When you read an illustrated book, do you ever study the illustrations and wonder about decisions the artist makes about medium, technique, style and even subject? And what about the book’s physical size and shape, the whole little visual package in addition to the story that’s in it?
Often some or all of these decisions are assigned by an editor or art director working for a publisher who may have chosen an illustrator for their particular style or familiarity with the book’s subject matter. But when you are the writer, illustrator, editor, art director, publisher—and marketing department, shipping department, receptionist and all else that goes into making a book—all those decisions are made, or at least begun, with one person.
And so it is with Chris Davis, who began with a story and a vision, and ended up with a small publishing company to create, print and distribute her stories just the way she wanted them. While many people self-publish today, Chris began her venture in 1997. And while Chris said she’d written and managed many and various things while in “corporate America”, she’d never attempted artwork of any sort, but now she has to her credit five illustrated books featuring cats, dogs and other animals.
A little background
Chris describes herself as a “stubborn New Yorker” who is used to “doing things her way”. As a fellow artist I understand this to mean that she has a clear vision of what she wants and of the best way to accomplish that, in this case to tell her story, and she will achieve that vision by whatever method it takes.
She actually began her working career while still in New York and “bounced back and forth” between gigs as a singer, either solo with her piano or with a band, and working temp jobs that required a very organized and detail-oriented problem-solver.
While Christine grew up in New York, she has lived in Portland, OR for the past 35 years after following her muse across the country to such varied places as Tucson, AZ and Denver, CO to see where to best to live out her dream of living in and working with nature and all the creatures there; since 1991 in a house built on a quarter-acre wooded hillside. Her studio is in her dining room, and her cats enjoy a unique and attractive outdoor enclosure built just for them.
And while I associate her with cats after having initially read about the four sibling cats she lived with, Chris actually lived most of her life with dogs and began her career as a storyteller through a story inspired by her dog, Martha.
Gifts from her animal companions, and then some
Of course, her entire career as a published author and artist was inspired by her animal companions, and Chris reached for spiritual guidance as well. Chris relates that her forever dog, Martha, who’d traveled out to Portland with her, suddenly had what appeared to be a stroke, living two weeks in confusion and decline. Chris was determined to heal her but did not succeed.
She’d been working with a Native American healer and drumming regularly and turned to her drumming for solace. She was given the title For Every Dog an Angel in this way and “told that people were looking for this book” though she was not given the story; that had to come from within her.
Once she’d published this book people asked her for a feline-oriented book in the same theme, but Chris didn’t have cats then or know them very well at all. However, the universe provided them for her to learn about—that was when Jake discovered the four abandoned neo-natal kittens under the deck who they rescued and raised, and after getting to know them Chris could write For Every Cat an Angel with confidence.
After sharing stories with Chris in e-mails and seeing her books I e-mailed her, telling her that I’d like to write about her experience and about the technicalities of how she creates her art and her books, to which she agreed. I sent her my list of typical questions including what medium(s) she used, how she determined what images would illustrate her story and how she actually painted them, and we planned to talk. In just a few days, though, Chris had written up her answers to these questions as an essay and sent it back to me—an example of her quick and organized methods.
Forever Paws, by Christine Davis
While I’ve been writing all my life, I’ve never studied art and never knew I’d be illustrating my books. The closest I’d come to creating art was doing the company picnic posters back when I worked in corporate America. It was a big day when I added a red magic marker to my usual black marker and really jazzed up the poster!
When I wrote the first edition of For Every Dog An Angel in 1997 I met with some local artists, wondering if I could hire someone to paint the illustrations for me. Everything I saw seemed too majestic, and felt like it would overpower the simple words. So I grabbed a makeup brush and a $.99 tray of watercolors and did some quick drawings, hoping to show others what I had in mind. This unexpectedly led to my doing the artwork for all my books.
My beloved dog, Jake, was the inspiration for my books Old Dog & the Christmas Wish and The Shelter Dog. The Christmas book is very special to me, because it was the last book I wrote with Jake still by my side. There are several sketches of Jake that were used in the book.
Until I wrote Forever Paws my main medium was always watercolor. I’m deeply connected to water, so when I paint with watercolor I use a lot of water, which helps to get the “flowy” effect in the art.
I’d been playing around with acrylic and began to see the fun of using that medium, so
Forever Paws was painted with watercolor and acrylic – plus a liberal sprinkling of fur (just can’t seem to get that out of the artwork!).
It was the loss of my dear sibling kitties, Dickens and Pippen, that led to the writing of Forever Paws. Losing them to cancer, within a few months of each other, left me brokenhearted. I knew that Dickens, Pippen and Jake were together again, but I missed them terribly.
Then I began getting these colorful images of the fabulous time they were having up in the stars. I saw flying dogs and cats, glowing paws, a river of tears…even a dragon! The message from Pippen was clear – there was another book to be written.
I wrote the story fairly quickly, then began the task of bringing to life all the visions I had seen. One page in particular was quite challenging – the page with the woman holding out her arms and her critters touching her heart.
When I first sketched that page it was a completely different picture. After I painted it I could tell it wasn’t quite right. I drew the same picture a second time, but painted it with new colors. It was still wrong.
For a third time I drew the exact same picture, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to paint it. I realized I wasn’t moved by the art, and changing the colors wouldn’t solve the problem.
I sat at my table, closed my eyes, and held out my arms, asking the universe to please show me what I was supposed to paint.
And then I heard two words.
I knew what that meant – paint this moment, with my outstretched hands, open to all possibilities.
So I picked up my pencil and drew the picture that appears in the book. It came effortlessly. I looked at the woman’s face and saw so much love and beauty there. I am particularly drawn to the spiral shape, and drew spirals all around the woman. Suddenly both the picture and I were at peace.
It was several days before I painted the illustration, but when I did I knew I had found what had been missing from the first piece of art.
This page is really what Forever Paws is all about!
I really love the story of the illustration “Open Arms”. While I’m sure all illustrators have their own way of visualizing what they’ll do and then creating their visualization in their medium, it isn’t always a straightforward creation, even when you are working for yourself. “Open Arms” helps to explain how even what you had thought was a good illustration can turn out to be the wrong one, and how visualization sometimes needs to be creative in itself in order to get to the right place.
And like most illustrators I know, she gives each of them a title as she is working so she has a convenient way to refer to them to herself or to others.
In addition to what Chris answered above, I had always noted her strong palette of colors: blues, greens, purples, natural choices for as much as Chris loves water and its imagery and said her entire house is done in these colors (and I will note that even in her essay each of the book titles was in a different shade of blue, purple or green). Another artist had mentioned to Chris the idea of using complementary colors like blue and orange and purple and yellow which are sort of “opposites” and which enhance the qualities of each other when used together. I had noticed a good bit of various shades of orange in Forever Paws and Chris said the use of orange was “a new thing” for her.
The book itself
Often the size, shape and binding of the book are determined by the publisher or by a convenient template or materials available at various printers, but in this case Chris decided that as well. She had the idea of a gift book and visited bookstores, looking at, holding and reading gift books until she found one that was “just right” and patterned her book after that.
In addition, where certain pages or parts of a book are often left blank, she decided to add at least minimal color or artwork to pages that don’t often have anything, such as the end papers with the starry violet pattern, and a few violet stars here and there on front matter pages that are usually only text.
Promotional and complementary products
Chris also carries the same themes, styles, colors and even artwork through all of her promotional materials as well, and while she sells her books from her website much of her sales are wholesale to veterinarians.
She has also developed a line of complementary products such as her Rainbow Bridge Wristband, and a line of pawprint and dog- and cat-themed tissue packages, seed packages, scented candles available together or packaged in a pawprint gift box.
Molly and Star
Today Chris’s animal companions are Molly and Star, but she is certain that the universe will bring her another animal companion or companions, feline or canine or other, whenever the time is appropriate. And likely there will also be more books as Chris’s life with her animal companions continues to unfold. Visit her Lighthearted Press website to look at all of Chris’s books, read about her cats, stories of all her animal companions and remember her work when you or a friend unfortunately lose an animal companion.
Also read my review of Forever Paws.
Read other articles in my Creating With Cats series.
All images in this article were provided by Christine Davis and Lighthearted Press.
All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used in any way without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.