used clear fingernail polish as a sealer.  I’m still not sure how I managed that “technique!”

From there I moved to paper with my watercolors, but I was already in the habit of really saturating the paper, and still had no instruction in painting. By the time someone showed me how to actually use watercolors, I thought, “those colors look weak,” and kept doing things my own way.

I went on in college to major in theatre with an art minor (still no painting classes, however), and after graduating, I taught high school drama and directed school plays for 7 years until my daughter was born. I loved teaching, but I always had this idea in the back of my head that I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books someday. So, when I quit teaching to stay home, I decided to actually start pursuing the book idea. I joined a local group in Columbus (COSCBWI) with other aspiring authors and illustrators and after about a year, I sat next to Susan Levine (the author) and the rest is history!

What research was involved in the falcon books (Harriett’s Homecoming and Packard Takes Flight)?

Well, first off, I had to learn a LOT about birds, falcons in particular. It’s funny, now, because I see them everywhere when I’m driving around, whereas before I never really noticed them. Several bird sanctuaries have been very helpful in answering my many, many questions, and letting me get up close to see various birds in person. I used a human dummy model and a picture of a bird skeleton to help me get my poses. I used both because, of course, our birds are doing things that real birds can’t do, like picking up things with “fingers” etc. Then, of course, I had to get familiar with all of the places in the books. I visited most of them in person and took lots and lots of photos (I think I took 2,000 photos for Packard, and even more for Harriett). It’s killing our desktop computer.

What was your process for these illustrations (the layering, etc.)?

Again, I think my childhood travels and theatre training all influenced my artistic choices, here especially. My mom gave me a book on British toy theaters when I was in junior high, and I have been fascinated with them ever since. I felt comfortable designing in “levels” or layers similar to my stage experience, so I began to design my pages like I would a set for a stage, with the backdrop (background), the center stage (middle) and forestage (upfront). I started cutting out and using puffy stickers to get the effect I was looking for—a miniature theater. Surprisingly, I really liked the scanned images. I felt like it added a lot of depth, and the originals looked beautiful in framed shadow boxes. It’s a tedious process, cutting out each individual piece or character, but it frees me psychologically from the fear of messing up in the final hour.

How do you reward yourself after such a time-consuming project?

Books really are very time-consuming projects. I think we calculated around 450 hours for Harriett (my husband is a nerd accountant). And I’m sort of ADD, so something that big is tough to get through, and it is nice to look forward to a little reward of some kind. For years, I had joked with my husband about getting a hairless cat. I thought the logic would appeal to him—they’re perfect pets. You don’t have to walk them or let them out, yet they have the personality of a dog without the shedding fur. Genius! He didn’t think so. So we had an “agreement” that I would get a Sphynx cat if I ever got published. So, the very day after I signed on for Packard, and before I ever even did one painting, I found a breeder and drove a few hours one way to pick up my new baby, “Harry.” He is quite the character. He has gotten into my workspace in the basement more than once and eaten (yes, eaten) some of my Packards and Harrietts right off the page. But he’s still worth it. I think I’m going to have to stop talking about him to kids at school visits, because it seems to be the only thing they remember.

When I talk with kids about art and illustrating in the many schools that we visit, I like to reiterate to them that if they get a chance to take art classes they should eat them up. However, if they love art, if they are passionate about art, if they constantly pick up a book and just look at the pictures, with enough practice and determination, they can illustrate without the formal training. I know a lot of artists cringe at this idea, but illustrating books for children is an art form very different from any other.


Harriett's Homecoming will be available the week of October 15, 2012. Order online at or purchase at your local bookstore.