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BYU professor illustrating children's book about Obama

Published: Sunday, June 28 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Artist Robert Barrett in his home studio in Provo.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

Robert Barrett never visualized himself being a children's book illustrator, but now on his 19th and 20th books, he just might be one.

Teaching illustration at BYU for 26 years and also having illustrated several children's books, including "The Walnut Tree," "The Other Wise Man," and "Silent Night, Holy Night: The 1914 Christmas Truce," Barrett's portfolio will soon include "Only in America," a book about President Barack Obama's life and journey to the White House.

"I voted for him; my whole family voted for him. I guess you could say it's not a conflict of interest," the illustrator said. "When you research someone's life, you can't help but build a relationship with the person."

The book depicts Obama growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii, his time at Harvard and his entrance into the political scene.

The book will contain 25 illustrations, about 10 more than the typical children's book.

"It's a big balancing thing. You make sure you see all the details to make sure nothing falls between the cracks," Barrett said.

Some of the illustrations were based on recognizable photographs; combining elements from different photographs created other illustrations.

One illustration in particular, of a young Obama sitting on the steps in Hawaii, stands out to Barrett. He's figuring out who he is, Barrett said.

The book seems to be themed around the possibility of the American dream and recognizing personal potential.

Other memorable illustrations in the book include the president and the first lady's first date, Obama as a young senator and a trip to visit the troops in Iraq.

When preparing to do the sketches for the book, Barrett spent time studying photographs of the president.

Barrett has a feeling he knows why he was selected to illustrate the children's book. His online portfolio includes drawings he did of an African American woman and believes they may have had something to do with his getting the job.

"You can almost pick what pieces people saw that led to me being picked," he said.

The author and creative director knew he was capable of drawing and illustrating African Americans well, Barrett said.

Barrett said he begins the process of illustrating by carefully reading the manuscript and coming up with ideas for interesting visual additions to the text.

He then begins sketching. "I prefer to have a model, however, Obama hasn't agreed to come pose for me," Barrett joked. The illustrator uses friends, students and neighbors to model for him, whoever fits the description he needs.

Barrett then sends copies of his sketches to the client for approval. The creative control he maintains is usually up to the client. With the book on Obama, some of the sketches have been revised to fit the client's vision.

After revising, Barrett then makes the final illustrations on canvas by copying the sketches and then uses multiple methods to paint. Each illustration is finished in oil paint.

In the last month alone, Barrett has completely finished 10 illustrations.

"Next for me is Michelle. She's more popular than the president right now," Barrett said.

The children's book on Michelle Obama is slated for release early next year.

Both books are authored by Carole Boston Weatherford.

E-MAIL: jnichols@desnews.com

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