Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 14, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Barbara Johansen Newman

This week we feature the wonderful illustrator Barbara Johansen Newman. Barbara has been illustrating professionally for more than 30 years. She’s done art for books, art for magazines and newspaper articles, art for calendars and advertising, greeting cards, corporate reports, medical reports, and invitations.

For the ten years before she was an illustrator, she worked with puppets and created figurative fiber sculptures which she has exhibited at shows and galleries around the country.

She has 22 picture books published, two that she wrote and illustrated.  Barbara holds  B.F.A. in Art and a ceritificate in Art Education.  She lives in Massachusetts with her husband Phil, her three sons, Dave, Mike, and Ben and her dog Bitty (in picture on left).

Here is a picture of Barbara’s studio.

When Barbara paints big, she uses antique dough boards. I asked about them and Barbara said, “They are large slabs of wood, usually one single plank wide, probably cut from old growth trees, mostly of pine. They are also called “noodle boards.” Women used them for kneading dough for bread and noodles of sorts. They are often fairly large–20 by 28 or more. Some have lips that hung over the edges of tables to make them more stable.”

Here’s a good example of one:

I like painting on them and have purchased them whenever I can find them at a reasonable price.

This is the first color illustration assignment Barbara ever got–a piece on Turkey farms for Boston Magazine back in the 80s.

Tell us a little bit about the puppets and dolls you did right out of college.  Where the puppets marionettes? What materials did you use to make the dolls?

While I was still in college I met Lois Bohevesky and with her  and Frieda Gates I spent a summer studying puppetry and puppet making at the Bil Baird Theatre in New York. (it is no longer there)  I learned to make and operate hand puppets, rod puppets, and marionettes. That course planted the seed of a love of puppetry and everything puppet related. By summer’s end my future husband had built us a portable stage that could be used to do small shows. We packed up our rented van and moved to Buffalo, where we had transferred for our fall semester in college to be together. I posted puppet show flyers in different places and somehow we began to get calls and jobs from out of nowhere to do puppet shows all around the Buffalo area.

The big change in our lives came when we were hired to perform at a craft show. Instead of paying us a full fee, we took a table to sell puppets, because I had discovered that I loved making them as much as performing with them (actually more). After that show we were hired for other craft fairs and I also took booths at those, and eventually I was invited to exhibit at the Kenan Center craft show “100 American Craftsmen.” From there I became involved with the American Craft Council show at Rhinebeck and we soon abandoned the puppet shows altogether as I became a full time doll/soft sculpture maker.

I first used actual cotton stockings that were still available in Five and Ten Cent Stores. As those sources dried up I switched to bolts of cotton stockingnette that I dyed.  At first the figures were clothed using old garments I would buy at the Salvation Army and cut up. Street people of all sorts were my main characters. Eventually, I took to dying and/or painting all my fabrics for more control. I also began to draw and paint on the surfaces. I think it was the first sign I was itching to get back to two-dimensional work.

Did you and your husband go to the same college?  What did you study in college?

We both graduated from SUNY Buffalo. I received a BFA, and also a teaching degree.

 Can you explain why the different cline drawings?  (I left out the cleaned up line drawing in black)

The rougher sketch is what I create from various scans of my pencil studies of cattle, the horse, etc. I copied and pasted the cattle from a number of losses sketches, pasted them into the page in PS, enlarged, transformed, flipped, etc., added addition lines on the Wacom, and put everything where I wanted it. I then cleaned in up in the next black line version. Once I had it essentially where I wanted it, I changed the line art to sepia and printed in out onto to watercolor paper.

If you studied art, can you share a class that you loved and what types of things you did that helped your career?

My favorite classes were always my drawing and printmaking classes. Drawing, because it was always so immediately satisfying. My tool of choice is a number 2.5 Dixon Ticonderoga, but I also love ink. My printmaking courses I also loved, because, first, it is a drawing, and then it goes through a transformation when the impression is taken off the plate. The end product is always a surprise.  I always loved etching most for this reason because intaglio printing and aquatints were very unpredictable, yet the result was usually very pleasing. I see now that it makes perfect sense that I loved these courses because illustration basically begins with a drawing, then goes though its own transformation when it’s on the printed page.

Do you think your background in puppet and doll making helped develop your style in illustrating?

Absolutely. But I would also say that because I am, first and foremost, a figurative artist, and always have been, that my love of creating characters also developed my style of puppet and doll making.

What materials do you use when doing your illustrations?  Acrylics, watercolors?  Paper, Canvas?

For my bookwork, I now use acrylics and/or photoshop. When I illustrate a book entirely in acrylics, I begin by doing my sketches in pencil on paper. I then scan my sketches and play with them in Photoshop. When I have the spread exactly as I want them I print the line art onto 140 lb. Fabriano Hot Press watercolor paper and work away, layering the paints.  When I work this way, I often cover up all of my original lines so I repaint them.

I also illustrate in both Painter and Photoshop. Lately, I prefer Photoshop more because I find it a more stable and powerful program. I might still start out with pencil on paper, but for a number of years now I have been using a Cintiq by Wacom, which is a monitor of sorts, and I am able to draw directly on the screen.  This is so much more satisfying than when I drew on the tablet while watching the screen.

I just completed my first picture book using a combination of Photoshop and acrylics. I created many different colors and textures on paper using the real paint. Then I scanned them and used them in layers as part of the art. The top layer is the line art that I drew using the calligraphy brush in Photoshop, in black.  It was almost like creating a collage, only everything became part of the digital file.

 This is Book One done in Arcylics.

The Bones series that I illustrate (written by David A. Adler) has nine books out. I am working on the tenth book now. The first four were illustrated in acrylics and the second four were illustrated in Painter. Book nine was done in Photoshop and book ten will be as well.

Book Five done using Painter software.

I have to admit, I love working digitally. One, because I am still drawing in line, which I love and two, because I love the transformation that takes place when I scan my paintings and textures, and then combine them with the line art.

Another great part of working digitally is that I have more control over the end product. While I like surprises, I want fewer of them when I am creating a book!

Do you feel your style or materials you use has changed over the years?

I have used oils and almost every water-based material there is. I first began my illustration career with pen and ink because I love line. Then I began to use watercolors, with and without ink. Eventually I was using pencil, watercolor, pastels, and colored pencils, combined. This is how I did most of my editorial work and my early book illustrations.

I have been using acrylics and digital media for a number of years, but I am itchy to try something new. I suffer from A.A.D.D.—Artists’ Attention Deficit Disorder! I get restless if I don’t try something new. Sometimes that means a new medium to work in, a new style, or a new subject matter, but it can also mean a new venue. That‘s why I decided to exhibit at Surtex and give licensing a try. I specifically wanted to design fabrics. I have two collection of quilting cottons out with Elizabeth’s Studio. And when it comes to designing fabrics, working digitally is the best way to go, because everything must end up as a digital file. It is also essential to be able to use Photoshop when it comes to creating repeat patterns.

Have you done any black and white line drawings for older children’s books?

Yes. I have illustrated the Doyle and Fossey Detective series, written by Michelle Torrey. The first four books were published with Dutton and then taken over by Sterling, who published two more in the series. A Turkish version just came out and there will soon be a Ukraine publication. They have already been published in Korea and China, as well.

You mention that you work on big paintings at Gorse Mills Studio. Do you rent space there?

My studio there is actually a condo. It is approximately five hundred square feet. I wish it were even larger. I have a tendency to fill work spaces up with various and sundry pieces of furniture or all sorts, as well as my collections which have begun to grow over there. I find I need to be surrounded by the kind of priceless “junque” I draw and decorate with, even in my studio. It inspires me.

When did you get you first book contract?  How did that come about?

In the nineties, I began to get a lot of education illustration work, which led to being hired to illustrate two books for Raintree Steck-Vaughn. One was a chapter book written by Andrew Clements, Milo’s Great Invention, and one, a picture book that was written by an eight year old boy who had won a writing competition for kids–  Too Many Me’s.

When I held those two books in my hands I realized that as wonderfully creative and freeing editorial art can be, the magazine is eventually trash. Books can last a very long time–often longer than the author and illustrator! That touched a nerve in me. I also loved the concept of a longer narrative than a mere magazine article.

I took a trip to New York City to show my portfolio for the first time in many years. I covered about 10 publishers in roughly a day and a half, by having two portfolios and dropping them off or meeting with people at different houses. My husband helped transport them!

I met with Sara Reynolds at Dutton who thought she had a cover for me. And about 9 months later a packet arrived in the mail with the first manuscript for Doyle and Fossey, asking if I were interested. Of course, I was! That was my first trade book work, even though I had been illustrating by that point for about seventeen years.

How did you get your get your first contract on your book that you wrote?  When was that?

In 1983, I had written a series of poems called, “Seven Working Kitty City Ditties.” Back in 1984, Denise Cronin, who was an art director at Knopf at the time, had suggested taking one of those poems and turning it into it’s own book.  The title of that ditty was “Tex Mex Rex.” Life got in the way for a while, so I never did manage to do that. So, after having three kids and being too busy to think about it before that point, I dusted it off and began to work on it.  It came close to publication at one house, but they wanted to hire another illustrator. I said, “No, thanks.”

And I took it back and kept working on it. It came close in a new version with another editor, but unbeknownst to her, her publisher had published something in a similar vein.

I worked on it some more. It became a much better story.

When Meredith Mundy became an editor at Sterling in 2005, I sent it to her because I had loved working with her on the Doyle and Fossey series at Dutton. By 2005 my story had evolved into a story about Tex Mex Rex and Sugar Lee Snughead—two singing kitties in search of fame and fortune as country stars. The first title was “The Saga of Tex and Sugar.” Meredith and everyone at Sterling loved it and the rest is history.  We renamed it “TEX & SUGAR: A Big City Kitty Ditty.”

Do you plan on writing and illustrating more books?

Yes. My next picture book as both author and illustrator will be out in September.  The title is Glamorous Glasses, and it based on a true story from my childhood when I tagged along with my cousin as she got her first pair of eyeglasses. A lot of the story is very close to what actually happened in my life. That day was the also beginning of my obsession with eyewear, which continues to this day!  It inspired this story, which, like Tex and Sugar, developed over a number of years, both in the art as well as the plot.

Boyd’s Mills Press is publishing the book and I absolutely love my editor, Marcia Leonard. It has been a total delight to work with her. She has made me a much better writer.

I am now at work on another story featuring Bobbie and Joanie, the protagonists of Glamorous Glasses. Incidentally, in real life my cousin was called Joanie and I was called Bobbie! And my hair was bright red before I started going grey, so you could say this is a mini-memoir of sorts.

I see you have a Cintiq graphic tablet.  How does that fit in?  Do you do everything on it from start to finish?  Or do you just use it to sketch, color or clean up your illustration?

I use the Cintiq in different ways depending on the project. Sometimes I sketch directly on it. And sometimes it is just used to move scanned pencil art around, make it larger or smaller, transform, etc. For Glasses all my line work was done on the Cintiq.

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

I think the best drawing is drawing that comes from one’s imagination. The most important advice I ever received came from one of my professors in college who told me, “Barbara, work from your head.” He thought the things I drew and painted from my own imagination were superior to what I drew from life. I have followed that advice to this day. I think it is even more accurate to say that I draw from my heart. I suggest that all illustrators do this because then your work will always look like your own work. It’s like handwriting. Every person has one that is unique to him or her. I tell artists to draw all the time, especially while you are paying attention to something else. I love to draw and paint listening to books, movies, or TV in the background. It gets me to “that place” I like to get to—the subconscious –where my art comes intuitively from somewhere in my chest, as opposed to the part of my brain that over thinks things. That’s the reason we often do the BEST doodles while talking on the phone.

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

You betcha. There are certain things or animals that I have had to “learn.” For example–horses and cattle. I looked at pictures and pictures of horses and longhorns for Tex and Sugar. They were not part of my repertoire. And then I stopped and drew from my head. The reference material is only the starting point.

I had to do the same thing for Barnyard Purim, which came out in January. I studied goats and sheep and geese and foxes, etc. And then I took off with it and took “liberties” or artistic license. Some things exist in my memory enough for me to simply draw them. Often I draw what I think something should look like or the impression I have of it. But other things require some study.

In Glamorous Glasses I would say that I drew about 95% of that book entirely from my imagination. I did need to learn what the optical machine in an opthamologist’s office looked like, however. Even after all my visits to one, I did not know what they looked like from the front. I think I definitely took fewer liberties with that one!

After looking at the pictures of your studio, I think I might have spotted a wide format printer. If so, what brand and size do you have and are you glad you invested the money to have one?

I use and Epson Stylus Pro 7800. It is wonderful and it is what I use to print my line art onto watercolor paper. It was a great investment.

Any tips on what illustrators should look for when considering investing in a wide format printer?

Get the largest size printer you can afford and one that uses archival inks. That gives you the option of selling quality prints, which I would like to do myself if I ever find the time to set up a shop of some sort.

How long has Transatlantic Literary Agency been representing you?

I think I signed with them and Andrea Cascardi in 2008, but I am not sure. Time has flown by.

How did you make the connection with them?

I gathered as much information as I could about agents and agencies. What I had read about Andrea made me think she would be a great agent for me because she loved voice and character. She was at the top of my list but only took queries by referral. In the meantime I queried another agent at TLA that came highly recommended, and whom was also at the top of my list. She was not taking on other clients at the time but suggested I query Andrea! And, voila! I’m crazy about her.

How did you get started in licensing your work?

I reached a point in my career as an artist where I needed to step back a little from the work of illustration and books. There was something very appealing about making art and designs and THEN finding the venue, as opposed to illustration, which is always created to meet an existing need. After being an illustrator for thirty years, I wanted to dip my toe into something new.

I had heard about Surtex, the trade show in New York for licensing art and design for surface application on various products, but I had never exhibited there or even attended the show. I knew this was the place to show if one wanted to license art and design. On a lark, I made a decision to give it a try by jumping right into the water. I booked a booth for the May show and worked for months on new art. I found I especially loved making patterns.

It was exhilarating to create with no expectations except those that I set for myself. It reminded me of my years as a soft sculpture artist when I did the craft fairs. Back them I made the art and then found the market. To me, that is what Surtex was, and I loved it, right down to designing a booth as I did in the 1970s for the craft fairs.

The best part about doing the show was that it got me to work in new ways. I also found that I was able to apply that knowledge to my book art. The illustrations for Glamorous Glasses used a technique I developed for the Magic Garden Girls. It is always important for an artist to experiment with different materials and techniques. That time is never lost. It just might influence the next project!

What was the first children’s magazine that hired you to do an illustration for them?

Ha! I am not sure if I have ever worked for a children’s magazine! I think I have only worked for general periodicals, like newspapers, Sunday Magazines, and national and local magazines, geared to adults.

Do you still do illustrations for magazines?

I haven’t sought work in that market for years. The editorial market has also changed drastically in thirty years. Periodicals use much less original art and much more photography.

Do you do school visits?

I do, but mostly by request and referral.

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

At this point, I have been very lucky. I have not had to look for book illustration work. It seems to find me.

But licensing is something I will need to spend time pursuing when I am able. I am working on several new fabric collections that I plan to shop around when I can find the time. I love that market and I want to try to keep my finger in that pie as much as I can.

I also have several trademarked properties in development: Magic Garden Girls and the Oogie Boogie Babies, both of which have lots of art with their own worlds/ sets of characters, and which will have stories pertaining to those characters. I have been working on these properties when I am not fulfilling jobs I am already contracted for. I also have a line of designs and characters called, REALLY REALLY RETRO, based on my love of anything Mid-Century, which is an internationally registered trademark I have. I love to create whole worlds of unique characters with art that goes with it. I recently licensed some of those designs for iPad and iPhone covers.

I did not do Surtex this year because of other commitments, so licensing is something I need to be more proactive about.

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

I find that I enjoy meeting art directors and art buyers in person. Anytime I have actually pounded the pavement, either literally or figuratively, it has eventually resulted in assignments. With the dawning of the internet and web sites, there is much less of this nowadays, and I do not really have the time, but I would not pass up an opportunity to take a trip to New York again if the chance arose and the timing was right. I love the hustle.

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

Try to come up with your own material as a vehicle for your art. If you create stories that are true to the person you are and true to what you love, it will show in the art. Even if you do not end up publishing those stories, it will give you a great framework with which to present your art to potential markets.

Also—and this is important—try to develop your own unique style. I cannot stress this enough. I am afraid I see too much art that is dangerously derivative of the work of others, both in books and also in licensing. The best way to let the inner you out is to draw, draw, draw. There is no substitute for that.

Oh. And draw from your heart and your imagination. Because then the art you do will be yours alone.

Thank you Barbara for sharing your journey, expertise, and talent with us. If you would like to visit Barbara website, here is the link:  You’ll find Barbara’s new book, GLAMOROUS GLASSES in bookstores on September 1st.

I would really appreciate it if you would take a minute to leave Barbara a message about her post. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Love this article and your work!! Especially the lady with the chicken glasses, and the two girls with ALL those glasses to choose from!!

    That Bil Baird you speak of was the producer of the marionettes in The Sound of Music!! So cool that you could do that!! (I love puppetry, too!)

    “If you create stories that are true to the person you are and true to what you love, it will show in the art.” So true.

    Thanks for sharing…Barb


  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. It was quite inspiring!


  3. Congrats, Barbara, on this major retrospective. Wish I could be a fly on your desk lamp watching you work in photoshop with your cintiq. It’s a foreign concept to me.


  4. LOVE Barb’s work! Great interview, Kathy!


  5. Dear Barbara,
    Dreams DO come true!!! Wonderful interview~~beautifully done~~~congrats all around!!!!!
    Lots of love,
    Marcia & Dennis and kids


  6. Kathy, thanks for taking the time to make ME stop and take the time to think about life and art! And thanks, everyone for the lovely comments!


  7. Great article–thanks! I love Barbara Johansen Newman’s work! Her book, TEX AND SUGAR is right here in my office. 🙂


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