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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

WIP 4 From Susanna

Illustration research for Painting the Wild Frontier began as soon as I chose George Catlin as a subject.  I knew the project would be feasible only if I could get permission to use reproductions of his work. And permission fees had to be affordable. 


Fortunately, most of Catlin’s original "Indian Gallery" is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), and the museum staff was very cooperative.  I needed other kinds of pictures, too, for variety and to provide context–paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs, of people, places, and artifacts. These would eventually come from 17 other institutions and individuals.  Securing the permissions and negotiating the fees would take as long as researching and writing the book.


But that was mostly paperwork (albeit a lot of paperwork!).  The greater challenge was narrowing down the choice of images. Catlin was prolific; SAAM alone owns 627 Catlin portraits and landscapes.  How to choose?


By the time I had a finished manuscript, I was pretty familiar with Catlin’s work and already had images in mind.  My editor, Lynne Polvino, and I wanted a fairly even balance of text and illustration, so we agreed that I would submit about 70 pictures to go with the 66-page manuscript.  Eight of them would be reproduced in full color, the rest in black and white.


I xeroxed about 200 of my favorite images and spread them out on my dining room table, in chronological order. Unfortunately the table wasn’t big enough, so for several months my family put up with Catlins on the piano bench, Catlins on the bookcase, and Catlins on the coffee table.

Then, by process of elimination, I began to remove the less vivid pictures, one by one. The last ten were the hardest.  It was tough to accept that there were some I just wouldn’t have room for.


In the spring of 2007, I delivered the illustrations, complete with carefully-worded captions.  From the beginning, I had envisioned using the captions like mini-sidebars, to provide background information and details that didn’t fit into the narrative, but were nonetheless important.


In the meantime, the text had been edited and revised several times, and had grown from 66 to 96 pages.  Lynne broke the news that not only were my captions too long, but we’d also need 30 or 40 more images!  She sent me some pictures downloaded from the Library of Congress.  With some of these and some of my own picks, we ended up with 100 illustrations.


Clarion art director Joann Hill helped make the final selections, and Trish Parcell Watts worked magic with the design & layout.  For the cover, we all felt that a Catlin painting of a child would be ideal, along with an inset image of the artist himself.  An earlier version of the cover had blue type in a font that was a little too flowery.  I think the final choice works much better–a dark brown type in a more solid font that gives a feeling of the old West.


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    Susanna, I do love that cover. The amount of work you cite so calmly and succinctly makes my jaw drop. I hope you took pictures of those pictures taking over all the horizontal surfaces! I look forward to reading this book.