Bettina Does Beatrix

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Who says there’s no glamour in illustration? Guess who painted the adorable Beatrix Potter watercolours in the animated blockbuster of the moment, Peter Rabbit? IA alumnus Bettina Guthridge, that’s who.

The Windsor based children’s book illustrator and Channel 7 courtroom sketcher is still pinching herself. Bettina was invited to ‘audition’ for the role by the film’s production designer, who heard about her watercolour skills from friends of friends. But the email containing the iconic Peter Rabbit image she was supposed to reproduce never arrived. She got a call two days before it was due for assessment by director Will Gluck in London and hopped into action.

“Once I got the job of course terror seized me,” Bettina laughs. “I thought, ‘Oh I’m a fraud, I can’t really do this’.” An open-ended brief didn’t help. “They hadn’t really decided how many watercolours, and in fact how they were going to be used I wasn’t totally clear about.”

Beatrix Potter watercolours are out of copyright, so the filmmakers were free to commission Bettina to recreate famous images from the English author-illustrator’s beloved books. But often they needed a twist: characters in different positions or situations, and backgrounds that matched the movie-set version of Miss Potter’s farm, which was elaborately reconstructed in Sydney’s Centennial Park.

Bettina created about 20-25 full-colour illustrations, as well as portraits and pen-and-ink drawings. “There was one where I had to put the rabbits having a picnic in the countryside but I had to put this new manor house in the background,” she says. “A lot of times I had to compose a picture from a lot of photographic reference. It was wonderful. Like the ideal job of your lifetime. I just could do it forever. I pretty much worked in my studio at home. I had good reference. Lovely people to work with. And they seemed to be thrilled with most things I did.”

Watercolour portraits of actor Domnhall Gleeson, who plays Thomas McGregor in the film, were the trickiest task. “They sent me photographs they had off the internet … and bad photocopies are quite flat,” Bettina says. “You don’t get the depth, often, like a proper photograph would give you.” Piecing together the director’s requirements – this face, that hairstyle – felt a little like constructing an identikit image. But who better to rise to the challenge than a regular courtroom sketcher used to capturing character, tone and gesture in minutes?

“The court work I love,” Bettina says. “It’s like going to a life drawing class and being paid for it. I try not to listen because the things I’ve heard make your hair curl. But I’ve got an ability to switch off, which is terrific. And I retain quite a strong sense of humour about most things, so that helps.”

The highlight of her Peter Rabbit experience was undoubtedly a day on set and in Fox Studios, where she gave Australian-born Hollywood star Rose Byrne, who plays Bea, a crash course in painting. The icing on the cake? Landing her dream set of paints, sable brushes and lovely mops from film sponsor Winsor & Newton. “They’d given us two of everything I’d ordered – one set for Rose Byrne and one set for me,” Bettina says. “That was probably the most exciting part of the whole film for me, unwrapping that present.”

Find more of Bettina Guthridge on her website and catch Peter Rabbit in theatres nationwide.