Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 17, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Ruth Sanderson

This week we have a real treat with Ruth Sanderson. If you don’t recognize the name, I am sure you will recognize her art.  Heck, you might even have last year’s Lenox Collector Plate with her artwork or collector’s plates with a Night Before Christmas theme around your house.

I got lost in her website for days, so you might want to stop by her site later when you have some time to browse.  I am going to do the best I can to show off her talents, but they are so many, it is going to be a challenge.

Ruth was born in 1951 in Monson, Massachusetts, where her two favorite place to play were the woods and the library.  In the woods she could imagine magical  creatures living in the tangled underbrush and if she was very, very lucky maybe catch a glimpse of one of them.

At the library. She could identify with characters that were brave and got to do exciting things. One of her treasured possessions was a battered copy of  Grimm’s Fairytales.

She fought over Black Stallion books with her best friend about who was going to be the first to read the next new adventure, when it came into the library.  After reading the stories they would gallop through the woods on their own imaginary stallions.

She decided she wanted a career in art. After spending a year at a liberal arts college where the art courses were all abstract, she transferred to the Paier School of Art, so she could take a combination of traditional drawing and painting courses and commercial courses as well.  Since she really wanted to make a living with art, she decided illustration was the  way to go. The modern fine art scene did not appeal  to her.  The illustrators she admired were Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and  Mark English.

When she graduated in 1974 from  the Paier School of Art in Connecticut, an agent in the children’s field took her on and  soon she was busy doing children’s illustrations.  After five years, she started to do some full-color covers. The books she read as a child, the Black Stallion series and the Nancy Drew  series were being put into paperback for the first time and she got the assignment for 18 covers in each series. She did some black and white picture books and an edition of The Little Engine that Could.

In the early eighties she struck out on her own without an agent and began to do a number of Golden Books and quite a few full color jackets for young adult novels.

She got her “big break” into the “trade” market with the assignment to illustrate an edition of Heidi  with one hundred full color paintings. Up to this time she had only used fast drying mediums for assignments, such as watercolors, colored  pencils, airbrush and acrylics. Heidi had a one-year  deadline so she decided to paint it in oils, which had always been her  preferred medium. She went on to illustrate The Secret Garden and then her first fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty, which was retold by Jane Yolen.”

In 1988 Jane introduced  her to Maria Modugno, the children’s book editor at Little, Brown, who expressed an interest in having her do a fairy tale for them, and gave her the opportunity to retell it herself. The Twelve Dancing Princesses took a year and a half of work and was published in 1990.

Rose Red and Snow White  was her next retelling for Little, Brown. She invented a dwarf. This was the first character that she painted in a realistic manner which was invented without reference materials.

Ruth has illustrated 80 books and has written and illustrated 12 of them. I was going to show all, just to impress you, But it takes up too much room. So use this link to view.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses are dancing again in a 2012 edition. Hurrah! Now available at your local bookstore or on Amazon.

In Nov 2013-Feb 2014 the paintings, sketches, and photos from the entire book will be in a solo exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum. I’ve never won a Caldecot, but having a show at the Rockwell is to me just as big an honor.

Let’s take a look at Ruth’s process with THE TWELVE DANCING PRINCESSES. Here’s Ruth:

Storyboard: I consider the storyboard the most important part of illustrating a picture book. Since most of my fairy tales have longer texts than a typical picture book, I have to carefully choose what to illustrate, as I cannot depict everything in the story. I also chose to design the pages with the text on a white background, as I did not want to create large light areas in the paintings for the text to overprint. To make the design interesting, I alternated double-page spreads, one and a quarter page illustrations, single pages, and vertical half-pages with text. The double-page spreads should always be the most important scenes. By doing storyboards one can see the overall design of the book on one sheet of paper. I usually do these around 11×14 inches or so. Sometimes I’ll cut and paste other sketches in, or do a number of different storyboards.

Storyboard -close-up of the “golden wood” scene. Another reason I do storyboards is to plan the “value pattern” of my pictures. This is all about the graphic readability of the picture, the overall pattern of lights and darks. My paintings are very complex and detailed and it would be impossible for me to do a painting unless I plan them carefully. When going to a color finish, I will often refer back to this very simple drawing to remind myself of the values I am aiming for, and not be distracted by the colors so much that I lose the value pattern. You see how I planned for a dark row of tree through which you see a row of princesses with lamps and light golden forest behind them. If I just tried to paint a row of princesses walking through the woods with no plan, it would have been a total disaster.

Rough dummy sketch: Sometimes I do two full-size dummies. This is the same scene in my rough dummy, with space left at the bottom for text. ( I do always paste in the text to make sure I plan the space carefully, though you don’t see it in this example.) This is out of my head, no models. I sometimes do this extra step if I have a complicated book like this, so I can plan the next step, the photo-shoot of models.

The photo-shoot: I’m so glad I was able to work on many fairy tales before the downturn of the market. In the early 90’s fairy tales were booming and royalties were good, so I could afford to hire a costumer and models. I spent a third of my advance on this, and happily did see royalties for many years, so it was worthwhile. The costumer knew about 15th century costume and created many different looks and headpieces – she worked with summer theatre and we used many of their existing costumes, happily, though she did create a few for me from scratch, which went back into the summer theatre archive when we were done with the photo-shoot. I have also bought a few costumes over the years, and even rented some online. Notice in the bottom middle photo that the dummy sketch is in front of the princesses, so I have a visual reference when I set them in position. I used one model for the youngest and the eldest princesses, and five girls for the other 10, putting them in a second costume, or changing the costume color, to create a different look.

Dummy sketch: Did you notice that my photos were black and white? I often prefer this when a book is complex, so that I create my own color scheme and not be distracted by the actual colors in the photo. I did a finished sketch of the scene in a final dummy, and you can see the extensive noted I took planning the dress and hair color of the princesses. I wanted the princesses outfits to look good in this scene, the boat scene and the underground castle dancing scenes, so I planned my palette mainly around golds, with some green and blues to blend in with the water and castle. Notice here that I am attending to details and have not bothered to recreate the value pattern of the overall piece again, as I’ve already worked that out.

Final painting: This is the scene in the book that I felt was the most magical, and the most symbolic and important. It is why I had the courage to tackle such a complicated story with so many characters to paint. I spent around 5 weeks on this painting, which is oils on canvas, 17×34 inches. The preliminary sketches took around 2 weeks, I would guess. The entire book took a year and a half to complete.

2012 edition – new cover sketch: After being out of print for a number of years, I have found a publisher, Crocodile Books, who would like to do new editions of my OP fairy tales, starting with The Twelve Dancing Princesses. I wanted this edition to have a different look, and because I love the painting of the princesses in the “golden wood,” I decided to create another painting of the scene for the new cover, focusing on the youngest princess. I looked through the photo reference and used many of the same pictures, reversing the photos for the princesses in the background. I also had a pile of photos for background reference to get details of leaves and trees, moss, flowers, etc.

The finished painting for a wrap-around jacket – oils on canvas 24×36 inches.

Here is the process for Fall Faeries

Here are my first two “idea” sketches for a painting depicting a “spirit of Fall” as a fairy.

A daughter of a friend of mine posed for the fairy and I took photos for reference.

Next I did a detailed drawing on my gessoed board – the picture is 24×36 inches. I do like to precisely plan my paintings when there is so much detail I want to convey.

This was the first day’s work.

Here is is after day2 with a bit more detail. I wanted to paint the background around the fairy and work out the complex value patterns.

Working out the flow of her dress was next.

A few more days work…

And it took around three weeks to get to this stage – not quite done.

Finally after a good month or a little longer, the painting is finished! To work in this style requires a great deal of patience, as you might imagine.

One look at Ruth’s horse illustrations and you know she loves and knows horses.

Had you ever thought you would write a book, when you started illustrating Children’s books?

RS: I have always wanted to write as well as illustrate, but in the beginning of my career, I lacked the courage to submit my writing. I did take a writing course with Patricia MacLaughlan in the 80’s, but did not develop any manuscript I felt was worth submitting at that time.

Did you ever belong to a writing critique group?

RS: I have attended local SCBWI critique groups since 1982, but only 3-6 times a year on average.

Do you feel there is a strong market for re-told fairytales?

RS: Not lately. But, I just sold an original story to Random House called A Castleful of Cats, which will be a humorous book in rhyme about a queen who loves cats, but who in turn love to torment the king. So it has a queen and king, a fairy tale –type setting, but it will be a silly story, along the lines of King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub by Don and Audrey Wood. (It will be out in 2014)

When the editor at Little, Brown said she was interested in you doing the Twelve Dancing Princesses, how did the idea of you writing the story come about?

RS: She asked me if I’d like to work on the retelling of the story myself, and I jumped at the chance. I felt this was a good way to work on my writing skills, and indeed it was. I wrote an original fairy tale,The Enchanted Wood, for my next book, which won two state awards.

You mention a wide range of art materials. How do you decide what type of paint or other technique to use?

RS: I’m not sure how to answer that, I just come up with something that “feels” right. Hard to explain. Kind of like answering “where do your ideas come from?”

After you dropped your first agent and went out on your own, did you ever hook up with another agent or artist rep.?

RS: I have had a number of licensing reps., but have been on my own for children’s books. I have been lucky that I have had no trouble getting contracts, but because my style is so slow, and these days books don’t sell as well and one cannot count on royalties, I also license my artwork to make a decent living.

Do you have a studio outside of your home?

RS: Yes, at Cottage Street Studios in Easthampton, MA. There are mostly fine artists and crafts people in the building, and we have terrific open studio sales in May and November.

Do you follow a schedule with your artwork?

RS: I have deadlines and plan my schedule very carefully to meet them.

I can really see the growth in your illustrations over the years. Did you notice the change in style or growth as is was happening? Or is that just something you can see when you look back and compare?

RS: I think I was always trying to match a style of art to the particular book, but the first 8 years or so I was experimenting and growing as an artist, and there are some books, when looking back now, that I’d rather forget about.

Are there books that helped you jump up the ladder as far as technique?

RS: I have developed my style over many years, though the biggest change was in 1984 when I illustrated Heidi, as it was my first book in oils, and I rally worked hard on the technique. I have been working in oils ever since, though I’ve used the medium differently in a number of books.

I see that you did illustration for the Golden Key (below), using Scratchboard. Was this the first time you used this technique for an illustration?

RS: I’ve done a few scratchboard illustrations before, just for fun, and loved the medium.

Is this technique more challenging for you?

RS: Not at all, it feels very natural to me, as I like painting from dark to light in my oil paintings as well.

Below is SNOW PRINCESS and some inside art:

The Snow Princess (2004) was inspired by the Russian opera/ballet the Snow Maiden. In the opera the Snow Maiden is warned by her parents, Father Frost and Mother Spring, not to fall in love or she will die. Of course, she falls in love and eventually perishes by melting in beautiful operatic style. In my version there is a surprise ending, when the character realizes that she is in love and wonders why she has not died. Her mother Spring appears as the snow is melting and explains that she will indeed die, for now she is mortal, and like all human beings she too will grow old and die. So, everyone lives happily ever after in fairy tale fashion. This is another coming-of-age story where the character must make a sacrifice and go through an ordeal (a rite of passage) in order to become independent from parental influence.

What are your three favorite books that you have illustrated?

RS: The Twelve Dancing Princesses

The Enchanted Wood

The Snow Princess

You really have talent for painting snow. Is there a trick to making snow look so realistic?

RS: I carefully study pictures of snow, and real snow in the winter. I have hundreds of reference pictures. One tip is to keep the values pretty light, even in the shadows. I will often paint a very flat shadow color over all the snow area, then when it is dry I add the light areas more thickly on top and glaze some of the deepest shadows darker.

Which painting technique do you like the most?

RS: Oils, no contest.

Do you ever use Photoshop to clean up your artwork?

RS: I do now. And from now on I plan to supply publishers with digital files only to print from.

Do you paint big or do you paint your illustration in standard book size?

RS: I used to work two times the size of the book, now I work about one and a half-up.

Here is Cinderella followed by some inside spreads:

Cinderella (2002) was a real challenge to retell and illustrate. I decided to merge the French and German versions of the story, keeping the magic of the pumpkin coach and fairy god mother while weaving in more symbolic elements from the more serious Grimm’s version. I also decided to change the part where the glass slipper is tried on the various young ladies by the prince’s servants – in my version, the prince himself comes along and sees Cinderella out the window. Taking the glass slipper, he goes outside, kneels before her, and puts it on himself. It is the ultimate romantic moment and a great scene for an illustrator to depict. In my version, the birds peck at the stepsisters and chase them back into their house where they can never come out again, softening the Grimm’s version where they peck their eyes out. So, I have made sure the sisters are punished and not just married off to rich nobles, as in the French version.

Full wrap-around cover for book.

I picked your postcard up at the SCBWI Conference, so I guess you still try to promote yourself. How often do you do a new postcard?

RS: Every few years or so. I show my art at fantasy conventions and sometimes do a card for that. Sometimes when a book comes out I’ll make a new card.

Are there any other things that you do to promote yourself?

RS: These days I have realized I need to spend more time promoting myself, in order to get my books discovered by the public, as it is tough to get seen these days in bookstores. So, I’m exploring the whole social media facebook thing – Ruth Sanderson Art and Dancing Princesses are my two facebook Pages. I’m also doing more interviews on blogs – thanks for this one, it is the most extensive I’ve ever done! Great questions.

Whose idea was it to make apps of your artwork?

RS: I belong to an online group of professional writers and illustrators, and someone posted about PicPocket Books, an app company that did an app of one of her books. So I contacted them and the owner was already a fan of my books. They’ve done Papa Gatto, The Crystal Mountain, and Cinderella. The length of my stories makes it very hard to fit into this format, though I re-formatted Cinderella and I feel that one is quite nicely done.

Cinderella App: Animated sparkles make fairy dust come to life in many of the scenes, and users can tap to hear sounds such as birds, ballroom waltzes, horses, the clock striking midnight, and the jingling of the fairy godmother’s magic wand. The story is sweetly read by a young narrator. PicPocket Books is the App Developer.

Don’t miss Ruth’s description of how she was able to make Cinderella into an app. It is very interesting.

Here is ENCHANTED WOODS follow by some inside spreads:

My original story The Enchanted Wood grew out of my love for the woods, for paths, for fairytales. Trees have always had the ability to hold me spellbound, at sunset especially. An old tree can have such character and majesty. In the story, three sons go on a quest for the Heart of the World (which is a magical “tree of life”) The fact that success often comes at a great sacrifice is the central theme of this story.

Below is MOTHER GOOSE followed by some inside spreads:

Mother Goose and Friends is a 64 page collection of the most well-known rhymes, along with a few new “treasures” I have added to the collection. (March 2008)

Yes, that is Jane Yolen modeling for Mother Goose. What fun!

Did you have to do a lot of persuading to get her to dress up and be your model for Mother Goose?

RS: Oh, no, Jane is a big ham, she loves modeling. I also used her a the cook in Sleeping Beauty, Mrs. Sowerby and Mrs. Medlock in The Secret Garden.

Were you friends with Jane Yolen before you illustrated her book, “Sleeping Beauty”?

RS: I met Jane when she ran the SCBWI writer’s group in Hatfield in 1982, and we’ve been friends ever since, and have done 3 books together.

Have you ever gotten to the end of a painting and made a mistake? If that happens is it easy to correct?

RS: I usually work on a painting until it is done, so I guess I “correct” as I go along. In the days when I was illustrating Nancy Drew covers, the paintings routinely came back for corrections, (though I did not feel there were mistakes) and it was a royal pain to do it. These days, as I am scanning older artwork from my early fairy tales for new editions, I am going back into some of the paintings to make changes, places I feel could be improved.

Do you have any ideas on how a new illustrator can get someone to contract them for a job?

RS: The usual way, portfolio submissions, having an agent helps at first. Having the style of illustration they are looking for, which sometimes is just luck, as they have different manuscripts they are trying to match with a certain styles.

How did your Christmas illustrations end up on Christmas Cards and Christmas plates?

RS: The plates came first, and then I submitted the idea to Little, Brown to create a Night Before Christmas book, and I did many more paintings to fill the 32 page book, but used the 4 collector’s plates in the book as well.

Are there things illustrators should know if they want to have their artwork licensed on products?

RS: Like publishing, always get it in writing. Usually there is a time limit on the license. Some are flat fee, some are royalties. Usually it is tough to negotiate price – they pay what they pay, take it or leave it. The contract is specific to that one product for a certain term. Pretty simple.

Can an artist earn a living licensing their work?

RS: Yes, there are artists that make a very good living at this. It is important to look at products, like flag companies for instance, and see the styles and subjects they use, to see if you are “fit” with their company. You need to have existing work, as they just buy what you already have. I even do pieces targeted for licensing, knowing what kind of things they are looking for.

Do you feel it is easier to illustrate your own books?

RS: Yes, as I feel one can more easily design a book and write it at the same time, planning for the best visual scenes in the story.

After I did a series of collector’s plates with a Night Before Christmas theme I suggested a picture book version to my editor. I tried to paint a “traditional” Santa set in the Victorian period when the verse was first written. The images from the book have also been made into greeting cards, tins, gift bags, wall hangings, pillows, stockings, and even the cover of a corporate annual report.

Have you ever had a book where you didn’t think what you laid out was right and had to start over?

RS: Yes, I often do multiple storyboards. It is easier to plan changes in this format.

How long does it usually take to illustrate and paint a 32 page picture book?

RS: I average a year to a year and a half per book.

Below is the cover and interior art for SLEEPING BEAUTY written by Jane Yolen.

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle below.

Below is PAPPA GATTO followed by some interior art.

Papa Gatto is the result of combining a number of Italian fairytales with a similar element — a talking cat. It is a Cinderella-type story with a bit of Puss in Boots as well. And a slightly modern twist at the end, when the young lady declines the Prince’s proposal in favor of living with her beloved cats! My own cat Duke was the model for Papa Gatto, along with my daughter Whitney who posed in costume for his body.

Any words of wisdom for illustrators wanting to make a living with their artwork?

RS: I did lots of educational publishing for the first 8 years of my career, as well as work for magazines, advertising, greeting cards, etc.. Try as many different markets as you can. See if you can produce some pieces that would work on products for licensing. (Google licensing agents and look at their artists. Keep developing your skills. If anyone is interested, I teach in a summer Certificate in Children’s Book Illustration program at Hollins University in Virginia, four courses taken over the course of two summers, from mid-June to August 1st. We teach writing as well as illustrating for picture books. I believe we are extending our deadline for this summer’s classes. We help people develop their own signature illustration style for the picture book market, and I also advise people in the program who want to work on licensing their artwork for other markets.

Ruth, I really enjoyed my time spent looking at your illustrations and working on this post, so thank you for sharing your process and journey. I know I am a fan and will be buying your new book, THE TWELVE DANCING PRINCESSES and a few others.  Ruth will send you a signed bookplate if you purchase the book and let her know you would like one.

Please don’t miss visiting Ruth’s website. There is so much more for you to see.  If you have a minute, I’m sure Ruth would appreciate if you would leave a comment here for her.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Mind-blowing work! I’m in awe, Ruth.


    • Dana,

      I agree. Wish I could make it to VA to take her class. I should have asked her how she ended up doing something in Va when she lives in MA.



  2. I went through and studied each one of these illustrations. They are magnificent. I am so envious of the talent Ms. Sanderson possesses. She is no doubt a master at any subject. I can’t believe how beautifully she captures the facial expressions of her characters, or the detail in the foliage. Her colors and balance are phenomenal. I am so impressed with each and every painting displayed here. This was a wonderful share and a fitting tribute to a fine artist. I am awestruck.


    • Orples,

      That is why I said I got lost in her website. Her work is beautiful.



  3. OMG! These are spectacular. Thanks so much for this post. Just beautiful!


    • Rosi,

      Thanks for leaving a comment. It took days to put up, because Ruth has so much talent and I wanted to bring you as much as I could. Ruth is very savvy, too finding new technology to show off her work.



  4. I have one thing to say … WOW!!! These illustrations are simply magnificent, and Ruth, such an inspiration to illustrators like myself who have such a far way to go yet to achieve the kind of realization of imagery that you have. I am truly awed … you are amazing!


    • Jeanne,

      Wouldn’t you love to attend her painting class? I’m behind on my e-mails, but I will email you.



  5. Awesome awesome awesome. This blog entry is the equivalent of eating a large hot fudge dappled chocolate cake with a luscious cherry on top (man, I must be hungry!) Love her work, and the colors, what a treat to see the process behind the scenes. Great!!!


    • Bonnie,

      Awesome is the word that pops out of everyone mouth when they see Ruth’s art. I think it says it all.



  6. Wow! What a great talent! Like other commentators, I am awestruck… The images are breathtaking. I am speechless…


  7. Kathy, when you told me you wanted to include all Ruth’s illustrations, but had to narrow the choices, it’s easy to see why. I waited ’til I had time to enjoy this blog and it’s SO easy to see how you could get lost for days looking at Ruth’s work.

    Ruth, I’m having trouble finding the right words, because every complimentary adjective applies! Gorgeous, captivating, magical, mesmerizing, and so on and so on… I’m just glad I was sitting down because this work felt as if it swept me off my feet, head over heels “in love” with literal butterflies in my stomach and tears welling from being overwhelmed. How amazing is your talent, how gifted you are, and how lucky are WE to get to enjoy and appreciate it all. Thank you! And thank you, Kathy, for taking the time to put this up!


  8. Thanks so much, everyone, for your lovely comments. I have always felt that beauty is something that children need more exposure to, as soon enough they will be exposed to the ugliness of the world. “Beauty is truth, truth is beauty” is a motto of mine, I guess in a way, I am trying to go “back to the garden,” to depict a world in balance.



    • Oh, I’m lovin’ that philosophy 🙂


  9. This is a stunning post. So much informative information. Great questions! Thank you ladies!


  10. I have just now seen and discovered the fabulous work done by Ruth – I will be looking for her work from now on. Thank you so much for introducing her to me!


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: