Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 7, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Kathleen Kemly

Kathleen Kemly has wanted to illustrate children’s books since she was in third grade. She grew up in Michigan and studied illustration at Parsons School of Design in New York. She is the Illustrator of many award winning books. Kathleen works in pastels, oils and pencil and has exhibited her pastel paintings in Seattle. She has worked with children as an artist in residence for middle school students and enjoys visiting schools and talking to children about illustration and creating characters.

Ms. Kemly is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and a recipient of the Seattle Arts Council Arts in Education Grant. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two grown sons. She likes to ski, hike in the mountains and be outside as much as possible.

Above and Below are Two illustrations from THE ICE POND – A Work in Progress.

Below is Kathleen’s newest book, MOLLY, BY GOLLY: The Legend of Molly Williams Americas First Female Firefighter. Written by Dianne Ochiltree and published by Boyd’s Mill Press. You will have to wait until the fall of 2012 for it to hit the bookshevles.

KT: This is so much fun. I just realized that Molly, by Golly was written by my friend Dianne Ochiltree. Did you have a chance to interact with Dianne while working on the book?

KK: Not directly, but she provided lots of reference material for me to use. She was also part of the illustration review process, not usual for a writer, because she is an expert on the history of fire fighters equipment and clothing. Her input really helped Molly come to life, along with her great story!

Couple all these great illustrations and a wonderful story by Dianne Ochiltree, to me, this is a must by book. Can’t wait until it is available to buy.

Here is Kathleen sharing her process:

I like to start in Photoshop with sketches. For a book I will do a bunch of character sketches first and then storyboard the book very loosely. When the storyboard is where I want it to be I’ll print it out and make a dummy to make sure there are few compositional redundancies and it has good ‘page turn-ability’. I like to have my art director and editor take a look at this point so they know and approve of the direction of the project.

Next I enlarge each thumbnail, in Photoshop, to the final art size and do the sketch. Drawing in Photoshop enables me to make changes easily, move, resize and warp until the drawing is just where I want it. It is also handy to flip the drawing backwards to check for any weirdness in perspective or proportions, just like looking at it in a mirror.

I’ll send in all the final sketches for approval before doing the final color art.(Pic 3) I then print out the sketch full size onto watercolor paper. I have an Epson R1900 large format printer for this. It was an investment, but so worth it, one of the biggest killers of a nice loose sketch is redrawing it onto the final paper. It saves lots of time too. From here, I can use just about any medium to finish. Watercolor and pastel, acrylics, or in this case, oil paint. So the paper doesn’t absorb the oil, I give the paper two coats of Liquitex clear gesso. They recommend that it dries for 24 hours.

For this project, I used a limited palette of three colors; Ultramarine Blue, Indian Yellow, Alizarin Crimson and White. I chose these colors also for their transparency, because I want the drawing to show through.

Then, using a touch of Gamsol to thin the paints, I start by using the blue to establish the basic value pattern. I can swap up the paint here and there with a rag or remove it completely. At this stage I let it rest for an hour or so, so the paint doesn’t come up as I add more layers. It looks (and feels!) like kind of a mess at this point.

Now it’s time to start adding in colors, using a stiff brush I scrub in pure color with just a touch of white, if needed, mixing right on the paper.

After a while the basic colors will be established.

Now for the fun part, mixing on the palette now, Painting the image, adding highlights and details.

Keeping the paint thin allows me to use graphite and colored pencils to bolster the line and add detail.

I wanted to make sure that the snowflakes had lots of fun,swirling patterns. I let the painting dry a few days before doing most of the snow, that way I could wipe them off if they started to look too regular or tight.

KT: Your bio says you like to use pastels, oils and pencil. What did you use for Molly By Golly?

Molly was done with oils. I did the drawings in Photoshop and printed them out on watercolor paper. Then after coating the paper with a clear gesso, I paint the drawing using thin layers of paint.

The next six illustrations finish off the interior art.

KT: It’s funny, but I’ve had the picture on the cover of the book beloow in my office for the last ten years. I didn’t know who illustrated it. I didn’t even know it was from a book, I just liked it. I had always thought that it was an old woman seeing what she looked like when she was young. Now that I see it as a book cover, I wonder if I was wrong. Can you tell us a little bit about the illustration? Was this illustration done for the book or was it what piqued the publisher’s interest?

KK: I think that the publisher saw my Picturebook ad. At that time I was using a combination of drawing, acrylic wash and collage. The cover image is what I did for the book, it is a story about a little girl who goes to visit her grandmother at a nursing home and encounters a very cranky, kind of scary, old lady in the hall. They get to talking and as the old lady reminisces about her past, the young girls begins to sees her in a different light. I thought using the mirror would be a nice way to show the bridge between the generations.

KT: WHAT DO YOU SEE WHEN YOU SEE ME was your first book published by Cook Communications in 2002. How did you get that contract?

KK: I was sending out mailers to publishers and I also took out a full page ad in Picturebook. It wasn’t all that long ago, but few artists or publishers used websites back then.

In A MOTHER’S SONG, a mother encourages her daughter to “share nature’s wonders” with her throughout the seasons in fun activities. Published in 2010 by Sterling Publishing.

What was the first piece of art that you sold?

My very first illustration work was done in the greeting card industry. I designed a line of cards and products using a cat character called Fang. My style at that time, the 1980’s, was cartoony- simple line and watercolor. I was also working in a design studio that did toy packaging design.

KT: Do you have an artist rep?

Yes, Melissa Turk found me through Picturebook, she called and asked if I wanted to join her group. Agents generally want to represent artists who have a track record of promoting themselves.
I have enjoyed working with her, she not only keeps me working, but has helped me to develop my style and grow as an artist. An agent is great for someone like me who does not love the work of self promotion, she also handles contracts and timelines. One especially complicated job was for the book Inside: Human Body. Two illustrators worked on that book, me and Joel Ito- he is a medical illustrator also represented by Melissa. I did the ‘outsides’ of the people and parts and Joel did the ‘insides’. There were eighty-plus illustrations which had to be done in phases, coordinated so the Joel could do his magic over my images. It was a logistical nightmare and I was so grateful that Melissa was able to keep track of it all.

KT: How did you end up getting the contracts for your other books?

KK: Most of my assignments since 2003 have been through my agent, Melissa Turk.

GOLDEN DELICIOUS: A CINDERELLA APPLE STORY was publisher by Albert Whitman & Co. in 2008 and written by Anna Egan Smucker

It looks like 2007 and 2008 were very good years for you. Was it hard to finish 5 books in two years?

It was, although I had a little more time than two years because some of them had been in the works for a year or so before that. Deadlines can be good because I could take forever to finish without one, but it is nice to have a little more time to think through a project and make sure it is as good as it can be.

YOU CAN’T DO THAT, AMELIA! by Kimberly Wagner Klier and published by Calkins Creek in 2008

Do you ever use Photoshop to clean up your work?

Yes, Photoshop is great. I use it for all of my magazine and educational work.

Do you own a graphic tablet?

Yes, a Wacom tablet. I tape a piece of tracing paper over it so it feels more like drawing on paper. At first I didn’t like drawing using Photoshop but now I really love it. It’s the perfect way to keep the loose quality in a sketch and still be able to make corrections easily.

KT: Could you tell us a little bit about your studies at Parsons School of Design in New York?

I decided to go to Parsons to learn children’s book illustration because Maurice Sendack taught there. Unfortunately he was on sabbatical during my time at Parsons. The illustration program had a very strong emphasis on drawing. We also had lots of classes on concepts and ideas. My final year I switched to printmaking, at that point I wasn’t sure what kind of artist I wanted to be.

KT: Do you feel attending such a prestigious school for illustration enhanced your career?

KK: It definitely helped me to learn to draw. I still take classes and do figure drawing regularly. I think if I had been more focused at the time on one type of art career I would have been able to take advantage of Parsons’ professional connections. I’m always amazed at how long it takes me to learn some things, whether it’s a painting technique or a life lesson!

A FISHING SURPRISE written by Re A McDonald was published in 2007 by NorthWoord Books

KT: Have you ever considered writing and illustrating your own books?

KK: Absolutely! I am working on some ideas right now with my critique groups.

KT: I do have other books that aren’t shown on your website?

KK: Yes, I have eight trade books and lots of educational ones.

KT: Do you illustrate at home?

KK: I have a converted bedroom in our home that is my studio.

BENJAMIN BROWN AND THE GREAT STEAMBOAT RACE written by Shirley Jordan and published by Millbrook Press in 2011

KT: Do you have a routine that you try to follow?

KK: I try to do something creative every day. I’m not a linear kind of person, so I have found that it’s ok to ebb and flow with my work. Currently, I am writing and drawing and painting without a particular end goal in mind. Ideas come from everywhere, so I try to be open and ready.

KT: What type of things do you do to help get more work?

KK: Good question! I am not very good at marketing, and will be attending a workshop on how to get out there in the blogosphere. I am considering starting a blog or a Facebook page.

Work in Progress: ANNIE, THE COW WHO WAS ALWAYS READY written by Rae McDonald.

KT: When did you do your first magazine illustration? Who was it for and how did you get the contract?

KK: My first illustration assignment was for Ladybug Magazine, I believe I sent them a promotional post card.

KT: Above is the illustration that was Kathleen’s first assignment at Ladybug Magazine. You can see that her style and materials have changed. This was done using collage.

Do you still do illustrations for magazines?

Yes, mostly Highlights.

KT: Do you have any words of wisdom for other illustrators?

KK: Draw every day. Don’t get too precious with your work because you might have to change it. Have fun and do work that you love, not what you think they will like.

Kathleen thank you so much for sharing your talents and process with us. I am glad I finally know who’s work I admired from years ago and since then you have really grown even better. I know I will be one of the first in line to buy MOLLY, BY GOLLY by you and Dianne Ochiltree.  I hope you start a blog, so we can see all your illustrations as they develop.

If you would like to visit Kathleen, you can find her at:  If you have a minute, I am sure Kathleen would love to leave a commentthat she could read.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Another terrific illustrator! Thanks, Kathy!

    As a former competitive figure skater, I LOVE the ICE POND illos. Is that a dummy or is it under contract? Looks like a MUST OWN to me!

    I enjoyed seeing the transformation of the MOLLY spread. Fascinating to those of us who don’t illustrate, and very informative for friends of authors who don’t understand why a PB takes so long to create. Great art cannot be rushed!

    Wonderful, wonderful! Best wishes, Kathleen!


    • Hi Tara,
      The Ice Pond is a work in progress. Stay tuned!


  2. I LOVE GOLDEN DELICIOUS! (I think of it every time I buy an apple!) Thanks, Kathleen! Great post, Kathy!


  3. So pleased I discovered your blog – fascinating!


  4. fantastic interview, and remarkable work! How do you approach your magnificent overhead bird-in-the -tree illustrations? All wonderful!


    • Hi Tracey,
      I always try to vary the point of view as much as possible. As you can imagine the up in the tree perspective is hard to set up in real life. So after many sketches of how I thought it should look, I brought it to my critique group meeting. With fresh eyes on the drawing they were able to see that the closest branches had to be bigger. Having someone else look at an extreme perspective really helps with making sure that it works. At the very least, putting it away for a day or so helps too.
      Hope that answers your question!


  5. Wow, these images are really wonderful and such a good read too. I love the way her images seem to dance and move and the emotional content makes me feel right there. I also really enjoy her use of color and watching how the Molly spread developed was very helpful like seeing into the mind and maybe heart of an outstanding illustrator. Very COOL!
    Thank you for interviewing and posting Kathleen Kemly and her work.


  6. I ditto what everyone posted here (though I, as of yet, don’t own any of your books, Kathleen)! I agree—Molly, by Golly is something I plan on adding to my collection! I just love when “Illustrator Saturday” moves me in some wonderful way each week 🙂

    Thanks to BOTH Kathies! 🙂


  7. Absolutely charming. I especially love the ice skating scenes. It’s nice to find someone else who clearly loves winter as do I. Thanks for another lovely post.


  8. Many moons ago (and two degrees ago), I was an art major. I loved painting and drawing. This post is such a wonderful insight into how an illustration comes to life –I loved Kathleen’s WIP pictures. 🙂


  9. Kathleen,
    Your illustrations are beautiful and very expressive! Congratulations on your amazing career. Thank you for sharing all the steps to your process.
    Thank you Kathy for this wonderful interview.


  10. Great interview and wonderful work. Thanks for sharing! 🙂 e


  11. Great piece. I really enjoyed the interview behind the exhibit.


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