David Macaulay’s Preliminary Sketches

Creating the Our White House Book Cover Illustration

The front of a book jacket has two basic functions. It must stand out amidst a dizzying array of competing titles while at the same time it should convey the essence of the book. Because Our White House is an anthology of various literary genres and artistic styles, the possibilities posed by the cover were particularly open-ended. For an illustrator this is both an exciting possibility and a potential trap. Early on in the conversation, NCBLA president and Our White House editor Mary Brigid Barrett shared her overall vision for the book with David Macaulay, all the while emphasizing its nonpartisan outlook. Since Macaulay is anything but nonpartisan, this posed something of a challenge. He tried a number of ideas and concepts in a futile attempt to outwit the folks at Candlewick Press, including art director Chris Paul. After going back and forth for a few weeks on a variety of images, everyone settled on a sketch that not only confronts viewers with unanswered questions, but also invites them in.

The sketches were all done on tracing paper to facilitate the continuous editing and reworking of ideas as they slowly developed. The transparency of the paper allows Macaulay to experiment, sometimes cutting a section from one drawing, then piecing it together, placing it behind or on top of another drawing until he finds the right combination of content and design. With everyone at last in agreement, the final drawing could then be produced. In order to hold on to the energy and wit that has become a Macaulay trademark, it too was rendered on the same inexpensive tracing paper as all the preliminary sketches.

All Illustrations © 2008 by David Macaulay