Who does all the drawings for The Great Canadian Baking Show?
Talk about a sweet gig. The CBC series launched Kenna Barnes's career as a food illustrator
You've drooled over her work, but you might not know her name. Kenna Barnes supplies the original illustrations for CBC's The Great Canadian Baking Show, and she has since the series' debut in 2017. They're a crucial ingredient to every episode, appearing just before the bakers sweat through a given challenge — boldly outlined cakes or pies or assorted feats of pastry-based architecture. And they tend to disappear in a flash, just like actual treats.
Still, in that scant bit of screen time, Barnes's drawings set the delicious stakes: will an engineer from Calgary or a drag queen from Vancouver succeed in bringing such a vision to the gingham altar? Maybe not, but it's this Toronto artist's job to deliver confection perfection every time, and beyond the show, she's eked out a niche as a food illustrator, making art to order. How'd she land this sweet gig? Barnes talked to CBC Arts after the Great Canadian Baking Show's Season 4 finale.
How did you get into food illustration in the first place?
I actually got into it because of the show! So, I was working in animation beforehand, and I was working at a studio called Smiley Guy Studios, which is in the same building as Proper Television, who does The Great Canadian Baking Show. They reached out looking for an artist and I applied for the job. ... I realized that I should have been drawing food all along because it was just my favourite thing to do.
Why's it your favourite thing? What was unique about it?
I've been asked that a few times and I can never quite put my finger on it. I love food. I guess that's the broad answer. (Laughs.) It's been a big part of my life. Cooking and reading cookbooks and food memoirs is something that I'm really passionate about. So there's something about being able to put all of my passions into one medium.
I was already watching The Great British Bake Off and cooking shows and all of that. And for some reason I just hadn't really thought about drawing food. I was just drawing like, characters and props for animation and that type of thing. But I just — I find it so, so beautiful. Grocery shopping is one of my favourite things to do because you can just admire all the beautiful produce.
Ha! How do you make the most of your shopping trips?
Yeah, I take a lot of photos. ... You'll often see me lingering in the produce aisle with my phone out because I found a really cool-shaped heirloom tomato or something like that. And we often end up buying things we don't need to buy because I'll pick it up and say, "I need to draw this. We have to buy this!"
But you DO need it. It's a work expense.
You've been with The Great Canadian Baking Show since the beginning, right? Walk me through the process. When are you drawing? At what stage of the production?
Yeah, I usually hit the ground running after about the third or fourth day of shooting.
How do you produce one of your illustrations?
So for the show, [the producers] will send photos to me from set of how the bakes turned out. And I start with the sketch of the bake and then I will show the sketch to the producers. And we discuss, like, what the baker was trying to do and what I maybe need to tweak. And then I'll move on to the outline and the colouring phase where I'll take that into the computer and outline it in Photoshop, and colour and texture it in Photoshop.
It's interesting to hear that you're drawing from photos of the bakes on set because, I mean, not every bake works out. That's the drama of the show! What do you do when a recipe isn't executed quite as well as it was supposed to look?
Usually I open that photo and the first thing out of my mouth is, "Oh dear." (Laughs.)
What extra information do you get in order to make it work?
The bakers do practice their bakes, which I think is pretty publicly known at this point. So I do have those images. The most reliable thing is I usually chat with our culinary producer, and she'll walk me through [the details].
The ingredients breakdown is really helpful — if they can tell me what the cake is, what a ganache is, for example. If the [bake] melted and I don't have a perfect image of a slice, I at least know what it's supposed to be and I can fill in the blanks.
I realized that I should have been drawing food all along because it was just my favourite thing to do.- Kenna Barnes, artist
It's actually kind of fun because I like to hear what the bakers were conceptualizing, what they were trying to do. I hope to get as close to what they had in their mind as possible, and based on their feedback, I think I mostly am doing that. And so it's kind of like a fun little puzzle, a bit of a challenge.
You mentioned you're a fan of The Great British Bake Off a minute ago, so how did that program influence what you do on this show? Are you in contact with the illustrator working there, Tom Hovey?
Oh, I wish. I love him! (Laughs.) We've had a few exchanges on Instagram, and every time I squeal like a fangirl and it's very exciting. So, no, we don't collaborate with him. When I first auditioned, [the producers] said that they wanted to go with black outlines [like the illustrations on Bake Off]. And I was like, yeah, that's what I enjoy doing anyway!
What are your favourite things to draw? Any highlights from the show?
I loved doing Maggie's floral cake this season. That one was a lot of fun. It was really big and detailed and it was in really pretty colours. It was just a lot of things to play with, and a lot of textures to play with.
I really like Julian's kraken bread from Season One. I just thought it was genius.
Since landing this job, you work exclusively as a food illustrator now. Is that right?
Yeah. I mean, it's hard enough as an artist to get jobs, and I decided to make it even harder on myself by narrowing it down even further to just food. (Laughs.) But it's really just what I enjoy.
I do recipe commissions for people through my Etsy shop, and I have found that those have picked up during the pandemic.
What I would like to do next would be cookbooks. Either doing other people's cookbooks or my own would be a dream. And I still want to keep doing my colouring pages.
I used to talk all the time about how if people loved to draw they would draw constantly in their spare time and any time of day they would just be drawing. And I felt a little bit of imposter syndrome because that was never how I felt about it. I enjoyed it, but it was just my work. And then I started drawing food. And now I can be one of those artists who say that it's all I do all the time.
Take a closer look at some of Barnes's illustrations.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Watch The Great Canadian Baking Show on CBC Gem.