They Draw & Cook and Build Community

When I moved into my first apartment, I didn’t have a great track record in the kitchen. I cooked my first whole chicken (after a call home to Mom for instructions) for homemade soup on a snowy day, and learned in a most unfortunate way that there is a bag of things left inside such a bird. Apparently one takes that out before cooking. Who knew?

Suffice to say I was daunted when I received a cookbook as a housewarming gift following the chicken debacle. To my surprise, I found this cookbook to be somehow different. I wasn’t intimidated by the recipes; rather, I was inspired—they were beautiful. In the years that followed, its pages became crusty with flour and rippled from drops of broth as the recipes guided me through fudgy brownies and spicy chicken enchilada soup.

It wasn’t until I met with Hudson-based designer and illustrator Salli S. Swindell of Studio SSS that I realized what made the recipes in my much-loved cookbook so accessible. They were illustrated. Absent were photographs of perfectly finished dishes alongside printed lists of complicated ingredients. In their places were watercolor sketches of comforting foods with ingredients and guidelines incorporated in sweeping script.

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Swindell and her partner/brother Nate Padavick know intimately the value of this way of designing recipes. It is the foundation for 12 cookbooks; their website, the Internet’s largest collection of illustrated recipes; and the establishment of a worldwide artists community. And it all began with a plate of fresh figs.

Swindell, a graduate of the Columbus College of Art & Design, and Padavick, self-taught after a career in human resource consulting, joined forces to create Studio SSS in 2001. The duo is hired for projects such as greeting card design, editorial and map illustration, and book and catalog design. While on a family vacation from these efforts in 2009, Salli sat doodling while Nate prepared the evening meal. When Swindell realized how much she was enjoying drawing a plate of figs for Nate’s entrée, it occurred to her that the pair had not previously drawn food. Perhaps they should. Enlisting the help of a handful of illustrator friends, the duo set out to self-publish a book of illustrated recipes to present to clients as a holiday gift.

When the cookbook wasn’t entirely complete in time for Christmas, tech savvy Padavick created a blog with the recipes they had received, christening it They Draw and Cook. The artists represented linked to the site on their personal blogs and encouraged readers to submit their own illustrated recipes.

Swindell easily recalls their first submission: “M&M Casserole” from artist Leslie Ann Clark. Clark’s illustration encouraged viewers to “mix M&Ms and nuts and have a party!” With the recipe’s emphasis on using simple food to bring people together, Studio SSS decided to post all of the submissions to They Draw and Cook, creating an artistic playground for artists who might not otherwise have a platform for their work.

“Success is that we established communication with every artist who submitted and became friends with many of them,” Swindell says. Clark is thrilled to be a part of They Draw and Cook. “I practically tripped over it when it first started,” Clark says. “Being the noncooking type, I felt compelled to toss in a favorite that draws in a crowd. The website is full of amazing artists. It makes our world just a wee bit smaller and joins artists together.”

Today, They Draw and Cook has hundreds of thousands of followers on a variety of social media platforms and receives about 100 recipe submissions each month. “The founding principle was to promote the careers of a few freelance illustrators, and now TDAC promotes the careers of freelance illustrators worldwide,” Padavick says. He explains that the community facilitated by the site counters what can be an otherwise isolating type of work. Both Swindell and Padavick have met up with They Draw and Cook artists while traveling. They see newsfeed posts of artists meeting up all over the world. The site has also become a go-to location for art directors seeking new talent. Swindell curates a weekly collection of featured recipes, further promoting the work of hundreds of artists around the world for free via an email newsletter that reaches an audience of more than 15,000, including 600 art directors.

Swindell explains that illustrated recipes can tell a unique story. “Do something that a photo can’t do; otherwise take a photo,” she quips. She encourages artists to begin the process by considering a dish that is personally enjoyable to make or eat, such as her own personal favorite, a garden salad that she eats every day. Family recipes are often a good place to start, as those recipes closer to the heart tend to elicit more visual storytelling. Textheavy recipes are less conducive to this format because there is little room left for illustration. Swindell recommends organizing content for ambitious recipes, and appreciates the addition of editorial comments to add a personal or humorous touch.

The 12 cookbooks published from the website feature curated recipes from the website’s collection. Topics range from “The Colorful Vegetarian” to “Holiday Sweet” and “The Best Illustrated Cocktail Recipes.” Swindell and Padavick look for a range of recipes and illustration styles when compiling each book.

When I ask Swindell for an example of a favorite illustrated recipe, I feel as if I’m asking her to name her favorite child. She relents, fondly recalling a recipe for a sidecar cocktail drawn by artist Rebecca Bradley. “I would never have ordered a sidecar if she hadn’t sent in that recipe,” she says.

As for a favorite illustrated recipe of her own? That answer came more readily—Fettucine + Figs in Butter Balsamic Sauce. It is the recipe that Nate was preparing while Salli doodled the plate of figs that became the genesis of They Draw and Cook. I suspect that many artists and cooks all over the world are grateful this dish was on the menu all those years ago.