Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 6, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Kathi Ember

Kathi Ember lives with one man, three sheep and four cats in an old stone farm house just outside of Kutztown, PA. She has been drawing since she could hold a pencil and knew from an early age that art was her passion. After graduating with a BFA from Kutztown University in ’76, she eventually figured out that she was meant to be an illustrator. Her love of animals, sense of humor, whimsy, and a penchant for storytelling all came together and in one quick moment she realized, “THIS IS IT…this is what I’m supposed to be doing”. And so, she sits at her desk every day, living in a fantasy world and watching little anthropomorphic animals come to life…and…life is good.

Here is Kathi explaining her process:

In the story Substitute Groundhog , groundhog stops at the Hidey Hole Diner and looks at the want ads on the tree. As soon as I read that copy I pictured a 50’s style diner in the trees. I experimented a lot with the look of the diner and did lots of little rough sketches, playing with the shape and how it would sit in a tree. I looked at tons of images of 50’s diners to help jump start my brain. Once I had a rough idea in my head of the look of the diner siting in a big old tree, I started thinking about the best viewpoint to see it from. I knew we wanted to see the groundhog in the foreground looking at the want ads. So after thinking it all through, I ended up with this little 2″ thumbnail, laying out the basic composition, using the tree in the foreground to help create a framework for the diner in the background.

I blew up my little thumbnail to full size and then I layered a piece of tracing paper over it and started refining the shapes and adding details. At this point I decided the lower entrance door through the tree should be shaped like a large donut. I also added the little characters on the porch ( some who we meet later in the story) I had fun with some of the little details like the other notes on the tree. My favorite is the “R. U. SLEEPY Hibernation Therapy” I had that spelled wrong on this sketch, but I corrected it in the final art ) Throughout this book I utilized the bare trees and patches of snow as design elements.

I usually make a small copy of my sketch and do a rough color sketch with colored pencils. This is just to give me a general idea of where I want to go with color. It helps me think it through a bit before I get into the actual painting.

The first step is to transfer my pencil sketch to my watercolor paper. I like Fabriano Uno cold press because it has a bit of a woven texture to it. I transfer my drawing using a light table.  I’ve been painting using Liquitex soft body acrylics for a number of years now. I used to work in watercolor and I use acrylics in a similar fashion building up thin layers of paint. The soft body acrylics are perfect for the way I paint. I use a “Masterson “stay-wet pallet” to lay all my colors out on. I find it can keep my acrylics at a workable consistency for days. Don’t know what I’d do with out that.

In this part of the story the bear goes down into groundhogs hole. ( All of the animals are trying out to replace the groundhog on Groundhog Day) He is yelling up to groundhog that he thinks it’s kinda cozy. I had fun visualizing what groundhog’s hole would look like.

Once I blew up my thumbnail I decided I needed to play with the perspective a bit to make this illustration work.

Just thinking through the color. When I am deciding on color, I always start with the colors I know …the bears brown coat, the dirt walls, etc., and then I add in the other colors. When I am selecting color I am thinking about how the color helps the composition and balance of the illustration. I am also thinking about how it can lead your eye to certain things that you want to draw attention to.

When I am working on the final painting I am usually sticking to my color sketch, but thinking more about the contrast and depth of the colors. Occasionally, I will do a value study, but often I have values in mind when I am working on my color sketch. I knew after doing my color sketch for this that I wanted the floor around the stove to be bright from the stove. Even though it doesn’t look that way on my sketch, just doing the sketch made me think about that, so I was aware that is what I wanted to do in the final art. Often my final art varies a bit from my color sketch. I think of my color sketch more as an exercise just to help me think it through.

Tell us a little bit about the mural you are doing in the school? Do you or did you work there?

The mural is in the English classroom of a friend of mine. I’ve been working on it in my spare time for years ( I don’t have that much spare time and the room has limited access) It is a labor of love. Compensation is only what donations can be gathered up. I agreed to do it for a number of reasons. Mainly I wanted to do it because I had never painted a mural before and I wanted the experience. Secondly, I was enticed by the subject matter. Animal Farm is one of my favorite books. When I first started painting it, it was very slow going. The combination of my love of detail and working large with house paint really slowed me down. As I worked, I learned to loosen up and go faster. It’s been a great exercise for me. Unfortunately, I have not found time to work on it for months. I really want to get in there and finish it.

This is a mural I’ve been working on for a long time…in between other projects. It is in an English classroom at Brandywine Heights High School in Topton, PA and it is supposed to depict the book Animal Farm.

This is the right side of the mural, which represents the end of the book, Animal Farm.

The school built a sub wall for me to paint on, which is nice since if they ever decide they don’t want it in there I can get it back. The first thing I did was to measure the space and decide how to break the wall up. The left side illustrates the beginning of the story and the right side illustrates the end.

I started by measuring each space and then downsizing them proportionally to work on sketches for each side. I could have used a projector to transfer the sketches, but after talking to a few other artist friends who have dome murals, I decided to just use a grid to transfer them.

So after covering the wall with gesso, I added a grid to it and transferred my sketch. Then I started painting.

Also on the advice of a muralist friend, I decided to use regular house paint instead of acrylics. It’s a lot cheaper and you can buy sample colors in very small sizes.

…just a few dogs and mice to paint yet for this side. I really need to learn how to paint faster and not get so involved in details. I won’t even tell you how long I’ve been working on this. I am getting a little faster and loosening up as I go.

How many books have you illustrated?

It depends what type of book you are talking about. I’ve illustrated about a dozen children’s books for either mass market or trade publications. (“Trade” books being nice books you’d find at a good book supplier and “mass market” books being books like Little Golden Books.) I’ve also done at least a dozen more books for educational publishers. When I first started out, before I broke into children’s illustration I illustrated several gardening books.

What was the first piece of art you did and got paid for?

Boy, you are going way back in time with that question. I’ve been an illustrator for over thirty years. The first 12 years or so of my career ( 1980-1992) I represented myself and kept busy with editorial and book illustration. I think the very first piece of art I did and got paid for was stippled b+w ink illustration of a coal stove for a friend of mine who had a stove store.

What was your first picture book?

My first picture book was a little 16 pg. “learn to read” book for Scholastic. It was called Mousetrap

When and how did that happen?

This is going to be a long answer. As I mentioned,  I didn’t start out as a children’s illustrator. I started out doing black and white line art for gardening books and a few magazines. Eventually I evolved into doing colorful conceptual editorial illustrations for a number of magazines. When I began freelancing,  I didn’t have an agent, I promoted myself. Sometime in ’92 one of the art directors I was working with suggested I get in touch with an agent that he knew. I sent her some work, not realizing that she mainly represented children’s illustrators. Turned out she thought my style would work really well for the juvenile market. She asked if I had any children’s art samples. I had a few and I whipped up a few more.We met in New York, we clicked, and before I knew it I had an agent. Her name was Harriet Kasak and the agency was HK portfolio. ( I still am with the same agency now, only after we lost Harriet, Mela Bolinao took over and the agency was renamed MB Artists.) Anyway, the first book Harriet got for me was Mousetrap.

What type of art classes did at Kutztown University?

I started out in art education and then switched to Communication Design after the first year. So I had lots of design and production classes and a few classes in illustration. ( Remember this was ’72’-’76…so computers were still far off into the future as a design or illustration tool) At the time, I really had no idea what I wanted to do, I just knew that art was important to me and I needed to integrate it into my life somehow.

Of the picture books that you have published, which one is your favorite?

I suppose I’d have to say ” Substitute Groundhog” It was for Albert Whitman and was one of the first “trade” books I had the opportunity to do. The story line and the little animal characters really spoke to me. I also love a version of The Thee Little Kittens that I did early on in my children’s art career. It was a little 16 page learn to read book.

Do you feel that you developed your skills while at Kutztown University or do you feel you found your style after college?

There were certainly some skills I developed at KU, but I evolved most of my skills as an illustrator on my own. I am really glad I majored in Communication Design. That gave me the knowledge I needed to work for a few years as an assistant art director for a magazine at Rodale Press. ( New Shelter…no longer in publication)

It is extremely difficult to start freelancing fresh out of school. For several years I worked at the magazine during the day and freelanced at night until I started getting  enough freelance work to quit my day job.

Working at the magazine was a great experience. I got to watch other illustrators come in and show their work and learned what art directors were looking for. The art director I worked with also helped me out a lot. He gave me occasional illustration jobs and connected me with other art directors, so that I could get more work and build my portfolio.

Have you done any illustrations for Newspapers and Magazines?

In addition to the magazine work I just mentioned, I have worked for several newspapers. Once I broke into the children’s field, I’ve done (and still do) work for children’s magazines such as Highlights. In addition, I’ve done art for greeting cards, wrapping paper, puzzles, posters and some advertising illustration.

What type of illustrating did you do once you graduated?

As I mentioned, it took me a few years until I broke into the freelance illustration field. One of the first big jobs I got was illustrating a large gardening book for Rodale . At the time I was doing stippled b+w ink drawings.

So I was doing lots of drawings of broccoli, etc. That book was followed by several more and in between I did lots of magazine illustration. Initially I worked mainly for a number of other Rodale publications such as Prevention,  and Organic Gardening. After a few years I got tired of drawing broccoli and started exploring working in color. By that time, I was pouring through Illustration annuals and noticing other illustrators styles that I liked. After a year or so of experimenting, I discovered I liked working with an airbrush. I developed a graphic conceptual style that lent itself to lots of other publications. I promoted that style and was able to reach out to a larger clientele base.

The robot illustration was for a “magazine and catalog production” magazine called Signature. At that point in time, the art director who I had worked with at Rodale, John Johaneck, had started his own magazine design business with a partner and Signature was one of their clients. I feel the need to mention John’s name as he was so instrumental in helping me get my start. Anyway, I had a good deal with Signature.

I did their cover illustrations every month for a slightly reduced rate and in exchange I got monthly exposure with an industry magazine, plus they had a portfolio page they featured me on each year. In addition, as part of the deal, I asked for 1000 tear sheets of those promo pages for me to use as mailers.

This is an actual cover that the robot illustration was used for. It was illustrating the main article in that issue which was printing technology, which was going through a lot of technological changes at the time.

When did you realize that you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

It was always something in the back of my mind. I always thought it would be fun to do, but it wasn’t until I actually started doing it that I realized how right it was for me. I actually had a moment in time mid way through one of my first jobs when it hit me. I was in the middle of drawing a little mouse and it just felt so “right”. It’s hard to explain, but I remember the moment well, it was like kind of revelation from the art gods. At that moment, I knew I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

What type of materials do you use to make your wonderful illustrations?

For the past several years I have been working in soft body acrylics on watercolor paper. After I compete my drawing I often will do a simple color rough with colored pencils on a small copy of my sketch. Then I transfer my drawing to my paper using a light table and start to paint.

Has your style changed over the years?

Both my style and my technique have changed over the years.  I started out with realistic pen and ink. Later I moved to a mixed- media approach of airbrushed dyes and colored pencils. At that point my style changed as well and became very graphic and stylized. During that time I was doing a lot of conceptual editorial illustration. When I started doing children’s illustration I was still airbrushing, but I was growing tired of the tedious nature of working that way and I felt it was too limiting, so eventually I switched to watercolor and then to acrylics. My style changed a bit when I started doing children’s illustrations. I think I was influenced by the illustrations that I loved as a child. I think the things that have remained constant in my work is my strong sense of composition and design and my use of color.

Can you tell us a little bit about MB Artist and how they work with you?

As I mentioned  in response to a previous question, the agency was recommended to me by an art director I was working with. Mela Bolinao at MB artists and her staff represent me and over 60 other artists from around the world. I promote with MB, along with the other artists, in several promo books and websites. Mela does her best to keep all of us busy by promoting us in other ways too. If a client is interested in my work they get in touch with MB artists and Mela will run the job past me to see if I am interested. If I am, she will put me in direct touch with the client.  MB artists takes a 25% commission when I am paid, which is pretty much an industry standard.

Tell us a little bit teaching experience?

Every few years I have filled in for someone and taught an illustration course at Kutztown University. I was honored when I was first asked by some of my own former instructors to come back and teach. I’ve taught basic courses such as “Illustration techniques” as well as more advanced courses. In the advanced illustration courses I was teaching not only how to work in different mediums, but how to come up with a concept or to best illustrate a story. You learn a lot about yourself as an artist when you teach. I always compare it to trying to teach someone to drive with a car with a manual transmission. If you’ve been driving with a stick shift your whole life, it’s hard to teach it someone else because you don’t consciously think about what you are doing. For most artists, the creative process becomes something you don’t really think about either. In order to teach what you do to others, you need to stop and really think about your creative process and break it down. When you do that, you benefit and so do your students.

I’ve loved teaching every time I’ve had the opportunity. I’ve considered teaching full time, but that would mean going back for my masters (at least to be qualified to teach full time at KU), and it would be challenging for me to continue to do children’s books as they are very demanding of my time.

Do you feel you get more work having an agent?

It’s hard to say for sure, because I’ve been with an agent for so long now, I don’t know what it would be like out there without one. Some artists go it alone and do quite well, but I think it takes a certain personality type. It also takes a lot of work to self promote. If you are in a good agency where you are in the company of other talented artists it really helps to sell you to a client. Most agents would not even consider taking on an artist if their work is not professional and outstanding. Art directors know that and they know they will be getting a reliable high quality artist if they go thru and agency.

Excluding the normal things like paper, paint, brushes, pencils, and pastels, is there one piece of equipment in your studio that you really like and would not want to live without?

Well, for most of my career I’ve relied heavily on my copier. When I start working up a sketch I like to start with very small, very rough little thumbnails so that I can focus on basic shapes and composition. After I come up with a thumbnail that I like, I blow it up bigger on my copier, lay a piece of tracing paper over the copy and then refine everything. Of course that is due to change. One of the things that intrigues me about photoshop is the ability to do all that on layers and in addition, be able to distort, move and tweak parts of a sketch.

Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

Sometimes I do. If I am dealing with a difficult perspective or something like that, I’ll snap some photos as reference. I rely on images I find online a lot. If, for example, I needed to create an anthropomorphic little piglet, I would look at lots of images of pigs. I’d look at photos of pigs, I’d look at cartoons of pigs, I’d look at stylized pigs. I’d let my brain soak up “pigness” before I’d sit down to start working up my own version of a pig.

Do you start laying out a picture book on newsprint and then after you get it right draw it on better paper? Or do you tend to get it right from the beginning?

As I mentioned above, I like to start working on tracing paper. I rarely get it right from the beginning. I’ll have a basic concept of what is happening on the page in my head and maybe an idea about what angle or perspective will work best. It usually takes a least a few simple thumbnails until I land on something I like.

Do you see the characters you create before you start to draw them?

Yes, sometimes I get an image in my head right away. Other times they kinda come to life before my eyes as I start to sketch them. I love when that happens…it’s like, wow…where did that little guy come from?

What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on an ebook project with a writer friend, Julia Dweck. It is the first ebook I have ever worked on so there is a steep learning curve. It’s tricky because the art needs to work for several different devices and formats. I am doing the art for this book traditionally, but hope to do more ebooks down the road working digitally. The whole children’s ebook world is like the wild west right now. No one really knows how it is all going to settle out. I am so happy to have met Julia as she has spent a lot of time researching the field and has quite a few successful books out there.

I see that you have your art with a number of directories, Facebook, and on your agents’ website, but why don’t you have your own website or blog?

I suppose it doesn’t really seem necessary to me since my art is available so many other places as you just mentioned. It takes work to keep a blog and/or a website going. That is not to say I won’t ever set up my own site or start a blog. If I can ever find the time, maybe I will.

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

I think about it all the time. Writing for children and doing it well is actually very difficult. I’ve had a few ideas I’ve played around with over the years, but I have never had the time or the focus required to develop a story idea. It is something I still hope to do at some point in my life.

Do you try to spend a certain amount of hours each day illustrating?

If I am busy and on deadline, I usually don’t have much choice. There have been periods where I am working 10-12 hour days for weeks on end to meet a deadline. Things have been a bit slower the past few years because of the economy, so I have been using any down time to create new promotional work and to try and teach myself new skills.

Do you use Photoshop? How and where do you use it?

My familiarity with photoshop has been a long, slow ongoing process. I’ve had a curiosity about it since it first appeared, but have only recently found the time and energy to start finding my way with it. A few years ago most of my clients started wanting me to send scanned images of my traditional work. That was step one…I needed to learn how to scan images into photoshop, clean them up, make minor color adjustments… things like that.

Then, about two years ago, I took a basic digital design course and at the same time installed CS5 and got myself a wacom tablet. I’ve been playing around in photoshop whenever I have a minute to try and keep familiar with it. Recently, I’ve made connections with a few other illustrators whose digital work I admire. ( Will Terry and Adam Duff) They both have instructional videos available and I’ve been watching them and trying to teach myself to work in photoshop.

I hope to find time next year to take a “photoshop sabbatical” of sorts and really focus on learning photoshop. At this point I would say that I don’t want to give up working traditionally, but want to add photoshop as a skill. I not only am intrigued by some of the artistic possibilities of working digitally, it has also become evident recently that I need those skills to keep working as an illustrator. There is still a need for traditional art here and there, but more and more art directors want someone who can work digitally.

Are there any marketing things you have done that helped you get additional work?

For years everyone has been telling me that I needed to do more online social networking. I have to admit, I have never been that good at it, but I’ve gotten a little better. I put a link to my FB page on my linkedin page and that is how I met Julia. Then we were both shocked to find out that we lived a half hour away from each other.

There are lots of things I count on my agent to do for me. In addition to having my work on the MB website, I advertise as part of the group in several promo books ( i.e., ,Workbook, Directory of Illustration, Picturebook) Most of those books also have websites where you can show more of your work. Mela also does promotional mailers several times a year and follows up with phone calls and visits. If I wasn’t with an agency, I’d be doing all these same things only own. The most important thing is to keep getting your work out there in front of people any way you can.

Do you have any words of wisdom for your fellow illustrators that might help them become more successful?

If you are just starting out, the most important thing is to develop a recognizable style. That comes with time. I think it’s important to look at lots of art and notice what it is that excites you. Is it the colors, the lighting, stylized imagery, composition, etc. Integrate what turns you on into your own work. You’ll eventually develop a unique look that art directors will recognize. Then, to keep that look fresh, you need to keep evolving over time.

Kathi has illustrated many books for children, including:

Margaret Wise Brown, The Color Kittens, Western Publishing Company , 1994.
Old MacDonald Had a Farm, Golden Books , 1997.
Penelope J. Neri, The Wind in the Willows, LeapFrog ), 2000.
Lissa Rovetech, Shoofly Pie, Kindermusic International 2003
Allia Nolan, The Secret Fairy Garden, Reader’s Digest Children’s Books 2005
Ruth Koeppel, There’s a Dragon in My Castle, Reader’s Digest Children’s Books, 2005
Pat Miller, Substitute Groundhog, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2006.
Janet Nolan, A Father’s Day Thank You, Albert Whitman , 2007.
Christine Mehlhaff, Don’t Talk to Strangers, Scholastic , 2007.
Steve Metzger, Easter Eggs Everywhere, Scholastic , 2008
Stephen Krensky, Mother’s Day Surprise, Marshall Cavendish Children, 2010.
Pat Miller, Squirrel’s New Year’s Resolution, Albert Whitman , 2010.

Kathi I loved spending the time with you to see all your artwork, hear about your process, and listening to your journey. I will be looking for all your future books. Please let us know when you have a new picture book. I will share it with everyone. If you would like to see more of Kathi’s work you can find her on:






If you can spare a minute, I’m sure Kathi would love to read a comment.  Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Kathi’s illustrations are so joyful! I absolutely adore the ducks taking over bathtime. And I find it so interesting that you have a stay-wet palette that keeps your paint in a workable consistency for days. So many things about art I do not know and it’s all fascinating.


  2. Absolutely charming work. I love it!!!!


  3. Thanks so much for the compliments on my work!


  4. Wow I really love your work. Are you the only one in your family that is an artist?


  5. Fabulous interview and wonderful illustrations!!!


  6. Absolutely Beautiful artwork!Really a talented artist ! love your works and the process!Thanks for sharing!


  7. Hey Kathy…. I just found this blog… somehow I missed it the first time.
    AMAZING piece showing so so much of your wonderful work!!


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