Behind the Scenes: “Face to Face with Clara Barton” by Christopher Cyr

As a child, I read a biography about Clara Barton. In those days bios were “MG” books with possibly a couple line drawings, but otherwise, no illustrations. Wow! have bios for children changed! Now we have incredible art to bring stories of people from the past to life. And the new bio of Clara Barton, TO THE FRONT! CLARA BARTON BRAVES THE BATTLE OF ANTIETAM written by Claudia Friddell and illustrated by Christopher Cyr, is gorgeous!  I LOVE this post in which illustrator Christopher Cyr shares a bit of his process and how he dealt with pandemic limitations! 

AND Calkins Creek is offering a giveaway of TO THE FRONT! Just leave a comment below for a chance to win! 

Congratulations to @Bethreads22 on Twitter who won the special 2-book US History giveaway for educators: THE SUPREME COURT AND US and REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT!

Face to Face with Clara Barton by Christopher Cyr

Thank you, Beth, for this opportunity to reveal my process.

Bringing to life any illustration is a magical process. Illustration is art that communicates, tells stories, and is crafted to engage the viewer.


TO THE FRONT! Clara Barton Braves the Battle of Antietam by author Claudia Friddell brings the reader along with Clara Barton as she courageously helps others on a Civil War battlefield. When this project came to me, I knew this was something special. And as Clara herself was such an important emotional core to the story, I knew how I portrayed her was going to go beyond simple imagination on my part.


I normally start any project with sketches or quick thumbnail paintings (so named because they often are quite small, an inch or two at most in size). As I began to work out the images, I knew that Clara herself was going to be the key in many of my paintings.

There are not many photos or images of Clara Barton from the time that this book takes place, and that proved to be a real challenge for me. I deeply researched as much visual reference as I could find, but I knew that in order to create a consistent likeness, I needed to truly see her.


Unexpected challenges are common in any profession, and being an illustrator is no different. While it had been my intention to find someone of a moderate likeness to Clara to pose for me, I needed to begin work on this during the complete quarantine lockdown in my area due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I scaled back and reworked my ambitious plans. I found how to make do with what I had available to me and used my technical imagination to fill in the gaps. Most importantly, though, I got out an old box of oven-bake clay and created a small, sculpted bust of Clara as I best imagined her to be at that time. Working back and forth from the images I had researched and the sculpt I created, I felt like I could see Clara in front of me.


Using blankets, clay, and my phone precariously perched at odd angles, I was able to create for myself a bare-bones set of reference material that would help me illustrate Clara. But I also gained something else, a small tiptoe in Clara’s shoes, an invaluable exercise in helping to bring her emotion to the page.


My artwork is digital painted in Adobe Photoshop, but I see my process as a very non-digital one. I construct, I re-enact, I push and pull paint around the canvas. Face to face with Clara Barton, I felt a bit less like an illustrator than I normally do and more like a time traveler with a camera ready to show the world her story.

Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of TO THE FRONT! CLARA BARTON BRAVES THE BATTLE OF ANTIETAM. (US addresses)


Christopher Cyr is an award-winning illustrator of children’s publications, video games, and advertisements. His book Who Will Bell the Cat? by Patricia C. McKissack was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year and a Chicago Tribune Best Children’s Book of the Year. Christopher resides in historic Boston and has spent many Christmases with family in Clara Barton’s hometown of Oxford, Massachusetts. Visit his website

13 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Face to Face with Clara Barton” by Christopher Cyr

  1. Interesting process–and in the middle of the pandemic with all its attendant challenges! The pictures are gorgeous! I’m looking forward to reading this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a fascinating look into an artist’s work. The pandemic certainly presented new challenges and it’s amazing how creative this artist is to complete such gorgeous work, especially during COVID.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the image of Christopher Cyr being a “time traveler” as he created the illustrations of Clara Barton. As a child, I read every biography I could find on Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, and Helen Keller. I am SO excited to read this book. It has been a long time since I thought about Clara.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love PB biographies, and illustrations add so much to the story. Thanks for sharing the process in creating the illustrations for this book about Clara Barton. I look forward to reading it, and it’ll be more meaningful knowing how the pictures were created.

    Liked by 1 person

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