Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 12, 2011

Illustrator Saturday – Katia Wish

I met Katia Wish at the SCBWI Conference held at the end of January, after she won the 2011 Tomie dePaola Award from the SCBWI.  She says, “Winning the Tomie dePaola Award is the greatest and most unbelievable award I have received.”

As soon as I saw her work, I knew I had to show her off to all of you.   She is a freelance illustrator based in Boston, MA. She moved here from the former Soviet Union about eleven years ago and is a delightful person.

Here is how it all started.

As someone who didn’t begin to work on illustration until I was 24, I can say that with hard work it is never too late to develop the skills necessary to become an illustrator.  I was born and grew up in Belarus and I absolutely loved painting with watercolor and gouache when I was very young. This is how most people begin their story. What is different in my story, though, is that I did very little drawing and painting until the age of twenty-four, when I started attending the Massachusetts College of Art & Design. Why was there such a gap?  I always wanted to paint, but I had no idea how to apply myself and having a career in arts was out of the question in my home country. So I went to the Linguistic University instead and studied English.  It was only when I came to the US that I realized a career in art was possible.

My love affair and obsession with illustration began when I enrolled at MassArt. I had little idea what illustration was when I came to school, but soon enough I couldn’t think of anything but illustration. I had no figure drawing classes before art school, so I was one of the worst students in that regard, but I was stubborn, so I attended many more figure drawing sessions than were required.  My desire to learn and experiment with different media was frightening. I tried pretty much everything: watercolor, gouache, scratchboard, ink, cut paper, even 3-D illustration. Constant dissatisfaction with my artwork and the sense that I was getting a late start made me work harder. 

Right after graduation with BFA in Illustration with Illustration Department Honors, I went to the Illustration Academy, an intense seven-week program led by renowned American illustrators. It was a very challenging and life changing experience. They put an overwhelming emphasis on following all steps of the process for creating an illustration. I think the best part of the program was that we were constantly together, students and instructors, learning something new every hour of the day by watching the demonstrations, listening to the presentations, paying attention to what other students are doing, asking questions, giving answers, etc. I felt that my knowledge and skills stepped onto a whole new level while at the Illustration Academy.

Looking back what I accomplished for these five and a half years still surprises me. Receiving Tomie dePaola award from SCBWI award was an official recognition of my work and permanently made me believe in myself and in the value of hard work. 

Below is the piece that won the award.

Now let’s get to process. I am old school in every respect when it comes to process and choice of media. I believe in process and following all the steps. If I a skip a step, it usually results in having issues while working on the final illustration.

I absolutely love traditional media (I use watercolor and gouache) and I really hope that I will never have to switch to digital. Painting is my favorite part of the whole illustration process. I addition to painting, I also do 3-D sculptures and try to find a good application for that skill (character design or private commissions for small – scale sculptures).

The Process of Creating an Illustration:

1. Idea generation. 

There is no definite formula on how I come up with ideas. Usually I have a very vague idea, and I just right down whatever comes to mind, doodle without any censorship.  A new idea is always at the back of my mind, and it starts to take shape within hours or days. My best ideas never came just from sitting at the desk, they came when I was walking, taking a shower, swimming, talking to someone or falling asleep.

I strongly believe in tapping into your memories, life experience, places you visited, photos you saw, etc. for generating ideas.  I grew up in Belarus, so I think it makes me different just because I was exposed to different things growing up. Traveling and keeping a sketchbook or camera is a good way to build your visual library. I am personally inspired by city life, I think it is such a great source of material, you just need to pay attention to everything that happens around you, people, architecture, weather, events, patterns, textures, noise, interactions, etc. I also like to look though photography books, children’s books, illustration annuals, go to the museums, etc.   I always try to test my ideas on my husband and friends. I strive to have an element of surprise or humor in an illustration, whether visually or conceptually.  I try to remember who my audience is and not make the illustrations too girly; boys read books too.

2. Thumbnail sketches.

I don’t particularly enjoy this part of the process, but I force myself to do it anyway. Doing that allows me to explore different points of view (above, below, from a side, straight on). I play with different elements; SHAPES are very important, smaller, larger, repetitive, random, overlap, etc.  By shapes I mean that a figure is one shape, each large background element is a shape, and large objects are shapes.  Then, you can move around the shapes to explore different compositions.  The challenge is to stay loose, so it’s good to use a very soft pencil.  Do NOT pay attention to details at this stage of the process, but only to large shapes.

The thumbnails should be very small, very general, so that it only takes a minute or two to finish one. Nobody has to see them. Then I choose the best five, share it with people, and see what they respond to. I play with the format of the page: vertical, horizontal, extreme vertical, extreme horizontal, breaking the borders of the page, etc. I look through children’s books, annuals, and portfolios of established illustrators, fine artists, to get inspiration on how they deal with composition. Composition is very important; if it works on a small scale, it would work on a large scale.

3. Reference photos.

Reference photos are taken as a point of departure. They help me to see the gesture of the pose, facial expressions, hands, etc. Ideally, I would have a model for every age group, ethnicity and body type, but in reality I always have myself and my husband to pose for reference photos. As I get better at drawing from life, figure drawing, photos, etc, I am able to draw faster and more accurately, accurately not in the sense of having a perfect, realistic drawing, but accurately in the sense that a drawing is believable and exists its own right.

4. Final line drawing.

After I’m done with thumbnails and collected all the necessary reference material (reference photos, photos of what different places, objects, and people look like), I’m ready to work on the final line drawing. I print out an enlarged thumbnail sketch, get my tracing paper and get to work. What happens next is piles and piles of tracing paper. If I have several figures in an illustration, I work on them separately, drawing and redrawing a figure using tracing paper until I get it right. It could be really frustrating, but it has to be done. Then I put all the different pieces of tracing paper together to form a final drawing.

5. Value study.

It’s very easy to skip this step and jump into the color study or even final painting right away. I’ve tried skipping this step before, but usually find myself struggling with the final. A value study is a good way to establish what is important, where the eye of the viewer goes first, second, etc, to establish the flow, value pattern of the picture. It’s good to have dark on light, light on dark going on in the picture. The most important element of the picture should have the highest contrast of value or color in the picture. So if the character or his hair, clothes, etc is dark, it should be on a very light background. If the character’s clothing is red, a green background would give the strongest contrast and the character will stand out. This is an extremely simplified version of this rule; usually it is much more nuanced. The most dynamic pictures usually have a wide range of values in the picture (light, medium, dark). I’ve seen plenty of artists who stay in the middle of the value range, though, and have absolutely delightful illustrations. This rule could be ignored if done successfully.

6. Color studies.

This is my absolutely favorite part of the illustration process. I do them in the medium I intend to use (watercolor and gouache), not digitally. It’s so enjoyable for me that sometimes I get carried away with color studies and spend too much time on them. I am constantly looking through books and different artists for inspiration for new color palettes.  It’s helpful to learn as much information as possible on color theory.  After you know this, you can break the rules.  Constantly pay attention to how established artists use color in an effective way and analyze why it is effective.

7. Final illustration.

This is the time when all the hard work in the previous stages comes together. If I have done all the steps and resolved all the issues beforehand, this part should be smooth sailing. I like working on the original, but I’m also nervous on how it’ll come out. It’s amazing to see a new illustration emerge and take shape. No matter how much you envision it, it is still so different and unexpected and you are the creator of it. Every time I finish an illustration, I wish it were better. I think this is what keeps me going and I have this burning desire to always be better at what I do.


I don’t believe in talent. I believe in hard work and learning from your own mistakes and just spending countless hours drawing and painting.

I also wanted to thank my husband, my mom and my husband’s mom for their continuing support and encouragement. I would not be where I am without their overwhelming belief in me.

Katia’s Studio and paper clay sculptures she created.

Katia uses her scultures to make 3-D illustration.

My friends from the Illustration Academy and I started a closed Book Illustration Critique Forum.  If you are very determined in getting better at picture making and are looking for an illustration critique forum, please contact me at

Hope you enjoyed meeting Katia, seeing her artwork and learning a little about her process.  Visit Katia at to see more or visit to view more of her process and sketches.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Kathy, I’m so glad you met Katia and got her to share this amazing process and work with us! I found her “lesson” very beneficial. I do most of this, but not always to this degree. Her hard work AND talent are so evident, and it’s easy to see why she won the award.

    Katia, if you’re reading this, I do agree that hard work is necessary to excel at a craft, but talent is that “x factor” that can make work shine. Yours shines! Thanks so much for sharing everything!


    • Donna,

      I agree. There is more than just hard work in Katia’s art.



    • Donna,

      Did you see yesterday’s post? Katia is coming to the conference in une, so you will meet her and she’ll get to see your artwork. You are going to exhibit something, right?



      • Hey, Kathy 🙂

        Actually, I wasn’t thinking to exhibit anything. I really wouldn’t know what to pick and I haven’t been concentrating on the illustrating end of things (lately). I look forward to possibly meeting Katia though! (I didn’t read yesterday’s post and only pluck ones to read in the hopes of eventually catching up! lol).



      • Donna,

        I wasn’t think about doing it either, until today. It doesn’t cost anything to put in a piece of your artwork. Who knows someone could fall in love with it and ask you to do something for them. Heck, I have even sold something at one of these, which was a nice surprise.

        Think about it,



  2. Absolutely incredible story, illustrations, and description of your processes! Thanks so much for sharing. Last year I began thumbnail ideas for the Tomie DePaola contest… It’s so cool to see and ‘meet’ the winner!


    • Kathy,

      You going to be able to come in une to the conference? I hope so.



  3. Donna Marie and Kathy,
    Thank you so much for all the kind words and encouragement! It means a lot to me.
    Good luck with all your projects!


  4. Those value studies are, well, invaluable. And, I liked seeing the reference photos. i have so many of myself playing characters.


    • Nathan,

      Thanks for stopping back to visit again. It’s amazing how everyone does wonderful artwork, but all are so different.



  5. Really enjoying the depth of information and process on these illustrator posts.


  6. Love her work, I want to fall into these luminous little worlds she creates. 🙂


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