Articles Interviews Personal-Projects

For Artists Who Tend To Bite Off More Than They Can Chew…

Author/ illustrator Lindsay Gardner joins Room 2 to share how she made her first book from scratch, her recipe for productivity and how it all boils down to genuine connection.

Author/ illustrator Lindsay Gardner‘s new book Why We Cook: Women on Food, Identity, and Connection is so ambitious in scope and so beautifully crafted, one would never suspect it’s her first.

The tactility of her watercolor illustrations, to the cozy-but-modern design and the humanistic ethos it conveys all combine, like an ideal family dinner, into a visceral warmth.

…and, yes, the book does, in fact, smell good.

Lindsay visits Room 2 today with insights from the creation of this epic, personal project…

Making Passion From Scratch: 

‘Why We Cook’ by author/illustrator Lindsay Gardner is a collection of women’s stories told through food and cooking. In this image we see a full kitchen table and the hands of several women reaching into the frame to arrange dishes, cut food, and hold onto drinks.

[Chris] What was your personal relationship to cooking prior to your work on Why We Cook?

[Lindsay] I have always loved to cook, but when I had my daughters, my relationship to cooking and being in the kitchen changed.

I started teaching them where food comes from and what it does for our bodies…

…how food is an art form and a science experiment and a gift.

[Chris] When did you realize that you had to make a book about it?

[Lindsay] It took a long time for that to come up.

I was thinking a lot about balancing the different parts of my life, like maintaining a freelance illustration career and raising two small children with my partner

…how cooking fit into my creative life, but also my domestic life.

At times, cooking felt really wonderful and exciting and at other times it felt like a burden.

Cooking every day for a family…

…there are all the beautiful parts of cooking, and then there are parts like going to the grocery store [laughs].

…and some of these parts fall more on women than on men, even in the most balanced relationships.

I was curious about all of those questions, and I started talking with my women peers in my personal life.

At the same time, I was also working on food-related illustrations and paintings in my studio…

[Chris] For hire?

[Lindsay] No, I was doing other freelance work.

…but it was a back-burner idea of mine that I would eventually illustrate a cookbook.

So, I wanted to start building up my portfolio in this area and practice expressing my thoughts on the topic.

I also remember wishing that there was a book that addressed these questions, or that gathered multiple voices in one place.

But there just wasn’t a book like that.

[Chris] Where did you find the inspiration to become an author?

[Lindsay] I still don’t necessarily see myself as an author, even though I wrote thirty percent of the manuscript [laughs].

…and developed the idea.

…and, obviously, it’s my book [laughs].

…but when I look back, it all makes sense.

That passion has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

I studied literature in college and I wrote a lot. I just haven’t put that skill into practice within my professional life.

I love the idea of crafting words and I love reading, so why wouldn’t that be part of my creative repertoire?

But I didn’t start this project thinking: “I really want to be an author.”

I started it from a place of: “This topic is fascinating. I, personally, feel really connected to it. And I think other people would benefit from reading it.”

[Chris] I’m a strong believer in the value of personal projects and the professional currency that they bring.

…but it’s a very challenging transition.

…that paradigm shift from “Clients call me.”

(…or maybe: “I have an agent.”)

…to hiring yourself.

The archetypal freelance loop goes something like: Prompt, notes, delivery, paycheck, done.

That’s quite different from turning a personal project from a hobby into your job.

…working with a publisher, turning it into a physical book, doing press…

Can you talk a little bit about that transition?

[Lindsay] Freelance work is a minefield.

Some projects are fulfilling and exciting and you have creative leeway.

…and then there are projects where you are an extension or a tool to achieve a goal.

I was at a point where I wasn’t getting the kind of work I wanted. I wanted to put my skills and my brain to use in a specific way.

…and I couldn’t just wait for someone else to bring that to me.

It All Boils Down To Genuine Connection:

This watercolor illustration from author/ illustrator Lindsay Gardner's ‘Why We Cook’ shows activist Haile Thomas crouching in a field, smiling, and holding a bundle of freshly harvested greens.

[Lindsay] Working on Why We Cook helped me create a very genuine connection to other people around a topic that everyone can relate to.

…and I still feel those connections when I go into my kitchen and make dinner for my family.

I know that I’m not alone.

[Chris] How did you get in touch with everyone? How do you even start something so…


[Lindsay] [laughs] Yeah, I think I took it as a challenge.

I told myself “This is going to be hard.

…and it’s going to take an extraordinary amount of persistence.

…but I can do it.”

And it did take a lot of persistence, but I love doing research and I love engaging people in conversation.

I feel like I can show up genuinely as myself, which helped me make those connections.

Every time I had a big interview scheduled with someone I really admire, I tried to ground myself in the fact this is universal…

…that all of these people are human beings that cook for their families or for themselves.

…and even if they have achieved a certain level of fame or notoriety, every single person that I talked to was completely down to earth and generous and welcoming and open.

I just felt so honored that they would make space for me and this idea.

There’s No Standard Recipe For Productivity:

In this watercolor illustration by ‘Why We Cook’ author/ illustrator Lindsay Gardner, we see Tonya Holland, the owner and chef of Brown Sugar Kitchen.

[Chris] Why We Cook is so carefully designed. How did you make the book itself look so beautiful?

[Lindsay] Thank you.

It was a collaborative process.

I was very fortunate that Workman Publishing supported my vision for having a really visually focused book.

…a beautiful object that you could feel and touch.

…with great color.

From the very beginning, I wanted to have illustrations on every page. I wanted to offset the light touch of watercolor with a very clean modern type and a lot of open space.

Sarah Smith, the designer from Workman, was supportive of that vision, and I think we created something that really walks the line between being warm and having a clean modern feel to it.

[Chris] Yeah, that’s great.

I’m curious about what the actual collaboration looked like between you and the folks at the publisher.

[Lindsay] I learned so much as a first-time author. There is a lot of coordination that goes on behind the scenes to make one book happen.

We had a ridiculous Excel spreadsheet.

…having a very skillful and experienced editor really [made all the difference].

Once the whole book is a draft, there are multiple phases where copy editors and proofreaders and color and production coordinators work on it…

I would receive the first draft of pages one through thirty and then have two days to review them and make comments.

…and we would have a call to discuss and go through them, or my editor would return them again.

…but my editor was well organized and kept everyone moving on schedule.

[Chris] It doesn’t sound like there was a lot of time for tweaking or redoing any of the final illustrations…?

[Lindsay] Everything in the book was a pencil drawing first.

…which is not always done in designing books.

…but we needed all those little pieces because my designer couldn’t just put everything into a formula. Every page spread is unique and was designed by itself.

So, we took each one of those spreads and played around with them and then put them together like a puzzle:

…more room on this page, a bigger illustration on that page.

We made sure that it worked as a cohesive whole when you flip through the book.

I also wanted to make sure that the faces represented in the book were representative of the diversity of contributors, so that was part of the design conversation as well.

So, we tweaked things as needed before I started working on the final paintings.

That’s the benefit of having everything sketched beforehand.

This image features several Japanese dishes, beautifully arranged in vignettes, and painted in watercolor by ‘Why We Cook’ author/ illustrator Lindsay Gardner.

[Chris] That’s great.

Could you take us, step-by-step, through your illustration process?

[Lindsay] For me, sketching is the time to get to know an image.

…where things are on the page and when it’s time to do the final painting.

All of that is in my hand already.

[Chris] Rehearsal and performance.

[Lindsay] In a way, yeah.

I have to be patient when I’m painting.

I’m often so antsy to get to the details, that I have killed paintings because I’ve rushed through them to get to that part.

I have to give myself enough time to work on something and put it aside so it can fully dry before going over it again.

Overworking a watercolor is definitely a thing that happens.

With Why We Cook I tried really hard not to do that, because there’s a freshness that you can see in a watercolor painting when it hasn’t been overworked.

So, I put the basic shapes in place in pencil and then it’s a layering process of starting with the lightest washes and then working up to the details.

The more I’ve worked with watercolor, the more I know the steps innately in terms of what has to come first and what has to come last.

I was probably working on five to seven illustrations at the same time.

I work on Arches hot pressed watercolor paper on blocks so that I can easily put one illustration aside and pull out the next one.

[Chris] So, you’re working on the whole block?

[Lindsay] Yeah.

[Chris] Oh, that’s a good idea!

Instead of pulling the paper off, and then it warps and you gotta tape it down…

[Lindsay] Yeah. It just takes time and practice to figure out all those little tricks and tools.

[Chris] That’s fantastic.

Like you said before, there were so many moving parts to making this book.

Can you talk about how you managed all the different tasks?

[Lindsay] I had to figure out my own process, how I work.

[There were] communication and logistics, writing or editing, drawing and conceptualizing the visual part of the book.

Each of those was its own thing and I would often go back and forth between them within the same day.

There were things I learned about myself along the way…

I do my best writing in the morning, so I write until noon and then go for a walk around the block and have lunch and then come back to my desk.

It wasn’t easy to do all these different things at the same time. I had to learn about my own best practices and when I could be productive.

And I had to accept the times when I wasn’t going to do good work, when I needed to switch gears and do something else, or take a break.

Eat Your Damn Dessert:

Here, we see a watercolor illustration of seasonal meals arranged in a circle on a wooden dining table as printed in ‘Why We Cook’ by author/illustrator Lindsay Gardner.

[Lindsay] Have you read the book How To Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy?

It talks about how intimidating it is to call yourself a “songwriter” and that you should focus on writing one song instead.

Otherwise, you get so tripped up in the grand vision and you feel like you can never live up to it.

…so, you cut yourself off from trying before you even start.

I think the same applies to me.

I made myself a promise from the beginning that I wouldn’t berate myself if it didn’t go anywhere or if no publishers wanted it.

The practice of pursuing something that I was passionate about, of writing a book proposal and learning about that whole process, was so valuable that it was never going to be an actual waste of time.

…even if no one bought it.

[Chris] Self-doubt is one of the biggest obstacles that my students deal with.

…and it probably stands in direct correlation to the scope and ambition of the project they envision.

Did you always have access to encouraging self-talk, even from early childhood?

[Lindsay] No, it’s something that I still struggle with.

When you are a person with high expectations for yourself and ambition, I think it’s natural to have a lot of self-doubt.

Especially when it’s a creative process and you’re opening yourself up to [the world] and all of the pitfalls [that come with that].

I don’t know when exactly that shifted for me…

As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve been able to weed out the voices that matter to me from the voices that don’t.

I’m always my hardest critic and so there’s a certain amount of self-doubt that I’ve come to accept. It’s always going to be there, but I can’t let that stop me from doing the things that I love to do.

Eventually, I became very clear with myself that it’s not the outer recognition that compels me to come back to my studio every day.

…it’s the internal satisfaction and fulfillment of that process.

Once I got clear on what’s driving me, what the essential thing is that I have to do in my life, then the rest stopped mattering so much, even though the self-doubt never fully goes away.

I actually stopped painting for two years after graduate school, because I was so burned out.

I felt like I’m terrible and that I was never going to be part of this world. I didn’t even know if I wanted to be part of this world.

It was after my daughter was born that I [found my way back. But I was painting in such a different way than before, and I had to give myself permission to work differently].

I’m always changing, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m the same artist that I was five years ago for the sake of consistency.

I’m going to do what I want to do right now, because, otherwise, why am I sitting at this desk with a pencil in my hand?

So, it’s a mix of all those things.

I don’t know that you ever really get over your self-doubt, you just have to recognize that it’s going to be there and put it in its place a little bit.

“You can be there, but you don’t get to drive the bus.”

[Chris] I asked my friend Jenn Ely (who is a stop-motion production designer) for advice on my new portfolio.

I was really torn between two potential directions…

I know that a portfolio is a professional audition.

…but I also felt like, in order for my work to progress further in quality (in any noticeable way), that I had to draw from some experiences in my childhood that were very personal and vulnerable and intense…

…and all of the preliminary sketches were weird and dark.

…in the vein of The Dark Crystal and The Neverending Story.

…and I love weird and dark.

…but I was telling Jenn about how I was afraid of putting that stuff in my portfolio.

…of making work that was so weird and dark that they see it as irrelevant to the market.

…and Jenn replied:

“Chris, sometimes you just gotta eat your damn dessert!”


[Lindsay] [laughs]

[Chris] And I think she’s absolutely right.

Sometimes you just gotta eat your damn dessert.

[Lindsay] Yeah, there has to be a certain capacity for risk.

My mom has asked me, at several important points in my life:

“Will you regret it if you do?

…or will you regret it if you don’t?”

When I’m eighty, will I regret that I didn’t pursue this idea because I thought everyone would hate it?

Yeah, I will.

It often comes down to that question:

Will you regret it if you don’t try?

And if the answer is “yes,” then you know what you have to do.

Special thanks: To our guest Lindsay Gardner, the team at Workman Publishing for providing a review copy of Why We Cook and for scheduling assistance, our Production Coordinator Mari Gonzalez Curia and Content Producer Mona Lloyd for editorial contributions to this post. The interview was lightly edited for grammar, clarity and time.

Get Our Free Artists’ Mindset Course:

Subscribe via email to get each lesson in our new artists’ mindset course, industry interviews and notifications about mentorship opportunities. It’s 100% free and we will always respect your privacy.