Thursday, December 15, 2011


Aldren A. Watson is an author and artist.  Among other accomplishments, he has published  175 books.  In addition to illustrating many books for other authors, he collaborated with my mother, author Nancy Dingman Watson, as the illustrator for the list of distinguished children's books  they created together.  He also wrote and illustrated several children's books himself.  And he is the author and illustrator of a group of adult non-fiction titles that are still in print, many years after their publication.  Now 94 years old, he is looking forward to the publication of his 176th title.  David R. Godine, Publisher ( will be bringing out WATERFRONT NEW YORK: Images From the 1920s and 30s in the fall of 2012.   

My father has always been adept in the kitchen.  He can produce a good meal as well as the next cook---and does.  During my growing-up years, he was always the breakfast chef.  He called our orders into the cupboard where the short-order chef reigned---"Harry!  Adam and Eve on a raft!"  He then whipped up the order at the stove---two poached eggs on toast.  And lastly, he  served it to the designated recipient with a flourish---"Your breakfast, Miss!"
But I remember him most often as an aide and abettor to cooks.  He designed and built the cabinetwork in our kitchen, with customized areas for cookbooks; spices; implements.  He installed the marble slab that my mother wanted for candy and bread making.  Was a tool  broken?  Or did you crave a yet-to-be-invented implement?  He would mend or create it. 
At this time of year I think especially of the unique cookie cutters that my father---always the inspired food collaborator---made for my mother's holiday baking.  My brother Peter and I helped to bake and ice the cookies.  (Or at least I thought we were helping.)
Peter and I watched as my father decorated wooden sugar buckets.  My mother then filled the buckets with the homemade cookies (though hopefuly not with the ones Peter and I had licked) and they were distributed as gifts.  It was a true creative collaboration between my mother and father, whether the medium was books or food.
These memories are inspiring me to do some holiday baking of my own.  I get out my recipe box, the one my father made for me years and years ago, and retrieve the recipe that we always baked for Christmas tree cookies.
RICH ROLL COOKIES (from an old edition of The Joy of Cooking)

Cream 1 cup butter, 2/3 cup sugar.  Beat in 1 egg.  Combine and add 2 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp vanilla.  Chill dough at least 3 to 4 hours before rolling.   Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Roll and cut out [this makes a tender dough---keep chilled, handle quickly].  Bake for about 8 to 10 minutes or until slightly colored.  Icing:  mix confectioner's sugar with milk and a little vanilla, then separate into small batches and color with food coloring. [Our modern flours are more refined than they were 50 or 100 years ago, when this recipe was first concocted. You may need to increase the amount of flour slightly to make a workable dough.]
Next I get out my own cookie cutters.  My father made a set for me over the years, just as he did for the rest of his children---a new cutter each Christmas.  I'll mix up my dough.  Roll it out.  Cut and bake the cookies. And ice them using my worn-out and thoroughly washed Winsor & Newton series 7 watercolor brushes.  The perfect melding of art and food.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Artists and food always seem to go together.  An over-used phrase, perhaps, but a true one---and my family of artists is no exception.  My mother, Nancy Dingman Watson, was a writer.  She wrote a long string of distinguished children's books, illustrated by my father Aldren Auld Watson.  Later in her life she moved into adult poetry, and play-writing.  It is easy to find the roots of her love for words in her family heritage.  Professionally, the men were doctors.  The women were social workers, educators, diplomats.  But they were, as well, lovers of words.  Talking.  Reading.  Writing.  As a child, it seemed to me that those tall noisy relatives were always energetically discussing.  Always buried in books.  And writing---well, I have the example of the many literate and entertaining letters that my grandfather wrote to me.  Multiplying that by the number of grandchildren and other relatives with whom he corresponded---he must have been writing every day.
But my mother had another passion---cooking---that her family did not encourage.  She told stories of how she was not allowed, as a child, into the kitchen---that was the live-in cook's domain.  Stories of trying to concoct fudge on the tiny wood cookstove in her playhouse.  But always the yearning to cook.  When my parents married, bought a 100-acre farm in Vermont after WWII, and settled in, I imagine it might have been then that my mother was finally able to truly satisfy this desire.  She became a fabulous cook, with a reputation that must have pleased her enormously.
As we move into this holiday season, I have been thinking often about my mother's delight in cooking.  I remember her from my childhood, at this time of year, baking, baking, baking---scores of cookies, all kinds, all shapes and sizes.  My father decorated wooden sugar buckets for containers.  It was a collaborative activity, just as their books were.  The buckets were then filled with cookies and dispatched to appreciative friends and relatives, near and far.
After my mother died, this battered notebook was put into my hands.  As I held it, I was caught up in memories.  I had given my mother this notebook---new, blank, and pristine---17 years before.  I had written an inscription in the front of it. "To Mom, for Christmas 1984---Fill this full of good things!  Love, Wendy."  And I had fully expected that she would use it for a writing notebook.  After all, she, the writer, was the one who had given me the trick of keeping a notebook under my pillow for capturing those perfect midnight phrases.  She was the one who had given me a favorite writing exercise: "Write a piece that is 26 sentences long.  The first word of the first sentence begins with A.  The first word of the second sentence begins with B.  Etc.  Make one sentence 1 word long.  Make one sentence longer than 100 words."   
I opened the notebook.  On the flyleaf, under my inscription, my mother had written:  "Wendy--when I fill this full of good things I'll give it back!  The New Year, 1990.  Love, Mom." As I turned the pages, I realized---over a period of 11 years my mother HAD filled it with good things.  But the good things were not poems---they were recipes.  Her recipes.  On the very first page was her recipe for "Coffee Cake Wreath".  My mother was a purist---no making it ahead of time and putting it in the freezer.  No, during my childhood my mother got out of bed at 3 am on Christmas morning to start the coffee cake.  Tended it over the next few hours.   And took it out of the oven piping hot and delicious at 8 am, just in time for our Christmas breakfast.  

Dissolve 2 cakes yeast in 1 cup lukewarm milk or water (can substitute dry yeast).  Sift + stir in 1 cup all-purpose flour.  Cover this sponge and let rise in warm place till light, c. 1/2 hour.  Beat 1 cup soft butter.  Add gradually 1/2 cup sugar.  Blend until light + creamy.  Beat in, one at a time, 2 - 3 eggs.  Add 1 tsp salt, 2 tsps grated lemon rind.  Beat in the sponge. Sift and beat in gradually 3 1/2 cups flour.  Beat for 5 minutes.  Add 1/8 cup chopped citron, 1/4 cup raisins or chopped candied pineapple, 1 cup broken nut meats.  Cover bowl and let rise 2 hours or double.  Makes 2 wreaths 9" in diameter.  Roll 1/2 dough in 3 long strips.  Braid, shape; or just put dough in tube pans.  Let rise 1/2 hour, brush top with melted butter. Bake at 350.  [Note:  Our modern flours are more refined than they were 50 or 100 years ago, when this recipe was first concocted.  You may need to increase the amount of flour slightly to produce a manageable dough.]

I will be mixing up my own batch of "Coffee Cake Wreath" for Christmas---though I fear I am NOT a purist, Mother dear.  Instead, as is my wont, I will make it ahead and put it in the freezer...but I'll enjoy it as much as we all ever did, on December 25.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


The Original Art Show, the annual exhibition of original art from children's books, held its opening on Thursday evening, October 28th, at the Society of Illustrators in New York City---and I was there.  The Society was founded in 1909, well before there was a separate category known as "Children's Book Illustration."
The Society is housed in a lovely old building on East 63rd Street---you can read more about it and its history at the Society's website,  
My book BEDTIME BUNNIES was part of the show, a very great honor for me.  My friend and I arrived at the Society in the rain around 6 p.m. along with other enthusiasts---checked our coats---got our tickets and our name tags---and waded into the crowded room.  I have to confess that the first thing I did was find my own piece of art, and have a photo taken of it with me, its beaming creator. 
After that, I was able to concentrate on looking at the entire exhibition.  It was amazing to be able to see, hanging in two rooms, 150 examples of the best of children's book illustration today.  I wished I had planned one more day in the city, so that I could have come back the next day to view the show more thoroughly.  It was equally amazing to mingle with all the illustrators, art directors, editors, and publishers who were responsible for the art.  The energy in the room was palpable, almost over the top.  One of the speakers proclaimed, "Some  predict that picture books are on their way out.  But looking around this room, I'd say:  We aren't going anywhere!"  The room roared back in confirmation.
      The Original Art awards medals annually.  This year the gold medal was given to Rosalyn Schanzer  The two silver medals were given to Kadir Nelson   and Lane Smith  A lifetime award was also given, to Tomi Ungerer  The posthumous lifetime award was given to Robert McCloskey  Since I have always admired both Ungerer and McCloskey from the very beginning of my artistic career, I was especially pleased to be present as those awards were announced.  
The gallery was now closing---but the evening was not over.  My friend and I climbed the stairs to the Society's dining room, where we were served a shockingly decadent and delicious meal.  Executive Chef Quelbyn Sanchez is a real artist with food, and the Society---and all the rest of us---are lucky to have him there. 
      And so ended a wonderful evening, an evening that was exciting...inspiring...and filling. 

Friday, September 2, 2011


Now that Bink's story seems to be securely established and on course, Raymond has once more stepped into the spotlight.  And once he made his appearance, it was clear to me that his story now needed on-site research.  Raymond's story is set in a small seaside village around the turn of the century, where he and his guardian are spending their summer vacation, and where Raymond has at least three narrow escapes from certain death---at the hands (paws?) of the villain, of course.  The first and most obvious possibility would be a solo outing in a rowboat that has been tampered with, and that begins to sink when far from land.  But what else could happen to Raymond?  I knew that a visit to the actual scene would help my brainstorming.  I packed my cameras and sketchbook, and headed for a promising town.
A windmill, with its enormous moving sails, interior mechanisms, and huge grinding gears would certainly offer a villain numerous opportunities for evil.
A lighthouse is an obvious setting for potential injury (or worse).  Night-time would make it all the more nerve-wracking.
Although the railroad bridge no longer exists, its eroded abutments and a few piers are still clear.  What better way for a villain to get rid of a undesireable personage than by arranging for his prey to become stuck/stranded/tied down on the bridge just as the locomotive is coming around the bend?  Perhaps even with an engineer of imperfect vision?
There were extensive saltworks (wooden structures and machinery for extracting salt from sea-water) in this area, but they were abandoned and derelict by the time Raymond arrived.  And in my time there are not even any ruins left.  But I could use photographs from local libraries and collections as my reference.  And wouldn't collapsing structures of dark, dank, rotten beams and boards be a perfect place for a villain to attempt the worst?
Lastly, I actually found the summer hotel, now preserved as a museum, where Raymond and his guardian surely spent their summer vacation.  On my next visit I will even go upstairs, where I'm sure I will recognize Raymond's room, his guardian's room---and the villain's room as well.  My appetite is now whetted---I look forward to more detailed research...and to writing these scenes of pursuit and escape.

Friday, August 26, 2011


After reading my explanation of the steps I went through to create the art for the pin-on button, several of you asked, "How did you transfer the sketch to the watercolor paper?"   There are actually quite a few ways this transfer can be made, from completely mechanized methods all the way down to totally manual processes (after all, artists have always had to transfer sketches to working surfaces, long before our modern technological age).  I will demonstrate here the method I almost always use these days. This was the final sketch for the button, combining the little figure and the necessary text:
My next step was to scan this sketch into my computer, and print it out on transparent film:
I then set up my light box:
A light box (or light table) is just what it sounds: a box with a top of either transparent glass or acrylic; or frosted glass or acrylic.  Inside the box, beneath the glass/acrylic surface, are fluorescent light bulbs. 
When the light box is turned on,it generates an intense bright light through its transparent surface.  The brightness is demonstrated in this photo---although I took the photo in broad daylight, and the light box is situated exactly where it was in the previous photo, the camera has to turn the surroundings nearly black to demonstrate the difference of degree in lightness.  (Or at least, that's how I've had to do it---I'm not yet facile with my digital cameras!)
I lay the piece of printed film on the surface of the light box, and then lay a piece of 90 pound watercolor paper over the film.  90 pound paper is a moderately lightweight paper.  This enables the printed sketch to show through it well enough that I can trace it lightly onto the paper with a soft pencil.  In this photo, the printed sketch does not appear as distinctly as it does in real life.  In any case, I do not need to make a perfect, identical copy of the sketch.  I have learned from experience that it is very important that I be, in a sense, creating the finished art for the first time.  If I am slavishly "copying" the sketch, the finished art will be lifeless.  
And so, once again---finished art for a pin-on button!

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Though I have not talked much about Bink and his story in recent blogs, I've continued working on his manuscript.  At the end of each working day, I print out a copy of the revised text.  Even if I've changed only a few words, or the order of a few paragraphs, the fresh copy represents "work accomplished" to me.  (Remember, writing is the "mostly invisible" process.  I spend so much time looking out the window, doing laundry, or taking aimless walks while wrestling with recalcitrant words, that every tangible proof of "work accomplished" is golden.)  By now I've gone through at least a ream of paper, perhaps even two.  A pleasantly impressive and comforting stack on my desk---though still to be added to.  I've worked out thoroughly the sequence of episodes, and pretty much all the nitty gritty details of the plot.  Since plot has always been my bete noir, it feels as though the most difficult part of this manuscript is behind me.  Now I am refining dialogue, making sure that each character is saying exactly the right words---words that will be both true to the speaker's personality, and a step forward in the right direction for the story.  At the same time, I am always pruning, especially when working with dialogue.  Like my narrators, my characters usually repeat themselves liberally, with slight variations, day after day.  I have learned to write down every single word of their conversation, even if it seems to me that surely, this particular comment has been made before.  So much easier to remove the extraneous comments later on, rather than trying to cajole a character into speech for a necessary quote at a time when he (or she)---rudely interrupted, perhaps, from a nap---deeply resents my intrusion, and clams  up entirely.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Whether I am creating an illustration for the page of a book, or---as in this case---the art for a pin-on button, I follow the same steps.  I begin with what we call a template, or a mechanical---essentially a same-size diagram or pattern, showing the size and shape into which the finished art must fit.
For the button, the template was round, and 2 3/4 inches in diameter.
I next began making sketches in pencil on a transparent, vellum-type tracing paper.  The transparency allows me to easily lay a new piece of paper over a sketch and trace the parts I want to keep, while changing the parts I don't like.  It also allows me to combine different sketched elements at a later stage.  My first little seated figure was this human child.
I next tried several doggy figures.  This button will be for children, and the doggy figure won out over the human figure without much resistance on my part.
I next made a rough sketch for the placement of the text for the button on a separate piece of transparent paper.
By laying the two separate transparent sketches over each other, it was easy to position them in relation to each other as I wanted, and to create a third, combined sketch for the text and image.
I transferred this sketch with pencil to the watercolor paper I had chosen for the final art, and then executed the black lines and text with india ink right on top of the pencil transfer.  (Notice that I tweaked the relative positions of text-cum-figure yet again.)
I let the ink drawing dry overnight, as I always do, to make sure the india ink (which contains shellac) will be thoroughly hard and dry before applying any water media over it.  The next day, I erased the pencil lines.  
I then scanned the ink drawing, and printed out several copies on cheap paper.  I used these copies to experiment with the button's color scheme.  After several trials I arrived at an arrangement that I liked.
Before working on the final art, I always experiment with my chosen media combos on a piece of the same paper I'm using for the final.  This is to make sure that my combos are completely compatible with each other.  I had thought I would use markers for some of the color, to get some good bright saturation, but...oops!  Although the markers had worked fine in my color experiments made on print-outs of the drawing, they caused the india ink line of the final art to "run", creating small rivulets of grayish wash.  Since I had experimented on scrap paper---NOT on the finished ink drawing!---there was no problem.  I made a quick trip to the art supply store, then came back to my studio to experiment with the various markers and colored inks I had picked up.  
The Chartpak yellow worked fine.  It did not affect the black ink line, and it gave me the nice bright color I wanted for the background.  Because I had ironed out all the kinks in my color sketches, the remaing color work on the final art fell easily into place. 
And what will the button be used for?  A teacher-friend of mine runs a summer reading program for her school here in the Phoenix area.  Each year she plans a special celebratory event at the beginning of school for all the children who have participated in the program.  This year she invited me to help with the celebration, and I happily agreed.  I will give a short presentation to the children; they will each get a pin-on button with the picture I created; and they will finish with an ice-cream party.  A lovely way to end a summer of reading!

Saturday, August 20, 2011


After a friend/colleague of mine read my blog "My...Brush...With the Law" ( she and I held an email correspondence about it, which I repeat here (edited for length):
          FRIEND:  Wow!!!  College professor!!  Felon harboring ammunition!!  Society of Illustrators!! 
          ME:  The avalanche of good news is really great, isn't it!  (Except for the ammo part, of course...)
          FRIEND:  All really terrific...but I like Ammo Felon best!  If they put you into the Witness Protection Program, please let me know first.
          ME:  OK...
          FRIEND:  Do you think the creep who buried the ammo is going to come back and dig it up?
          ME:  The odd thing is that especially in the first few months after I had moved in here, various people kept coming by "looking for X"...There were two young men who were especially creepy---they looked very respectable, well dressed, etc, but they came by more than once, ostensibly looking for some woman, and one day they actually parked outside my house and sat there for several hours.  I'm at the end of a cul-de-sac---there's no other house they could have been observing.  Stupidly I did not call the police---I was still in my small-town, everything-is-safe mode, where a car parked by your house for several hours meant nothing (except that maybe the driver was out hunting deer...or blackberries).  Later my daughter scolded me; and when I did finally call the non-emergency police (after the two guys had already left) the lady said:  "Don't take any chances.  They might be armed.  If you see them again, call 911 immediately."
          FRIEND:  Wendy.  Your neighborhood life is surpassing your professional life.  Be careful!!!  Dig some more in the backyard (but not at night.)  Join the NRA if necessary.  If you incorporate this into your school presentations, I would think your fees should double!
          ME:  Ha ha...
          FRIEND:  Seriously!  In addition to being a nationally known author/illustrator, when you throw in the additional drama unfolding in your backyard, you will have those third grade boys eating out of your hand!!!!

So.  My new career...True Crime for third-graders?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I am delighted to learn that my book BEDTIME BUNNIES has been chosen for inclusion in this year's annual exhibition "Original Art" (  The exhibition is sponsored by, and held at, the Society of Illustrators in New York City, at 128 East 63rd Street.  This is a competitive show, meaning that books are submitted by publishers, illustrators, or others; the participating books are selected by a jury of illustrators, art directors, and editors.  This year there were 590 entries; 150 of these were chosen for inclusion.  The Society of Illustrators itself is an illustrious organization that was founded in 1901, and has been highly active ever since (  It's a very great pleasure and honor for me to be part of this show.  The opening night will be on October 27, and the show will run from October 26 through December 29.  And the original piece that I have chosen for hanging?
VISIT THE SHOW!  You'll see my original...and 149 other examples of today's best children's book illustration.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Those of you who were in the habit of following Bessie Beetum's Blog may remember her "Day of Demolition" (  At the end of that day, Bessie was surveying the corner of my yard and the small mess that was left there after the removal of the rotted playhouse.
That small mess had remained unchanged (undoubtedly much to Bessie's distress)---until today, when my hired helper arrived at 7:30 am to do a little more cosmetic work on my yard.  Sometime later, there was a knock on my back door.  "Look what I found buried out there," said my helper, holding up a very dirty, plastic...insulated lunch bag, perhaps?
"What in the world?" I said.  
"It's ammo," he said.  He  opened it up.
"Some are for a rifle..." he said, "...but these are for handguns."
I grew up in a pacifist's house.  I'm a pacifist myself.  I raised my children as pacifists.  And besides, I'm a children's book writer and illustrator. I had never seen "ammo" before, much less handled it.  "What do I do with it?" I said.  "Call the police," my helper replied.  I did (and I have to hand it to the dispatcher...she didn't show a quiver of interest, disbelief, or amusement when I described my situation to her).  Before long, a van pulled up in front of my house.
The officer came inside.  I told him that my yard man had found the ammo buried in my back yard.  The officer said, "Did he find any dead bodies?"  (I actually wasn't sure if this was a joke, or a serious question.)  The two of us started chatting, and I discovered that the officer's father had been a professional artist---"and quite a good one," said the officer.
The officer then left with the bag of ammo.  As I fixed my lunch, I thought about the unexpected connections between art and the law...and then I realized that this incident would be perfect for another BINK story...and then I went out to the backyard to look at the scene of the crime (aka the yardman-improved-area).
It was remarkable how much it resembled a newly-filled-in-grave...a grave that someone was perhaps trying to disguise......

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I have just agreed to teach at a new summer graduate program at Hollins University, in Roanoke, Virginia:  The Certificate in Children's Book Illustration ( I am deeply honored to be joining faculty members Ruth Sanderson---and here's a piece of her art:
Ashley Wolff---and here's a piece of her art:
and Barney Saltzberg---with a piece of his art:
Although I've made many presentations, given many mini-workshops and programs, and mentored young artists and authors over the years, teaching this full-semester course---Picture Book Design---will be a new experience for me.  At the same time, much of it will be familiar and beloved ground, as the design of picture books is something that I of course have been practising for more than 50 years.
Hollins University is already host and home to outstanding MFA and MA programs in creative writing and literature, so I am doubly honored to be joining this program.  I'll be posting more about the program as time goes on---but for now, I 'm simply savoring the good news!