Posted by: Kathy Temean | December 3, 2011

Illustrator Saturday – Eliza Wheeler

I noticed Eliza’s portfolio when I was out in LA at the SCBWI Summer Conference this year.  The Art Exhibit was teaming with talent, but Eliza took the Grand Prize with her portfolio.  I know you will enjoy your visit with her.

I grew up in Northern Wisconsin in a family of teachers, musicians, and artists. Drawing was my favorite form of play as a child, my emotional outlet as a teen, and is my escape as an adult. Some of the strongest influences on my creativity have been the wild Wisconsin seasons, canoeing the Brule River, picking blueberries with my Grandmother, and digging through the snow with my brothers.

I got a degree in art and design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2006, moved to Los Angeles and searched for my place as an artist in the “real world”. In 2009 I attended my first national conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators (SCBWI) and felt immediately at home. Children’s literature allows me to experience my own childhood again; to reconnect with and express the imagination as vividly as the time I was building forts in the woods and playing with dolls. Little has changed; only now the worlds I imagine I have the ability to share.

In spring 2010 I illustrated the book What Does It Mean To Be Present? written by Rana DiOrio of Little Pickle Press. In July of that same year I received the SCBWI LA conference mentorship program award, the catalyst for my 2011 win of the portfolio showcase grand prize award! Currently I’m in the process of developing several of my own stories, including a picture book to be published with Nancy Paulsen/Penguin Books for Young Readers.

Above is the cover of the first picture book that she has illustrated. Now let’s take a look at her process. Here’s Eliza:

I start with a small thumbnail sketch, about 1 by 2 inches. This usually happens in my sketchbook where I do most of my thinking. The kernel of the idea is a few basic shapes, and then I do a slightly more detailed thumbnail of the scene.

At this point I usually hit up Google Images, collecting reference imagery that relates to my idea – scenery, characters, objects, lighting, etc. I’ll usually do some sketches of those objects and settings.

Sometimes I’ll build a crude model to help aid with perspective or to get a feel for the lighting. I’ll use whatever materials are on hand, in the case of this drawing; a pizza box for the walls and modeling clay for the figure.

A part of my process not shown here is to enlarge my thumbnail, do a rough sketch on a cheap tracing paper on top of that, enlarge that sketch to 100% and do my final pencil drawing on nice tracing paper (Graphics 360 Marker Paper). I scan that drawing in and print it out with my Epson Stylus 2880 on the final watercolor paper (Arches 140lb Coldpress). The printer ink is waterproof, so I can do my inking and washes right on top of it. The reason for this step is to save my sketch in case I really mess up the final painting. I know I always have the under-drawing to start from if I need to start over (which happens).

I do the ink line-work over the pencil sketch, using the old fashioned dip nib pens and india ink. I used to use graphics pens (Microns) for this part of the process, but realized I didn’t enjoy using them. When I experimented with the dip pens I fell in love with them instantly.

I’ll usually scan the inked drawing in and print it out at about a quarter or half-size to do some color and wash studies.

In the case of this B&W piece, I used india ink for the whole thing. If it were a color piece I would be using watercolor washes – I’ve recently switched to using the brands Holbein and M. Graham watercolors. For the finished drawing I do a lot of looking and thinking. I need time to walk away from my work, come back the next day and build it in slow washes until I feel it’s finished.

I’ve just finished a new illustration for the project 9 Degrees North: The ABCs of Northern Ghana, which is a charity picture book by the Tools for Schools Africa Foundation. The book will be a compilation of illustrations from varying artists, each creating an image for one letter of the alphabet.

My letter was: F for FOOTBALL

The text for the page will be:
Ghanaian kids love football! They play as much as they can, and dream of one day taking the field with the Black Stars, Ghana’s national football team.

Final Illustration: Pen and Ink, and Watercolors

How long have you been illustrating?

Like most illustrators I’ve been drawing since childhood. In college I studied graphic design, and always tried to illustrate my own graphics. I started pursuing illustration as a career only a few years ago, and have been working primarily in illustration for about 2 years.

How did you decide you wanted to illustrate books?

I was always interested in children’s book illustration, but just never knew it was an attainable career path. When I went to my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s (SCBWI) national conference in 2009, it felt like finding my soul-mate – I knew it’s what I had to do.

How did you get to illustrate What Does It Mean To Be Present?

I went to my local SCBWI illustrator’s gathering (schmooze) on the Westside in LA and just happened to sit down next to Little Pickle Press’s art director, Leslie Iorillo. It turned out she was looking for an illustrator for the project, and had recognized my work from the SCBWI conference portfolio showcase. They thought I would be a good fit for the book.

Did you sell other illustrations before you got your book contract? When was that?

I had done some illustration work for the educational market prior to getting that contract in March 2010.

How long did it take you to illustrate the book?

I had a short time-frame to work on the illustrations – a little over three months from thumbnails to final art. It was a really difficult schedule, and I pulled more all-nighters over that time than my 5 years in college combined. But it was an important lesson for me in getting to know what kind of time frame I need in order to do my best work.

Can you tell us a little bit about Little Pickle Press?

LPP is an independent publisher founded by Rana DiOrio and based out of San Francisco. They specialize in socially and environmentally conscious stories, and print their books with eco-friendly inks and materials, which I was really excited about. You can learn more about them at

Are you represented by an agent? If so, who?

I’m thrilled to say that I recently accepted Jennifer Rofé of Andrea Brown Literary as my agent. I was able to meet with her in person and felt instantly that she would be an amazing agent and will help me take my work to the next level.

Do you have a studio?

I have a work-space set up in the corner of my studio apartment, which I share with my husband. We both work from home, so it can feel “cozy” but we make it work. Luckily watercolors don’t require an obscene amount of space, and trying to stay organized helps. < Note that I said “trying”.

Any daily routine?

I tend to keep a 10-6 working schedule, and try my best to keep my nights and weekends work-free (depending on up-coming deadlines). I used to have an anything goes kind of schedule and it really burnt me out. It’s hard when working from home to separate work and free time, but necessary in order to refresh and be as productive as possible.

Any marketing things that you have done that has helped you get additional work?

So far I’ve gotten all my work through SCBWI contacts by going to their conferences and displaying my portfolio in the showcase. I can’t say enough what SCBWI has done for me! I think I would be totally invisible if not for them, or at the very least it would have taken me twice as long to get where I am now. Other than conferences, I’m going to start sending promo postcards and mailers a few times a year.

What materials do you use for your colored pieces? Acrylics, oils, watercolor, pastels, colored pencils? Any special techniques? Any special papers, brushes?

I start with dip pens and india ink for the line work, and then use watercolor washes. I have a few different brands that I like, mainly M. Graham and Holbein. I use Arches 140lb Coldpress paper, and I have 3 sizes of nice Sable brushes that are sort of my go-to brushes. I use cheaper brushes for mixing paint. Occasionally I’ll use acrylics for highlights.

Do you own a graphic tablet?

I don’t, but I’m looking to get one because I think it would help my sketching process be less tedious. I don’t have any interest in creating my final artwork digitally though – I’m too in love with pen on paper.

Do you do any of your art digitally? If so, what software do you use? And what process does it play?

Not currently – though I sometimes will touch up my artwork, or brighten/darken areas in photoshop. Sometimes I’ll use photoshop to do some color or tone tests as well, or I’ll use it to revise a piece if the deadline doesn’t allow me to start over.

Have you changed your approach or style from when you first started illustrating?

Definitely. I was very scattered stylistically from the start, and confused about which direction I should take with my work. I’ve been working hard the past year to create a more cohesive portfolio, which I blogged about in recent months, comparing my old portfolio to my new one. See the transformation here:

You won this year’s Grand Prize in the Artist Showcase Exhibit at the SCBWI Summer Conference in LA. Did that get you more attention? What piece won the prize for you?

I think it definitely helped, though I haven’t gotten any projects specifically as a result yet. The prize is a trip to New York, and so I’ll be going in January to meet with publishers and art directors – I hope to make some great connections there! I don’t think just one piece won the prize, but just showing an overall refined portfolio.

Have you ever thought of writing your own book?

Yes! I am currently illustrating my first story to be published with Nancy Paulsen Books of Penguin Books for Young Readers. The book is called “The Maple Tree Orphanage” and will be released tentatively in May of 2013. I also have a slew of other stories I’m itching to get working on, so this will definitely not be the only one.

Do you have any words of wisdom for your fellow illustrators that might help them be more successful?

Something I’ve learned that’s helped me so far is to continue to grow and develop as an artist. Welcome criticism, don’t be defensive about your work, and see it as a long-term organic process. Also, try to stay true to yourself and what you love, and make sure you love the process of making your art vs. seeing it as a means to an end. Sometimes the fastest or easiest way to get there isn’t the most rewarding.

Thank you Eliza for sharing your illustrations and process with us. I am sure you have a long career ahead of you. We’ll be watching. I’m sure Eliza would love to get a comment from you.  You can always visit Eliza by dropping by:

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Thank you Kathy for featuring me, you’ve done such a great job pulling this all together, and I’m really honored! ~Eliza


    • Eliza,

      My please! Keep up the good work and I hope we can met at the NYC Conference at the end of January.



  2. I fall more in love with children’s book illustration with every Illustrator’s Saturday you put up, Kathy. This is SO wonderful!

    Eliza, ALL this work is captivating; I found myself getting lost in the pictures. And thank you SO much for your tips. They are invaluable!


    • Donna,

      I am hoping I can get back to doing some artwork this coming year and getting one of the fancy Wacom Tablets.

      Talk soon,



      • Kathy, I really hope you find time to do some illustrating! And the tablet? Oooooooooooooooooo…I can’t wait to hear how you like it. I still need to learn photoshop! At some point, I WILL take you up on your offer, you know. The thing is…WHEN is there a day neither of us are busy?! lol


    • Donna – your words really inspire me, I’m so happy that you feel that way and thank you for leaving such a sweet comment! ~Eliza


      • Eliza, it’s my pleasure. I was only speaking the truth. Thanks again for sharing your work and tips!!!!!!!!!


  3. lovely lovely work and thinking….too bad she’s repped! 🙂 c


    • Chris,

      I am always amazed at the talent out there, but I guess you are reminded of that all the time. Thanks for the comment.



    • Aww – what a seriously awesome thing to hear. Thanks Chris! ~Eliza


  4. Gorgeous work indeed.

    Clicked on the link but hit a dead end. Off to Google!

    Thanks for a fun post. Wish I had talent like that!


    • Cathy,

      Thanks for pointing out the mistake. Illustrator Saturday takes so long to do and that is the last thing I add. I guess my eyes were just bleary – thought I had it right.



  5. Thanks so much for the wonderful compliments! And Cathy, thanks for pointing out the link, I didn’t catch it – the link to my website should be

    Thanks again!


    • Eliza,

      Thanks, I just corrected it. At least we know that people tried the link. Sorry for the mistake.



  6. Kathy, I don’t know how you keep finding such wonderful artists week after week, but I so appreciate you doing so. I really look forward to your Illustrator Saturday posts. I enjoy every one and this is no exception. Eliza is a most talented artist. Her work is simply charming. Thanks for another great post.


    • Thank YOU Rosie for such encouraging words! I’m so glad you found it interesting. ~Eliza


  7. What a FABULOUS post. So much info here. Kudos to both Kathy and Eliza!


  8. Eliza is an exceptionally talented illustrator – and what a great interview!


    • Megan, that means a lot coming from an equally exceptionally talented illustrator. Thank you!


  9. Eliza, you are a star! I loved working with you on What Does It Mean To Be Present? I, too, learned a lot about deadlines on that project, but, more importantly, I learned what a joy it is to work with such a talented artist. You made my job easy. I love watching your career, and am anxiously awaiting to get my hands on your new book! Fantastic interview!! Cheers! Leslie


    • Leslie thank you so much for all the kind words and support – I am blessed to have been given the experience, and it’s so great seeing LPP grow and blossom as well. Kudos to all the new and beautiful books you are creating each year! Best of wishes to you!! ~Eliza


  10. Eliza,

    You are simply amazing! Following your fantastic career & your fabulous works simply inspires me!

    Congratulations for all you’ve accomplished.


    • Wow, thank you Lydia! It’s so great to hear, and thank you so much for cheering me on, which in turn inspires me! All the best. ~Eliza


  11. Eliza is amazing!


  12. Absolutely stunning work. I’m so impressed, and I love the parting words of wisdom. Congratulations on finding success so early in your career and for being able to stay true to your passion.


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 )

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: