Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 2, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Nancy Cote

Nancy Cote is an author and illustrator from Somerset, Massachusetts. Since 1992, she has created the characters and stories children have grown to love. Nancy Cote has illustrated forty-six Children’s Picture Books. Her work has been featured in the “ORIGINAL ART” exhibit in NYC, Scholastic Book Club, Highlights Magazine and has earned many awards including the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Award, Society of School Librarians International Honor Book, ABA “Pick of the Lists”, Smithsonian Notable Book for Children, Florida Reading Association Children’s Book Award, CBC-IRA Notable Children’s Trade Book, Sidney Taylor Notable Book Award, and Parenting Magazine Best Book.

Nancy says,”Ever since I can remember, I have been either drawing or late for something. I find myself constantly being side tracked by the infinite beauty around me. I’ve always needed to see, feel and breathe in everything in sight, which keeps me moving at a rather slow pace.”

She never thought about writing or illustrating Childrens Books while growing up. It was after she had a family that she discovered this world of immense creative possibility.

She literally read thousands of books to her children and was convinced that she wanted to express herself through this medium. Having majored in Painting in college, it was a natural progression for her to tie the two life experiences together. She says, “As a mom, I had endless inspiration and insight into the world of children. In many ways I’ve never lost the emotional ties to my own childhood and still feel very connected to that spirit.”

Working as a full time author / illustrator just reinforces her conviction that you can achieve any goal that you have, “even though you may get distracted along the way!”

Here is Nancy and discussing her procees:

1. Here I’ve created a sketch of the opening scene from the story. In the composition, I’ve allowed enough space for text to be placed in the left hand side of the page to the right of the tree with the squirrel in it. The swirls will be eventually be eliminated. They serve as my reminder to keep energy alive at the onset of the project.

2. The pencil sketch is transferred onto Arches 140lb hot press paper using a light box. Here I am beginning to block in some underlying color with soft body acrylics. Using red the complementary to green, I roughly block in the space that will be variations in green then begin to highlight the sunlight that is pouring in through the park.

3. The initial green grass is laid in and I try not to concentrate on any particular area for too long moving all around the canvas until there is color on everything. All the while my mind is processing the time of year, the way the light would be entering the scene with many, many changes rapidly taking place during this next phase of painting.

4. Eventually after numerous general changes, I begin to concentrate on specific parts of the painting. I work in layers so that underlying color creates dimensional and interest.

The squirrel, pigeons and ants all have a part in the story but I am introducing them and not necessarily focusing on them. The lighting draws the viewer to the major action of Sam and Mousy getting ready to share the cookie.

I’ve created a black and white book dummy and now have a cover idea and a finished spread to submit. My query letter is composed and I am ready to send it out.

It looks like you have a pretty nice set up for your studio. Is it in your house?

Yes, my studio started in a tiny pantry that could barely fit a desk. Eventually we added a 17’ x 20’ studio space to the house. It’s heated with a wood stove that keeps me warm throughout the cold New England winters. My two dogs keep me company and have appeared in many of my books.

Do you have any tips for someone try to set up their studio?

The only real requirement is to have decent lighting. It can be very disappointing to work on something only to bring the work into natural light and feel otherwise. Music is also a wonderful source of inspiration. I’ve worked at my kitchen table, in my bed and in my car. A studio is great, but it’s truly what you bring to it that matters.

Tell us a little bit about the mural you did for the hospital and how you got that job.

I was contacted by a gallery in Boston, MA, which outfits children’s artwork to hospitals and clinics. I met with the owner and after looking over my portfolio, she thought my work would be a great fit. I sold several original pieces, got two commissions, and did two murals for the Boston’s Children’s Hospital. It made me so very happy to create artwork that I hoped would be a good distraction for kids facing bigger issues. Knowing the work that you love to do may ultimately impact someone in a real and positive way is by far the greatest privilege that anyone can experience.

I see that you have illustrated for children’s magazines. How did that first contract happen? 

After one of my books was published with Boyds Mills Press, I illustrated three additional books for them. Eventually the staff of Highlights for Kids invited me to illustrate a story for the magazine. Since then, I’ve illustrated many assignments for Highlights and High Five which I absolutely love doing. I received the Highlights Pewter Plate award for illustrating the story “Myrtle Magee and the Pesky Winds” in the April 2012 issue.

You illustrated Highlights 2010 Winter Card. How did that happen? Do they put out a call or did they contact you with the job?

I enjoy writing and I am particularly fond of writing poems. When my brother, sister and I were little, my dad encouraged us to memorize and recite poems. Now I imagine how happy and proud he would be that I’ve had so many of my own poems published.

I wrote and illustrated “Winter Skate,” for my own enjoyment then decided to submit it to Highlights/HighFive for consideration. I was so happy when it was accepted for publication and even more happy when I found out that it was being used as the holiday card. That was such an honor.

How long have you been doing school visits? How many do you do each year?

I long to be working in my studio most of the time, but I do enjoy doing occasional school visits because I love having that direct connection with school age kids. I only do a few visits per year because they are time consuming and require a good amount of preparation to make it successful.

I like the school visit pictures of you and the large paintings. Do you always work that big? I can’t imagine doing a 32 page picture book that large.

Sometimes when I do a school visit, I like to bring a few of my large paintings that are part of a collection I am putting together for exhibiting purposes. The reactions that I get are often ones of amazement and disbelief since many children have never had an opportunity to see paintings of this nature.

These paintings are inspired by my book illustrations but are not copies of them. My hope is to build a collection of these large scale paintings that would become a traveling exhibit to museums and galleries worldwide.

The paintings could be compared to my illustrations and would serve as an innovative way for adults and children to study the differences. I select the most intriguing image from each of my books and use it as the basis for a painting. Most of the paintings which are rendered in oils, are 4′ x 5′, but I hope to work much larger on future pieces.

My goal is to establish a considerable collection that children can relate to and will remember as a positive introduction to painting and illustration.

Any tips on doing a good school visit?

You have to muster up all of your enthusiasm as well as a good sense of humor to grab the attention of your young audience. I try to gear my talk to what may have interested me as a kid. Having lunch with the kids in the school cafeteria is my favorite part. Pizza and peanut butter chewies zap me back to when I was 10 years old and that is reward enough for me! I am totally spent after a school visit but it renews my enthusiasm to continue to do my best work.

Did you go to school for art?

I majored in Painting at UMass Dartmouth and graduated with the Excellence in Art Award.

Have you ever submitted your work in a contest?

Yes, in 2011 I submitted my illustration “Rain” which appeared in Highlights High Five Magazine into the SCBWI Magazine Merit Competition.  I was the recipient of a Letter of Merit as a runner up in that contest.  The contest received over 100 entries for the four categories.  Eight awards and eight Letters of Merit were given out.

It is a big honor to display your illustration at the Society of Illustrators in NYC. How did that happen? Do you have to apply?

It was the Original Art “98” Exhibit and the book that was submitted was a story that I wrote and illustrated called “Flip-Flops.” It was the most surreal experience I’ve ever had attending the opening exhibit which featured my work as well as the illustrators that I’d been inspired by over the years.

How did you get your first book picture book contract?

That story is almost too good to be true. I had written a story called “Palm Trees” which was inspired by my daughter. I wrote it in rhyme, did all of the illustrations, then sent it to Henry Holt & Co. About a month later, I received a phone call from an assistant editor who told me that the company loved the story idea, but wondered if I would be interested in writing it in prose. I thought that it would be a piece of cake and rewrote it promptly and sent it in. Soon after, it was rejected but with it came a wonderfully encouraging letter. For the next year, I worked diligently on editing and reworking the story. When I came to the point that I couldn’t change another word, I decided to send it to Macmillan Publishing. Within two months, my dream came true. I was having my very first book published with one of the major publishers in NYC. The senior editor and art director invited me to lunch and my career was off the ground.

How long ago was that?

“Palm Trees,” was published in 1993.

I studied the types of books that were currently available to kids and became keenly aware that there weren’t many books featuring children of color in the early 1990’s. I felt particularly committed to introducing diverse characters in my stories. “Palm Trees,” a story about two African American girls debuted and received glowing reviews which led to more illustration work.

How long did it take you to decide to write and illustrate your own book? What was the title of that book?

As a new mom, reading was a priority and we visited the library religiously. I loved all literature relating to children and discovered that this medium was the perfect outlet for me to express myself. Writing “Palm Trees” was something that I did for my own enjoyment with no thoughts of publishing. It evolved into a serious submission quest after I did numerous illustrations and saw the potential.

Below:  Sketch and final art  for an educational publisher.

Could you give us some name of Educational Publishers?

Sure!  I have published with Brown Publishing Network, Quarasan, Houghton Mifflin, Silver Editions, Macmillan/ McGraw- Hill, Pearson,  Saxon, and Steck- Vaughn.

Tell us a little about the educational illustrations you did?

Educational illustration is great fun. The assignments are often 8-16 page leveled readers. My assignments are usually whimsical projects for the youngest readers, where I find that because they are short projects, my energy is high. The restrictions are a little greater when working on these projects and you must adhere to the strict guidelines because the primary goal is to teach reading. Although it can be sometimes limiting by way of creativity, the challenge to make these books visually engaging and fun for beginning readers is an exciting opportunity. However, there is somewhat less freedom in the composition and execution, than there is when working on a picture book.

How did you get your foot in the door with the educational market?

I simply take risks, send samples, and write to companies by way of introduction and inquiry. This is how I’ve secured much of my work particularly in the educational market.

Have you tried drawing with a graphic tablet? If so, what do you think?

I use a Wacom tablet regularly and using the stylus is actually a comfortable and natural feeling.

Do you have an agent? If so, tell us a little bit about them. If not, would you like to find one?

I have never had an agent and have had five of my own books published and have illustrated over thirty books. There are still a few publishing houses that I would love to work with that require having an agent, so I’ve often considered getting one.

How many hours a week do you spend illustrating?

It depends on what I’m working on. If I have a deadline, I can work from morning till night. If I don’t have a deadline, I can work from morning till night. It all adds up to about as many hours as I can fit into a day or week. I don’t keep count.

Of all the books that you have illustrated, which one is your favorite?

I have loved all of them but I guess if I had to choose it might be “It Feels Like Snow!” published with Boyds Mills Press. It was such fun because I created a visual secondary story within the story utilizing a growing cast of animals in the support role of the main character Alice. Their presence added lots of humor and helped move the story along. Kids immediately pick up on the role of the animal characters which always get the most attention and laughs when reading the story.

Do you ever do any research or look at photos or models to help get your characters right?

I never realized that I was as observant as I am until I discovered that I was able to draw and paint with accuracy from memory. I do use reference but I don’t look at photos or models while working. I rely on my imagination to create characters and settings. I find that by doing so, my interpretation allows my work to have greater immediate energy and life.

How much time do you spend trying to get new business?

I spend most of my time developing new ideas. When I’ve developed something that I am confident in, I move forward with it. I am fortunate to have many assignments that seem to find me.

What are some of the things you do to help get new people interested in hiring you?

I may send out samples or talk directly to someone who may be involved in something that interests me. I’m not afraid to move on the smallest bit of information. If I can get someones attention, my enthusiasm and passion for working in this field is readily apparent.

I notice that you said some of your illustrations are in watercolor and some are in acrylic. What is your favorite material to work in?
The primary medium I’ve used in my picture books has been gouache (opaque water color), but lately I have been working with acrylics, while also incorporating collage and some digital work. I am always open to new ways of expressing myself.

Do you have an example of something you did where you used Mix Media?

This is a new collage that I did.  I love the fact that the little girl’s friends are so diverse.  Reminds me of when I was little and would spend a night away from home.  More than once, I needed to get walked home when the lights went out and I could hear the clock ticking.  It made me so homesick.

Anything else that you could share to help a new illustrator get their foot in the do or in children’s publishing?

Be yourself and don’t look ahead, or behind. Be inspired by the work that is out there but don’t compare yourself to it. What you have that is uniquely yours is part of the immense talent that exists and it takes humility and courage to express yourself honestly and sincerely.

Take advantage of this precious gift that you have and don’t waste it. Be grateful every single day…and don’t waste time!

Do you feel that your style has changed since you started illustrating?

People tell me that they can always recognize my work but that surprises me. I don’t intend to have a particular style, because I am always trying to evolve and learn from change and experimentation

I see you advertise in Picture Book. Those Ads cost a good amount of money. Do you feel you get enough work from what you spend?

It serves me well as a portfolio link and as a result I have secured some work.

Do you use Photoshop in your illustration process?

I use it to clean sketches and also to make changes in finished paintings. I have an ipad, and the apps that I’ve purchased have been instrumental in allowing me to incorporate some very interesting elements into my work. A great example of this can be found in my illustration called “The Fuzzy Yellow Secret.” Upon completion of the cover, I scanned and uploaded the image into the digital program Art Rage allowing me to create a unique effect on the boys sweater.

Are there any little techniques that you have found helpful, that you can share?

I think that most of my success lies in the fact that I am determined and extremely passionate about continuing to grow in the field of children’s books. I push myself hard and I am relentless in staying true to my particular way of seeing the world and expressing that. It is a highly competitive field and if you allow yourself to succumb to competition, it will crush your spirit. You just have to believe in yourself and do all you do for the pure love of doing it.

I love the title of this picture below:  Daddy’s Day Off

Can you tell us a little bit about Ariella Books?

Ariella Books is Germany’s first Jewish children’s book publishing company, founded in May, 2010, by Myriam Halberstam. There is a great need for Jewish children’s books in Germany, since the Jewish communities here have seen an unprecedented explosion in membership numbers due to the influx of former Sowjet Jews after 1989.
Ariella Books was founded to meet this need. Also for Gentile readers, A Horse for hanukkah is a humorous excursion into Jewish culture, informing the reader in a playful and endearing way about Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.

A horse who speaks Hebrew! This story of Hannah and her clever but willful horse, Golda, will delight both children and parents.

Speaking of Germany above is Nancy’s interruptation of Germany’s Christmas Market.  Click Here to Watch Process Video

See video of Nancy’s process for Apartment for Rent (Below – Another Ariella Book):

Thought you might like to wrap up with a list of your hardcover books. Do you have a list?

Most definitely!
Palm Trees – – Macmillan Publishing (1993) Written and Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Ruby’s Storm – Macmillan Publishing (1994) by Amy Hest, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Woollybear Goodbye – Macmillan Publishing (1994) by Sharon Phillips Denslow, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Fireflies, Peach Pies & Lullabies Simon & Schuster ( 1995) by Virginia Kroll, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes Albert Whitman & Co (1997) by Linda Glaser, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
The Can-Do Thanksgiving Albert Whitman & Co (1998) by Marion Hess Pomeranc, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Gretchen Groundhog, It’s Your Day! Albert Whitman & Co (1998) by Abby Levine, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Flip-Flops Albert Whitman & Co (1998) Written and Illustrated by Nancy Cote
I Like Your Buttons Albert Whitman & Co (1999) by Sarah Marwil Lamstein, illustrated by Nancy Cotes
When I Feel Angry Albert Whitman & Co(2000) by Cornelia Maude Spellman, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Round the Turkey/ A Grateful Thanksgiving Albert Whitman & Co(2002)by Leslie Kimmelman, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Happy 4th of July, Jenny Sweeney! Albert Whitman & Co (2003) by Leslie Kimmelman, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
It Feels Like Snow! Boyds Mills Press(2003) Written and Illustrated by Nancy Cote
The Empty Lot (2004) by Gary Miller, Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Educational Houghton Mifflin)
Corn Bread for Everyone! (2004) by Mary Atkinson, Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Educational Rigby)
Backyard Camp Out (2004) by Carlynn Trout (Educational)Houghton Mifflin
Mrs. Greenberg’s Messy Hanukkah Albert Whitman & Co (2004) by Linda Glaser, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Ms. Hen’s Feast, Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Educational Houghton Mifflin)
The Empty Lot, (2004) Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Educational Houghton Mifflin
Pancakes for the Three Bears, Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Educational Houghton Mifflin
Hamster Camp Albert Whitman & Co (2005) by Teresa Bateman, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Itʼs All About Me! J.P. Putnamʼs Sons (2005) Written and Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Tap Dance Fever Boyds Mills Press (2005) by Pat Brisson, Illustrated by Nancy
Jason Takes Responsibility Albert Whitman & Co(2005) by Virginia Kroll, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Honest Ashley Albert Whitman & Co(2006) by Virginia Kroll, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Mrs. Fickle’s Pickles Boyds Mills Press (2006) by Lori Reis, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Good Neighbor Nicholas Albert Whitman & Co(2006) by Virginia Kroll, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Big Mamaʼs Baby Boyds Mills Press (2007)by Lacy Finn Borgo, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Makayla Cares About Others Albert Whitman & Co(2007) by Virginia Kroll, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Good Citizen Sarah Albert Whitman & Co (2007) by Virginia Kroll, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
The Case of the Moving Statue (2007) by Daphne Greaves (Educational Harcourt School Publishers)
The Battle for Aunt Jane (2007) by Matthew Collins (Educational Harcourt School Publishers)
Jackson’s Blanket J.P. Putnam’s Sons(2008) Written and Illustrated by Nancy Cote
The Parade (2009) by Jon Sanders, Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Educational Heinemann)
Pink Milk (2009) by Barbara A. Donovan, Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Educational Saxon)
A Fish Lunch(2009) by Barbara A. Donovan, Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Educational Saxon)
Joyʼs Trip to the Toy Shop(2009 by Debbie OʼBrien, Illustrated by Nancy Cote(Educational Saxon)
The Leprechaun Who Lost His Rainbow Albert Whitman & Co (2009) by Sean Callahan
Which Shoes Would You Choose? J.P. Putnams Sons (2010) by Betsy R.Rosenthal, illustrated by Nancy Cote
Mr. Pip and the Only Tree (2011) by Miriam Sanchez-Moreiras, Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Read Conmigo)
Alicia Saves the Day (2011) by Bonita R. Herold, Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Read Conmigo)
Nico and His Frog (2011) by Natasha Balseca, Illustrated by Nancy Cote (Read Conmigo)
A Horse for Hanukkah Ariela Books, Berlin Germany(2010) by Myriam Halberstam, Illustrated by Nancy Cote
Apartment for Rent Ariela Books, Berlin Germany (2011) by Lea Goldberg,Illustrated by Nancy Cote
The Coqui and the Iguana Operation Outreach– USA Press(2011) by Alidis Vicente, Illustrated by Nancy Cote

Thank you Nancy for sharing your talent and process with us.  We’ll be looking for your next 46 books.  If you want to see more of Nancy’s work, here is  her website: Here is her blog:

It would be really nice if you would take a minute to leave Nancy a comment.  I’m sure she would appreciate hearing from you.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. what a great interview with an amazing artist!


    • Thank you so much Helena. I appreciate that!


  2. Amazing interview! I love Nancy’s style and her use of color! Thank you Kathleen & Nancy!


  3. What a phenomenal interview Nancy and Kathy! thank you! Nancy I love your color sense and shadow colors and lighting and mood and the wonderful close ups of everyone’s faces…..!


  4. Thank you for sharing all your work here. It is very inspiring. Do you follow any color wheel or theory, or just use what you feel the scene demands while doing a piece. Do you have all the art designs posted somewhere you can see them while designing the whole 32 page book? What are you finding acrylics are doing for you over the opaque colors – or is it more in a combination mode that each complements the other?


  5. Nancy – what beautiful art work. The colors are so vivid and project such vitality! I love that you did a hospital mural. When my youngest was 1 1/2 we had some extended time at our local hospital and she loved the murals that were there. I think they became friends that were not going to poke or prod. Kathy – thank you for giving such generous space to your guests’ work – it truly is a learning experience to visit your site.


  6. AWESOME work…really appreciate your thoughts and comments!


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