Let’s Talk About Another Potter

On a rainy morning last week, I trekked to Rochester’s Central Public Library with the intention of using their extensive picture file for reference materials. As a lover of printed books I treated myself to wandering through the stacks in the ART section once I had completed the initial task. I love wandering through packed shelves in libraries and in bookshops. I think it’s the chance of finding a treasure that excites me. Thankfully, this moment didn’t disappoint. Kneeling down to view the early 1990’s selections of graphic designer guides, I happened to glance at the shelf over my left shoulder and there it was: a faded, plastic wrapped book in dirty lime green, The Art of Beatrix Potter. Score! The book is a collection of the early works and preliminary drawings of the well-known stories of the lake-district author-illustrator. It even came with an introductory from the infamous New York City public librarian, Anne Carol Moore. Giddy with excitement I took this book home with me.

I had grown up reading these tiny books with their delicate watercolor paintings, but I didn’t know much about the author herself. I learned that Ms. Potter actually was a great lover of animals and had several pets, among who was a large rabbit named Peter! Below is a drawing by Ms. Potter of her sleeping Peter.
Beatrix Potter sketch

Ms. Potter lived on a working farm and she used her countryside and the animals on it as inspiration for characters and settings of her books (makes complete sense!). Of all her books, my favorite is The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Below are a couple of fantastic preliminary sketches. The top one is of Peter’s sisters: Flopsy, Mospy, and Cottontail washing themselves. The bottom features Peter Rabbit with Mr. McGregor in his garden. You can just feel the suspense. Even in sketches Ms. Potter has a wonderful sense of body language to tell more of the action in the story. Language alone should not limit the enjoyment of a picture book for a child.
Flopsy Mopsy Cottontail

Seeing a sketch and then the finished work helps to reveal the creative process of the artist. By comparing the two side by side you can begin to see how the artist starts a project and works to a solution. Below is a sketch and then the finished watercolor painting from Peter Rabbit. This one shows “old Mrs. Rabbit” on her way to the baker’s house.
abbydora design

There were many more drawings and painting to share, but I’ll leave you with one more. Beatrix Potter’s picture books were unique in several ways. The small size of them creates a dramatic impact to the reader (rumor has it they were scaled small to fit the size of a child’s hand). The placement of full color illustrations within the pages was also a novelty during the turn of the twentieth century. Finally, Ms. Potter added colored endpaper to her books! As a book designer, having colored endpapers is like having hot fudge with whip cream on your ice cream. It’s heavenly! Her endpaper actually changed over the years as she added characters. I’ve selected her second version of endpaper to share with you.
Petter Rabbit

This endpaper shows the in-process painting of: Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, and mice in The Tale of Gloucester. The detailing in the drawing is just incredible. Beatrix Potter had the right combination of verbal and visual storytelling. Her books to this day are treasured items and are collected by book lovers all over the world.

The moral of this story: go to your own library!