Let us introduce you to one of Honest History's illustrators: Hannah Bess Ross. You can find Hannah's work in many of our kids magazines. With their vibrant colors and beautiful details, her illustrations are easy to spot. This month, she kindly let us pick her brain to learn more about her career. We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we have!
How did you become an illustrator?
I always knew I wanted to tell stories in some way. I loved writing and reading and constantly invented stories in my head when I was little. I played make believe with whatever I could get my hands on. At restaurants I was known for making characters out of forks and spoons and creating great adventures for them right there at the table.
Later in life I found that I could invent these stories through art and that these visual representations of the stories in my head could be shared with everyone in a more permanent way. I loved children’s books and cartoons so my interest in art naturally progressed towards those and here we are!
Tell us about your inspirations. Are there any people, movies, places, or books that have influenced your work?
There are so many! I was drawn to books and movies about kids going on adventures in strange worlds. I loved Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and the movie The Pagemaster. There’s something so exciting about kids having their own agency in these weird and wonderful places. My absolute favorite book however was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I love writing and language just as much as I love illustration so all the silly and elaborate wordplay in that book really captured me. My illustrations often start as poems or a couple sentences of dialogue.
I also really loved the movie Toy Story. I enjoy the idea that there is magic in everyday things all around us that we just aren’t always aware of.
How did you find your illustration style?
This was a long journey for sure, and one I believe I’m still on! I think finding your style is a lot of trial and error. For me it developed when I started really paying attention to the work of other artists I was drawn to. My first introduction to stylized illustration was the Mary GrandPré illustrations in the original Harry Potter books. I would continue to reference her style well into high school and college. I loved the children’s illustrations of Quentin Blake and Maurice Sendak too. I also knew I really loved folk art and the whimsical nature of artists like Maud Lewis and Matisse. So… eventually I began pulling from a lot of other places and ended up with something that felt comfortable and original!
I think that finding your style takes a long time and that every piece of art you make is in service of that discovery. It really pays off to just play and practice awareness of your own taste.
Hannah's illustration of ballerinas in Issue 14 | A Russian Winter
Tell us a bit about your process. What materials do you use?
I usually start by using my iPad to sketch digitally. I like drawing on paper as well but I sketch very messily and feel that some of my ideas can get lost on physical paper. For final paintings, I work pretty exclusively with gouache paint and watercolors. My favorite gouache paints are the acrylic gouache by Holbein. Recently I have found that I also prefer to work on smooth cardstock paper. Sometimes it can be tricky to paint on paper that isn’t really archival or meant to carry a lot of water but I just love the way the softness of the paper shines through. From there I scan the paintings into my computer and make edits using Photoshop.
You have contributed so many beautiful illustrations to Honest History magazine. How do you go about illustrating historical scenes and/or people? Do you do any research?
I’m so grateful to have worked with Honest History for so long! They are good to me. It’s funny though - going back I would not have thought that the bulk of my paid work would be historical in nature. As mentioned before, I can be a little messy with my work and have always preferred big, bold shapes and patterns to more detailed pieces. Working with Honest History has really taught me to approach art in a different way – to slow down, do the research and find lots and lots of reference images. Typically, I create folders on my computer for each magazine issue I work on and spend a whole day finding images.
I think specificity helps people connect with art in a different and sometimes more meaningful way. You’re viewing and learning about something you might not be familiar with so it’s important to be respectful and correct and I want to make sure I do the work on my end to showcase that.
Hannah's illustration of a marketplace in
Issue 10 | A Portrait of India
What do you enjoy the most about what you do? What is the hardest part?
My favorite part of illustrating full-time is being able to take a seed of something buried in my brain and replant it visually on a piece of paper. I have so many ideas on a daily basis for characters and creatures but sometimes it can be difficult to have those same ideas transported successfully to an illustration. So when it does happen, I am overjoyed! I also love seeing my work published in the real world. There’s nothing like it and it makes the little kid version of me very proud.
That being said, I struggle a lot with time. I don’t always give myself the amount of time I need to make work that lives up to my standard. Putting something out there that I’m not proud of is very painful.
Have you had jobs outside of illustration? Do you think they impacted your career?
Yes, definitely! I worked in a bakery for many years after I graduated college. I’ve also worked in bookstores/libraries and as a receptionist. I was very shy growing up, and it made me feel not very confident in myself and my artwork (this is part of why I loved stories about brave kids, I wanted to be one so badly!). Working these jobs helped me find my voice a little bit and feel more comfortable about myself in relation to the rest of the world. A lot of being a creative person is trusting yourself because once you take the leap to working as an artist full-time, you’re your best and worst coworker all of the time.
Many artists have creative superpowers. What is a superpower unique to you, or illustrators in general?
Oh I love this question. I think kids have superpowers too! My superpower is probably my ability to create entire backstories in my head about everything I see. Anything from a grasshopper to a fried egg has a personality in my mind.
I think this type of power is common in many illustrators. There are so many ways to tell stories through art that go beyond the obvious. A fork and a spoon can have just as compelling of a love story as two humans might.
Hannah's illustration of Greek theater in Issue 17 | An Age of Legends
What are some of your favorite things to do when you’re not working?
I definitely do work a lot. I’m trying to get better about finding other ways to fill my days but it can be tricky. When I’m not painting, I love knitting, taking walks, and eating spaghetti. My favorite days are filled with food, my cat Toby, and long naps.
What advice would you give to kids who want to become illustrators?
I would say 100% follow that feeling! If even the tiniest, ittiest, bittiest part of you loves to make art then you have the makings of an illustrator already in you. Pay attention to the things you love to doodle the most – horses, cars, your friends – there is no wrong answer! If you can get really good at drawing what you love then other people will be able to tell and you will make an impact. And also, don’t be afraid to be weird! My favorite illustrators and stories are always a bit strange and mysterious.
Since we love history, we have to ask– do you have a favorite historical figure or time period that you find interesting?
Hmm it’s so difficult to choose. Though this doesn’t pertain to one time or place specifically, I am very drawn to the development time periods of early mythologies. Having various cultures make connections in the world as a way to make sense of their surroundings is so fascinating to me. Greek mythology is often the most widely considered but I have an affinity for Russian and Jewish folklore as well.
Unrelated to that, I also really love Agatha Christie. I think she is an amazing writer and was often stuck in her own head and ideas which is something I can relate to. I would love to write and illustrate one of her mysteries one day!
And lastly, where can people find your work?
You can find most of my work on my website at www.hannahbessross.com or on social media @hannahbessross on Instagram! All information about the books I’ve worked on and any upcoming shows will be there. :) Thank you so very much!