Mary’s magic

Children’s book illustrator Mary Sullivan will add “author” to her extensive illustration credits when her new picture book Ball comes out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this Spring.

Based on the ball chasing dog Mary never had, Ball uses only one word, repeatedly to tell of a dog who dreams of chasing a certain red ball.

The Junior Library Guild, a library collection development and review service used by school and public libraries across the U.S. has selected Ball for its Spring 2013 catalog. I predict more nods like this in the coming months because the book is a treasure — a wacky treasure in the Mary Sullivan drawn-style, which is to say that it’s universal and very funny.

Originally from San Antonio, Mary graduated with a B.F.A from the University of Texas. While raising her family in Austin she ran a personalized greeting card business that featured her original designs and “cartoons” (a word not really up to capturing her art that you can see in the videos above and on her blogwebsite and agent’s site.)

Drawing cards led to illustrating a story for Highlights for Children magazine, which led to more assignments from Highlights and book publishers such as Scholastic, Innovative Kids, School Zone, Oxford Press UK, Pearson and other educational and trade presses.

Most recently she’s completed a series of picture books for Zondervan (HarperCollins) by popular TV evangelist and author Joyce Meyer.

Below she talks about the challenge of keeping her drawings fresh as she moves them through the stages to final art.

Actually Mary did have a dog and Ball is dedicated to the memory of him. He was more interested in joining her for soulful walks in the woods than playing sports. He never played ball, but he kept Mary company while she worked long hours on deadlines.

I first interviewed Mary back in 2008 on my blogA second post showed a black and white dummy draft Mary did for the picture book Frog Jog by Barbara Gregorich (School Zone Publishing.)

She talked with me again recently — this time for students of the Make Your Splashes — Make Your Marks! online course. She showed F&Gs for Ball and gave us a glimpse into her illustration process that involves pulling her done-by-hand drawings into Photoshop and adding colors and shadows digitally. The videos here are a snippet from our recorded interview for the class.

A hands on Digital Symposium

Entrepreneurial artists and writers convened on the third floor of Fleck Hall at St. Edward’s University October 6 to learn about tools of the “new” publishing. Guest instructor, author and consultant Kirsten Cappy, with the digerati of Austin SCBWI introduced The Nuts and Bolts of Success with WordPress, Photoshop, Book Creator, iBooks Author, social media, making video book trailers for the web and more.

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Austin SCBWI assistant regional adviser Carmen Oliver set up a conference blog on Blogger on the spot to electronically seize the day of discovery, helping, fun and friendship.

Google + for Artists

Pooja's Google+ workshop screenshot

Watch Pooja Srinivas’ video presentation, Google+ for Artists and Illustrators  — and discover how to network, find and build community, extend your reach and promote your art and illustration with free Google+ tools.  Go here for Pooja’s superb 80 minute workshop.

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Illustrator E.B. Lewis heads up the Austin SCBWI 2013 conference, Kick It Up a Notch

A few years ago  American Artist Watercolor magazine assigned me to interview E.B. Lewis for an article. His realist watercolors were so exquisitely sensitive yet seemed so effortless. I was just as struck by his passion for excellence in his work and teaching and inspiring)his fellow artists.

He insists on watercolor even when he’s painting for galleries and collectors. Watercolor is an anomaly in a market fixated on oil and acrylic creations. Except for the signature Earl B. Lewis that he uses for his fine art pictures, it’s hard to tell the difference between these and his children’s story illustrations that are among the “finest art” ever produced for book publishers.

Lewis will deliver the keynote address for the Austin Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) 2013 conference. Kick It Up a Notch, set for February 8-10 at St. Edward’s University will also feature Crystal Kite award winning illustrator Patrice Barton and author Shutta Crum, Caldecott Honor author Liz Garton Scanlon, author Cynthia Levinson, editors Neal Porter, Kathy Landwehr, and Tamra Tuller and literary agents John Cusik, Erzi Deak and Rubin Pfeffer. Learn more about the gang on the conference faculty sheet.

Sign up for a special illustration intensive workshop with E.B. Lewis and/or portfolio and manuscript consults with the agent or editor of your choice (while time slots remain.) Download the complete conference info packet with registration forms.

Help Save the Farm

My friend Richard Johnson is on the home stretch of his Kickstarter campaign for his novel Saving the Farm — a fictional account of a marriage counseling workshop at a bed and breakfast in Maine and the documentary crew that comes to film it.

Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson

See the video on his Kickstarter page and consider kicking in as a backer.

Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative projects, everything from films, games, and music to art, design and technology,” states the main page of this site.

If you’ve never explored Kickstarter, Richard’s endeavor provides a fine introduction. Take a look at his video and positive proposal. For a keen understanding of the crowd-funding phenomenon, jump in with a small pledge.

It’s SCBWI conference scholarship time

National SCBWI is now accepting applications for scholarships (for full-time college or graduate school students) to the 2013  SCBWI Winter Conference in New York. For more information and instructions on how to apply, go here.

Entries now being accepted for the Tomie dePaola lllustrator Awards

December 14 is the deadline for the 2013 Tomie dePaola Illustrators Awards 2013. It’s all about classic chapter books this year.  Try a black and white scene from a novel by Louisa May Alcott, Tom Sawyer or Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Read the official guidelines and learn how to send your art to the contest’s “unofficial” online gallery established by SCBWI Houston Illustrator Coordinator Diandra Mae.

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Children’s book author-illustrator Mark Mitchell penned this post and did a short video on the “best drawing secret.” 

Author-illustrator Mary Sullivan

What the heck is an e-book, anyway?

Children’s book illustrators, artistrators, writers take note:

These guys kind of say it all. The trailer is by animator, web designer, online comics creator Erik Kuntz  (who also happens to be our SCBWI chapter’s webmaster.)

Briefly, the Second Annual Austin SCBWI Digital Symposium is October 6 at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. But for the schedule and more details on the workshop and presenters, go here.

Google+ tools for artists and illustrators — a free workshop

Pooja's Google+ workshop screenshot

Watch Pooja Srinivas’ video presentation, Google+ for Artists and Illustrators  — and discover how to network, find and build community, extend your reach and promote your art and illustration with free Google+ tools.  Go here for Pooja’s superb 1.3 hour workshop.

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Children’s book author-illustrator Mark Mitchell is also the author of this post.  See Mark’s short video about the “best drawing secret” here.

Erik animation screenshot

A party in February

Erik KuntzAmy Rose Capetta and Nick Alter made this video of the Austin Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 2012 Regional Conference, Something for Everybody. 

I get a kick out of how the thumbnail on YouTube shows me in the crowd, getting a hug from illustrator Marsha Riti. So of course I had to include it here.

Erik, our web designer and webmaster and Nick, our chapter’s social media strategist produced the video around Amy Rose’s wonderful portrait photography. They put it all together on the fly — while the event was still happening, in time to show the attendees at the day’s end.

You don’t want to miss hearing the Muppets in the video’s second half.

My own photos will never be as good as Amy’s — but they’re illustration-centric and include shots of the illustrators’ intensive session by Patti Ann Harris, senior art director for Little, Brown and Co.

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Yes, it was all back in February! But the experience feels fresh still. Highlights for me were a session Patti did with Random House (Golden Books) editor and author Diane Muldrow on the art director/editor relationship at a house  — and a special award that our chapter presented to two of its beloved members:  Authors Cynthia Leitich Smith and Greg Leitich Smith. The award recognized this married pair for being our chapter’s friends/mentors and Ambassadors for the Austin Kid-Lit Community to the world.

I loved how the Girllustrators organized the illustrators’ print and original art donations for the silent auction and ran herd on the portfolio room and portfolio competition (won by Jeff Crosby.) They represented our group splendidly.

Others’ thank yous were given out many weeks ago. But I’ll add mine now — thanks to the Girllustrators, our terrific guest faculty, especially author Lisa YeeDebbie Gonzalesour chapter’s regional adviser (RA) and assistant RA Carmen Oliver, also Meredith Davis, Shelli Cornelison, Samantha Clark, Sheryl Witschorke  and so many volunteers, and Sister Donna Jurick, Ramsey Fowler, PhD. and Rebecca Rodriguez of St. Edward’s University who allowed their beautiful campus to be our base for the second year in a row.

Girllustrators at the conference

The “Girllustrators” who coordinated the Portfolio Showcase and portfolio contest. Left ro right standing are Emma J. Virjan and Shelley Ann Jackson, seated – Divya Srinivasan, Marsha Riti, Patrice Barton and Amy Farrier — with Emma J. Virjan, Marsha Riti, Patrice Barton, Amy Farrier and Shelley Ann Jackson at the Mabee Ballroom at St. Edward’s University. Not pictured are Lalena Fisher, Tiffany Vargas and Amanda Williams.

A Crystal Kite for Patty

Austin SCBWI’s own Patrice Barton joins Michigan SCBWI’s author Shutta Krum in winning a 2012 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for their picture book Mine!

The Crystal Kite is given by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators each year to recognize the best books from 15 regional SCBWI divisions around the world. Peers, children’s book authors and illustrators in the 15 divisions, vote for their favorites.  Mine! was the winner for the Texas-Oklahoma Division.

Last summer we interviewed Patty for Marks and Splashes course students. In this excerpt from video interview Patty did for students of the Marks and Splashes course  she talks about working on the illustrations for Mine! 

 And remembering Maurice Sendak

Who brought many of us back to children’s books — when we thought we’d left them behind long ago.

A new milieu for an old art form: Erik Kuntz and a spellbinding (kid-friendly) “Hex Libris”


Who is the creature lurking in the library in Erik’s Webcomic? I think I know, and I’ve entered Erik’s contest, but I can’t share my guess with anyone. But I will say this much — it’s a character from a book we know. After all, the strip is Hex Libris, in which Kirby, the main character is charged with taking care of a ginormous enchanted library. 

Ever read a novel that just comes to life before your eyes? Well, Hex Libris seizes that theme and runs down the field in an unexpected direction with it. The webcomic by designer- writer Erik Kuntz of Austin, Texas began as a New Year’s resolution. So did his illustration blog A Dog a Day Project  that features Erik’s unstop able canine imagery — with doggy bites of daily commentary.  But that’s a subject for a future post. 


Erik was thinking of the classic Nancy Drew stories of the 1950’s, mulling  how they compared to and contrasted with the Nancy Drew graphic novels being created for today’s teens.

“I wondered, ‘What if there was a place where characters could wander out of their books?’ ” Erik says. “‘And what would happen if the real Nancy Drew ran into the punky Manga style Nancy Drew?'”

Our hero Kirby meets them both as a result of his new archival responsibilities. And so it is inevitable that the trio and who knows who else (stay tuned…) join forces to solve a mystery or two.

Kirby’s story unfolds in  semi-weekly panels that move us cleanly, easily — even sweetly —  through space and time.  We care about Kirby and Amy (a girl who likes him) and teen girl detective Connie Carter ( the “original” Nancy Drew) and even the little old lady (or is she a witch?) who leases Kirby the uptown apartment that, somehow, magically contains a Library of Congress-like basilica within its tiny walls.

Erik hatched the idea at last year’s Summer Arts Workshop at California State University. He studied comics and animation in the summer program.  He knows and adores comics.  He’s studied under Scott McCloudthe author of Understanding Comics, Re-inventing Comics and other titles all about the ‘language’ of an art form that goes back to well, let’s just say paintings on cave walls. 

One of the teachers at the summer workshop, comic book writer-illustrator Trina Robbins encouraged Kuntz to see it through  — his Hex Libris storyline.

“I’ve done so much study over the last few years as to what makes a comic a comic as opposed to an illustrated story,” Erik says. “It’s a constant struggle between what needs to be put in the picture and what needs to be said ‘out loud’ in words.”  For inspiration, he looks to the late “father of MangaOsamu Tezuka and the late  E.C. Segar, the creator of Popeye and Thimble Theatre.

Kimba the White Lion  was my favorite show as a kid,” Kuntz says. “It was cartoony without being overly simple.”

“I like the older style of newspaper comics, where the adventure strips had a more realistic look.”
As much as he enjoys comic books,  Erik says, “it’s the comic pages in the Sunday paper that I most enjoy and try to emulate here — their sequential nature and the art style and sense of humor — especially from the 1940s to the 1950s, where they could work bigger and there was more possibility.” 

Alas, the gorgeous graphics of Prince Valiant (Gary Gianni carries on with the storybook imagery first created by Hal Foster in 1937) and For Better or for Worse  (Lynn Johnston) have been scrunched to near-insignificance as newspapers continue to shrink their content. 

Newspapers themselves seem to be folding (no pun intended) as a mainstream media and the ultimate cartoon delivery vehicle. But perhaps the World Wide Web can do for the old newspaper “funny pages” what Manga has done for comic book and graphic novel publishing.

“I think every artist who does children’s or cartoony stuff would do well to look at the web as an opportunity.” Kuntz says. “There is a huge number of people publishing strips. Often the content is poor. You won’t ‘get’ it if you weren’t out drinking with the cartoonist and his friends the night before. Other webstrips cater to extremely specific readers, such as  “If you don’t know anything about video games, you’ll be mystified by the strip,” he says. 

“There is a stunning amount of good work out there. There are quite a few brilliant child-friendly comics.  More kids are reading comics on the Web. Half of them are newspaper strips in syndication — the traditional old newspaper strips like Calvin and Hobbes, which is being run again and again on the Web. That’s where kids go now to read Calvin and Hobbes.  My browser opens all the comics I want to read each day in tabs. I don’t read them in the newspaper any more.

“I decided some while back that the Web would be an ideal way for me to do an old fashioned serial strip.  It’s an inexpensive way to put work out there and a much easier way to get in front of somebody. With the Web and the 2.0 social networking, everyone’s sharing things, pointing their discoveries out to each other.  It’s a new milleu. It’s an old art form, but a different way of delivering it.

Some cartoonists endeavor to make an income from their sites. “The business model is web advertising, or accepting donations or sale of merchandize, such as T-shirts, mugs or print versions of their work. Others are willing to do it for free,  for the artistic expression or to have an online portfolio or as just another way of posting,” Erik says. “It’s an interesting way to get people to your site. ”

 February panel of \

 He begins by writing a synopsis of what’s going to happen in the chapter, without the dialogue.

“With a serial strip, just like in the Sunday funny papers, you kind of need to have a stop every day. You want each page of the comic to be a beat  Each one has to be a sort of mini cliff hanger. And each chapter must have its own arc. That’s the other thing I work with to get right.”

Then he sketches in the panel and the individual frames. Once upon a time it was pencil on paper. “But now I’m working directly on the computer, starting with rough sketches in Corel Painter using my Wacom Cintiq tablet monitor,” he says. “To be more precise,  I use Painter’s Mechanical Pencil brush set to a light blue color.”

“They look a lot like my traditional sketches look, since I use a col-erase blue to do my roughs on paper,” he says.  “I’m most of the way done with this roughing, I have some poses to adjust, some faces to finish and I’ve got to fix the perspective on the backgrounds, which are currently just scribbled in.  Oh, and I need a background in the final panel. Painter has a perspective grid,  which is useful for simple 2-point perspective, so I’ll be using that to get the kitchen sorted properly.”



Erik’s ‘pencil rough’ for the March 13 panel of “Hex Libris”, except he’s done it digitally, using the “mechanical pencil” brush  (set to blue) in Corel Painter.  

“I stay with Painter through the inking process. Then I bring the whole thing into Illustrator to do the lettering. Once in a while when I’m out and about with my sketchbook, I capture a pose I want to use and scan that in and mix it in with my computer sketches.

“When I ink, I use a variety of Painter’s Ink Pen brushes — mostly the Smooth Round Pen one. For the next one, I’m going to experiment with the tools that more closely imitate traditional comics inking brushes. It’ll be looser and I am not certain whether I’ll like it. I’ll know in a day or two when I get to the inking.”


Erik incorporates a slight shading  – a barely perceptible yellow layer — behind his “inked” panels.  The off-white tinge “warms up” the strip and maybe subconsciously evokes the nostalgia of newsprint, Erik believes. “That kind of pulls it together for me,” he says.

He imbeds his URL on the bottom left and his copyright information on the bottom right. 

Erik and his wife, writer-actress-comedian Maggie Gallant own 2 Bad Mice Design in Austin, Texas. He teaches classes (for children and adults) in animation, digital art and digital cartooning at the Austin Museum of Art Art School.  The “Hex Libris” webcomic can be found at

Mark Mitchell writes for How to be a Children’s Book Illustrator and The Admiral’s Blog    An award-winning author illustrator, he also teaches classes (for adults) in children’s book illustration at the Austin Museum of Art Art School. 


Illustrators’ round-up

Gustaf Tenggren “Tell It Again Book” illustration
 Swedish folk art-inspired? From “Gustaf Tenggren’s Tell It Again Book” courtesy of ASIFA- Hollywood Animation Archive

Now that we’ve got the elephant in the room (the year’s Caldecott winner) out of the way,  we can talk of other children’s illustration news.

School Library Journal serves up coverage of the National Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) 2007 Golden Kite Award winners and runners-ups, as does SCBWI’s own  website

“Little Night” by Yuyi Morales  Little Night, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales,   published by Roaring Book Press – Holtzbrinck (designed by Jennifer Browne) won the Golden Kite Award for best picture book illustration.  
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April’s The Artist’s Magazine  (F+W Publications) features an interview with Jan Brett (33 million books in print and still going strong.)

Funny, I was reading The Mitten to my three year old-granddaughter just the other night and we were both enjoying this book very much.

Brett’s only formal art training came from museum art classes when she was young.

She works with a very dry (watercolor) brush technique, “almost like a colored pencil,” she tells interviewer Paula Theotocus.  

Loved as much by booksellers and librarians as by children, she  travels the world  researching the locales of the stories she works on, accompanied by her husband, Joe Hearne, who is also her business manager and webmaster.   
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In recent weeks Cynsations, the blog of teen and children’s author Cynthia Leitich-Smith has featured interviews with children’s books folks in anticipation of this month’s SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008

And it has not neglected the art end of the industry, with interviews by guest writer Anita Loughrey  of Caldecott winning illustrator Paul O Zelinksy, French comic author-illustrator Emmanuel Guibert  and Harper Collins executive art director Martha Rago.

For Loughrey’s question, “What makes an artists illustrations stand out for you?” Rago had an interesting answer:

“I would not underestimate technical skills, which are very, very important: anatomy, composition, and perspective, good use of color and line, and effective use of materials,” she said.

“But I am always looking for someone who has not just the technical skills but a distinct individual style, a clear voice and images that suggest narrative through context,emotional tone, and the way they relate sequentially.”  It’s not often you get to peek inside the mind of an art director at a major children’s publishing house. Read the full interview with Martha Rago here.

Rago, Zelinsky and Guiberty are among  the 31 scheduled to speak at the conference set for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy.
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Speaking of SCBWI, the Austin chapters of SCBWI has been preparing for its Spring conference “Write in the Heart of Texas”  on Saturday April 26 at the University of Texas Club. 

The line-up of expected prestenters and critiquers includes artists agent Christina Tugeau , along with Deborah Wayshak, editor at Candlewick Press, Alvina Ling, editor of Little, Brown and Co. and artist-illustrator Christy Stallop and other special guests.  
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Tenggren’s “Rapunzel”

Courtesy of the ASIFA – Hollywood Animation Archives

Check out the March 11 post: Illustration: The Genesis of the Golden Book Style  in the Animation Archive website. The Archive is part of ASIFA-Hollywood, which is part of the International Society of Film Animation. 

The post,  by the society’s director Stephen Worth, focuses on the towering (see above, pun intended) work of Gustaf Tenggren.

The Seven Dwarfs from Disney’s “Snow White”
Hey, who are these guys?

I stared, mouth open at the work of this Swedish born artist who had worked on the Disney classics Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi,  before storming off to basically create the look and feel of the Little Western Golden Books of  the 1950s. 

Reading Worth’s insights and devouring his digital feast of Tenggren images, I realized that I already knew these.

 Pokey Little Puppy  Poky Little Puppy, which launched Golden Books. Yep, Tenggren’s art illuminated Janette Sebring Lowrey’s text.

Tenggren’s “Sleeping Beauty” 
Courtesy of the ASIFA – Hollywood Animation Archives

I never had any idea of who Tenggren was but, clearly, his images have never left me.  They must have been everywhere in my childhood and somehow imbedded themselves in the deep recesses of my psychic tissue. 

This made me think of a storybook that stayed on a shelf  in my little brother’s room. Everytime I opened the book its illustrations cast a spell on me.  Hmmm. The style was like Tenggrens!

Could it be? I Google-searched the title that I remembered for it, Pirate Ships and Sailors  (I was never able to forget that either.) Up popped a certain Golden Book by that name, written by Byron Jackson with Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Gustaff Tenggren – 1950!

I always remembered that Pirate Ships and Sailors  was not your ordinary pirate book. 

Now I know that it was because of Tenggren’s hypnotic artwork — sweetly beautiful and hauntingly disturbing at the same time.  Great for the Grimm bros, right? In fact Tenggren was the ultimate Grimm’s tales illustrator.

Clearly, his pirate pictures had traumatized me at some level.  I remember one in particular of some emaciated old sailors chained up in a dungeon.

Steve Worth discusses in his post how Swedish folk art probably influenced Tenggren, particularly  in the golden Golden Book days, when he often placed his figures in silouhette-like vignettes against the blank background of the page — perhaps to save labor and time. But it sure made for effective design (as it did for those Swedish arts & crafts folks of earlier generations.)

The ASIF -Hollywood Animation Archive features vast stores of images and scholarship on Tenggren and hundreds of other illustrators, animators and cartoonists. It also makes available courses and tutotials, such as the Preston Blair animation course.
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Speaking of cartoonists The Boston Globe ran a review by Daniel Akst of a new book about comic books, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, By David Hajdu (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) “My mother didn’t like it, but the children’s books of the time were thin gruel if you were accustomed to the thrilling life-and-death adventures of Spiderman, Batman and Robin, and the Fantastic Four,” Akst writes.

“A key thing to bear in mind about all this is that the primary market was children. And in those days comics weren’t just about superheroes fighting injustice. Two of the most popular genres were horror and crime…” 

Hajdu’s book brings home how “New York was the epicenter of this [comic books] creative ferment, just as it was for painting, baseball, and musical theater,” Akst says.

“Everyone knows about Jackson Pollock, Jackie Robinson, and ‘Guys and Dolls,’ but few appreciate the role comics played in American culture. In those days the industry put out perhaps 100 million copies a week, each of them passed among several readers. Producing this colorful weekly avalanche required a small army of artists, writers, letterers, and others who grew out of the Depression and leapt at the chance to work at the intersection of art and commerce.” See Akst’s review.
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Mark Mitchell writes for the new webzine How to Be a Children’s Book Illustrator. He is the author-illustrator of the nonfiction children’s book Raising La Belle, which has a few pirates in it.  You can download it for free right  here.

Can you find the missing pencil? Mary Sullivan paints with a wacky Wacom

Teacher in class for “Highlights for Children” by Mary Sullivan
from “Hidden Picture Playground” (“Highlights for Children” magazine)

There are a few things you should know about illustrator Mary Sullivan.

She is a yoga instructor.

She has a dog named Scout and cats named Rasta and The Cheat who often keep her company in her studio when she’s working.

She draws all the time.

She’s not driven to draw, she says. She just likes to draw.
But — and this is important — she does not much like to paint. Not with a real brush, I mean.

She does paint with the brush tool,  in Photoshop, on the computer.

That speeds things up a bit. And it’s a good thing because in recent years
her workload has grown and grown and grown  — to include hidden pictures, puzzles, stories, poems, nursery rhymes, books, covers,  cartoons and even kids’ comics — for the Highlights Magazine GroupBoyds Mills Press, Phonics Comics, School Zone Publishing, Scott Foresman Co. and other clients.  Last year she was signed up by the Kid Shannon Agency of New York, which means that her assignments won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Scene from ____________ needs description by Mary Sullivan
From “Innovative Kids”

Mary graduated with a B.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. As a child she had dreamed of being a fine-arts painter maybe one day.  But early in her college career she was told point blank that she was not a painter. She was an illustrator.

She was devastated– then relieved, because she was already starting to see that she did not care that much for applying pigment to canvases.

Many years later she brought her art-making into the world of the Apple computer, and became one of the pioneers in the digital-resistant-world of children’s story illustration.

She still draws with a pencil and paper. She uses an old fashioned light box to trace her sketches, like the children’s book illustrators of yore.  But when it comes to coloring those sketches and “completing her vision” Mary is all about the electrons.

With Photoshop CS2 and a Wacom Graphics Tablet she has forged her own, unique… —  actually it has moved beyond a style to a kind of personal grammar and syntax, her own freakin’ universe, really, that she creates with a very few software tools.

A few weeks ago she conceeded to being interviewed while she was on a white-knuckles deadline and really should not have been taking to anyone.

First here’s Mary’s artist’s mission statement from her website.

“I am excited by the ability to bring to paper any thought, dream or experience. Drawing allows me to translate emotions and experiences through my own language of line, shape and color.”

Mary Sullivan works on her initial drawing (on a cold day.)
Mary working at her home studio on a cold Texas day.

So you have classical music playing in your studio right now…

The radio. I always have something on when I’m working. The music depends on the mood.

How did you become a children’s book illustrator?

Mostly I just drew all my life. I was a studio art major. But I didn’t take commercial art in school. I’m  really a self-taught illustrator.  I had Michael Frary for life drawing. Life drawing was a big deal and painting was a big deal. It was really cliquish in the Art Department at the University of Texas back then and I didn’t fit into that whole painting scene. I took as much life drawing as I could take and lithography. I think really at heart I was an illustrator. And I think there’s a big difference between a fine artist and an illustrator.

Because I sit around and wait for people to tell me what to draw. And artists don’t do that. They have things they want to say. They had an illustration sequence at U.T. But I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I wanted to be a painter. I wanted to be in the fine arts and have the passion. But one day when I was in college I took I my best work to a collector. I must have been like 19 or 20. And he really liked my work, but he said ‘You’re an illustrator. You’re not a fine artist.’

I was absolutely crushed.

What made him say that?

Well it was my art. My art was very representational. There were some pen and inks of some women in Bali and it was all very detailed. And so he saw right away. But eventually it emerged and I accepted it.

I finished my BFA. It was really hard and it took me forever, but I did. And I had some shows. I have a pile of fine art. I still do it but I don’t have a drive to do it.

Rat outside in the rain Mary Sullivan illustration
From “Banjo”, Mary’s story about a homeless dog
You have a drive to draw.

I have a drive to cook. I don’t have a drive to do anything.  

Everytime I see you you have your sketch open and your working in it. You’re one of the few people I know who really draw in their sketchbook.

I do. And I really don’t want to have to use the computer. But you have to.

So what happened after school? 

I came home and put everything on hold and raised my kids. And of course I was inspired by them the whole time. I would draw for them. I would make them worksheets. ‘Mommy, make me a coloring page.’ ‘Make me a hidden picture.’  Even back then I did  a hidden picture — I don’t know how many years ago — 20 years ago? — pretending that I was a Highlights hidden picture artist. I still have it somewhere.

What got me to be an illustrator was I made some cards for someone once. And I ended up having my own card business. People would give me a list of everything they wanted on the card and I would draw a picture from the list. And I did that for a long time. Ten years. So that was how I got my practice. Not just doing the cards.  But getting the list from the customer and translating it into a drawing.

I got written up in a book and a magazine, about my card business.  These were birth announcement cards. I was busy. They were all hand made, hand painted. I got started in ’89 before there were any computers. I mean I had a computer but I wasn’t using it for my art. I look back and I think they’re really corny. I mean they’re really funny. I look back and I think ‘Oh my God.’ Interspersed with cards I did logos and brochures and posters for people. I was all over the place.

So then after about 2000 I decided that was it, as far as being all over the place. I knew I needed to hone in on one thing. And I decided to do children’s  illustration. So I sat down and did a bunch of self-promo pieces and mailed them off and I got a job working for Highlights. 

Right out of the chute…

Which is crazy. Yeah. Right out of…the blue.

Why did you focus on children’s art?

Well I don’t know if it had something to do with doing birth announcements all of the time. I was drawing kids all of the time. So I think that’s why I did that, probably.

I sent to Highlights, Cricket…Not that many people. I think I went to BookPeople, the book store and looked at what children’s magazines there were and sent to a couple of them. I made little cards. I drew some things. I didn’t know what I was doing really. I was just drawing stuff and I thought, ‘Wow, that looks good. I’ll send that.’

What did “Highlights” tell you?

That they liked my stuff and wanted to keep it on file. And then they called me.

How soon? Soon. It was crazy. I wasn’t even prepared. Because I was trying to make a transition to the computer but I was still drawing and painting traditionally. So my first job for them was traditional. But I scanned it in, so I was able to send them a digital file. It was an illustration for one of their stories in the magazine, Highlights for Children.

Mary Sullivan draws on a warmer day.
 Working on a slightly warmer day…

They have so many magazines I work for. I don’t so often draw for the magazine now. I have. But mostly I draw for the other magazines they have. There’s Highlights. That’s for older kids. Then there’s Hidden Pictures Playground for a little younger age. Then there’s  High Five, which is like for three year olds and four year olds. That’s their new magazine. Then they have sticker books and hidden picture books.

There are a couple of art directors that I work with. There are probably three or four at Highlights.

I was really scared. But they loved it. And I went to Highlights after that to a conference. And they were all like so happy to meet me. And I thought, ‘What is this — some kind of fantasy world?’ It was really surreal. I had just gotten into it and I didn’t know what I was doing. They were so nice. Then after that I got a book deal for Boyds Mills Press, which Highlights publishes. That’s their book division.

From “High Five” magazine (a “Highlights” magazine)

Book illustration is not at all what I expected. I got the job and started on it and I thought an art director was going to be saying, ‘No, this really should go here and this goes here, Move this. Do that…’ You know?  But he pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. He didn’t make any comments. I designed the cover and got to lay out where the text goes and drew everything. I did everything. And they did everything that I said to do. I did it just for fun, you know? And they said, ‘Okay.’

I had a big bowl and cut up little pieces of paper and wrote the page numbers on them. So I would reach into the bowl and whatever page number I pulled out, I would go to work on that page. Because you don’t want to draw the first page first.

Where did you hear that?

I made it up. You don’t always get into the groove of it unitl you’re into the first few drawings. You don’t want to see that progression in the book. And it’s really subtle. Some people might not notice it. But I notice it. And I would rather that first drawing was in the middle of the book. And the second drawing was maybe at the end. It works really well with me. And I always do it.

Except I forgot to do that on this book I’m working on now and I’m so mad. Because I just started with the first book out of five books I’m doing for this contract for Scott Foresman, Co.  I’m really tempted to redo the whole first book at the end of the five books. I don’t know if I will or not. I have to work so fast. You have to work so fast for these people. There are 35 illustrations in each book and I’ve had less than a month to do each one. So I’m basically doing two illustrations a day nonstop.

Highlights Magazines with Mary S. covers 

They’re due Sunday. Actually this one has turned out really cute. I had to draw cars and I hate drawing cars. But it’s not too bad. But look how complicated it is. I had to make them getting in the car and have mom getting the dog. And over here he’s telling the dog, ‘No.’ I had to get all that into the drawing.

This is what I do. I draw the sketch I scan it and send it to the publisher. So this is the sketch I sent to the publisher. They approved it. So I used my light box and traced this original pencil sketch on this nice paper.

You made another pencil drawing?

A tracing.

Why nice paper?

Because I like nice paper. I wouldn’t draw on anything else. I really like these more sketchy things — the roughs that I do first. But you must remember these pictures are for little kids and everything has to be really clear. You can’t have weird lines.

Editor’s note: Mary will scan this second, more finished pencil sketch and open it up as a file in Photoshop. With some rapid keystrokes  (involving ‘load selection’ and ‘edit fill’ on the Photoshop menu) she’ll copy and paste the lines of her sketch on to a “new layer.” She’ll  enlarges her sketch until she can almost see the carbon flecks left by her pencil point. “The lines are really sloppy but when I get them in the computer, I clean them up and erase some of them,” she says. Though she may ‘clean them up,’ she leaves her original grainy pencil lines in the illustration. She does not “fill in” her lines to create the smooth solid outline that you often see in cartoons and comic book art —  because she does not want her picture to look like it was drawn with a software program, which it wasn’t.   When she gets her drawing just the way she likes it on her monitor, she uses the Photoshop “paint bucket tool” to turn the entire layer yellow.

Oil painters like to scumble their canvases with burnt sienna, unifying their picture 
in one giant midtone — before they pick out their lights with turpentine and a rag and move in with dark paints to paint the deep shadows. This is what Mary does, but instead of turpentine and a cloth, she uses Photoshop’s ‘eraser tool’ to remove the transparent yellow glaze in strategic spots.  She erases the yellow to bring out the whites of her picture: a character’s eyes, or clouds in the sky or a button on a sweater. The revealed white is actually the white background behind her first layer.  With the stylus that comes with her Wacom Graphics Tablet and Photoshop’s “brush tool” she then applies the muted pastel colors she likes in a series of transparent ‘new layers.’ Last she adds the shadows, with the Photoshop “brush tool,” applying her “shadow color” in a 30 percent opacity. In fact she tries to avoid the the Photoshop “fill tool” generally because she wants her work to look hand-painted, so she can feel like one of those ‘fine-arts painters’ she wanted to be but was told she wasn’t and then decided she wasn’t.

Mary Sullivan Comic Book for “Phonics Comix”
Phonics Comics presents “Clara the Klutz“.  Mary uses an assortment of tricks she’s either invented or taught herself  to “paint” her pictures in Photoshop.

Except for cleaning up your lines a little when you retrace, you don’t re-work your sketches a lot.  You seem to just be able to draw out of your head.

For some reason I’m able to see things on the paper, then I’m able to draw them. I don’t know if it’s photographic memory or because I practice and draw all the time but I can just remember. I can close my eyes and see a hand positon and I can draw it.I’ve drawn all the time. I remember drawing in high school. When the teacher was talking, I’d be drawing feet and hands.I always noticed when other illustrators hid the hands or didn’t draw them too well.It does help being able to draw from my head. I can’t imagine having to look everything up. That would be a pain.

A lot of times I’ll sketch the feeling I want. Then I’ll fill in the details. Like I kind of want this person to be leaning over. I’ll kind of do it in my head, and I’ll draw a line and say, ‘Yes, that’s how I want him leaning over.’ And then I’ll fill it out. It’s like a gesture drawing. Remember that in life drawing? Yeah, I used to love that. I did a lot of it. That’s where you get the feeling of the pose.

For the BFA in college I took the maximum class number of hours in drawing. I wasn’t that good with faces and the small details. I was very good with the body.

Well, there’s something about the way you get the whole thing down and the viewer accepts it and doesn’t question your figures at all.

I feel really fortunate to have that. Editors and art directors like that. And you can tell a drawing that’s very strained.

Mary trying to draw
 Mary trying to draw

Will you talk just a little bit about the computer?

For working on the computer and color, I had to practive a lot to try to find my voice. That sounds really corny, I know, to say ‘find my voice.’  But I really had to find myself on the computer. I could do what other people did. But what was I? I mean that’s a good starting point, to look at what other people do and do that.

You know, you’re unique in your painterly working ways. 

I have a book on paintings of the old masters and one of them — I can’t remember his name — but he always started with a yellow canvas. He’d always paint yellow first over everything. I don’t know what the name of the yellow was but it was some kind of yellow or ochre and I saw that and thought, ‘Hey, I do that.’

I almost never start with a white page. I lay in the midtone and take away for the lights.

Here’s the duck. It’s going to be white. Shadows don’t come until the very end. The shoes will be white. The rocks will be grey but they won’t be white. And then I start with the color. My first layer is this color right here. Then this color comes on top of this color. It’s really complicated what I do. There turns out to be maybe ten layers of color. And at the end, the last layer I do is the shadow layer.

I tend to go with really light, muted colors, more sophisiticated colors. And they always want you to do bright…And I fight that all the way until the very end, when they will not give in. I don’t like the bright primary colors. They really bother me. But once I merge them,  all the color layers together, I ramp up the red so that it gives more of a warmth. It basically turns the black [of the pencil line] to more of a different color.

If you zoom in for a close-up to look at the line, it’s like trashy — broken and sketchy looking, but I really like that. Because that’s how it is in real life. If you were to do a painting, you wouldn’t do it pixel by pixel. I don’t want this to be clean. It looks softer like this. You can see the original pencil sketch lines and where the first transparent yellow has been left in patches.  It looks better. It doesn’t really show up that much in the picture but it gives a feeling of looking less computery.  A lot of people use the fill tool to color their illustrations. But I use the brush tool.

How did you learn to do this in Photoshop?

A friend of mine that I met, a graphic artist was so supportive and he was like a big brother.  He came over to my apartment and put Photoshop in my computer and I said, ‘I don’t know how to use it,’ and he said, ‘ You’ll figure it out.’ And I did. I went through every button on Photoshop and figured it out myself. I get everything I need from it. There’s all kinds of other stuff that I never use.

Mary Sullivan at her computer
Mary Sullivan, who doesn’t like to paint. 

Mary’s sites:
her artists’ blog
her agent’s site (look Mary up here)

Mark Mitchell, the writer of this article actually knows Mary Sullivan.
His site is

Drawing Mythbusters

“Remember those happy dreams…” 

Illustrations and mini-lesson by Theresa Bayer

Myth #1 –  Some people are just naturally born knowing how to draw, and the rest of us unfortunates will never, ever, ever be able to draw.

Drawing is like music and sports. It takes training and practice.

Sure, there are some people born with a knack for drawing. But the truth is that drawing is a learned skill, and that anyone who really wants to–and believes they can– can learn it. Think of Olympic athletes. They are born with coordination and strength, but to make the most of their abilities, to win the gold medal, they find the best coach they can afford, they get years of training, and they practice daily.

The same is true of great artists–they were trained in figure drawing, in perspective, proportion, and composition. And they practiced. As the renowned painter of ancient Greece Apelles said, “Never a day without a line.” 


Myth #2 – I don’t need a drawing class. I just want to learn how to paint.

If you are in a big hurry to learn how to paint, here’s a hot tip. Take a few drawing classes first.
This is because you will need to know where on your canvas to put the paint. Knowing how to get the head the right size, how to foreshorten, how to apply perspective, how to get the whole figure on the page, how to arrange all the elements of a still life into a pleasing composition, how to shape tree branches so that your tree looks like a live oak instead of a willow, and how not to get lost inside the intricate petals of a rose–all these things are basic drawing skills.

Once you know drawing basics, painting is a lot easier to learn.



“John” Sketch by Theresa Bayer

Myth #3 – The more detailed it is, the more realistic it will look.

Realism is based on structure, not on detail. For instance, the average adult body proportion is 7 1/2 heads high, and the average human hand is 3/4 the length of the face (these facts are available in any figure drawing class, or in any figure anatomy book).

If you get the head too big and the hands too small your figure will not look realistic no matter how beautifully you portray the details of eyelashes, knuckles, fingernails, or philtrum. Furthermore, you can never really get all the details down.

Think of a single leaf. It is more complex than you can ever draw. You could never get every single vein, every single chloroplast, every cell, every molecule. And you wouldn’t need to. Drawing is an illusion. You learn the basic structure of a thing, you put that structure on the paper, and OK, a few select details, and presto! You end up with an arrangement of shapes and lines and darks and lights that look like a leaf, or a face, or a still life arrangement.


“Monday A.M. Grackle”Watercolor by Theresa Bayer


mayfieldparkautumn2.jpg “Mayfield Park – Autumn”  Watercolor by Theresa Bayer



“Moon dove” by Theresa Bayer Theresa Bayer is a professional artist in Austin, Texas who is at home in her medium whether she is doing watercolors, acrylics, sketches, sculpture, caricatures and ceramic art. She received her B.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. See more samples of her work at her website and her three blogs — her fine arts blog:, her fun art blog:  and her watercolors blog: 

theresa.jpgTheresa follows her own advice, by the way. She is never without a sketchbook and she rarely passes on an opportunity to pull out her paints for an impromptu plein-air painting session. If you ever get a chance to take a drawing class that she occasionally offers in the Austin area, jump on it!



“Spring Moon” Watercolor by Theresa Bayer

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