Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 19, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Sarah Dillard

Sarah Dillard studied art at Wheaton College and illustration at Rhode Island School of Design. She is an illustrator for children’s books and the stationery and giftware markets. Sarah’s first author/illustrated book, Perfectly Arugula, was published in 2009 and the audio book version won the Gold Award for the 2010 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) Storytelling competition. She lives on a mountain in Vermont with her husband and chocolate lab.

TIGHTROPE POPPY written by Sudipta Bardham and illustrated by Sarah Dillard

If you were an EVEN NUMBER written by Marcie Aboff and illustrated by Sarah Dillard

Here is Sarah and her process:

Most of my work starts with a very rough doodle, just to get an idea of the composition.

This is another rough sketch with a little more detail.

This is a more complete sketch with water soluble graphite pencils to work out tones and more detail.

The finished (?) painting. This was done in watercolor and gouache on 300 lb water color paper. I love the weight of this paper. It does not buckle when wet so there is no need to stretch it. I tend to start with watercolor and then build up the color with gouache. Then I add texture with gouache and a tiny brush. I liked the november-ish feeling of this and could have stopped here but everything looks better with a little snow, so..

I added a dusting of snow and some swirly wind in Photoshop.

And then it just kept snowing. Now that bunny is really cold!

Have you ever thought about writing and illustrating your own book?

I have! My book “Perfectly Arugula” was published by Sterling in 2009. I have two books under contract now that will be coming out in 2014.

After high school did you go to college for art? If so, where?

I went to Wheaton College, a liberal arts school, and majored in Studio Art with a minor in English. After that I went to Rhode Island School of Design and studied illustration. It was a good combination for me.

How did you develop your art ability?

Look at a lot of art and practice, practice, practice! It is the only way.

What was the first thing you did that you got paid for? How did that come about?

When I was young, probably around 5 or 6, instead of a lemonade stand I had a stand where I made and colored paper fans. I think my sister was my only customer. I made 25 cents. Then my crayons melted and I had to close up shop.

What was your first illustrating job? 

My first actual professional illustration job was for Natural Health Magazine. I did several illustrations for them, mostly of food.

What was your first book you had published? 

The first book that I illustrated was “Blossom Tales; Flower Stories of Many Folk” written by Patricia Hruby Powell and published by Moon Mountain Publishing in 2002.

How did that contract come about? 

I sent them some samples of my work and they contacted me to do the book.  It was such a great transition for me from my decorative food and flower work into children’s books because flowers played such a major role in the illustrations.  My father, who had always encouraged me as an illustrator was very ill at the time.  Unfortunately he passed away before the book was published, but I was able to share my sketches and some of the finished work with him. I was so glad that he got to see me working on my first children’s book.

The book you illustrated If You Were an Odd Number (Math Fun), If You Were an Even Number (Math Fun), If You Were a Set (Math Fun)and a few more were written by “Jersey Girl,” Marcie Aboff and published by Picture Window Books. Can you tell us about these books and how they came about? Do you know Marcie?

Again, these books came through my rep. The publisher contacted her to hire me and I worked directly with them. It seems strange but I rarely have any contact with the author.

Many of the books you have illustrated are board books. Other than them being less pages, does an illustrator have to approach them any differently than a picture book?

Board books tend to be simpler than most picture books, and so it follows that the illustrations tend to be simpler as well, at least in looks, not necessarily in the execution!

How long have you been illustrating?

I started getting freelance work for magazines and newspapers in the early 90’s. From there I went into greeting cards and licensing for giftware products. I began illustrating more specifically for children in the late ’90’s. Early on, my work was more decorative and food and garden oriented. I knew I wanted to be a children’s illustrator but I didn’t like drawing people which kind of limited things. Stories have characters after all. So I worked hard on my people and eventually became more comfortable with them. Then I realized that animals were more fun!

Five Wishing Stars was published by Piggy Toes Press. Can you tell us a little bit about this publisher and how you made the connection?

Five Wishing Stars was actually 10 Wishing Stars. They later came out with the abridged version. I got this and every subsequent book I’ve done through my wonderful art rep Lori Nowicki of Painted Words Inc. Piggy Toes Press does wonderful novelty and books.

Do you have an agent?

Yes, Lori Nowicki with Painted Words Inc.

Where do you create the magic you produce?

I live in a little ski house on a mountain in Vermont with my husband and dog. My studio is in one of the bedrooms. I look out my window into a forest with a beautiful brook. Believe it or not some of the leaves are already changing. I’m not quite ready for that!

Do you ever use Photoshop to clean up your artwork?

Yes, Photoshop is invaluable. More and more I’m submitting final artwork digitally. It can be a little more work, but it is really nice to take the opportunity to sharpen edges, smooth over rough painting spots etc.

Are there any painting tips (materials, etc) you can share that work well for you?

I can’t paint without a stack of paper towels next to me. Also, as I said, I really love water soluble colored pencils. There are also some graphite pencils that are water soluble and they are so great for adding tone to sketches.

What type of things do you do to get more business?

I always try to be creating new work, so that there is something new to show people. I also try to blog regularly (not always successful with that) and keep my website up to date. Which it is not right now. That is my early fall project I hope!

You did a touch and feel book titled, Baby Jesus is Born published by Kregel Kidzone. I’m sorry I am asking so many questions about the publishers, but you do not hear their names often, so I think writers would be interested in hearing about them. How did you find them and what were they like to work with?

I did that book and several others for Reader’s Digest. I think they might have sold that division to Kregel Kidzone later, I’m not sure. I find having a rep has been great for getting this kind of work. Publishing can be hard to navigate on your own and it can be pretty much a full time job keeping up with it, although there are resources. Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market from Writer’s Digest is a great tool. And also SCBWI provides so many resources that are especially invaluable for people starting out in the field.

I have your picture book Tightrope Poppy written by another “Jersey Girl” Sudipta Bardhan on my bookshelf. Was this your first true picture book?

Blossom Tales was my first picture book, but this was my first character driven picture book. It was so much fun to work on, I just fell in love with Poppy and it is such a great and inspiring story.

What type of paint do you use for your illustrations?

I generally work in water color and gouache.

Has that changed any over the years?

I still work mostly in gouache but am also rediscovering colored pencils. The water soluble ones are so much fun. I’ve also begun dabbling a little in digital illustration.

Do you ever use two different materials in one illustration?

Yes, more and more I am using colored pencils with gouache, they make the finer details a little easier. I also sometimes do some digital enhancements to my paintings.

Have you ever done any artwork for children’s magazines?

I haven’t done work for children’s magazines.

How long does it take you to illustrate a board book?
It varies. A lot of the ones that I’ve done have been with educational or novelty publishers who for whatever reason seem to work on very tight deadlines; sometimes just a few weeks. I am always amazed when I get something finished in that time frame!

Did the publisher of tightrope Poppy give you more time to illustrate that book?

For Tightrope Poppy I had about 3 months for the final art once the sketches had been approved. It was about the same with Perfectly Arugula.

What are you working on now?

I am working on two books that I’m writing and illustrating, one with Blue Apple and one with Aladdin. I’ve also got some other manuscripts that I hope to be sending out soon. I’m also getting ready for an exhibit at the Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro Vt. which will be up for September and October. And I’m going to be teaching a class on children’s illustration this fall at the Writer’s Barn in Shelburne Vt. I’m really excited about that.

Do you own a graphic tablet or thought about getting one?

I do. I got a basic Bamboo tablet a few years ago and I love it. Maybe someday I’ll get a Cintique but I’m not sure I really want to commit to being completely digital.

Do you follow a daily routine?

I try to. Every morning I get up around 6:30 and go for a walk with my dog. We walk up the mountain for about 30 minutes until we get to a waterfall. I stand there and think about what I want to get done that day, give my dog a treat and walk back down. I’m at my desk by 8:30 or 9. After lunch there is another walk with my dog (I am not someone who likes to exercise regularly. My dog is better than a health club membership, plus he is a constant source of inspiration.) Then I work until dinner time. But I am pretty good at distracting myself and I don’t always get everything done that I hoped to.

Can you think of any words of wisdom that might help other illustrators?

I think the main thing would be don’t worry so much about finding your style. It is important to have your own style but you can’t force it. Just draw and paint a lot and your style will find you. And don’t be afraid to be yourself. That is the most important thing you can bring to your work.

And if you don’t have one, get a dog. Really. They are extremely helpful for making you exercise and establish a routine. They are always happy to see you and they never criticize your work.

Thank you Sarah for sharing your artwork and process with us. We will definitely keep a look out for your next two books coming out in 2014.

If you would like to visit Sarah, here is her website:  I am sure Sarah would love if you left a comment for her on this post, so if you have a minute please leave a comment. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Love the colors and the texture and those adorable little animals – beautiful work, Sarah!


  2. lovely! the art makes one feel so good and happy!
    wanna know more about the chocolate lab!


  3. Wonderful interview! Congrats to Sarah on her up-coming books!


  4. Really enjoyed looking at your work, Sarah. And your advice is great.
    Thanks, Sarah & Kathy.


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