Slice of Life: Day in the Life of an Illustrator

Here’s what a day is like for me as a children’s book illustrator.

Portrait of Sarah Marie, "A Sheltie's Tale" character

Portrait of Sarah Marie, “A Sheltie’s Tale”

I’m writing this infrequent and brief Slice of Life blog post series to give people some idea of my day-to-day experience.  Making a difference with lifestyle choices is the founding principle behind Ripples, so discussing our jobs or the way we think about and pursue income is important to us.  Eventually I’ll also write about a slice of life as a greeting card designer, writer, and naturalist working on Mt. Kessler and living in a (hopeful, eventual) earthbag cottage (with photos of course!).

Being an illustrator is surprisingly different from being an artist. I would say illustration is a subset of artist, rather than saying illustrators are not artists (as some argue).  One must think about drawing the same characters consistently in different poses and with different expressions, and there is a lot of creative freedom in how one can visually interpret a children’s story that gives limited detail about a scene.  Backgrounds are a work of art in and of themselves, and I need to pay as much attention to intricate details there as I do to the faces of my characters.  There is also the time consuming character development and “dummy book” stages in which composition and design are decided, and this gives the book a certain “feel” – is it silly? Is it serious? Does it require the softness of watercolor or the hard lines of ink or a combination of mediums based on the story’s progress?

Beginning a new illustration at my desk

Beginning a new illustration at my desk

I’m working on a book about sheltie dogs and the legend of a sheltie ancestor who has to travel a long and grueling journey in the hill country to save an important baby. For several days each week, I’m at my studio desk in a very old farmhouse overlooking equally old black walnut trees that attract pairs of mourning doves which are my near-constant companions as I draw and color the illustrations. I use a combination of pencil, ink, copic markers and colored pencils.

I spend more time thinking about the illustrations than I do drawing them it seems.  I think about the characters, scenes, colors, medium, and composition while going through my daily routine of Qigong movements, chores, cat time, and cooking.  Every morning I spend a moment embracing nature both for inspiration and relaxation, since illustration is much more demanding than creating art on my own schedule and at my own pace.  Every evening, my husband Ryan and I walk the land, pick up the mail, enjoy the scampering chipmunks, fox squirrels, and fence lizards, and talk about our day.

At my desk, I always have my supplies laid out in an orderly assembly of rainbow colors.  There is always chocolate handy, and a stuffed animal or two for thinking moments when I need something to fiddle with. My favorite part of the day is coloring the drawings, and my least favorite part is character development. It can be very tricky and time-consuming to decide how a character should look, which pose they should be in for a certain scene, where the “camera” of the viewer’s eye should be directed, and so on.  Coloring is much more fun!

Here are 11 artists that move me to tears and create delightful work with immense skill!

Their work includes paintings, sand art, photography, detailed pen drawings or educational comics.

  • Samuel Silva recreates photographs of animals and people using only a handful of ballpoint pens
  • Therese Larsson illustrates adorable yet highly realistic animals and other subjects using digital techniques
  • Josephine Wall creates fantasy paintings in highly natural settings often focusing on women
  • Tim Ernst is my favorite nature photographer and author of many hiking guidebooks
  • Patricia Reeder Eubank is my favorite children’s book illustrator who uses rainbow backgrounds
  • Judith Ann Griffith has designed greeting cards, seed catologs and children’s books with amazing detail
  • Andy Runton created the Owly comics which send wonderful messages even to non-readers
  • Ed Dodd is the famous comic artist of the Mark Trail nature series
  • Schim Schimmel is a renowned artist who focuses on conservation of planet Earth
  • Edward C. Robison III has “magic” nature photographs that “move” with the help of smart phones
  • Kseniya Simonova tells dramatic stories using sand illustrations shown in videos!


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