by Samantha Hahn

Well-Read Women (+interview with author/illustrator Samantha Hahn)

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Last year NYC-based illustrator Samantha Hahn came out with a gorgeous book of portraits of female characters from classic literature. With watercolor paintings and beautifully lettered quotes on every page, I quickly fell in love with this book  (even though I’m not up to snuff on the classics and don’t even recognize the names of many of these characters). Sam’s brush strokes are so breathtaking that I wanted to ask her a bit about her process for making this book, her technique (she doesn’t sketch first!) and whether she got an A+ in English class. You can read about this and more below. Thanks so much Sam and pick up a copy right here.

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How did this book come about?

I had a solo show in fall 2011 called “A Thousand Ships” titled after the famous Christopher Marlowe poem “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.” I was fascinating by the idea of someone’s beauty having so much power. I illustrated various incarnations of Helen of Troy for the show. Then I decided to expand on the idea by culling from literature, this time featuring female characters with their own voice. I illustrated some of my favorite literary heroines and lettered quotes from their dialogue. I found that people responded to the series and wanted to share who their favorite character was, when they read the book and what it meant to them. Chronicle Books picked it up and it and Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines was published in fall 2013 featuring my portrayal of 50 heroines and quotes from their dialogue.

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As an artist consumed with and fascinated by the female form, I could not resist the challenge of bringing each of the greatest women in literature (in my own opinion, of course) to watercolor life, as I saw them spring forth in my mind while reading (and re-reading) these beloved works. Painting them in all their captivating beauty and pairing them with hand-lettered quotes from their dialogue connected me in a profound way to each of these characters whose charms and quirks and foibles will linger with us long after we have forgotten the details of the plot. We sympathize with them, we admire them, we might even hate them–we see ourselves in them.

Are you a big literary fan? What are your favorite books?

I’ve loved books growing up but was never a big literature student. I always wished I had read the Western canon and this project gave me the impetus to finally pick up some classics I hadn’t previously read. I especially love children’s literature: Charlotte’s Web and Anne of Green Gables and for more mature subject matter I love everything Steinbeck, East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are my top favorite novels and I also love The Pearl. I love The Awakening and Lolita which I re-read before painting her for my book (worth a re-read as I perceived it differently the second time).

Did you read every book that each character you’ve portrayed is from? That would be quite impressive. 

Yes, I felt it was really important to interpret these characters through my own lens based on the text. I tried to be true to descriptions of physical traits as well as try to capture the emotional tenor of the character. Where her hair color was not described I just went with my instinct. I had read many of the books over the years but took pleasure in reading many new ones.

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How easy was it to come up with what the characters look liked? I imagine there are descriptions in the text to follow but what were some of the challenges and major choices you had to make? Where did you get your references?

Where possible I based physical details of each character on the text. If the author described the character as having auburn hair (Dolores Haze “Lolita”), I respected that. In many cases physical details were vague so I went with my perception of each character. I researched each period the characters stem from to gather details such as a jazz age turban or Victorian dress, I was most concerned with conveying the character’s emotional state. Some reference was culled from the FIT library but it was also possible to find reference online. For example, try a search for “civil war era hairstyles” and you will find illustrated guides. The searching was time consuming but also really fun. I sometimes shot reference for physicality and other times looked at existing pictures. For each portrait I probably used up to 5 references.

What is your painting process like? Is there a lot of sketching or do you just go into it with the brush? 

I go straight in with the brush. With watercolor you only have one chance to get it right. Often times I paint the same picture over and over until it had the right vibe. If it doesn’t work I rethink the pose, expression and other elements to make it more dynamic. I aimed to keep each portrait colorful and yet economic in terms of lines and washes.

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The type treatments are gorgeous and add so much to each quote. How did you decide on the lettering for each quote and what is the process like for painting those? 

Initially I thought it would be good to reference fonts emanating from the time period the novel is set in. I did that for many. For some I felt that a totally loose free hand approach was appropriate, such as with Antigone. In some cases you are reading a character’s thoughts and other times a piece of dialogue so I varied my techniques to quieter quill lines as though from a written letter and other times a more bold watercolor piece that has the emotional tenor of the portrait itself and evokes an era such as with Brett Ashley.

I love how sometimes your paint lines get blurry and the colors bleed in beautiful ways. It feels both completely organic and also perfectly intentional. Is this something that takes practice or are you using whatever comes out of the brush to your advantage? 

First off, thank you so much. Second, yes I love watercolor for the very reason that it can convey so much emotion through lush color, delicate quill lines and soft bleeds. To me negative space is the same as light so I try to create a light and airy feeling where appropriate allowing the paint to pool in areas and fade in others. In the case of Emma Woodhouse, I aimed to portray her surrounded by warm loving colors and light. I left negative space and used lots of water to allow the colors to beam. In other cases like Emma Bovary, I wanted her to feel enveloped in darkness without letting the medium overwhelm the figure. I go into each painting with intention but I also relinquish control to the paint and listen to it, let it guide me along. I keep my intention in my mind but am willing to follow the flow of paint. It’s really a symbiotic process.

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You’ve become somewhat known as a fashion illustrator- drawing at runway shows, doing work for those types of magazines… What do you like about illustrating apparel and beauty projects? Was this the direction you had imagined your work going towards?

I have always loved fashion illustration. I drew figures since I was a little girl. Fashion and beauty clients give me the opportunity to portray the female figure in dynamic poses and in motion. Painting faces is a passion as well as painting colors, patterns and textures so it was completely natural that I’d pursue this niche in the market place.

Lastly, what’s next for you? 

I’m keeping up with regular work: Illustrating a book for a Random House author, illustrating a bunch of catalogs for Tokyo based Afternoon Tea. And as a departure from my usual fashion and beauty work I’m illustrating a few issues of The Paris Review. It has been really fun to step outside of my colorful fashion work and create illustrations based on text in black ink. Trying to keep it fresh!

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