Blog Tour – My Illustration Process

My friend Marcela Staudenmaier, who makes the most incredible illustrations from cut paper, invited me to jump on a blog tour of children’s writers and illustrators. Last week on her blog she gave us a peek at the book she’s working on and discussed her creative process. Marcela and I both studied children’s book illustration at Rhode Island School of Design. We hang out and talk shop at SCBWI conferences whenever we get a chance. Thanks, Marcela, for asking me to contribute to the blog tour!

After this stop the tour moves on, so be sure to keep following. I’ll introduce the next two illustrators at the end of this post.

Here goes…

What am I working on right now?

I’m starting the drawings for some illustrations of certain invasive species at Huyck Preserve in upstate NY. The art, part of an interactive book, will show the negative effects that earthworms, Oriental bittersweet (a vining plant), and hemlock woolly adelgid (an insect) have on the preserve’s forest environments. As with all scientific illustrations, this project requires a lot of research and field study. Here is a look at some of my sketches.

Young hemlock tree, hemlock seed cones, earthworm.

I also have two picture book dummies in the early stages. One involves a naive chipmunk desperately trying to find food in a soaking rain storm. The other is a story about a city kid who transforms his outdoor environment and brings his community together in a very creative way.

Why do I illustrate what I do?

Mo Willems said something in an interview once that has really stuck with me: “If I don’t understand [something], then I should write a book about it. If you understand something, you write a manual. And I’m not a manual writer.”

I feel the same way about making art – I illustrate things that I want to understand better: animals, plants, their environments, behaviors, and interactions. It is by observing my subjects in their natural environments (sitting in a hemlock forest or watching a scurrying chipmunk), sketching their movements, and maybe looking closely with binoculars or a microscope, that I begin to understand them. The result of my learning process is, hopefully, a piece of art that communicates the story in a succinct, interesting, and beautiful way.

How does my illustration process work?

Starting with the character…

Making scientific illustrations is quite different from making picture book art. But they both start the same way: research, observation, and lots of sketching.

What makes a chipmunk a chipmunk? For the book I am working on I will soon have a character, but right now he’s still a realistic chipmunk running all over my sketchbook. I’ve studied photos to learn the animal’s markings and facial features. I’ve watched live chipmunks and videos while scribbling their gestures onto paper. In the story my chipmunk will need to sprint across a fallen log. So I ask, what does one look like when it runs fast? How do its legs move and what happens to its tail? The chipmunk character must be believable and biologically accurate, even if it is stylized and given a name.


Once I have a believable chipmunk, I transform him into a unique individual that readers can connect with emotionally. I use word webs to describe his personality, his habits, his attitude, what he wants in life and why. I even think about his back-story. Then I draw him being active and expressive in different ways until he jumps from the page and shouts, “HERE I AM!”

The storyboard is my map…


Planning a picture book’s layout, fitting the pieces together, and guiding the flow of energy from page to page is great fun for me. I create a storyboard with very rough thumbnail sketches, and I will use it as my map as I progress through the drawing and painting stages.

If I am also writing the story, the storyboard stage is where I finally start to put words down on paper. I always have basic ideas for the story in my mind, but use these rough sketches to work out its progression and pace visually. If the story can be told just with images, that gives me so much more freedom with my words.

Experimenting with color…

color tests

Some of my favorite colors are pigments straight out of the tube. But mixing watercolors and playing with new combinations is important for my creative process because it allows me to take a break from the planning and be more spontaneous. The colors I use in my digital illustrations are usually collected from scanned watercolor swatches. I also love using textural overlays in my digital work, and this is the time I experiment with them.

Drawing and revising…

A finished drawing sets the stage for the rest of the illustration, so I dedicate a large percentage of the process to drawing and revising. This is where I often find “the zone.” I think a lot of subconscious decision making happens, so explaining my methods here is tough.

While drawing can be liberating and entertaining, other times I find it frustrating and confusing. That’s just part of learning the subject and solving the puzzle. (If it’s not challenging, why do it?) But by taking well-timed breaks, getting feedback from other illustrators, and experimenting with different materials, I can work through the challenges. Sometimes working back and forth between traditional and digital drawing helps generate alternative solutions for a composition.

Often I will set up a still life, build a small model (clay or cardboard), or draw actual people or animals (like my dog) in order to translate forms, spacial relationships, and accurate lighting.  In the case of scientific illustration, the drawing stage involves collaboration with experts on the subject to be sure that I accurately communicate the essential information.

Recreating nature in my studio helped me better "see" the reflections, shadows, and forms while drawing.
Recreating some nature in my studio helped me better see the reflections, shadows, and forms I needed to render in my drawing for “Rock and Stone.” (To take the image further, imagine a brave young girl scrambling to the top of this giant rocky peak. It could be a character’s entire world!)

Painting, the most right-brained part of my illustration process…

The medium I use for the finished illustration is determined at the beginning of the project, usually while I’m sketching. Watercolor? Ink? Digital color? Maybe a combination? It depends on the subject and the type of mood I want to achieve. I really like using watercolor because it can replicate smooth shiny surfaces, watery environments, and a variety of natural textures.

As long as I have a solid preliminary drawing with the composition and values all planned out, the painting stage moves pretty quickly. I try to remember to embrace “mistakes” and go with the flow of the paint.  I use values and color temperatures to create depth and steer the eye around the image. For really challenging pieces, I might paint three different versions and pick the best one.

For a closer look into my painting process, see this post about using my favorite pigment combo.

Up next on the Blog Tour…

I’ve invited two fabulous illustrators whose work I find really original and inspiring.

Elizabeth Zunon

Elizabeth ZunonDrawing and painting have always been among the most important things to children’s book illustrator Elizabeth Zunon. She was born in Albany, NY and grew up in the Ivory Coast, West Africa. One of her earliest memories is of the proud feeling she had when she first learned to write the letter “E” for her name! Surrounded by the bright, vibrant colors of everyday West African fabrics and tropical vegetation, Elizabeth’s love of color and pattern grew and lingered. After returning to the United States, Elizabeth attended the Rhode Island School of Design and graduated with a B.F.A. in Illustration in 2006. Her illustrated picture book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was chosen as one of Amazon’s Best Children’s Books of 2012 and received a 2013 Children’s Africana Book Award. She now lives in Albany, NY, where she explores a multicultural world through painting, beading, sewing, and collage.

Elizabeth’s blog:

Adam Winsor

adam-winsorAdam Winsor is an illustrator and animator living just outside Washington, DC. He has always loved telling stories with his art, whether he’s doodling on a napkin, painting on canvas, or animating a digital landscape. Adam started at a young age drawing his own picture books,  then developed an obsession with creating comic books and hand-drawn animations during high school. In college, he moved on to video games and 3D animation as he earned a degree in Art+Design with a focus in Animation and Multimedia. After several years employing those skills for various gaming and marketing companies, he is now focusing more on his illustration, which draws on all of those styles and media for inspiration. He is currently working on the illustrations for a young readers’ chapter book, a Kickstarter-funded storybook app, and an indie board game. You can see some of Adam’s work and get updates on his projects at

Adam’s blog:

Previously on the Blog Tour…  

Anne Wert

Judith Moffatt

Susan Novich