When Sally Nixon challenged herself to post an illustration a day for an entire year to Instagram, she had no idea that it would lead to a book project with a publishing house she’d long admired, or that she’d find her focus in drawing everyday twentysomething women doing everyday things. That’s exactly what happened, though, when Chronicle Books took notice of the Little Rock illustrator’s work — featured on Vice, Bust, Cosmopolitan and on Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter — and approached her for a potential project. “I was super surprised,” Nixon said. “I have books from Chronicle, and I had a list of publishers I wanted to approach but hadn’t, so when they did, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, yes.’ ”
The result is “Houseplants and Hot Sauce,” out Sept. 12, a depiction of 20 elaborate scenes that follow a normal weekend of twentysomething Jane in which the reader is asked to find items including “a jackalope,” “thirteen to-go cups of coffee,” “seven red jello shots” and a “tiny, well-dressed dog,” among many other items for a whimsical grown-up take on the elaborately illustrated “Where’s Waldo” books Nixon obsessed over as a child. “When I was a kid, I was always drawn to images with lots going on,” Nixon said. “I remember there was this “Nutcracker” version of “Where’s Waldo,” and I couldn’t wait for Christmas to come because I was obsessed with this book. I love images like that, so I wanted to create one.”
Visually stunning and brimming with details, the majority of the scenes depict composite — though not actual — places Nixon frequents, the exception being two scenes at beloved Little Rock music venue The White Water Tavern, in which Jane attends a raucous show where the band is donning wolf masks, and the women’s bathroom, complete with “Smash the patriarchy” graffiti, comes to life. (She admits that the scene’s starting point, which she recalls was a girl throwing up in the trash can, is something she’s witnessed herself.) “I’ve been in there when it’s crazy full of people, so I feel like it’s a pretty accurate depiction,” she said. “It was based on how I see it.”
Although she usually likes to focus on one illustration at a time, she didn’t have the luxury with “Houseplants.” With three months to turn in 20 two-page illustrations, she sketched out roughs of all scenes, blocking out the spaces, then adding characters — outlining them first, then coloring each in. “What about if I have three girls taking a selfie and a couple of girls drawing on the wall, and I start filling the space in with all these people?” she posited. “And then there’s the girl who forgot her tampon, so there’s this girl passing a tampon under the stall.”
Nixon, a details-obsessed illustrator who always knew she wanted to draw, said the first scene that came together (and also Nixon’s favorite) was of Jane shopping in a plant store. The striking image, brimming with foliage and brick, ended up on the cover. “There was a lot of potential for detail with all the bricks and plants,” she says. “It was a dream.”
Asked about how she knows she’s actually finished with a scene, Nixon said, “I don’t know that I ever feel completely finished with anything, but deadlines are good for that. They can really push you to not baby your artwork so much. No one’s going to see this tiny detail that’s glaring to me. You have to learn to let it go.
“It’s always been my dream to have a book for people to buy,” the Pine Bluff native, who’s loved to draw since she was 6, said. “When I was a kid that’s always what I did. I don’t remember ever not drawing. It’s just always what I’ve done.”
Nixon credits Instagram for the rise of popularity in illustration. “People are more aware of it now,” she said. “I didn’t even know what illustration was until high school, and now people follow illustrators on Instagram like they’re celebrities.” Although she notes she’s an avid fan of children’s illustrator Maurice Sendak (she’s even named her chihuahua-dachshund mix after him), she said it was somewhere during her illustration-a-day project that drawing specifically for the children’s market grew old for her. That’s when she discovered her love of portraying everyday twentysomething women. Although “Houseplants and Hot Sauce” portrays men, the focal point remains real, candid ladies.
“Having it available on Amazon and in bookstores is pretty crazy. I can’t wait to go to a bookstore and see it on the shelf,” Nixon said. With the book form, she feels she’s absolutely found her path. “It’s always been my dream. Now that I’ve done one, I think it’s well suited for me and how I work.”
Fans won’t have to wait long for a follow-up, as Nixon’s already hard at work on another Chronicle Books illustration project (not of her own devising) that takes on famous female friendships like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. “I want to do lots more books, for sure,” she gushed. It seems this female, Sendak-for-grown-ups is onto something.
To keep up with Sally Nixon on Instagram, follow @sallustration. “Houseplants and Hot Sauce” is available for pre-order at chroniclebooks.com, and is available for direct order after its release Sept. 12.