Behind the Book: We Are the Gardeners

last updated 29 July 2019

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It has been an exciting year for Bright artist Julianna Swaney, and we wanted to catch up with her to discuss the making behind her latest picture book, We Are the Gardeners, published with Thomas Nelson in March 2019. In this #1 New York Times Bestseller, Julianna teamed up with HGTV’s Fixer Upper costar, lifestyle powerhouse, and author Joanna Gaines in bringing the Gaines family’s first children’s book to life! Told from the communal voice of Joanna and Chip’s four grown children, We Are the Gardeners is an autobiographical story of the lovable family’s own adventures in cultivating their home garden. In her signature organic, nature-themed style, Julianna illustrates this family’s spirit of hard work and the restorative power of nature with her enchanting watercolors, inviting readers to enjoy the beauty a thriving garden provides.

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We went behind the scenes with Julianna and chatted about her inspiration and creative decisions behind the book.


We Are the Gardeners embodies the lesson that hard work isn’t always easy, but often yields the greatest rewards. How does this theme resonate in your own journey as an artist?

Gardening often means having patience (seeds planted don’t come up right away!), and it’s been somewhat the same with my illustration career. There have been a lot of long days at my desk feeling like I’m not getting anywhere, but I’ve kept working. It’s been a slow building, and ultimately rewarding, process!

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Final spread from WE ARE THE GARDENERS


For the Gaines family, the garden is a special place to unwind. Where is your sanctuary, and how does that time spent reflecting inspire you while illustrating?

Mine is also my garden! Spending time planting and weeding gives me a chance to step back, let go of stress, and see the bigger picture. After spending time outdoors I can come back to my work refreshed and look at things with a clearer perspective.

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Real life inspiration for illustrating the Gaines’ garden


Much like gardening, illustrating requires dedication, cultivation, and adaptation. Can you give us a peek into your artistic process behind creating the sketches and artwork that became We Are the Gardeners? What kind of inspiration or research did you draw from? Did you create a mood board or special palette for the book?

I knew there was going to be a lot of green in the book, so I wanted to have the characters wearing colors that popped out against that. I started by choosing some anchor colors to build the palette from: navy blue, pink, yellow and teal. Early on in the process I created a character sketch of the kids with those initial colors, and then I built the final palette around that. For inspiration, I looked at a ton of images of the Gaines’ actual garden, and I also ended up getting a lot of ideas from antique seed packets and botanical prints, specifically zinnias, which are one of the main flowers in the family’s garden and are used throughout the book!

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Early color palettes, sketches, and paintings


The story of We Are the Gardeners is based on the Gaines’ real life adventures. What unique challenges stem from adapting characters of an autobiographical nature?

At the beginning of the process, Joanna had said that she wanted the artwork to portray things in a more whimsical way rather than be totally accurate, so in this case I felt like that gave me more room to be creative and have fun with it. I just had to make sure the characters were somewhat recognizable to their real life counterpart. I also included details in other areas of the book that people would be sure to recognize, such as shiplap in the interior scenes.

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How did your agent, Anne Moore Armstrong, support you in bringing this book to life?

Anne was so great throughout the entire project, and I know she was just as excited about working on this book with the Gaines’ family as I was. She helped so much with securing the book, negotiating the terms, and schedule wrangling, which was actually one of the biggest challenges!

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Anne loves to garden with her dog, Charlie, and read him new picture books.


We Are the Gardeners on the Magnolia Blog

Design guru, Joanna Gaines seemed to love every step of the process, choosing palettes along with Julianna and reviewing sketches and proofs. Read the full feature here.

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“Below are some process shots of the book’s illustrations by Julianna. I love seeing each of the kids’ personalities so well captured—Crew’s included. We actually started this project before we knew Crew would be joining the family, so Julianna was kind enough to add him into the illustrations after he was born. She really brought our family to life on every page.” — Joanna Gaines

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Check out #WeAreTheGardeners on Instagram

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View more on Instagram here


View Julianna’s full portfolio here

To work with Julianna, email Anne here

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