cover of You Can’t Rush a Cat
You Can’t Rush a Cat:


by Leslie Elizabeth Watts

Finding models for the characters

When I illustrate books, I often use people and animals I know as my models. I’ve painted my own children, my neighbours, and all of my pets. But when it came time to illustrate You Can’t Rush a Cat, I had a big problem: I had two little dogs and big, black cat living with me, but I didn’t have a kitten who looked like the one in Karleen’s story. I thought that I might just invent a kitten in my imagination, but I wasn’t really happy with that idea. I had already asked my friend Wesley to pose as the grandpa, and I knew that the pictures would only look right if I had a real kitten for Wesley to hold.

The evening before I was ready to start the first sketches for the book, I was driving along my street when suddenly I saw something small and furry staring up at me from the middle of the road. I stopped the car and got out. It was a kitten! I thought, he shouldn’t be out in the middle of the road; I’d better put him onto the sidewalk where he’ll be safe. But as soon as I picked him up, I could see that his leg was broken. I knew right away: this wasn’t someone’s pet out for a stroll; this was a little, lost kitten that needed a veterinarian. I got back into my car - with the kitten.

The next day the veterinarian put a cast on the kitten’s leg. He looked like a little pirate with a wooden leg as he hobbled around the house. My friend Wesley came over to pose for me, and the kitten turned out to be a natural model.

As for Jessica, I didn’t have a model for her either - at least that’s what I thought at first. It turned out, however, that my son (then eleven) was just about the right size for the character. He stood in for Jessica, and when it came time to do the paintings, I added long, black hair and changed him, magically, into a girl.

Technical stuff

The first thing I do when I’m about to illustrate a book is to divide the story into separate pages. Picture books usually have 32 pages, so if you subtract three pages for title and copyright information, that leaves 29 pages for text and illustrations. After the editor and I agree on where the text should be divided, I make a tiny sketch for each page. These sketches are called “thumbnails”, although they’re actually larger than thumbnails. These, too, must be approved by the editor and designer at the publishing company. This way, everybody knows what to expect before I start on the next stage.

photo by Leslie Elizabeth Watts as first step in illustration

I used to draw from real life, but my models (especially my children) would get tired of having to stay still for such a long time, so now I use a digital camera to take pictures of my models posing to look like the thumbnail sketches. In the case of You Can’t Rush a Cat, I took pictures of Wesley, my son, and the new kitten with my digital camera, and then I made black and white photographs with my computer printer, exactly the size that I wanted the illustrations to be. I then traced the outline of these onto my drawing paper and invented the backgrounds using my imagination. This stage takes a few weeks, since I sometimes do a few versions of each drawing before I get them right. I use drawing pencils and lots of erasers.

rough sketch by Leslie Elizabeth Watts as second step in illustration

Once again, the art director and editor must approve the drawings before I move on to the next stage. If they want any changes, they put these in a letter to me. Most of the time I make the changes, although there is one picture in Cat where I stuck with my original plan. This was on the page where Grandpa is down the basement, holding a dish of fish for the kitten. You can only see Jessica’s feet on the stairs. I thought this was fun. The most important person on the page is Grandpa, and I didn’t think we needed to see all of Jessica to know that she was on her way down to the basement. After the painting was done, no one commented on the feet-only view, so I was glad I’d stuck to my guns.

The final art for You Can’t Rush a Cat is painted in egg tempera, which is made of dry pigments (powdered colours), water, and egg yolk. The pigments are kept in small containers by my drafting table. I shake up one egg yolk with six tablespoons of water in a covered jar, and I keep some of this mixture in a low dish next to my palette with the pigments and a jar of rinse water. I mix the pigments and egg yolk mixture on my palette and keep my brushes clean with the water. The egg yolk acts as a binder, or glue, to hold the pigments together when the paint is dry. It’s a very old technique, probably one of the earliest paints known to humans.

final illustration by Leslie Elizabeth Watts

You Can’t Rush a Cat
final illustration in egg tempera
by Leslie Elizabeth Watts

First, the drawings were traced in pencil onto heavy white paper that’s made of cotton, just like blue jeans. Then I applied many layers of paint, using very fine brushes to make details like the fur on the kitten. It took several days to finish each illustration, so painting all of them took several months. Because the story takes place in late autumn, I had the opportunity to use some great fall colours in the outdoor scenes. These were just made up, since I did most of the painting during the winter. That’s the great thing about illustration: you can use as much realism as you like, or you can work completely from your imagination. You Can’t Rush a Cat falls somewhere in between.

Once all the paintings were finished, I sent them to the publisher. They sent a few back for some changes (floor tiles needed their colours changed; food dishes needed to be reversed). The changes took about a week. Then I sent the pictures away again, and the next time I saw them, they were printed in a book. I do get my original art back, and I frame some of them to hang in my house.

A little bit more

illustration from You Can’t Rush a Cat

I loved illustrating You Can’t Rush a Cat. Having a beautiful story to illustrate makes my job very pleasant, and the first time I read this one, I cried a little. That’s usually a good sign!

What happened to the kitten? He’s now a full-grown cat, and he still lives with me. I named him Yo-Yo, because he has the letters YO in the markings on his side. You might be able to see them in some of my illustrations. He doesn’t know that his face is on the cover of a book. He was never as shy as the kitten in You Can’t Rush a Cat, and I’m afraid that he might become quite conceited.