Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 16, 2011

Illustrator Saturday – Susan Mitchell

After graduating with a degree in Drawing and Painting from Edinburgh College of Art, Susan had various jobs—unfortunately most of them had nothing to do with illustration. Her most creative jobs were working as a scenic artist’s assistant at an old theatre and running art workshops for community groups.

Then, in 1994, Susan emigrated with her husband from Scotland to Montreal. Before leaving, she visited a gypsy fortune teller who said that she would move across the water, have an only son and illustrate children’s books. This wonderful prediction encouraged her to pursue illustration as a career instead of just dreaming about it.

Susan now works full-time as an illustrator and has over sixteen books published to date. When she is not drawing or painting, she loves to sew and make soft toys that resemble her artwork.

I received my first book contract to illustrate The Christmas Pop-Up Present for Simon & Schuster in 2004. I’ve been fortunate to have worked steadily ever since, illustrating eighteen books to date.

Sometimes the publisher decides how the manuscript is laid out and sometimes it is left to the illustrator to decide. When it’s up to me, I start to lay out where I would like the illustrations to go, making sure I leave plenty of space for the text. This process can take quite a while and there is a lot of tracing and erasing and tracing again.

Once it is starting to look something like a book, I send it off to the publisher for approval. We then usually go over things via email or phone. There are always changes and new ideas that pop up in the process, but once the roughs are approved, I go ahead and produce much tighter drawings. I use these final drawings as a base for my paintings, so the publisher can get a good idea from these how the book will finally look.

Rough Sketch.

Final Sketch.

Finished page.

Here is a spread from Claire and the Unicorn. The story is about a little girl who has a stuffed unicorn called Capricorn. When she falls asleep, he comes alive and she goes on magical adventures with him.

I didn’t feel that this looked dreamy enough so I did another version:

Once the final sketches have been sent in and approved (sometimes there are a few more tiny changes) then I begin painting. Revised interior double page spread.

Here is the final painting:

Character sketch.

I paint traditionally in watercolours or acrylic. When I receive a book contract, I read over the manuscript a few times then leave it for a few days and let the characters float around in my head. I then get out my sketchbook and do lots of rough sketches and start developing how I want the characters to look. These are some character sketches for Claire and the Unicorn, written by B.G. Hennessy. Claire was based on how my niece Sadie looked when she was two. She always had her hair in wispy bunches and I thought it was so cute.

Fairy study.

Interior page from book.

Illustrators:  I bet all of you would love to illustrate one of Jane Yolen’s Books.

Interior Page.

Often people are under the impression that authors and illustrators work very closely together when making a book. Actually it is quite rare. Generally all communication is through the publisher. I’ll sometimes hear from an author once the artwork is complete, which is nice. It feels good to know that they are happy with my interpretation of their words.

I have had the opportunity to work very closely with an author on a couple of occasions, including with my husband, Paul Bracegirdle. He generally writes for older kids—middle grade and young adult books—but a few years ago, we got to work together on a fun book called Comet Can’t Wait for Christmas.

I had originally created the Comet character years before for a Christmas card design and had always wanted to do something more with her.

Cover and Interior Page –

Comet gets really excited about Christmas and is planning her gifts for all of her reindeer buddies. Here she is coming home with a sled for Donder and some skis for Dasher.

It was really fun developing a book from the very beginning. I enjoyed the whole process of brainstorming and sharing ideas, watching Paul putting the text together and creating a few dummies. This book went through a lot of changes—originally it was going to be a lift-the-flap book, but finally came out as a sticker book. Seeing both of our names on the cover was a special day.

Comet Can’t Wait for Christmas is a novelty book, which usually has five or six spreads. A thirty-two page picture book usually has fifteen or sixteen spreads and can take me about three or four months to paint. This makes a total of five to six months including the creation of the roughs and final sketches, so it is a labour of love. I like to build up watercolour in layers to get deep, rich colours and I also love including tiny details that I hope children will notice. Sometimes I sneak in an extra little character that appears throughout the book, or tell a secret secondary story with pictures.

For example, Christmas Lights is a very cute little novelty book about all the excitement leading up to Christmas. It is beautifully told in rhyme and with a press of a button, lights twinkle on every page (a real hit when I do school visits!).  I thought it would be fun to add an extra layer to the story about what the little girl in the story really, really wants for Christmas—a toy rabbit. The rabbit appears in a shop window; in a toy catalogue that the little girl is looking at; and in the dinner scene, where the girl is wearing a homemade Christmas hat with a snow bunny on it. And guess what she gets on Christmas morning? Adding details like that is so much fun for me—I don’t know if everyone will spot them, but I know that it adds a bit of extra magic.

I am inspired by so many things such as nursery rhymes:

And Fairy Tales

My most recent titles are Reaching, a picture book written by Judy Ann Sadler (Kids Can Press, Fall 2011) and The Little Christmas Elf written by Nikki Shannon Smith (Random House, Fall 2011).

What FUN two books with Paula Dean! (Kathy)

I love to work in watercolour but when I have the time, I like to experiment with other media. I have always loved sewing and making things and most recently have been trying needle felting. The process involves stabbing pieces of wool roving repeatedly with a special needle, shaping and sculpting it until you make a solid, three dimensional character. It sounds a little strange but is quite magical the way the wool transforms from a piece of fluff into a solid form.

Magazine cover above and below are examples of the stuff toys Susan makes.  Don’t you just love them?

I found it a perfect medium to make characters that echo my illustrations and once I made a bunch of characters, it was a natural progression to make little worlds for them and then photograph them. I would love to illustrate a book with this process.

I have an ever-growing collection of picture books, however I can’t use my son as an excuse anymore as he is fourteen! They are a constant source of inspiration for me. As a little child, I didn’t really think about who made the books or the work that went in to them. I just knew that they were magical things that transported me to another place. I also never imagined that one day I would get to do this for a living and it is something that I never cease to be grateful for.

Susan is married to children’s author P.J. Bracegirdle and, just as the gypsy foretold, has an only son named Ewan.

Thank you Susan for sharing your process and your journey with us.  Doesn’t the picture of her at the top remind you of Snow White, with the butterfly and animals around her?  I wonder if she did that on purpose? 

Feel free to leave a comment for Susan.  I am sure she’d love to hear your thoughts.  You can visit with Susan by clicking this link: 

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Good heavens – your pictures are utterly charming! I was immediately swept back to the whimsy of my own childhood. Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful!


    • K.M.,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I know you must be very busy with all the things you do.



  2. Stunning work, Susan!! And I love your stuffed animals–they are too cute. I hope you do use them to illustrate a book.


    • Mary,

      They are cute. And I love how she used some of them in scenes.

      See you soon,



  3. Wonderful, wonderful work, Susan!!! I am such a big fan. Congratulations on such a great interview!


    • Shirley,

      I think Susan probably added a new fans on Saturday. I agree her work is gorgeous. Thanks for leaving a comment.



  4. This artwork is too adorable for words 🙂 The “Pop-up” present looks SO clever! And I love seeing all the sketches along with the finished artwork. Thanks for sharing your terrific work, Susan 🙂


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