Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 1, 2011

Illustrator Saturday – Sarah Chalek

I graduated from Syracuse University with a BFA in illustration in 2010. Shortly after graduation, I got my first freelance job as a children’s book illustrator. The book, “It’s Almost Time”, written by Debbie Bernstein LaCroix and published by Kane Miller, is in stores now. For the past nine months, I have been a storyboard/concept artist at The Studio NYC, a visual communications studio. At the studio, I collaborate with 23 talented illustrators, animators, and directors to create art for the advertising and animation industries. I am learning animation and visual effects software, and hope to work on a feature animation someday.

My favorite medium is watercolors. I have been painting with watercolors since childhood, under the instruction of Joel Popadics at the Ridgewood Art Institute in New Jersey. My paintings have been featured in the American Watercolorists Magazine’s Cover Contest, and the Society of Illustrators’ Student Show. Up until my senior year of college, my portfolio was a mixed bag of watercolor portraits and landscapes, and printmaking work. One of my professors, Roger De Muth, told me I needed to pick a direction and focus on getting a job. I chose to direct my illustrations towards the children’s book market. It suited me well because I love kids and like painting animals, not that every children’s book is an animal book, but it worked. Also, children’s book publishers seem to like watercolor paintings.

Since working at The Studio, I made the transition from watercolors to Photoshop. I still enjoy painting with watercolors in my free time, but Photoshop is more conducive to animation because of the layers.

Is It’s Almost Time, your first published picture book?

It’s Almost Time is my first, and only, published picture book so far.

How did you get your first book contract?

I got the book contract by sending out postcards. I sent 1 postcard each to 50 different publishers. A couple weeks later, I got an email from Kane/Miller Book Publishers asking “Have you done any sort of professional children’s book illustration? (And another question, I suppose: Would you like to?)”. It was extremely lucky.

You shared your thumbnail sketches for It’s Almost Time. How many steps did you go through before you got to the finished thumbnails?

Before I made the thumbnails, before I even got the manuscript or contract, my editor asked me to send sketches of animals interacting with clocks. I sent one page of sketches with sweet scenes like a mother monkey rocking a baby monkey on the pendulum of a clock. The other page was completely chaotic; a horse in race-car patterned pajamas waking up to a room full of alarm clocks going off. She liked the that one. I was fortunate to have a lot of freedom making the illustrations. There are very few words in the book, so the pictures tell a lot of the story. I got to choose which animals would interact with the clocks. I chose the horse because of that first sketch I made (I’ve always like horses too), and the bird because it was small and could fly through the scenes.

Before I made the thumbnails I gathered most of my reference photos. I went to Sutton Clock Shop and Fanelli Anique Timepieces in NYC. The owners were really nice and let me take pictures of all the clocks. I gathered animal photos online. I might have done even rougher thumbnails first with just geometric shapes to lay out the composition. I didn’t show or save those though.

Do you use any special materials when you start working on an illustration? Type of paper, pencils, sprays, etc.?

When I painting with watercolors I use Dailer Rowney paints and 300 lb hot pressed Arches paper. I don’t think the brand matters all that much. I stick to what I’m used to because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. 300 lb paper does make a big difference though.

Did you sell your artwork or illustrations, before your first book?

In high school I actually had a small business painting dog portraits. In college, I sold a couple of portraits (of people). In the year after graduating from college I focused completely on children’s books, and then I got a job as a storyboard artist. I haven’t had much time to paint for myself since my full time job, but I’m trying.

Do you ever mix materials, such as watercolor and ink or watercolor with digital?

I mix watercolor and Photoshop a lot. Sometimes just to re-touch my watercolor paintings, and sometimes I scan watercolor textures and drop them into my Photoshop paintings. I know a lot of artists scan their sketches and paint over them in Photoshop. I do that at home, but it’s unnecessary at work because I am able to sketch on the Cintiq. Sometimes when I’m feeling adventurous I paint oils over acrylics, but it’s been a long time since I made an oil painting. I don’t like cleaning the brushes.

How do you promote yourself?

I promote myself by sending out postcards, going to events, entering contests, and posting art on my website and blog. Last year I was a member of the SCBWI, and I have had a couple clients find me though their website. I’ve held back on the promotion lately because I am doing plenty of illustration at my full time job.

When did you start painting? Do you come from a creative family? Any other illustrators in your family tree?

I’ve been painting since pre-school with a crayola watercolor set. I remember I was really reluctant to replace the crayola set with professional quality paint in middle school. I’m stubborn about things like that. In middle school I took watercolor classes with Joel Popadics at the Ridgewood Art Institute in New Jersey. Then in high school I took summer classes at FIT and RISD. My high school also offered AP art classes which I took. I studied illustration at Syracuse University under many great professors there.

There are no professional artists in my immediate family, but my Grandma is a very good painter. She does amazing palette knife oil paintings and needlepoint work. She taught me how to mix colors with crayons when I was a kid.

Do you have an artist rep.?

No, I don’t have a rep.

Tell us about Kane/Miller Book Publishers.

Kane/Miller Book Publishers is a division of EDC Publishing, specializing in award-winning children’s books from around the world. They are known for taking books from other countries and bringing them to the U.S., but as of recent, they are publishing new books by American writers. They are located in San Diego, so all of our correspondence has been through e-mail. I haven’t met the author, Debbie Bernstein LaCroix, either because she lives in Iowa. We started corresponding on facebook once the book was complete.

The next three illustrations all have bears. Are these part of a book?

The illustrations with bears are part of a book dummy that I made last year. I wrote a story about a bear who fights her instinct to hibernate and stays awake all winter to paint a masterpiece on the walls of her cave. I created sketches for the whole book and a few finished paintings, and sent the story to publishers. Although I got nice feedback, none wanted to pick it up. I was going to revise the story, but other projects took over. Maybe I will revisit this in the future.

You titled this illustration below, Budapest. Is that where it was done?

Budapest was one of the cities I visited on spring break in 2009 when I was studying abroad in Italy. I loved all the places I traveled to, but didn’t feel as though I could live permanently in any of them…until I got to Budapest. I felt instantly at home. My ancestors are from Budapest and it’s a great city with thermal baths, caves, beautiful architecture, and amazing food. It also happened to be Hungarian Independence Day while I was there, so I had great reference photos of the parade. My painting professor in Italy gave us an assignment to do a piece relating to “home”, so I painted this. It’s funny because the painting was exhibited in Italy and people kept telling me I got the flag wrong because the Hungarian flag is the same colors horizontally.

I absolutely love the giraffes. In fact from the moment I first saw this illustration, it has been on my mind. What was your inspiration for the illustration? Will is be part of a book?

Thank you! My senior year of college I had a really broad assignment to illustrate animals playing musical instruments. I had a bunch of ideas that I sketched out, and I liked the giraffes best because of the way the sousaphones wrap around their necks. It was purely visual and a lot of fun to make.

You mention that you have made the change from Watercolor to Photoshop. Of the illustrations you sent, which ones were painted digitally?

I think all of the illustrations I sent you were painted with watercolors. The newer work on my blog is mostly Photoshop. All of the illustrations from It’s Almost Time were done in watercolors. I retouched them in Photoshop only to fix mistakes. For example, my Dad is very mathematical and he looked at the first spread with the gears and said “these gears could never work!” He was right. They made no sense. Rather than re-do the entire painting, I just painted over a couple of the gears in Photoshop, so they look like they can spin now.

I really like the textures in a watercolor painting and it’s hard to replicate digitally. It’s also easier on my eyes to stare at a paper instead of a screen all day. Mostly, I was attached to the idea of having one original, hard copy of my artwork. I’m getting over that attachment though because Photoshop has so many benefits. It’s faster and easier to make changes, and having everything on a separate layer makes it easy to animate the illustrations later.

Do you have a graphic tablet? If so which one and do you use it with graphic software other than Photoshop? How big is it? Do you think bigger is better?

I work full time now at The Studio, NYC with six other illustrators and many animators. All of the illustrators use Cintiq tablets. I’m spoiled now. It’s really hard to draw with my Intuos at home after using the Cintiq at work all day. The Cintiq at work is the biggest one Wacom makes. I would say bigger is better. When the screen is small, you have to zoom in too much and I like to be able to see the whole picture while I’m painting.

I use only Photoshop for digital painting. I’ve never experimented with Corel Painter because we use Photoshop at The Studio. I’m pretty capable with After Effects now, and I’m learning Maya, Nuke, and Mari simultaneously.

Any tips that would help illustrators who want to try transition to digital.

My advice to illustrators wanting to transition to digital is to be very patient and don’t get frustrated. Learning new software can be slow, so you need to have a positive attitude even when it’s not working. Sometimes I think “what’s the point of learning this now when there are high school students who are already better at this software than me?” That’s like saying “What’s the point of waking up in the morning if people in Japan are already awake?” Just do it.
Also, do your own project. Don’t just follow tutorials. When you’re working on your own project, you run into unexpected problems and you learn more. Learn the lingo and Google all your questions. Creative Cow is very helpful. A Dummies book is nice to have too.

Where do you see you career going? More children’s books? More animation? Something else? Both?

Right now I feel like I am trying to learn ten things at once. My goal is to work on a feature animated film some day, hopefully with The Studio. Another children’s book would be great to do also.

Making a cockroach look cute is difficult.

I hate cockroaches, so I was hesitant to do this project at first. I think if I came across this one though, I wouldn’t be so scared. They are illustrations for a charming story by Kim Gelnaw.

You sent a few caricatures. Did you do them for a magazine?

No, unfortunately they were never in a magazine. A couple years ago, I interned at MAD Magazine and the Art Director, Sam Viviano, is a great caricature artist. I asked him to teach me to draw caricatures, and he said I should start by drawing everyone in the office. It was a really intimidating task, especially when I had to draw Sam, but I discovered I like caricatures. I kept going for a while and painted the cast of 30 Rock.

Outside of art, my interests include food, baking, whistling, dogs, and traveling. During college, I studied abroad in Florence, Italy for a semester. I lived with a retired couple who had a passion for cooking and cooked amazing three course Italian dinners every night. Jealous?

Side story: I tried to bake them an apple pie on the last night as a thank you, but it proved more difficult than expected. I knew the supermarket wouldn’t have Crisco, so I had looked up online how to say “vegetable shortening” in Italian. I found a website that said “Vegetable shortening: vedi sotto” and jotted it down. However, “vedi sotto” really just meant “scroll down”, and an alternate meaning is “look under”, as in “look under my dress”, so when I went to the supermarket asking “where is…look under my dress!” I quickly had a huge crowd of concerned Italians gathered around me. One old man said “I will call my English friend to help!” and pretty soon they were all passing me cell phones with Englishmen on the line to try to figure out what I needed. Needless to say, they don’t have vegetable shortening in Italy. They don’t have pie tins either. The pie turned out a mess and when I told my host mother I wanted to bake for her reaction was just “why?”. I enter a pie baking competition every year now and always lose, but I won’t stop. I am on a mission to bake the perfect pie.

I have an 8 year old Shih Tzu named Buster. He lives with my parents in New Jersey since I moved to an apartment in Astoria, New York last June. I miss having a dog, though not too much because at The Studio we have three dogs: a Havanese, a Belgian Shepherd, and a Dachshund. One of the most random things I pride myself on is my whistling ability. A few months ago I made my debut as a professional whistler when I was asked to whistle the song of an evil sparrow for an animated short we are making. So, you could say I am an illustrator AND a professional whistler.

Hope you enjoyed visiting with Sarah as much as I did. Which one is your favorite? You can see more of Sarah’s work at

Talk tomorrow,



  1. These illustrations are so colorful and animated, it’s impossible not to enjoy them! And it’s so seldom you see a horse (they’ve always been my favorite animal, too, though prairie dogs have become a biggie for me!) as the “lead” in a picture book.

    Sarah, your thumbnails are SO detailed. How large is a page? Mine are usually very tiny initially. Thanks SO much for sharing this!


  2. I like your personal story and your fun illustrations. Keep doing what you’re good at !



  3. Thanks Donna! I fit 8 thumbnails on an 8.5×11″ sheet of paper. They aren’t very well drawn, but a little bit of shading makes them look more detailed than they are.


  4. Thanks Kelly!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: