Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 29, 2011

Illustrator Saturday – Mary Uhles

This week we have the very talented illustrator Mary Reaves Uhles. I know you are going to enjoy your visit with her. Mary has worked for over a decade doing illustration for children. Her pieces have been featured in books and magazines around the world. Prior to beginning her career as a freelance illustrator, Mary worked as an animator on projects for Warner Brothers and Fisher-Price Interactive. To this day her work features a cinematic quality essential to bringing characters to life. Her illustrations have been featured in multiple publishing showcases in the South and she was featured in the 2005 edition of New Voices Exhibition. Reproductions of her work are currently represented by ZaPow Gallery in Asheville, NC. A PAL member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mary lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee.

Here is Mary and her Process:

This is a piece I did for Somersault Magazine. I start with a thumbnail sketch that is pretty loose usually its only about 2 x 3 inches.

The purpose is to just get the “major players” in the right composition. Then often I will scan in this small thumbnail and enlarge it in photoshop to the correct size. If I feel I need to refine the sketch more I’ll print it out from the enlarged thumbnail, trace over it on a light table and refine it that way. I don’t always do that step because I actually try to avoid tracing over a sketch more than 2 times – I think it drains the life from a sketch – but I did with this illustration because there were a lot of characters to include:

I trace the sketch onto the painting surface using saral paper, which is a kind of carbon paper. If it’s a very loose sketch that I’m transferring then I refine it directly on the painting surface. I paint on both hot press and cold press illustration board depending on what the assignment calls for. I used to paint almost exclusively on hot press Crescent 215 board, until earlier this year I was given an assignment where I had to make the illustration look like a 1930’s WPA poster. The hot press just couldn’t capture this, the slick surface causes the paint to pool up. So I tried cold press and just loved the richness of the color. I had already decided to update my portfolio for this year’s SCBWI LA Conference with 5 new illustrations and decided to create all 5 on cold press Arches 140# paper.

Anyway once the drawing is on the board, and I have refined it there as much as I want, I do what I call a “tone map.” I really believe that it’s the lights and darks in a piece that create the drama and sense of story so I go over the whole piece in graphite trying to bring out the real darks and lights, then its much easier when I go back with paint to know where to go heavy. I’m in the middle of the tone map here:

I”m used to painting watercolor on hot press which means that you can’t really build up layer after layer of color, after about 5 layers of most colors the hot press starts to let the paint pick back up on your brush (greens are especially problematic on this) so I’ve learned if I want something to be dark I have to go dark right away. Building the tone map under my piece makes it easier to see how the tone is working and is much more forgivable than the paint, I can always erase or add another layer of pencil without having to worry about it being permanent. Happily working on cold press I have learned that I CAN put down many layers of color without worry of the surface rebelling on me…. but I still do my tone map.

Once I”ve got the darks and lights where I like them, I start to paint with watercolors. I don’t have the fanciest watercolor, I use Cotman’s and Grumbacher. Here’s my palette.

But I do have some nice brushes that I jealously guard…. they are Winsor Newton Red Sable. If you paint watercolor I believe you must have a brush that responds to even the lightest touch. Painting with a high quality brush is like driving a european sports car, the brush gives you fantastic control. I don’t usually do color studies though i do sometimes wash on a few colors over the sketch if I really am trying to decide between two different colors. I always keep a copy of the sketch taped on the wall in front my table.

Here are some details from that illustration:

I employee to old art school tricks while working: one is I keep a mirror over my drawing board and look at the piece in reverse every so often. If all the elements of a piece – composition, tone, color – looks good in reverse (this also works if you turn it upside down) then you know you haven’t killed it yet. The other thing I do to keep checking my tones is look at the piece every so often through an old piece of rubylith that I have on my drawing table. The rubylith turns all the colors to grayscale so you can see if you have a good mix of tones or if the color is really just disguising a flat painting. I”m so used to staring at pieces through rubylith that I do it even when I’m working on gray-scale illustrations!

Once the painting is finished, I scan it into Photoshop on my desktop scanner. If there’s any section on the piece where I’m wondering “maybe I should bring that shadow up a bit more” I can try it without creating a problem I can’t undo. I’ll usually create two or three layers of options and decide which option I like best, sometimes running it by my critique group. But if I’m having to do a LOT of retouching in PS then I go back to the board and work on it there. Finally when the digital file is good to go I send it to the art director!

The finished illustration!

This next piece is from Jack’s Busy Day, a book about the day in the life of a ranch dog and his family. This is my favorite spread. One of the difficult things to keep in mind when designing a spread for a book is where the gutter (the space where the pages are bound) falls. I don’t want to put anything important anywhere near it! So even though I may be working on a long horizontal composition, it’s actually two vertical images because the action has to take place on the left and right sides of the page. In this spread I decided to put the cow’s body in the gutter. I wanted to give a sense of drama, because this would be a really fast paced scene in real life. So I decided to put the viewer down right in the action, in the dust being churned up, to make it seem like the cow is coming right off the page at you.

I did several small thumbnails, just for approval, to show where the major “players” would be in each scene:

Then I did a tighter sketch, to get the expressions right. I wanted the cow to have the most personality in the picture and I wanted her to not look too happy about this turn of events:

The final. This scene takes place in the middle of the day, so no possibility of big dramatic ground shadows. I decided to shadow the cow’s body, to let the contrast between her red and white hide and the shadow push her farther into the foreground:

Did you go to school for art?

Yes, I graduated from Ringling College of Art in 1994.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate picture books?

I always thought I was going to be a writer, but the problem was I made up stories but I never wrote them down. I just drew the pictures that went with them. When I was 16, I was reading Dear Readers and Riders by Margurite Henry (I’m a huge horse person.) In it she talks about her relationship with Wesley Dennis, the illustrator of almost all of her books. His part of the creative process sounded so wonderful, it was like a switch flipped inside me. I got up off the couch where I was reading, went into the kitchen and told my mom that I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator. That was it. I’ve been trying to do that ever since.

When did you get your first contract?

Oh my goodness, my FIRST contract for a book is quite a story… and it doesn’t have a Hollywood ending. But it was the unorthodox launch of my career… so I will share it. The story unfolded like this: about a year after leaving a horrible, terrible job at a company that shall remain nameless (though, mercifully, it is defunct now) I had taken a part-time job at a printing company. I was determined, at the age of 24, to start working for myself, to be able to support myself as a freelance illustrator. Frankly I never wanted to work at a horrible, terrible place ever again and I figured the best way to do that was to always be self-employed. So I started working part-time and shopped my portfolio around on my off days. I stayed up late at night doing pieces that I thought would get me jobs and ever so slowly but surely the jobs started to trickle in. However at the same time I was doing such a swell job at the printing company that the owners, who were really nice people, began hinting that they needed me to be full-time. I resisted. Then in the early spring of 1998 I was offered a contract to illustrate a book for a small children’s publisher. How exciting!

I remember thinking I can’t believe this is happening already! A couple of days after this Joe, the owner of the printing company sat me down and said “we really need you to be full-time.” I replied “well, uh, the thing is I just got this contract and it’s what I really want to do, and uh if I work full-time I’ll never be able to meet the deadline, and the thing is I really don’t want to work for you full-time.” He gave a me look and said, “this is your dream isn’t it.” I nodded. I put in a month’s notice.

One week later the publishing company canceled my contract citing the author’s desire to go with a previous illustrator.

That day was not the best day in my life, and I suppose I could have gone back to my about-to-be-former employer and ask to stay on. But I felt like there was no turning back at that point, sure I was scared, but I had come this far right? I had a little money saved and I had a few other jobs coming in, so on Friday, May 8th 1998 I left the second of only two jobs I’ve ever had. The following Monday I sat down at my drawing table a full-time freelance illustrator. It would be 8 years before I got my second contract to do a book, which was the leveled reader Down the Hill for Harcourt Reading. By that time I had filled in my portfolio with lots of magazine and other educational publishing work.

Do you still do any animation?

No, though I have done some story boarding and I enjoy doing that.

Do you feel your style has changed during your 10 years illustrating?

Absolutely. Every day I try to loosen up a little with my style, to breathe more life, more motion in it. I think it’s an important part of the evolution of an illustrator to let their style mature.

How long have you been using Photoshop to touch up your illustrations?

I have used to it to some extent as long as I’ve been illustrating. I’ve really come to rely on it more in the last 3 or 4 years as more clients want digital files – and are happy when I can do the scanning and color correction. That being said, I don’t consider myself a digital illustrator…. if I don’t feel the piece is strong before it’s put into Photoshop then it’s not ready for Photoshop. For me Photoshop is the same thing as making a really delicious sauce to dip a perfectly fried piece of chicken in. It just makes it a little bit better.

Did you take any lessons for Photoshop?

My only lessons in digital media were in my final semester in college. We had an “intro to Photoshop 2, Pagemaker and Macromedia Freehand.” But working at a printer I learned a lot about file preparation. I still do some design for long time clients and that helps me keep up with the digital landscape.

Do you have a Graphic Tablet? If so, do you draw directly into your computer?

No, but I’d like to try one, just to see if I like it.

Are you represented by anyone? If so, who. If not, would you be open to finding an artist rep.?

I would love to work with a literary agent that focuses on illustrators. I have worked with a rep in the past, it was largely for educational projects.

Have you tried you hand at writing? Do you see yourself writing and illustrating your own books in the future?

I have tried my hand at writing in the last two years….. all these years after changing my mind and becoming an illustrator instead the writer I thought I’d be in junior high. I’ve written a couple of picture books for submission, and received positive critiques from editors. And of course I would love it if they became published. But I feel like my primary craft is illustration and so whatever stories I tell will always be told more in the pictures than in the words.

What kind of things do you do to promote yourself?

I do mailers about 3 times a year and I have a website and a blog  I send e-mail updates along with mailers.  I’ve also done the online portfolio sites, and with moderate to good success.  I am an active member of SCBWI and go to 2 or 3 conferences a year for networking.  I maintain a mailing list of about 200 names that I keep updated annually and I always pay attention in bookstores to who’s publishing what, adding in any new publishers I see.

Do you feel your location in Nashville, TN helps or hinders you?

Nashville always makes people ask me if I like country music. When I started in 1998, I did feel at a somewhat disadvantage for getting the attention of folks outside the city limits. Fortunately for me, there is a fair amount of publishing in Nashville so I was able to build p a client base here to support myself. When I did finally start getting jobs outside Nashville, I have to give credit to the online portfolio sites. I do think its different with the internet, it matters less where you live.

Do you sell your illustrations or do any other types of artwork to make money?

I just signed an agreement with Zapow Gallery in Asheville, NC to sell some reproductions of my work, it’s the first time I’ve worked with a gallery. besides my main illustration work I do some design work, I’ve even designed a few books which I really enjoyed. I use a whole different part of my brain doing design and I actually think developing as a designer helps me as an illustrator, I really think it helps my sense of composition. The only thing I don’t like about being a designer is that I can’t listen to music while I work… I don’t know why, I can paint and listen to Pandora all afternoon but if I try to do work in InDesign with music I’m doing good to get a text box created.

Any tips or inspiration for your fellow illustrators who have not yet had a book published?

In the first few years after making the decision to be an illustrator at 16, I told my plans to a handful of illustrators that I met at book festivals and art school events.

They all looked me in the eye and told me it was extremely hard.

So before giving any advice or inspiration I would repeat what the likes of Barry Moser and Chris Van Allsburg said to me. It’s hard. Get ok with that. But if it’s what you love then it doesn’t matter, you won’t be able to do anything else and be happy. So don’t give up. I’ve been doing this for 13 years and I still haven’t gotten the projects I really want, but that’s why they call it a career. It won’t happen all at once. Recently at our Midsouth Conference I heard Linda Sue Park talk about taking the focus off of getting published and instead focus on telling the best story you can tell, or creating the best image you can. For inspiration, I second that, focusing only on getting published is a dead-end street. Focus on doing the best work you can do and LOVE it. Some days there is precious little reason to deal with the rejection that comes with any commercial creative endeavor, loving your work always makes it easier to deal with the hard days. The best advice I can give is first, join SCBWI. Really, it’s an invaluable organization for writers or illustrators. Secondly learn about business. Understand rights and contracts, it’s your responsibility to the art work you love.

Thhe illustration below was done for a German language magazine, Somersaults, that helps kids learn to speak English. It’s a reverse of the hidden picture concept in this country, here the kids have to easily find the images in the picture because they are reading in another language. It was kind of nice painting this sunny beach scene in the middle of dreary Nashville.

Here are, the three images, in consecutive order as they appear in Zoo in the Tub, a book that Mary has written. It’s the story of a boy who doesn’t really want to take a bath. Joined by his basset hound, he lets his imagination get away with him and is visited by an ever growing gang of animals. But is it really his imagination that’s doing all the splashing? (so please make the splash sounds as loud as you possibly can)

Just to show you that Mary is not just talented in color illustrations, here are two samples of her black and whites.

Mary awesome work. I really enjoyed showing off all your talent. I am sure we will be reading some of those books you have written and illustrated very soon. In the meantime, we will look for your the books you are illustrating for other writers. Hope our path cross in the future. Don’t miss visiting Mary’s website: and her blog:

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Mary, your work is so full of expression and your use of color and contrast is so beautiful! I adore your perspectives, too! This is ALL great stuff. I just love when I see illustrations like this because it often conjures a butterfly wing flutter of excitement for me. It’s thrilling 🙂

    And I REALLY appreciate your tips and explanations of how and why you use specific tools and materials. I’m lovin’ the “rubylith!” I find it all so invaluable.

    Kathy, I know you slaved to get this up, and it shows. I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY wish it didn’t take you so long ’cause I love this SO much. Thank you to both of you!!!


    • Donna,

      I wish it didn’t take so long either, but talent should be shown off. Still waiting to show you off one of these days.



      • Aaaaw, shucks, Kathy *blushing* Thanks.

        What cracks me up is that several things I’ve thought of for your blog have ended up in “Sprouts!” LOL Which is a good thing, too, I think 🙂

        Meanwhile, we get to enjoy these gifted talents! Thank you 🙂


  2. Hey Donna, thanks for the nice comments on my work;)


    • You’re welcome, Mary, but hey—nice (more than nice!) work deserves nice comments 🙂


  3. Yes! Finally something about salver.


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