Introducing the Cuddlefish Academy!

What happens when you get four college professors/children’s book illustrators together who believe in education but worry about the future of higher ed accessibility? Well, you get an online school for kidlitart and childrens book illustration!!

Check out The Cuddlefish Academy on Teachable where we have officially launched with lectures and classes… with more on the horizon!

All four of us are working professional authors and illustrators with time spent teaching at a higher ed level. We know what its like to be a working professional creative AND we know what its like to hands-on teach in the classroom and get students ready to launch their illustration careers. We also have combined experience in sales, the animation industry, fine arts, and more. This dynamic combination will help you get your portfolio ready and help your professional development to get you working!

Something else that I find exciting about our shared experience is that we all live and work out of Colorado. We aren’t working in big coastal cities… and yet we are here with experience to show you how you can do this too.

We are really excited about what we are doing and what’s to come. Kaz Windness, Heather Brockman Lee, Stan Yan, and I are all passionate about education and access to information. This is just the start of more to come!

Check out more of our posts and work at @cuddlefishacademy on Instagram. Sign up for emails on our website so you can stay in the loop for the future!

Kidlit Portfolio Bingo!

A couple of weeks back, I shared my Kidlit Career Bingo sheet as a way of celebrating milestones in my kidlit illustration career, but another bingo sheet I created before was my Kidlit Portfolio Bingo sheet, which was built based largely on advice of Kelly Sonnack, literary agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, at the 2018 RMC-SCBWI Big Sur Agent Workshop for Illustrators — things she considered to be timeless in picture books — with a sprinkling of things I wanted to make sure not to miss having in my portfolio that I considered strengths or interests.

Each cell included an element or setting, and on a trip to the Las Vegas Licensing Expo, and with the time I had in my hotel room, instead of trying to connect rows, I proceeded to try doing a blackout, and this ended up being the start of my kidlit art portfolio. Certainly, it’s evolved from here as I’ve discovered my artistic voice more clearly, and figured out what kinds of books I want to write and illustrate. You can see where it is now here.

If you’d like a blank template to create your own, feel free to use this one:

Enjoy playing, and good luck on your journey!

Stan Yan

Twitter: @zombicatures

Instagram: @zombicatures


Kidlit Career Bingo

A long time ago when I started this long publishing journey, a bunch of my Cuddlefish Gang critique partners and I decided to make these Kidlit Career Bingo sheets to set goals and track our progress as a motivational device as seen here on this TikTok video:


Publishing is a long journey. How do you celebrate milestones and set goals? This is how professor @Stan Yan does it! #kidlitart #kidlitillustrator #kidlitartist #childrensbookart #querying

♬ Celebration – Kool & The Gang

Per request, I’m posting my complete visible bingo sheet here so you can see what each of my squares says:

Also, if you’d like to make your own customizable bingo sheet, here’s a blank one you can use as a template:

Enjoy playing, and good luck on your journey!

Stan Yan

Twitter: @zombicatures

Instagram: @zombicatures


Making a Picture Book – A Poem Grows Inside You

A Poem Grows Inside You, written by Katey Howes, Published by The Innovation Press and illustrated by me!

Hello friends! It has been a while since my last post, mostly because I spent the last year saying “Yes!” to every opportunity that came my way, and while it was a fantastic year of learning and growing, one of the most important lessons I learned is that I actually can’t do everything… who knew? (Ok lots of people knew that) But that isn’t what I want to talk about today. In this post I want to share my experience illustrating this beautiful manuscript by Katey Howes!

Every book has a story, the story that happens before the story. Actually several stories because everyone involved in making a book has their own story for how they came to be part of it. My story for this book begins with— it was the first time a traditional publisher offered me a picture book to illustrate. This was HUGE! Something I had been working towards for a few years, and the theme and manuscript and publisher were all so appealing to me, I could not have been happier. Some of you might notice that this is actually the second book I have illustrated, and that is because publishing can be like that but also largely because of the pandemic. I got the offer for A Poem Grows Inside You in March of 2020… yup. I remember standing outside the elementary school while my dog and I waited to walk my daughter home from school, I had just gotten off the phone with my agent, and looking forward to spring break with my kids…. which ended up lasting a year and a half. Because of those Uncertain Times, (remember when every sentence started with “In these uncertain times”?) The Innovation Press decided to delay the book for a year, which made perfect sense as absolutely no one knew what was coming at us.

It was hard to wait, but also everything was hard and I was very busy doing things like buying too much spaghetti squash because what if the stores ran out of spaghetti squash. And it gave me a long time to think, and to experiment with different mediums. And without that time I doubt I would have discovered the process I used for this book.

This is an early style guide I made once I decided on a medium, to show the publisher the technique I had in mind and the character design. We made a few tweaks, including the color of the raincoat.

For me, everything starts with thumbnails. This is probably the hardest part of the process for me- lots of talking to myself and tugging on my hair and making cups of tea I never finish. But once they are done, I feel like I have a roadmap to follow. I get lost really easily so I love maps.

Now for that technique I mentioned. I really don’t know if I would have discovered this without the pandemic keeping us all at home and giving me so much time to experiment. I would trade not knowing this for COVID never having happened but, here we are. It starts with sanded paper- the kind usually used for pastels. I am not a pastel artist so I can’t even remember where I got it. It’s literally sand paper, very fine white sand glued to a paper backing. When I painted on it with acrylic gouache, it would behave like watercolor or gouache depending on how much water I added, and going over that with colored pencils created a rich, bold line and a texture I fell in love with.

Some books start with the cover, and with others the cover comes last. It all depends on the publisher and their marketing schedules. This book came cover first, and I decided to paint the background and character separately so things could be tweaked and nudged in photoshop. I have done this for all my book covers so far- you really get the benefit and security of working in layers while still using traditional media.

Here are a few more process images. I really loved painting this book, Katey’s words are just wonderful and I would find her phrases repeating in my head as I painted various spreads. And the Innovation Press has been such a fantastic publisher to work with, with great taste in books I might add! I hope you will all enjoy reading and sharing it with children as much as I did illustrating it!

If you have any other comments or questions feel free to drop a comment below! Thanks for hanging out with me 🙂

Heather Brockman Lee


Twitter: @heatherbl

Instagram: @heatherbrockmanlee

Good News: October 2022

Larry Day:

Congratulations to Larry Day on getting two paintings into the Plein Air Artists of Colorado 25th Annual National juried exhibition at the Mary Williams Fine Arts Gallery in Boulder and one into the 2022 Colorado People, Places, and Things juried exhibition to be hosted by the Gilpin Art Gallery in Central City, CO.

Lily Williams:

Congratulations to Lily Williams on signing with Susan Hawk at Upstart Crow Literary!

Gerald Kelley / E.G. Keller:

Congratulations to Gerald Kelley on getting a starred review for MURRAY CHRISTMAS from the School Library Journal!

Happy book birthday to WHEN YOUR DADDY’S A SOLDIER by Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan, illustrated by Gerald!

Kaz Windness:

Congratulations to Kaz Windness on SWIM JIM being accepted into the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show, showcasing the best in this year’s children’s book illustration.

And congratulations to Kaz on CAT VS. VAC being acquired by Simon Spotlight!

Congratulations to Kaz on her upcoming early graphic novel WORM AND CATERPILLAR ARE FRIENDS being named a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection!

Speaking of WORM AND CATERPILLAR ARE FRIENDS… Kirkus Star Review!!!

Kaz also did her cover reveal for BITSY BAT SCHOOL STAR!

Jessica Lanan:

Congratulations to Jessica Lanan on signing a deal to illustrate EVERYWHERE by Scott Westerfeld for Roaring Brook!

And, congratulations to Jessica who illustrated THE LOST PACKAGE which was nominated for the 2022-23 Red Clover Book Award!

Anden Wilder:

Congratulations to Anden Wilder on being the grand prize winner of the juried portfolio contest at the RMC-SCBWI’s 2022 Letters and Lines Conference!

And, congratulations to Anden on her picture book, TULIP’S MESS being acquired by Knopf.

Dow Phumiruk:

Happy Book Birthday to Dow Phumiruk, who illustrated A LIFE OF SERVICE: THE STORY OF SENATOR TAMMY DUCKWORTH by Christina Soontornvat!

Dow also revealed the cover art for LAST FLIGHT by Kristen Mai Giang.

Jane Maday:

Congratulations to Jane Maday who is now an Ambassador for the Archer and Olive company!

Good News: July 2022

Bringing you good news from the last quarter from our Cuddlefish Gang members!

Lily Williams:

Kaz Windness:

Dow Phumiruk:

Happy Book Birthday to New York Times bestselling author Kelly Yang’s debut picture book, YES WE WILL!! A great book to learn about accomplished Asian Americans in our country, illustrated by 15 different Asian American artists, including Dow! See her art in this book at the 1:36 mark of Kelly’s Good Morning America segment!

Heather Brockman Lee:

Stan Yan:

Congratulations to Stan on winning the SCBWI Florida Conference’s Portfolio Excellence Award grand prize!

Jessica Lanan:

Congratulations to Jessica for winning Best in Show for the Boulder Plein Air Festival!

Anden Wilder:

Don’t miss Anden Wilder’s art hanging at the Wandering Jellyfish through July.

Cuddlefish Academy on TikTok

In case you weren’t already aware, the Cuddlefish Gang has an educational presence on TikTok via our Cuddlefish Academy account. Here are some highlight posts from our various participating faculty so far:

Kaz Windness

How do I pick an art school if I want to be a professional artist? Cuddlefish Professor @Lily Williams here to answer the basics for you! 🎨#artschool #artistsoftiktok #illustrator

♬ original sound – The Cuddlefish Academy
Lily Williams
Dustin Resch
Stan Yan

Is this a hint of something to come? Perhaps! Stay tuned to find out!

Good News: April 2022

Lots of great news by our members to share from this past quarter!

Congratulations to our own Brizida Magro on winning the SCBWI portfolio showcase!

And congratulations to Brizida for signing with HarperCollins to illustrate POCKETS FOR TWO: A COLLECTION OF GIRLHOOD by Lindsay Ward.

Speaking of winning the SCBWI portfolio showcase, check out last Summer’s winner, Heather Brockman Lee‘s art, gracing the cover of the 2022 SCBWI The Book!

Also happy book birthday to Heather for HATTIE HATES HUGS! You can watch her book trailer here.

Meanwhile, Heather’s next book, A POEM GROWS INSIDE YOU by Hatey Howes has unveiled its beautiful cover and is officially available for preorder.

Finally, our congratulations to Heather for signing with Little Simon to illustrate SHE IS MAMA by Mackensie Porter.

Well, the Cuddlefish Gang has officially been banned. GO WITH THE FLOW by Lily Williams and Karen Shneemann was banned. Read about out how Lily feels about that.

Join Lily for her upcoming book release party at Second Star to the Right books on June 28th for IF TIGERS DISAPPEARED.

And behold Lily’s latest cover reveal for the upcoming book, IS IT OKAY TO PEE IN THE OCEAN by Ella Schwartz.

Congratulations to Kaz Windness for signing with Page Street Kids to illustrate OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA by Andrew Hacket.

See Kaz’s read along book trailer for her upcoming debut, SWIM JIM! and check out her first review in Publisher’s Weekly:

and listen to Kaz’s interview in the You May Contribute a Verse podcast

Congratulations to our own Gerald Kelley / EG Keller for winning the Northern Lights Award for the Environmental Category for LOBSTAH GARDEN!

And Gerald’s latest books, MURRAY CHRISTMAS, and WHEN YOUR DADDY’S A SOLDIER, is now available for preorder!

Congratulations to THE LOST PACKAGE, by Richard Ho, illustrated by Jessica Lanan for being named an ALA Notable Book of 2022, and its nomination for the Red Clover Award!

Also, congratulations to Jessica for signing with Knopf to illustrate THANK YOU, MOON by Melissa Stewart!

AN EQUAL SHOT, by Helaine Becker and illustrated by Dow Phumiruk was chosen as a 2022 Notable Social Studies Trade Books List, a joint project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council.

Also, congratulations to Dow for HUGSBY being named a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards!

Happy book birthday to HER NAME WAS MARY KATHERINE by Ella Schwartz, illustrated by Dow!

Dow’s illustrations can also be seen in the upcoming book by Kelly Yang, YES WE WILL: ASIAN AMERICANS WHO SHAPED THIS COUNTRY.

Listen to Dow on Grace Lin’s Kids Ask Author’s Podcast.

And see the cover reveal for A LIFE OF SERVICE: THE STORY OF SENATOR TAMMY DUCKWORTH by Christina Soontornvat, Illustrated by Dow.

Check out this interview of Stan Yan on CanvasRebel! and see Stan in Episode 77 of Legit Kidlit’s Draw Off.

My painting process using digital and traditional media by Heather Brockman Lee

I often hear illustrators asked if they work traditionally or digitally, and there is certainly no wrong answer to this. I adore many illustrations that were made either completely digitally or with traditional methods. In the end, the principles of good illustration are the same. But my personal answer to that question is WHY NOT BOTH? I love using digital tools to streamline my process, correct mistakes and elevate the image in general- but when it comes time to sit down and paint, I much prefer to work on paper. There are a lot of reasons for that- my background in fine art, my wrist and eye health, and maybe most of all my love for experimenting with different papers and supplies. I will talk a lot more about paper specifically in future blog posts because I think it is the unsung hero of art making. But for now, I want to lay out my basic process for creating a painting (including the ones in my upcoming picture books)- I hope you enjoy!

Running into Spring

Everything starts in my sketchbook, whether it’s scribbled thumbnails or something more finished like this piece, which was inspired by the way Colorado has many more than four seasons, often in the same week. (Like around 20?) I think better on paper so most of my brainstorming happens with a pencil.

Next, I like to refine the sketch on my iPad. Procreate is great for this- you can select and resize, flip the image to check the composition and figure out your palette. Once I’m happy with the line drawing, I’ll often block in color. It’s an extra step, but it helps me to figure out the palette and values beforehand so I’m not guessing once I go to paint.

This is also a great way to check that the values are working.

Then, I print out the sketch to the size I want to paint. If I am working on a picture book, I might need to print out several sheets and tile them together to get the correct size. Here, I’m just using what fits on an 11”x17” piece of recycled printer paper.

Speaking of paper… now I get to choose what kind to paint on! I obviously have lots of options, and for this painting I decided on a cream colored printmaking paper. It’s soft and absorbent with no sizing, and I really like using watercolor and colored pencil on it.

I have a big light box my husband bought me from an architecture firm a few years ago for Christmas (he found me some great flat files too!) and I use it constantly for tracing sketches onto the paper.

This is my favorite part, the painting process. It never looks great at this stage, but I love the way the brush, paint and paper all interact. It’s very soothing.

For this method, I do a lot of details in colored pencil. I try not to overwork or hide the interesting variations in the paint.

Once I feel like it’s finished, it’s time to scan! I have a good scanner but it’s pretty small, so I have to scan in sections and end up with something like this:

Then I use the MAGIC of Photoshop’s photomerge feature to stitch it all together while I make a cup of tea!

Okay so, at this point I was going to tell you all that I use the clone stamp to clean up dust specks and the levels adjustment layer to tweak the values but… I realized I had a bigger problem. That shadow I had so much fun painting is shortening the distance between the girl and the snowy hills behind her. It kind of looks like a wall? If this were for a book, I would repaint the whole thing (or hopefully would have caught it much sooner in the sketch phase!) But since this is just a personal piece, I’ll use some more photoshop magic to select the shadow and tweak it so it looks like there is more distance.

There! Smack my logo on it and it’s ready to post on instagram or a blog! Thanks for sticking with me this far. I hope you all enjoyed this sneak-peek into my studio and if you are a creative person too, I’d love to hear something about your process in the comments!

Heather Brockman Lee

Twitter: @heathertbl

Instagram: @heatherbrockmanlee


Good News: January 2022

Firstly, we would like to welcome our newest member, Annie Herzig!

After departing the corporate foodie world as an art director in 2014, Annie Herzig returned to her first loves of illustration and storytelling. She works using a combination of traditional and digital media, often utilizing watercolor, gouache, graphite, and colored pencil on the page.

Delighting in awkward, funny, and heartwarming interactions, Annie incorporates relatability and humor into her work, while developing lovable characters and getting to know them as close friends. Having experienced loss, she also explores themes revolving around grief and shared human experience, seeking to both offer and find connection with others.

You’ll often find Annie drawing for hours in her studio with John Denver records on repeat, pausing for tea and cookies, then getting outside before the sun sets to breathe some fresh air on a mountain trail. Come visit her at

Annie is represented by Charlotte Wenger at Prospect Agency.

Instagram: @annieherzig
Twitter: @annieherzig

Congratulations to Dow Phumiruk who illustrated Titan and the Wild Boars, which won the Rhode Island Children’s Book Award for 2021!

Also, congratulations to Dow for getting her art from Hello, Tree into the Original Art Show NYC!

Not to mention being named A Mighty Girl’s 2021 Book of the Year!

In addition, Hello, Tree, also illustrated by Dow is now being translated into other languages!

Read her interview in Picture Book Builders by our good friend Andrea Wang with author Ana Crespo about Hello, Tree.

The Madison Reading Project recognizes Counting on Katherine, illustrated by Dow in honor of Women’s History

Congratulations to Dow on a new book deal to illustrate The Boys of Koh Pantene!

Dow will be one of the amazing artists featured in Yes We Will by Kelly Yang.

Congratulations to Jessica Lanan who illustrated The Lost Package, which received many more accolades since our last good news:

Photo by Stan Yan

Congratulations to Kaz Windness for getting recognition for her October art show at the Wandering Jellyfish in the Westword!

In case you missed Kaz‘s previous blog post, Swim Jim is officially available for preorder!

Bud’s Art Books gave Mother Goth Rhymes by Kaz Windness a pretty nice review!

Congratulations to Stan Yan for signing for representation with Ann Rose at Prospect Literary!

Congratulations to our own Lily Williams, whose Picture Book, If Bees Disappeared was named Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12: 2022 (Books published in 2021).

Hot on the heels of that news, it’s exciting to do a cover reveal for the next book in Lily‘s series, If Tigers Disappeared.

Dow isn’t the only one whose books are being translated into different languages. Lily Williams‘s Go With the Flow is getting translated too!

Speaking of Go With the Flow we’re excited to announce that a sequel Look on the Bright Side to this book has been announced!

Congratulations to our own Anden Wilder, Patricia Clock, Brizida Magro, Annie Herzig, and Heather Brockman Lee on getting pieces into the 2022 RMC-SCBWI Calendar!

Ask Kaz: How Long Does it Take to Illustrate a Children’s Book?

Question: “I have a general question as a person with experience publishing children’s books. In your experience, what is a normal deadline for delivering illustrations? I do understand that it varies a lot, but I am just wondering what your experience was like. I am trying to imagine how long it would be “normal” to spend on a single spread for example. It is not something that I need to know in the immediate future but I thought I would take advantage of the fact that I have someone with experience to ask to!”


Your question regarding delivery time is a good one. And it really depends. I surveyed dozens of professional children’s book illustrators and most said they are given six months to illustrate a book. This includes the dummy book, final sketches, and final artwork. The publisher also gives you time to revise art once you see the folded and gathered printed copies (F&G’s). This is where digital editing skills are a huge advantage. You also get more time to illustrate if you plan to deliver print-ready digital art rather than analog work that needs to be mailed and scanned.

One illustrator said their fastest turn around was three months, and it was not enough time. Another said they were given two years, and it was too much time. To make a living at children’s book illustration, you need to get paid, and the second half of your advance only comes when you deliver the final art. You also need more than one book a year (or other income) to earn a living wage.

My Simon & Schuster books so far have been in that six-month range. You also have to account for the editor and art director needing time to turn around revision notes, and you will often find that you are sprinting hard only to sit on your hands for a few weeks waiting for notes… followed by breakneck sprinting again.

The time for negotiating illustration turnaround is when you receive the offer. Lucy Cummins, Executive Art Director at Simon & Schuster, has said to estimate how long it will take to illustrate a book, and add 5 weeks. It’s way better to give yourself that wiggle room than to overcommit and have to ask for more time. She also disparages artists ghosting and not responding to communication when they’re overdue on art. She says to communicate, even when you’re behind. The art director can help you and they need to know because so much is riding on that print run date. Ghosting gives an illustrator a bad reputation and will reduce the likelihood of getting hired again. How great you are to work with matters more than how great your art is.

As far as scheduling yourself, I divide the number of pages of illustrations, including the cover, by the amount of time I have before the deadline. I will know that I need, for example, three finished pages of illustration every week. I “X” out my finished illustrations and color code green, and that gives me a sense of accomplishment. If I can get ahead on some of them, it gives me more time to finish the harder paintings. I habitually leave the harder art for last, but I don’t recommend that. You have less energy at the end. Illustrating a book is an endeavor. Start with some easier ones to get your confidence and style direction, but then dig into those complicated spreads. If you are doing your own project, still give yourself a deadline and stick to it.

David Wiesner recommends starting at the middle of the book and working your way out, both backwards and forwards. There’s a tendency to get lazy, bored, and tired towards the end of your project, and you don’t want the front of the book to look great and the end to look sloppy and rushed. Starting in the middle gives the climax the high point of your energy. 

Victoria Jamieson, artist and author of the graphic novel “Roller Girl” recommends beginning at the middle and bouncing around so that your character inconsistency isn’t so noticeable. Even in shorter works like picture books, our “handwriting” and approach shifts depending on the day, and that’s more apparent to a reader if it occurs as an arc rather than interspersed. 

Some final advice on scheduling and having a book illustration career:

  • Design your books with a good amount of white space. Art directors and designers LOVE white space, and it gives the eye places to rest along the book journey. They are also the most fun to paint (in my opinion) and are faster – unless you have a whole bunch of spots on a page. Spread after spread gets tedious both for the illustrator and the reader. Save spreads for those big impactful moments. Look to “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak as a brilliant example of illustration size reflecting the story build. Dan Santat recommends designing your book with lots of different types of illustrations (spots, spreads, vignettes, comic panels) to hold a young reader’s interest. 
  • Prepare wisely. Use character design turn-arounds, value studies, and a color storyboard at tiny thumbnail size to inform your design decisions for the larger pieces. Thinking and fixing are huge time thieves. If you are well-prepared, you won’t have to figure everything out at full size.
  • Get yourself a critique group. While art directors, editors, and even most agents will offer edits and advice, they are busy humans and won’t be able to hold your hand through the whole process. It’s also **apparently** unprofessional to have a freak-out and scream and cry during an editorial meeting, even though you will absolutely freak out, scream and cry, especially during your first book project. A great critique group will offer great advice, problem-solving, and take you out for tacos and margaritas and tell you how great you are when you find yourself lying on your studio floor blubbering about how terrible your book is and how your career is over even before it started… or so I’ve heard.
  • Figure out when you are most motivated and creative and schedule your day around those times. If I do all my teaching and grading in the morning, I will be out of energy for my illustration work later on. My brain is better at painting in the morning and teaching in the evening, so I work my schedule around this. Dan Santat works best by doing all the same kind of work each day. For example, if he’s doing sketches, he works on sketches for all his books in that phase. If he’s painting, he only does painting that day, even if it’s for multiple books. He says he’s more efficient if he’s not switching tasks.
  • Figure out a faster style. Novice artists have a tendency to put a lot of time and effort into tiny refined details that don’t make that much of a difference in the overall success of the illustration. Learn how to execute strong compositions with great silhouettes and shapes and be selective about where you apply fine detail. Discover ways to add texture without a lot of labor. Natural digital brushes and using textural overlays are great solutions. Look to illustrators that have more immediate, designerly, or childlike styles. These approaches are in demand and much more efficient, too. Ultimately, you must be true to yourself, but you have to be able to work fast to be an illustrator.
I switched up my style for WORM & CATERPILLAR to explore a faster, looser style for a longer graphic novel project.

It’s helpful to begin your career illustrating for self-publishing authors who are willing to give you more time to finish a book as you figure out your process and gain the skills to work more efficiently. But make sure you use a good contract! Example:

Once you are into traditionally published book deals, the timeline is much faster and demanding. But you will get the hang of it, I promise!

Happy Illustrating!


P.S. A “normal” double-page spread takes me about 2 days to illustrate– anywhere from twelve to twenty hours.

BITSY BAT, SCHOOL STAR dummy book sample of finished artwork.

P.S.S. Remember to follow me on all your favorite social media!

Swim, Jim Cover Reveal!

I’m SO excited to finally share the cover of my debut picture book! SWIM, JIM! is hatching with Simon & Schuster on May 23, 2022 and available for pre-sale NOW HERE

Before the big cover reveal, I thought you might like to see a sneak peek of how I worked with my editor, Catherine Laudone, and art director, Laurent Linn, to go from sketch to final cover concept. 

JIM’s history begins in the summer of 2018, when I saw an article about a crocodile in Key Largo using a pool noodle to cross a canal. As an adult who never learned to swim, I related to this poor crocodile, and immediately thought, “This is a story!”

I quickly drew a picture of the water averse crocodile, and sent it to my agent, Timothy Travaglini at Transatlantic Agency. He saw the story potential, too, and encouraged me to write the book. So I did!

It took me a couple weeks to figure out the story and a few weeks more to create a mockup line drawing version of the book called a dummy book. With the dummy book, I created some art samples including what the cover might look like. The original title was JIM CAN’T SWIM.

JIM floated around for a while, and at last found a home with Catherine Laudone at Simon & Schuster. She suggested we change the title to SWIM, JIM!

Catherine and I worked on editing SWIM, JIM!’s story for several months, and when it was ready, it was time to get going on the art. When I discovered I’d be working with Laurent Linn, someone I had known, admired, and adored for many years– the person at the tippy-top of my wish list of art directors to work with, I couldn’t stop bouncing and happy flapping my arms. Dreams do come true!

When Laurent, Catherine, and I met for our first Zoom call, Laurent kindly took the time to explain all the steps in the book art process. He told me that the book cover is the only part of the book that must be approved by every department because it’s so critical to book sales, including crucial pre-orders. (HERE!) He said that I’d be working on the cover at the same time as interior illustrations. 

Because Laurent and Catherine didn’t want to influence my creative process too much in the beginning, they asked me to come up with several cover sketches to begin, and we’d go from there.

Here are my initial sketches. (I always number my sketches and instruct my students to do the same so they are easy to refer to.)

I also included a couple funny covers. Sneaking toilets into the art has become my ongoing joke with Catherine, but she always catches it. (By Grabthar’s Hammer, I will have a toilet book someday!)

To my surprise, Catherine and Laurent picked a cover concept that was fairly similar to the one in my original submission. Laurent did ask me to make some changes, including flipping Jim’s direction so he would face the opening of the book. By the way, every edit Catherine and Laurent have suggested have made the book so much better. I LOVE working with this team, and it is truly not just my book, it’s OUR book.

They approved the revised sketch, and from there I created full color art. I handed the art over to Laurent, and he created the amazing type design. At this point, if I share any more of the art process it will give away the cover, so let’s just jump right in, shall we? Are you ready for the SWIM, JIM! cover???

I couldn’t be more happy with the final result and I hope you loved it, too! 

If you are excited about SWIM, JIM! please pre-order your copy today HERE! Pre-sales are a great way to support authors and illustrators and show publishers there is market interest. It really does make a big difference! And thank you for helping me make my lifelong dream of being a children’s book author and illustrator a reality!

And yes, I am learning how to swim… with the assistance of some good pool floaties and a little help from my family, just like Jim!



P.S. Remember to follow me on all your favorite social media sites!

P.S.S. As a thank you, anyone who pre-orders the book will receive a holographic SWIM, JIM! sticker and signed postcard. Just DM, message, or email me with your mailing address. (US addresses only, please.)

P.S.S. SWIM, JIM! is dedicated to Lily, seen here swimming with a pool noodle. Love you, Lily!

Photo by Lily’s mom, Simone De Haas

Cuddlefish Gang News – October 2021

We’re thrilled to announce a new Cuddlefish member, Anya Kopotilova!

Anya was born and raised in Russia, in a valley in the Ural mountains. She moved to USA in 2002, where she lived in Maryland and California before moving to Colorado in 2007. She has always been a passionate reader, and when picture books reentered her life with the birth of her children, Anya was once again captivated by the magic of children’s illustration. She rediscovered her passion for drawing in 2015, and kept going ever since.

Anya works in a variety of media, often combining traditional techniques with digital. Her favorite sources of inspiration are nature, folk tales, and the magic moments of childhood.

She lives in Littleton, CO with her husband and two teenage children.

Instagram :

We couldn’t be more excited to announce that our own Heather Brockman Lee was awarded grand prize for the SCBWI Big 50 Summer Conference Portfolio Showcase!

Also, congratulations to Heather Brockman Lee on the cover reveal of her upcoming debut book, Hattie Hates Hugs!

Kaz Windness‘s recent release, If UR Stabby was featured on Panel Patter!

Warning: This book isn’t intended for young kids.

Congratulations to Kaz on also getting a book deal for her young graphic novel, Worm & Caterpillar!

Keep an eye on our Facebook Page or Twitter feed for details about Kaz’s upcoming event on October 30th at The Wandering Jellyfish!

Congratulations to Dow Phumiruk who illustrated Counting on Katherine, which was named Honor Book for Louisiana Readers’ Choice for 2020-2021! And, not only that, but believe it or not this book is heading to space!!!

Also, congratulations to One Girl, illustrated by Dow for being included in the Bank Street The Best Children’s Books of the Year 2021 Edition (5-9 year olds).

Happy Book Birthday to Hello, Tree, illustrated by Dow!

And, congratulations to Dow on getting art from this book into this year’s 41st Annual Society of Illustrators Original Art Exhibition!

Also, read an interview of Dow on our kidlit author friend, Laura Rottinger’s blog!

Happy book birthday to Jane Maday, who’s coloring book, the Art of Positivity debuted, hot on the tails of the recent release of Doodle Days!

Watch and listen to this fun interview of Stan Yan on the NerdCast!

Keep an eye on our Facebook Page or Twitter feed for details about Stan’s upcoming event on October 30th at The Wandering Jellyfish!

The Lost Package, illustrated by our own Jessica Lanan gets a glowing review from Children’s Literature Reviews!

Finally, congratulations to Jessica for having art from The Lost Package featured in this year’s 41st Annual Society of Illustrators Original Art Exhibition!

Happy book birthday to Twisty, Turny House, illustrated by Gerald Kelley!

Check it out! Go With the Flow, illustrated by Lily Williams is getting 5 star reviews in France too!

Happy book birthday to Saturday at the Food Pantry illustrated by Brizida Magro.

Also, congratulations to Brizida on getting a book deal to illustrate The Hole!

There is a book calling your name

There is a book calling your name 

I did not use to believe it but I do now. I felt this book was calling me. I fell in love with the manuscript the minute I read it. Growing up, being raised by my Grandmother I saw her struggles to keep food on the table yet the universe seemed to be looking out for us. This is a story that really touched me. Even though it’s a sensitive topic, one needs to be addressed. I am looking forward for this book to get out into the world and for kiddos not feel ashamed that “everyone needs a little help sometimes”

Saturday at the Food Pantry

From the publisher:

“Molly and her mom don’t always have enough food, so one Saturday they visit their local food pantry. Molly’s happy to get food to eat until she sees her classmate Caitlin, who’s embarrassed to be at the food pantry. Can Molly help Caitlin realize that everyone needs help sometimes?

This sensitive story about food insecurity invites conversations with readers about food pantries, promotes a positive message of everyone needing help sometimes and how it’s okay to ask and receive assistance, and destigmatizes this necessary resource. An important topic, as of 2018 per the USDA, size million children lived in food-insecure households, and the pandemic has greatly affected food security for many as well.”

Beautifully written by Diane O’ Neill and published by @albertwhitman

This is my debut picture book. I feel I learned so much in the process. The best part was to see the story visually unfold before my eyes as I drew out the storyboard and saw the characters come alive.

I wanted to share a little of what I have learned so far.

I am sharing some of my research, aesthetic inspiration, character development and some of the finished art sneak peak.


This is one of my favorite parts. I usually create a pinterest board of subject matter and visual aesthetic. Visit my local library and look through books and textures I have at home. 

For this book I looked at a lot of food pantries, they are usually a little different than grocery stores. They use metal shelves and are much smaller. I really wanted to use a bright fresh color palette that brought a lot of light and hope to this book.

For Aesthetic I love anything mid-century modern and was thinking to have some of the dishes in their home be inspired by Cathrineholm Norwegian enamelware. For artists I looked at a lot of my heroes from that era as well, such as; Olle Eksel, Ben Shan, M. Sakek among others.

Character Development

The fine folks at Albert Whitman already had mentioned to me that I would bring a lot of diverse voices to the book so every kid could relate. 

The main character Molly was to be of mixed race. My original sketches shown here I had her sporting this awesome afro but the client was concerned about stereotypes. We ended up going with her hair a more caramel color. I thought it would be great to have mom and daughter not match racially. One of my best friends has Caucasian blond hair and her son is African American-looking. They were my original inspiration for the earlier version of Molly and Mom. I also saw Molly as being a strong little girl and loved the idea of her dressing herself. In the end, we went with a different wardrobe for her, but you can see that here in some of the initial development.

Here are the final versions for mom and Molly. I wanted mom to have style even though they fell on hard times they could still get creative with their clothes. 

I used to shop a ton at thrift stores for all my clothes and growing up in Portugal we only had a few pieces of clothes that were high quality and my grandmother made sure that we looked nice and sharp at all times. Here is one of the few photos I have of us as a family.

Box of buttons that was Grandmothers and the only earrings she had. Left Brizida Magro, Grandma Maria Rodrigues in the middle and right Maria Jose my older sister.

Character Development for Grandmother and Caitlin (friend of Molly)

Caitlin we made her into a redhaired girl, my favorite hair color. I was delighted when the client made this request. I worked on this book last fall. I think they unconsciously set the mood for the cozy outfits the characters wear in the book. We wanted Gran to be older but not too old as she would still maybe be working some to help raise Caitlin. 

I am humbled I was able to illustrate the story of these four strong ladies in this book. I hope we can all realize and be brave enough to realize “We all need a little help sometimes”

To wrap up here are some of the finished spreads which is a mix of paper textures that I scan in and procreate.

Drag arrows to see before and after

Final Cover and some of the initial ideas:

Come join me at Wandering Jellyfish Bookshop in Niwot September 25th at 11am  for the book launch party of Saturday at the Food Pantry we will have a food drive to a Food Pantry in Longmont. Support Indie Bookstores and your local food bank.

Register here:

Preorder from Wandering JellyFish Bookshop;

For more of my work:



Gerald Kelley’s inspirations for Twisty-Turny House

Twisty-Turny House began for me all the way back in April of 2019 with an email from Lori Nowicki, my agent at Painted Words. Laurent Linn and Sylvie Frank at Simon and Schuster had seen samples of my work and and thought I might be a good fit for Lisa Manchev’s manuscript. I had a chance to read the manuscript and fell in love immediately with all the opportunities to add my own touches to the story. Her writing was expressive without being overly descriptive which always affords an illustrator a chance to add his or her own touches. The extended deadline (publishing September 2021) also allowed bonus time to experiment with imagery before getting down to business.


I had several discussions with Laurent about the visual style I wanted to explore and sent him samples of work I had been looking at. I’ve been spending the last few years working on a much looser style than my usual work seen in books like A Day In the Life of Marlon Bundo. That book was the beginning step in a process that continues today. Work from the 1960s and ‘70s made up the bulk of my visual research. Illustrators such as Celestino Piatti, Charles Keeping, Ed Emberley, and Evaline Ness. I love the energy found in the line and color used by the illustrators of that era. Exciting and fresh. Very loose, dynamic.

I did a few initial design samples of the animals and the house.

So the first imagery I wanted to explore was the house itself. It would play a primary role in the animals’ relationships and it would allow me the chance to gauge how far I could push what I saw should be exaggerated visuals. I was in conflict with my usual need to have everything look logical and complete. My background is in rendering in a more representational style (showing volume, spatial relationships, etc), but this was a chance to let go of those things. The house ended up ridiculously over-the-top. Spindly. Illogical. Utterly appealing. Laurent fortunately agreed. This image ultimately became the opening spread and back cover.

Click the Instagram link below to see a time-lapse process video for the first spread of Twisty Turny House.

Click the Instagram link above to see a time-lapse process video for the first spread of Twisty Turny House.

 Since the house plays such a role in the story I wanted to give it a distinct look. That’s when I began looking at 1970’s interior design – the colors, the furnishings. I even threw in a few items found in our own house (the macrame owl and turtle planter). The green and blue glass grapes are a nod to my Aunt Gene who was the Auntie Mame of the family and her house was a wonderland to a six-year old.

My inclination when drawing animals is to agonize over making sure volumes and structure are adhered to. When drawing Marlon Bundo I made sure the legs were bending according to real rabbit anatomy. My approach to the animals in Twisty was to throw out that necessity altogether. Legs became simple dashes of the brush, reinforced with the occasional line. 

My over-arching mantra was that expressiveness would take precedence over logic.

Twisty-Turny House is taking its place among my favorite books in my catalog of work. Laurent and Sylvie allowed me the luxury to use this project as an experiment and that doesn’t happen often. Without trying to come across stuffy, I think of my representational, highly rendered work as symphonic in nature – carefully crafted, ordered, rational. But the style seen in Twisty-Turny House feels more like jazz – expressive, spontaneous, emotive. It makes me happy.




Instagram: @egkellerdraws

Cuddlefish Gang News – July 2021

We are thrilled to announce a new Cuddlefish member, Jane Maday!

Jane Maday began her career at 14 years of age, as a scientific illustrator for the University of Florida. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree from the Ringling College of Art and Design, she was recruited by Hallmark Cards, Inc, as a greeting card illustrator. Though her scientific past helps Jane add realism to her artwork, she soon discovered she enjoys painting the outsides of animals to the insides!Jane left the corporate world after her children were born, and moved to beautiful Colorado. Her work has adorned 25 children’s books, as well as collector’s plates, ornaments, cards, t-shirts, garden flags, jigsaw puzzles, and many more. Recently, Jane added author to her list of accomplishments, writing the best-selling art instruction book, “Adorable Animals You Can Paint “(published by F&W Publications), as well as numerous smaller works and magazine articles. In addition to the breathtaking Colorado landscape, Jane has two children, a menagerie of animals, and a garden for inspiration, and a wonderful husband to share it all.Visit Jane at to learn more!

Dow Phumiruk’s art (shown above) was selected by The Parenting Asian America Project’s twitter cover art!

Congratulations to Dow Phumiruk for An Equal Shot landing on A Mighty Girl’s Sunmer reading list.

Cover reveal for Dow Phumiruk‘s book illustration, Her Name Was Mary Katharine. Read more about this via John Schu’s blog.

Art preview of Dow Phumiruk‘s book illustrations for Hello, Tree by Ana Crespo.

Lily Williams‘s book, If Bees Disappeared was highlighted by Kirkus in their article, In Praise of the Honeybee.

Congratulations to Lily Williams for having her book, If Elephants Disappeared selected as “ECO Bookworms Book Club Pick” for May!

Lily Williams‘s Go With the Flow was selected by the New York Public Library Bookmobile as a staff pick!

And in even more exciting news for Lily, Go With the Flow was nominated for an Eisner Award!

In addition, Go With the Flow was selected as finalist for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Award and finalist for the Mosaic Award!

A great review for Lobstah Garden, illustrated by E.G. Keller/Gerald Kelley by the SLJ!

Glowing review from Publisher’s Weekly for Twisty Turny House, illustrated by E.G. Keller/Gerald Kelley

E.G. Keller/Gerald Kelley had the pleasure of having Rashida Jones narrate his book, Please Please the Bees for Storyline Online.

The Lost Package, illustrated by Jessica Lanan gets a starred review from Booklist!

Also, see John Schu do a case cover reveal for this book!

Congratulations to our own Larry Day for winning the 50th Annual Carbondale Mountain Fair T-Shirt/Poster contest!

Our own Kaz Windness, was the Author/Illustrator Spotlight for Kidlit411 in June!

Happy book birthday to If Ur Stabby by Kaz Windness.

The Wandering Jellyfish Bookshop will be hosting a show of my Stabbified Thrift paintings in October, so I have an excellent excuse to make more. (Rubs hoofs together evilly.) Stabby Unicorn Comics “

Heather Brockman Lee‘s art appeared in the latest issue of Ladybug Magazine!

Stan Yan‘s Peter Cadaver comic strip relaunched as a permanent weekly feature in the Sunday Ha Ha.

Stan Yan and Dow Phumiruk answer author interview questions for this Boulder Book Store video: and Jessica Lanan in part 2:

Three of our members’ work is contained in this coloring book: Dow Phumiruk, Lily Williams, and Stan Yan! Thanks to Second Star to the Right Books for supporting our author/illustrators!

Finally, Cuddlefish Gang members, Kaz Windness, Heather Brockman Lee, David Deen, Dustin Resch, Anden Wilder, Amber Owen, and Stan Yan have all been contributing illustrations to Beastly Words!

Agenting Advice

If you are an illustrator seeking agent representation, you have probably fantasized about getting THAT call or email with an offer- and maybe in your fantasy you just run around your home screaming “YES YES YES!” But before you start throwing confetti and dancing with joy, there are a few questions you should ask your prospective agent! I asked the Cuddlefish Gang (we have many agents between us, and a huge variety and breadth of experience) which questions they would advise asking. These may not apply to every situation- but it’s an excellent place to start. We hope these help and- happy agent searching!

1. How long have you been an agent?

2. How many other clients do you represent, and would you mind if I talked to one or two of them? Related, is there a lot of client turnover at the agency?

3. What are some recent books you sold?

4. Do you have an agency agreement I can look at?
(Look for “cooling off” periods or any other criteria that feels odd/ not market standard)

5. What percentage does your agency take? (15% is standard for a literary agent, although it can vary for things like foreign rights sometimes)

6. Ask about foreign rights. Is there a separate foreign rights agency affiliation?

7. What is your preferred communication style?

8. Are you editorial—how hands-on are you? Do you like to add input such as editing suggestions?

9. Have you sold books similar to my project(s)? What publishers do you have in mind?

10. What is your favorite genre? What do you read for fun?

11. What is your favorite kind of project to sell?

12. How do you promote your illustrators?

13. Are there fees involved? (Maybe marketing fees like postcard printing and postage for example)

14. How do you communicate submissions and responses?

15. In a larger agency- would I work directly with the agent versus admin?

Perhaps most importantly—do I feel comfortable and supported in these answers? Because regardless of how they answer… they could be super rad and exciting… it always comes down to how comfortable you feel.

Heather Brockman-Lee–

Kaz Windness–

Wrist and Body Care for Illustrators

Learn tips and tricks for taking care of your wrists and body from four of our professional member illustrators.

Featuring Cuddlefish Gang artists:

Kaz Windness–

Stan Yan–

Heather Brockman-Lee–

Larry Day–​

Facebook: @cuddlefishgang

Instagram: @cuddlefishgang

Twitter: @cuddlefishgang


Cuddlefish Gang News – April 2021

Congratulations to our own Jessica Lanan, Illustrator for Richard Ho’s The Lost Package, which was just highlighted as a Best Read ⭐️ by Publishers Weekly!

The Lost Package was also written up in Librarian’s Quest and the Unpacking the Power of Picture Books blog!

It was also given a starred review by Shelf Awareness!

Jessica’s art in this book is also already being talked about by the School Library Journal about being a possible Caldecott Award Winner!

This wonderful book also had its book birthday in early March!

And the beat goes on for Lily Williams’s book, Go With The Flow, which was listed in the Hub’s 2021 Great Graphic Novels for Teens!

Go With the Flow was also chosen by the ALA as a Notable Children’s Book of 2021!

…is a LA Times Book Prize finalist!

…and is a Great Lakes Book Award finalist!

Congratulations to Lily for also being signed by Roaring Brook to illustrate Richard Ho’s A Rock Is Born!

Mark your calendars! Lily has a virtual Earth Day event coming up on April 22nd!

Huge congratulations goes out to Kaz Windness whose Bitsy Bat, School Star was aquired by Simon & Schuster!

Congratulations to Dustin Resch for signing with Karly Dizon at Fuse Literary!

Congratulations to Dow Phumiruk on a book birthday for An Equal Shot, illustrated by Dow and written by Helaine Becker!

And, congratulations to Dow for her book deal with Levine Querido to illustrate Kristen Mai Gaing’s Last Flight!

Dow is also highlighted in STEM Women in Kidlit Podcast!

Congratulations to Titan and the Wild Boars, which is illustrated by Dow for winning the Rhode Island Children’s Book Award!

Congratulations to Dow on Maya Lin being included in Cool Mom Pick’s list of Children’s Books About Inspiring Asian Americans!

Congratulations to Brizida Magro for her book deal to illustrate Ellen Mayer’s Gift & Box for Knopf!

…and another exciting book deal, illustrating Small Talk by Mary Lee Donovan for Greenwillow!

Congratulations to Heather Brockman Lee for her book deal to illustrate Sarah Hovorka’s Hattie Hates Hugs for Beaming Books!

Congratulations to Heather on having her artwork highlighted on the Weekly 411 Blog!

Congratulations to Amber Owen (a.k.a. ZB Asterplume) for having her picture book, Dario’s Tiger acquired by Feiwel and Friends!

Congratulations to E.G. Keller / Gerald Kelley for his book deal to illustrate Gretchen McLellan’s Daddy’s a Soldier for Philomel!

Stan Yan‘s interview on Laura Rottinger’s Blog

Stan’s art was featured in the SCBWI Winter Conference blog!

His art also now graces the Oceans of Hope conservation blog!

A touching story from Stan’s Facebook page about how he helped Make-A-Wish for Cliff.

Stan’s strip, Peter Cadaver will be joining the Sunday Ha Ha online comics page for kids as a regular weekly feature starting Sunday, May 23rd!

Drawing Babies!

Five of our Cuddlefish got together on Saturday to talk about drawing one of our favorite subjects… babies! Do your baby drawings look like old men? Funky aliens? Or are they just missing that cute factor? Then this video is for you!

Featuring Cuddlefish Gang artists:

Kaz Windness–

Amber “Z.B. Asterplume”–

Stan Yan–

Heather Brockman-Lee–

Larry Day–

Facebook: @cuddlefishgang

Instagram: @cuddlefishgang

Twitter: @cuddlefishgang

Music Credit: “Pure Water” by Medyn

Automatic Triggers

Chance is always powerful.  Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.  -Ovid

When I was a freshman studying painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I had the most wonderful professor. Her name was Susan Main, and she was and is a fabulous artist and teacher. She taught a class called Automatic Triggers, and whenever I am feeling extra prickly and uninspired— and ESPECIALLY when I feel like what I am making is becoming a bit stale and inauthentic, I try to take myself back to Automatic Triggers.

Being an artist is hard. There is no map for us. We are often grasping in the dark, trying to excavate content from our very being, and sometimes, the pressure and need to create can make one feel totally overwhelmed. I should know, I am feeling that way in this very moment! We live in a society nowadays that values quantity over quality (Likes, Follows, you know what I am talking about) and this has caused us to forget that the important work of the artist is to navigate through the world, a feeling and sensitive creature, and to turn those feelings into a product that can make others around us feel seen. To communicate in the most authentic way the human experience and to help teach lessons in only the way an artist can. And what is most the crucial component our work can possess? Authenticity. When something is inauthentically made, it lacks value and depth and becomes merely decorative, rather than meaningful. The role of us artists is to keep digging; to delve into the unknown, ready to grasp at that bit of light and self when it makes itself available, and to spin those fibers into meaningful, digestible ART.

So, let’s begin.

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play
instinct acting from inner necessity.  The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.

– C.G. Jung

The idea of Automatic Triggers comes from the surrealist practice of working
spontaneously, and discovering what one’s natural tendencies are. These practices were then adopted by the Abstract Expressionists whose works retain a sense of play, spontaneity, and gesture.

What are your tendencies? What is your natural mark making style? What images do you find yourself drawn to? If you are left to doodle aimlessly, thoughtlessly, what comes out of your pencil? What do you notice? What color palettes feel right to you? In essence, what is your visual language?  

Exercise 1- Make Something

So, you’re feeling a bit stale… grab your sketchbook. Go on a walkabout. Pick things up. Smell the air. Feel. Now, open up your sketchbook and make a mark. Keep going. Don’t think! Don’t worry about the end result, that will stifle you. Is it ugly? Who cares! Now, study the page. What do you see? Are the marks painterly, gestural? Or clean and geometric. Are your shapes reading as feminine or masculine? Do you make dotted lines? Are your markings aggressive and hard or soft and gentle? Is what you draw abstract or did something representational show up?

Automatic Trigger Doodle

Now, take what you have made, and run with it. Use your triggers to inform a new piece, one that is created with more direction. As an illustrator now, I can use these trigger discoveries to help inform the more narrative pieces I am making nowadays. However, this process is more about getting to know yourself and bettering your practice than anything else, so don’t feel pressured to made something perfect. That is never the goal of these exercises.

Address process.  What did it feel like? How did you begin?  Did the process evolve after the painting was started? Did you plan the painting before hand, begin with a feeling surrounding the trigger and try to match that feeling formally, place the trigger on the canvas…etc.??? Difficulties?  Structure, material, time, clarity, techniques or lack of (additive, subtractive), indecision, attachment.
– Susan Main, class syllabus.

Exercise 2- SUBVERT!

Observe and identify formal elements from you Exercise 1. Use specific descriptive language: organic, geometric, rigid, illustrative, abstract, transparent, opaque, etc. Notice the palette you used.

Now, take those elements and create a contrasting piece.

Did you use organic lines? Make them rigid. Did you use geometric shapes? Make them organic. Flip everything on its head.

Exercise 3- Tools

In the original assignment, because this was meant to be a painting class, we were not to use brushes. We could only use a tool smaller or larger than our hand. For those of us who work digitally now, you can limit yourself to two very different digital brushes that you never use. Challenge yourself. Observe what this does to your trigger.

You are lost the instant you know what the result will be.  -Juan Gris

These techniques are not meant create your greatest works, but rather to encourage you to consider your process and to explore and challenge yourself in unexpected ways. It is important to remain fluid in our creative practice, and to fight off rigidity and perfectionism. Art is a process. There is always room to grow.

Happy creating!

Thanks to Susan Main for providing me with all the syllabus information from this class (15 years ago!). You can see her work at

Anden Wilder

Twitter: @andenwilder

Instagram: @andenwilderillustration


Cuddlefish Gang News – January

To begin, since our last good news post, we’ve been happy and excited to welcome a bunch of new Cuddlefishers!

Larry Day

Larry Day is the award-winning illustrator of both fiction and non-fiction. Visit him at to see the full list!
Larry Day was born and raised in Gibson City, Illinois, a rural farming community where he flunked high school Art. He received an Associate’s Degree in commercial art, and worked as a staff artist for pinball and video games before becoming a storyboard artist and picture book illustrator. Day is the recipient of 3 Gold medals from the Society Of Illustrators, and the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Not Afraid Of Dogs.
Larry is repped by Hannah Mann at

E.G. Keller

EG Keller is the illustrator of the New York Times #1 bestseller, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, and the picture book To the Moon and Back for You by Bravo star Emilia Bechrakis Serhant. As Gerald Kelley, he illustrated documentarian Ken Burns’ New York Times bestselling book, Grover Cleveland, Again!, and wrote and illustrated the picture book, Please Please the Bees, which won the 2017 Frances and Wesley Bock Book Award for Children’s Literature and was read aloud for Storyline Online by Rashida Jones.

Upcoming book titles include The Twisty-Turny House, Lobstah Gahden, and Murray Christmas.
Visit him at

Jessica Lanan

Jessica Lanan is an author, illustrator and painter living in Boulder, Colorado. She helps young readers discover the beauty and diversity of their world by creating books that are inspiring, accessible and memorable. Her goal is to help children understand that they are a part of the natural world.

She grew up in Longmont, Colorado and spent a lot of her childhood outside hiking and camping in the Rocky Mountains. She studied fine art at Scripps College and after graduation traveled solo for a year in various parts of Asia on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to study and illustrate folk tales. She brought a travel set of watercolors on that trip and she has been painting ever since. Visit her at
Represented by Ed Maxwell, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates,

C. Grey Hawkins

C. Grey Hawkins is an author, illustrator, mountain-lover, and connoisseur of old things from Denver, Colorado. He received his B.F.A. from California College of the Arts in Illustration.

Grey (Christian to friends) pulls inspiration heavily from the environment around him, and his experiences growing up as a seventh-generation Coloradan have shaped the texture of his work. The mediums he most enjoys using are pencil, ink, and charcoal – though he also paints in gouache and practices screen printing and etching. His work is often finished digitally to add color or simulate older methods of printing.

Grey Hawkins works primarily in children’s book illustration. In addition to having his work displayed in shows as varied as The Society of Illustrators in NY, NY (2016), Helicon Gallery in Denver, CO (2015, 2018, 2019), and at the Denver Art Museum (2011), Grey Hawkins was one of 25 prize winners out of 8,000 entries in the 2016 Society of Illustrators Student Scholarship Competition.

In his spare time Grey Hawkins draws, camps, draws while camping, restores antiques and his old house, and tries to keep his 1968 Ford Falcon – named Flint – running. Grey Hawkins lives with his wife and fellow illustrator, Lily Williams, in their hundred year-old house in an old mining town in the mountains of Colorado.
Visit Christian at to learn more!

Congratulations to Lily Williams, Illustrator for Go With the Flow, which was recognized:

In Evanston Public Library’s 101 Great Books for Kids 2020: Comics and Graphic Novels

In New York Public Library’s Best Books of 2020

In Kirkus Reviews: Best of 2020: Our Favorite Middle Grade Books

In NPR’s Best Books of 2020

In The Texas Maverick Graphic Novels Reading List picks of 2020

As semi-finalist for YA Graphic Novel in the 2020 Bookish Jazz Awards!

Also, Congratulations to Lily Williams for winning PureWow’s best book of 2020 for animal lovers for If Elephants Disappeared!

Finally, we should congratulate Lily for the fantastic pre-release press she’s getting from the likes of Kirkus and School Library Journal on her upcoming release, If Bees Disappeared. (Coming in March!)

Congratulations to Stan Yan for having the book he illustrated, Saltwater Sillies by Natasha Wing recommended by Old Firehouse Books in the Westword’s 2020 Local Author Gift Giving Guide.

Also, congratulations to Stan Yan for having There’s a Zombie in the Basement selected by Anna Ashburn’s Weekly Book Recommendation

In addition, Stan Yan‘s comic strip Peter Cadaver debuted in the Sunday Ha Ha online comics newspaper for kids!

Finally, Stan Yan was interviewed by ShoutOut Colorado!

Congratulations to Dow Phumiruk for being signed to illustrate Better Together by Ben Gundersheimer for Penguin/Paulsen.

Also, congratulations to Dow Phumiruk, Illustrator for Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13, for being highlighted in A Mighty Girl!

Finally, we’re excited to celebrate the cover reveal for Hello, Tree by Ana Crespo, Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk (click on the title link to view the video)

Illustration by Anden Wilder

Congratulations to Anden Wilder for signing with Stephanie Fretwell-Hill at Red Fox Literary for representation.

Also, Anden Wilder was interviewed by ShoutOut Colorado.

Congratulations to Kaz Windness on the fantastic Kirkus review for her upcoming book release! “This collection leans into the macabre-the number of skewered eyes alone is unfathomable-and the gallows humor could easily make it a cult favorite.” Keep an eye out for this one!

Congratulations to Jessica Lanan, illustrator for The Lost Package by Richard Ho for the great Kirkus review, and which was highlighted by Publisher’s Weekly as a Best Read!

Author/Illustrator Goal Setting for Success in 2021


Author/Illustrator Goal setting for Success in 2021

By Dow Phumiruk

Hello! So here we are at the end of this stupendously strange and difficult year. I hope you’ve gone easy on yourself all year long, as it’s been all about survival and not so much productivity, in my opinion! But looking into next year, let’s see what we can do to rise from the mess that was 2020. 

I always set goals. But there is an art to goal setting! You must set different tiers of goals. And the first two tiers must be within your realm of control, not relying on luck or another person’s interest in your work, or anything at all that you cannot make happen. 

Set 1: Achievable, inspirational, confidence- and wellness- boosting goals 

Oh yes. These are fun! There is a parallel with people who like this set to those of us who make lists and add items just so that we can immediately cross them off. But do it. It brings that fresh feeling of accomplishment. Here are some examples:

  • Draw a holiday image in celebration
  • Share the holiday image on social media, or better yet: send it to a blogger like Kathy Temean who posts holiday image threads regularly. Here is her most recent holiday post for Thanksgiving as an example.
  • Try a new technique in art, illustration, or crafting. Anything new to rejuvenate those creative muscles! Here are some ideas:
    • Try new tools (oil paint sticks, white gel pens on brown or dark paper, etc). In digital art such as in Photoshop, search a tool or adjustment layer that you’ve haven’t used often if at all, and see what it can do! You may find yourself using it regularly after some quick research. Watch a Procreate tutorial or try an inexpensive new digital drawing app. I bet you’ll learn something new! 
    • GIF making: it’d been a while since I had created a GIF, and I reacquainted myself with how to do so on the iPad. It’s relatively easy. My tip: try not to animate too many parts!! You start seeing how you can move a character, but when you do so, it ends up being a 40-layer file (close to the maximum number of layers allowed on Procreate). Instead, draw a nice character and animate just an extremity or text. It’s fun!

A quick good night GIF I sent to my daughter at college

  • I saw a friend post about making little dolls using honeycomb paper (wooden beads for heads and the honeycomb paper for their bodies/dresses). Here is a sample of ornaments made with honeycomb paper! Another friend and Cuddlefish member, Heather Brockman Lee, is creating super fun paper engineering projects like this one. What a great idea and challenge that is!
  • Speaking of 3D materials, what about air-dry clay? I like white Crayola brand clay (other artists I know enjoy Sculpey clay) and find it can be super fun to design your characters in 3D. Take time to visit or revisit this craft. You’ll have a lasting souvenir of your endeavor!
  • Custom fabric: For the first time, I custom-printed fabric with stuffed doll patterns on them. The doll character, a pet monster, is from my latest book. The patterns included faces, so this made assembling the stuffed toys very easy. They make a nice pairing with my book. Keep your outlines for the pattern faint, like in my sheet of Hugsbies here (hard black outlines may show in the finished project if you don’t sew the seams precisely).

Think on how ordering custom fabric with your design could work for marketing your project. It is very simple to print squares of art to sew into a small throw pillow, for example. I order from Keep in mind, though, that their fabric is not super cheap, and rarely are there sales. Stick to basic cotton if that will fit your needs. 

  • For wellness, please do make time for exercise. A little every day would be especially good in the setting of our sedentary lifestyles as writers/illustrators. Regular exercise is a great goal!

From Hugsby, back endpapers, copyright Dow Phumiruk

Set 2: Real Work! 

Here you want to set some goals that will move you along in the direction that you want your career to go. 

  • As an author/illustrator, three new dummies in the next year is a great goal. Three! That is not a big number, though I will agree that writing a story and then sketching the dummy are no small feats. Start with idea-churning. I like recommending January’s Storystorm from Tara Lazar to help with finding new ideas. I don’t join for the giveaways, but you could (it takes time, so I just skip). After the month of January, sift through and choose your best few. Start writing stories for those. In March, June, and September (you can pick the months!), create a dummy for three of those ideas. The goal in this business is to KEEP MOVING, and by this I mean keep creating. The act of creating over and over will soon result in that one great project – or two, or three. I think putting a teensy bit of pressure on yourself can work wonders here. Pick one of your ideas (the Rockefeller tree owl who found himself transported from upstate NY to NYC might be a popular one this year) and set aside an hour to write the story. One hour. On the clock. Sit and write. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be great. 
  • As an illustrator, set a goal of new portfolio images. One every other month is a realistic number. 
  • If you are a writer, would you like to try a new genre? This year I will be attempting a chapter book. Maybe you’ll want to try a novel in verse. If so, set a goal to start by reading x number of books in this format. 
  • What about improving a certain aspect of your art or writing? One year I made a goal of drawing as many elbows as possible. How about ears, noses, or hands? Any focus and repeated efforts in one area should result in growth. You can set a concrete number: “In 2021, I will draw 25 completely new types of background scenes.” In writing, you can read about successful picture books and try mimicking them in your own work. A concrete goal would be: “I will read 50 mentor texts in my genre of choice to study character arcs.”
  • Marketing: you’ll need to get your work out there, whether or not you are ready for publication. 
    • You will want to establish a social media presence to show your support of the children’s lit community. This is a good place to start if you have not yet done so. Be active once a week. That’s really all it takes, and don’t go down any rabbit holes while you are being “social.” Find industry professionals to follow, comment, like or heart – I think this part is most important, so people will know you are interested and engaged in the kid lit community. You’ll also get to know them through what they share, and this can rule in or rule out particular agents or editors you might have under consideration for submitting to. Share interesting articles. Search for hashtags that will relate to children’s books such as #childrensbooks, #kidlit, or #illustration (you can find inspiration in any type of art, really!). Visit social media in an intentionally professional way as a break from work on just that one day a week. I like to think of it as hopping out to put positive energy out into the world, to cheer others on, or to share your own joys. One day it’ll be to share your own good news about representation or new book deals! Invest now in building your future marketing base. It is free!
    • Participate in regular challenges. The Cuddlefish group tries to participate in #Colour_Collective. It’s still one of my favorites, because the guidelines are very loose. Just include the color of the week in your art that week, posting on Fridays around noon with this hashtag on Instagram or Twitter. Now though I list this is under marketing, don’t try to worry too much about how many likes or hearts it gets or does not get. It’s part marketing and part for you to be accountable in productivity. Try not to feel the need to garner external sources of validation. If you hit a high note and happen to get extra attention for a piece of art, study what features made it successful and work in that direction. And then don’t forget to go like/heart or share other artist posts. 
    • When you are ready, submit to agents or editors you’ve researched. Depending on how many projects you have ready to go, you may choose to submit to one agent or editor every two to three months. Ideally, once you have submitted a project, you move on to the next project. Do not dwell on your single project. I used to do that. Refreshing that email inbox in hopes of a positive response to your submission is time wasted, my friend. Move on to something new.  

Set 3: The Starry-eyed Dreaming…. 


Here are your reach goals. Choose whatever lofty goals you like to see reached, and write them down. If you are unpublished, then maybe you hope to be published, for example. Note that unlike in Set 1 and 2, some of these dream goals can be out of your control. You must wait for a publisher to offer a contract on your project. You must wait for an agent to choose to represent you. You must wait for the Caldecott Committee to choose your book. But you can choose any whimsical goal you would like to! It’s completely up to you! My randomly dreamy goal for 2021, for example, is to be paired up with a celebrity author. Just for fun. Just because! 

And that is how you break down to write down your goals for 2021. Will you reach them all? Probably not! But that’s okay!! Will some of these goals be revisited next year? Quite possibly! And that, too, is okay. We are all on different timelines to success. But keeping a framework of what you’d like to see accomplished is one way to actually be on track to accomplish more. 

Good luck, happy holidays, and wishing all of us a 2021 that is much more palatable than this year has been.

Dow Phumiruk

Twitter and IG: @dowphumiruk
Facebook: Dow Phumiruk Ng
Portfolio: Blog:

Cuddlefish Gang News – November

Lily Williams‘s Go With the Flow is highlighted in the School Library Journal’s article, “Surprise! It’s Activist! Children’s Entertainment Increasingly Taking a Stand”, Elizabeth Bird favorably compares it to The Babysitter’s Club! (8/24/20)

And an exciting cover reveal for Lily Williams’s new book!

Coming in Spring 2021!

Congratulations to Dow Phumiruk for her work on Titan and the Wild Boars, which is a finalist for the 2020 Connecticut Book Awards!

And, Counting on Katherine, illustrated by Dow is recognized by the A Mighty Girl blog.

Finally, happy book birthdays to Dow for both her illustration work in One Girl

“The collaboration between author Andrea Beaty and artist Dow Phumiruk on One Girl gifts readers with a book to treasure.” – Librarian’s Quest

As seen in the November 8th New York Times! Photo by Angela Burke Kunkel

…and her own picture book, Hugsby!

Join her book release party virtually at the Book Bar! (Check out her adorable Hugsby puppet!)

We are thrilled to announce Cuddlefish artist Heather Brockman Lee’s debut book written by the accomplished author Katey Howes!

And, congratulations to Heather Brockman Lee for winning the RMC-SCBWI’s Letters and Lines Portfolio Showcase!

And, finally for being spotlighted by her agency, EWLA:

Congratulations to our own Brigida Magro on winning the RMC-SCBWI Letters and Lines conference calendar contest! And congrats to Dustin Resch, Anden Wilder, Dow Phumiruk and Kaz Windness, on also getting into the calendar!

Brigida Magro

Which witch? Comparing digital drawing platforms

Join our Cuddlefish Gang members, Kaz Windness, Heather Brockman-Lee, & Stan Yan as they demo and compare Photoshop, Procreate, and Art Studio Pro. With witches as their subject, they share tricks to make your process faster and your illustrations better.

Kaz Windness:

Heather Brockman-Lee:

Stan Yan:

Cuddlefish Gang News – August 2020!

It seems not a Cuddlefish Gang News update passes that we’re not congratulating Dow Phumiruk for something, and this quarter is no exception!

Congratulations to Titan and the Wild Boars, illustrated by Dow for being nominated for the 2021 Rhode Island Children’s Book Award for kids in grades 3-5.

Artwork by Dow Phumiruk

Dow was also East West Literary’s featured illustrator in May!

But, we’re not done: we are thrilled about the recent announcement that Dow will be illustrating The Story of Tammy Duckworth by Christina Soontornvat for Candlewick!

Our own Lily Williams was on NPR with her Go With The Flow co-author Karen Schneemann about menstruation.…/go-with-the-flow-is-a-story-of-teens…/

Heather Brockman Lee’s beautiful illustrations were published in a recent issue of Babybug Magazine! Woohoo!

We are excited to introduce our newest member!

Brizida Magro is a Boulder, Colorado-based illustrator and educator. She teaches illustration classes at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Brizida holds a BFA in Illustration from Brigham Young University and an MFA in Graphic Design from Utah State University.
She is passionate about rock climbing, wandering the world and bringing stories to life. She works primarily in digital media, often with an analog touch that incorporates collage, ink, and china marker. She enjoys simplicity, whimsy, wee characters, and collecting vintage papers.

Raised by her grandmother and sister, she spent her childhood in a small Portuguese fishing town. Growing up, they would often make things by hand as a family. While her grandmother gardened and baked delicious cakes, she and her sister would spend time making clothes for their dolls and building twig shelters in the countryside.
Her childhood has greatly influenced her current work, which blends together the innocence of vintage children’s art, the naiveté of folk art, and frolicking adventures through mountains and deserts.

The artist is represented by the fine folks at The Bright Agency
Brigida Magro

Brizida is such a rock star that we barely have time to announce that she’s joined us and we are already congratulating her on getting a book deal, illustrating Saturday at the Food Pantry by Dian O’Neill for Albert Whitman!

Talking Travel and Taking Textures

by Dustin Resch @reschasketch

I’d like to talk about using abstracted photographs of real-world texture to bring character to digital artwork.

I am primarily a digital artist, for children’s book illustration and most of the other work I do as well. One of the common complaints about working in electronic media is that digital painting has a “look” – too smooth, too clearly painted with round brushes and filters and smoothing tools. Ideally, I want my digital painting to have the impasto and grit of a painting on canvas and board.  I want visible brush strokes, I want the piece to have clearly come from a human hand.

I work primarily with rough-edged brushes, whether in Photoshop or on my iPad Pro, to help keep things organic and painterly. I try to blend with color rather than with a blender tool as much as possible. But at the end of a piece, before my painting hits a printer or other people’s screens, I will almost always add some photographic texture.  I have scanned images of various aged papers, canvas textures, fabrics; every type of clothing I own has been photographed for the texture library (not as impressive as it sounds, I am almost entirely a t-shirt and blue jeans person) – my dogs’ fur and foot pads, the drywall in my garage, the door of my car where my wife’s car door has hit it a million times – found texture is everywhere. When used well, it adds not only a splash of grit and grunge, but also creates some happy accidents, and gives a piece a “lived-in” look that I prefer.

There are wonderful online resources to get texture that other people have photographed (I’ll start at if there’s something specific I need), if you’re careful about using images in the public domain or stock photography that you’re paying for. I enjoy having my texture come from my own life when possible though; it gives me a personal connection to the work.

In particular, now that we all carry very good high-resolution digital cameras everywhere we go (on our phones), it’s very easy to gather textures out in the world.  I haven’t traveled a whole lot of the world yet, but everywhere I go, I try to get some of the local surfaces photographed. I’ve got beach sand from St. Lucia, metal storage containers corroded by salt spray from the docks near Monterey, hundred-year-old multiply-painted wooden doors from New Orleans, concrete from the Hoover Dam, and cracked crosswalk paint from the Freedom Trail in Boston.

And when I need something extra, I’ve got the walls of the psych ward at Alcatraz.

Basically, I have made a habit of keeping my eyes open for the interesting decay of surfaces, anywhere I go. I gather the photos, then I try to keep them organized by place and date in my folders once they’re on the computer. I keep my working files in the cloud (on OneDrive but there are many other choices) so that I can grab them from whatever device I’m working on.

As for actually using these textures, it’s very easy in a software like Photoshop or my preferred iPad app called Art Studio Pro to use layer blend modes to overlay textures with a gentle touch.  You don’t want the texture to take over, just to add some flavor. Low opacity and blend modes like Soft Light and Overlay do the trick for me.  Here is an example.

This is a spread from a book I’m working on called Octavio and the Aliens, based on a real-life scuba diving adventure I had in Cozumel.  Here is the painting as I finished working on it:

It’s looking good to me – a little loose but still controlled, I like the lighting – the whole thing is maybe a little dark, but mostly the edges and flatter surfaces are just too clean and “digital”. Now it’s time to get textural.

Since this book is based on a very important thing that happened to me at a specific time and place, I’m thrilled to have texture photos that I took on this same trip to Cozumel, Mexico – my first ever dive trip just a few years ago. Photos of water are mostly reflection and don’t help all that much, but I was taking pictures of cracked paint on concrete and interesting stone patterns and thatched roofs on beach huts. Snapshots of the textures in the world at that place and time. Here’s one, from the wall of one of the resort bungalows:

I know that I can use this in an Overlay mode at low opacity to both texture the piece (sea water is full of specks and bubbles and microscopic organisms) and to actually brighten up the piece a bit – it’s a light, high-key image and the Overlay blend mode will pick up on that.  Here’s the painting with the photo on top with those settings:

A little brighter, with a little more grit.  I am rarely ever satisfied with just one overlay – it’s too easy sometimes to see what the original photograph was, and I don’t want that to be a thing that a reader notices – it’s just atmosphere.  So here’s another photo, from a sandy floor area near the dive shop. It’s not in perfect focus across the image, but often that actually helps, to have some blur and such. Often I will also use just a corner of an image that has the texture I want – this is a crop that is exactly what is going to lay on top of the illustration.

This one I’m going to set to the Soft Light blend mode, which is the one I use most commonly.  It lets most of the original image come right through and affects the lower layers in subtle ways.  Even so, when I first drop it in and switch to Soft Light, it looks like something horrible has happened:

But then we drop the opacity, like so:

After experimenting by dragging the opacity slider around, I settle on 14% opacity Soft Light, and I’m thrilled with the final product.

My painting now has atmosphere and some organic grit to it – suspended particles in the water, or a canvas I didn’t actually paint it on, just character like I wanted.  And I did that with photos that I took a few hundred yards away from the place where I saw the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, 20 feet underwater, the first time I was ever in the ocean at night. A book about an octopus in Cozumel is flavored by photos that I took in Cozumel. Not only do the images work and look like I want, but there’s a lovely sense of completion in being able to tie the real-life setting to the fanciful illustration in my story.  Here’s a close-up to see the texture overlays in action:

There doesn’t always have to be a meaning behind a texture you use. The aesthetics are always the most important, but it’s a nice feeling to tie things up with a bow and deepen your connection with your own story. I’m sure one day I’ll be illustrating a story about an intelligent refrigerator with a penguin best friend that are exploring Mars, and those Bourbon Street doorways and Alcatraz prison walls will be exactly I’m looking for.

Three Lessons From Rough Concept to Ready-to-Paint Drawing

by David Deen @DavidDeen3

Finished Cover Art

Going from a concept to a final artwork can be a mysterious affair. Because every artist has their own process, I can’t show you “how it’s done,” (no such thing exists). I can, however, show you how I do it. I’ll show you how I get from messy concept sketch to final ready-to-be-painted drawing. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes ugly, but hopefully somewhat informative. 

To the right is a painting I recently finished, and please note that all images can be clicked on to see them larger. But it didn’t start off ready to paint; first I had to come up with a concept and develop it until it’s ready. 

Just below you see the concept sketch, which lets us jump right into…

Lesson 1: Allow yourself to make ugly art.

Concept sketch

You know how people talk about finding the diamond in the rough? This is the rough. The point to a concept sketch is to find an idea, not to create polished artwork. That means that you’re using your artist’s eye to see the potential in the concept sketch. At least for me, good artwork is the end of a long process, and that process begins by allowing myself to make ugly (sometimes horrible) art.

The refinement comes later. For example, the creature reaching out from the right in the concept sketch was rough. What is that thing? A rat? A weasel? Spuds MacKenzie reaching out from the 80’s? NO! It’s a fox! Which you’d know if you could see into my mind’s eye. Which you can’t. It’s not even clear that I can draw what’s in my head. I need to develop these characters more before I know whether my ideas will work.

Above you see sketches for the fox character and the goblins. The fox is in a pretty good place, whereas you never see the final goblins; I’m working them out in my head, with sketches on the paper simply as an aide. The poses can change, but now I have real character with details and a feeling I can grab onto. I used the computer to add the new fox into the scene, below. 

Some things are still in the air: the main character, whatever he’s holding, the design of the creatures chasing the hero, etc. But the parts I needed to figure out in sketch are done. Next comes…

Lesson 2: Photo references.

When I was starting out many years ago, I thought that the use of photo references was for amateurs and wannabees. Real artists had enough anatomical knowledge and robust imaginations that they could bring forth everything they needed from their minds, fully formed, like Athena bursting from her father’s cranium. 

I thought this because I was young and stupid.

I was wrong, and my art improved many times over after I got past that stumbling block and began to use photo references. Quite simply, there is so much to anatomy, lighting, the draping of fabric, and more that few artists can conjure it all from thin air in a genuine way. For most of us, it won’t have the authenticity of an image based on carefully chosen photo references.

If you’re just starting out and need permission to use photo references and still feel like a real artists, you are now granted that permission. I use photo references, an so do most of the professional artists I know.

Back to this piece. My next step was obvious – go find some goblins to pose for the camera. When I couldn’t manage that, I did the next best thing – I got my children to pose. Seriously, children are fantastic for getting photo references of strange creatures. They love this kind of thing. They get into it with a passion. Look at those pictures of my younger son as the goblins. He jumped into that role and became those goblins. 

My thirteen year old allowed me to take a few pics, too.

Your project may call for you to cajole the help from friends and family, find online images, or even pay a professional model. Whatever your needs, don’t do what I once did and convince yourself that you can do well enough without. Find and use references.

At this point, I have a final concept and I can move on to creating the final underdrawing –i.e. the drawing to be painted over. I’ve worked out that I want the final to be 9½” x 15”. That fits the dimensions of a mass market book cover with bleed added around the edge, scaled up to a size that will let me get some good detail without taking too long to paint. You can see me working that out on the right side of the original concept sketch. Art math!

The problem is that the sketch is only a few inches across. The solution is…

Lesson 3: The Grid.

The grid method of recreating and enlarging has been around for at least several thousand years. The Egyptians used it. Medieval artists used it. And today, most children come across small versions of the grid method in activity books. I remember using it to recreate a Scooby Doo drawing in the parking lot of an Albertson’s when I was young.

If you haven’t used it, or at least not since you were a small child yourself, the concept is simple: you create a grid on the sketch, and a larger version of the same grid on the painting surface. Then you simply redraw what’s in each square.

To make the measuring easy, and because a one-inch-square box seems about right for the amount of detail to transfer at a time, I use a ruler to draw lines one inch apart all the way down and across my drawing. Then I scan the sketch onto the computer, open it in a Photoshop-style program, set the live portion of the sketch to the same dimension as the intended painting, and use the guides and line tools to create the same grid (on a separate layer from the drawing itself). I print this out, then number the lines from top to bottom and left to right on both the printed sketch and the final painting. You could, alternately, number the boxes between the lines; it doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.

Final inks.

In the image to the left, you can see the gridded sketch, and on the right, the final drawing. The numbers are visible down and across the sides. Each square (for instance, the one starting at 3 across, 5 down) contains the same thing as the sketch, only refined and developed for the final painting. 

There you go. You’re ready to use the grid method as well as a professional artist. Or child. Or Egyptian.

Until next time, go make ugly art. Then make it beautiful.

Celebrating our Cuddlefish Gang News!

May 7, 2020

First, we would like to congratulate Dow Phumiruk on yet one more accolade for illustrating the critically-acclaimed Counting on Katherine, which was recently listed by Essence in an article ”Here Are The 50 Must-Read Black Children’s And Young Adult Books Of The Past 50 Years”, and was selected for the UKLA Teacher’s Book Awards (Information Books 3 -14+).

And, we’re also excited to announce that Dow’s adorable pet monster book, Hugsby became available for pre-order in February

…as well as a book she’s illustrating for Andrea Beaty, called One Girl.

Second, we would like to congratulate Heather Brockman Lee on winning March’s SCBWI DrawThis! contest with this stunning piece of artwork:

Third, we would like to congratulate Kaz Windness on the exciting new of the acquisition of her picture book, Swim, Jim! by Simon and Schuster.

In addition, we are excited to learn that Kaz Windness is also a finalist for the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Mother Goth Rhymes!

Finally, Kaz’s Bats art graces the cover of the VISNews magazine she’s interviewed in.

Lily Williams continues to receive accolades for the graphic novel she co-authored and illustrated, Go With The Flow, being mentioned in The Washington Post article, “If your child likes comics, here’s a book list to help navigate the shelves”

…as well as receiving AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books for her illustration work on Can You Crack the Code!

Finally, we would like to welcome Patricia Clock to the Cuddlefish Gang!  

Patricia Clock is an author/illustrator and graphic designer. She is a native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she grew up surrounded by the ocean, the mountains, and a culture that is full of color. She graduated from Faculdade da Cidade with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Graphic Design and Acting, she worked in the art department for Sony Music Entertainment Brazil, creating CD covers and marketing materials before moving to the United States in 2005. Denver, Colorado, was her first home far away from home, but after a year, she moved to northern California with her husband, where they had two children.

In 2018, after moving back to Denver, Colorado, she started working at her neighborhood elementary school, Willow Creek, and discovered her passion for children’s literature and decided to focus on Children’s picture book illustrations, and became a member of SCBWI.

She loves her family, to laugh, chocolate, white sand beaches, horses, dancing, and be with friends.

Beginning Your Career as a Comic Book Illustrator– Stan Yan Interview

Cuddlefish member, Kaz Windness has started a series of informational YouTube videos for illustrators. One of her recent interviews was with fellow Cuddlefish member, Stan Yan and fellow RMCAD instructor, so we have had them combine their powers to create this!

Stan Yan reveals tips and tricks for breaking into the comics and graphic novel field. What you need in your portfolio, plus best ways to get seen, get an agent, and find work.

Stan Yan at San Diego Comic-Con!

Stan Yan couldn’t believe this was the 50th San Diego Comic-Con, and his EIGHTEENTH year of exhibiting! And, while he didn’t exceed his record sales from last year, there were a lot of things that made this particular year particularly special.

Firstly, his good friend and fellow Cuddlefish, Kaz Windness, who was debuting her convention exclusive edition of Mother Goth Rhymes, invited him to participate in a panel about horror in comics, which Stan said was great fun, and featured comics legend, Trina Robbins! 

Secondly, there were fun meals with friends almost every night, including some with Kaz, her agent Timothy Travaglini, kidlit superstar, Salina Yoon and her phenomenal artist husband, Christopher Polentz!

Thirdly, although revenues weren’t up, he was extremely happy to say that he sold 37 copies of There’s a Zombie in the Basement this year (not to mention almost 200 buttons and stickers)! GO STAN!!!

Of course, he doesn’t want to understate how many great caricature customers there were! He received 40 zombie, pony, and other character commissions (62 subjects), finishing 31 (50 subjects), and will attempt to finish and ship the remaining drawings to folks over the next two weeks. Sounds like Stan is going to be a busy guy!

You can view his complete gallery of drawings from Comic-Con at, which will be updated as his illustrations are completed! Brilliant work as always Stan!