Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 13, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Melissa Iwai

Melissa Iwai was born and raised in a small Central Californian town called Lompoc (pronounced “Lompoke”). She moved to New York City after graduating from art school because it was (and still is) the center of children’s publishing world in this country. It took her awhile to get started, but with the help of her rep, Chris Tugeau, she got my first illustration job and has worked as a freelance illustrator ever since.

She lives in Brooklyn, not far from the Brooklyn Bridge, with her husband and son Jamie.

From the time she was a little kid, she wanted to write and illustrate children’s books. She used to staple paper together and make tiny books for her dolls.

When she was in 5th grade, a wonderful teacher laminated and bound her story and illustrations together into a book. It is called The Dog Around the Corner, about a dog named Claude and his adventures in his neighborhood.

Since then she has illustrated about twenty picture books, and she recently wrote my first book, Soup Day.

She says, “If I had written my life story as a little girl, it would be pretty close to the one I am living. I get to do what I have always dreamed of doing.”

Here is Melissa talking about her process:

In the beginning of a project, I receive the manuscript from an editor who has chosen me to illustrate the book. It is a little known fact that writers and illustrators almost never meet each other or correspond while the book is in production (unless they are married, perhaps!). We work with the editor and art director about the vision of the book separately. Because I don’t work with the author directly, it gives me the opportunity to interpret the story in my own way as an artist. I also discuss these ideas with the editor and the art director, so there is a sense of freedom, as well as collaboration within this framework.

In Snuggle Mountain, a little girl, Emma, climbs her parents’ bed to wake them up for breakfast. My challenge was the fantasy element inherent in the story (e.g. she describes climbing a mountain inhabited by a two headed giant).

In my first sketches, it was clear that Emma was in her parents’ bed with them. I decided to take a different, less obvious approach though. I wanted the fantasy of what Emma imagines she’s seeing (i.e. the two headed giant) to be reflected in the illustrations of the book.

I’m still grappling with this problem here. As you can see, in this development, I have been hiding Emma’s parents’ faces more and more. I’m starting to play with the idea of hiding the “giant’s” face in the drawing — though it isn’t done very well here (faces are eyes, arm is the nose, pillow is the mouth)!

Finally, I decided to hide the parents’ faces entirely. Instead, I wanted to convey the giant’s presence by hiding its head in the bed covers. Can you see the face in this sketch?
This approach seemed to work the best. So I developed my dummy sketches with this in mind.

A dummy is a mock up of what I envision the final book will look like. It’s kind of a mini-book, with 32 pages (almost all picture books are 32 pages).

Using the dummy, I can determine whether my page breaks (where to put in page turns) work or not. I also use these dummy sketches to help me lay out where the text will be placed.
I like to work with a relatively small dummy (this one is about 4″ x 5″). I feel that this small size allows me to see the general shapes of the compositions better. Keeping things simple at this stage helps to determine what is the most important object — what I want the viewer to see first.

The dummy stage is a good time to change things that aren’t working. For example, in this spread, I later changed the drawing so that there are two heads hidden in the covers, rather than just one (since it’s a two headed giant), as you will see next.

After I’ve worked out each dummy spread, I use these as reference for the final sketches, which I draw at the size I will be painting. Usually this size is the same as the size of the pages of the book. The trim size (actual size) of the book is determined beforehand with the art director and editor.

Finally after having gotten approval from the editor and the art director for the dummy and sketches at each step of the way, I am ready to start painting. This stage takes me usually about three months. For Snuggle Mountain, I used Liquitex acrylic paints and Prisma Color pencils on Crescent Cold Press illustration board. I tend to work in many layers, building up the painting from darks to lights. I use the dry brush technique (using less water and coarse, bristly brushes) often to create texture on the surface of the painting.

After I turn in my paintings to the publisher, it usually takes a year before the book is available to the public. My paintings are sent to the printer from the publisher, and the pages are printed using a four-color printing process. Then, the pages are sewn and bound into a book. At long last, copies of the book are ordered by bookstores and libraries. And hopefully, they will end up in the homes and hearts of children all over the world.

Snuggle Mountain is now available for ipad and iphone!

Here are some of the steps Melissa took with her new book, HUSH LITTLE MONSTER.

Interior art below:

How long have you been illustrating?

Pretty much for as long as I can remember.  When I was a kid I used to draw all the time.  I loved making little books out of paper folded and stapled together.   I would write and draw in them.  I kept sketchbooks regularly from when I was about ten, and it’s funny to look at them now because most of the work is illustrations.  There’s always some narrative going on, or maybe it’s a character study.  I even have an illustrated recipe in one of them (for an Orange Julius), which made me chuckle when I rediscovered it.  The same themes show up in my work now (a lot of food, families interacting, many cats –even though I’m allergic!)

Melissa even got to illustrate a book for the talented award winning author, Eileen Spinelli.  I have this one on my book shelf.  Below are a few illustrations from the book.

What was the first thing you have painted where you got paid?

My first paid illustration job I did when I was in high school.  I did a monthly ad for the local lumber company in my hometown. I also painted custom greeting cards in a department store on site during the holidays a couple of times.

The first thing I painted after I had some art school training under my belt was a cover of the Pasadena Weekly right before I graduated.

Notice the author on this book.  Many of you may know this Jersey girl, Denise Dowling Mortensen, this is one of her published picture books.

Have you seen your work change since you started?

It’s changed a lot, but I think it still looks like “my work”.  The main changes have been with technique and materials used.  I can’t seem to get away from my own “style” or “imprint” or whatever you want to call it — even when I’ve consciously tried!  Once I attempted to get this job where I had to copy someone else’s character, and I just could not do it no matter how hard I worked at it.  In the end I didn’t get the job, which is just as well, as it would have been quite a soulless experience!

Have you had an illustrations published in children’s magazines?  If so, where.  If not, is that something you would like to do?

I’ve done some Hidden Pictures for Highlights Magazine.  I would like to do more.  They are really fun to create!  And the people at Highlights are so wonderful to work with.

What was the title of your first book?

I did some mini educational books when I was just starting out.  The first trade book I illustrated is called Night Shift Daddy, by Eileen Spinelli.  It was published originally by Hyperion in 2000.  It is still available in soft cover through Scholastic.  It’s a lovely story about a little girl who gets tucked into bed before her dad goes to work his night shift.  When he comes home in the morning, she tucks him into bed using the same rituals they used the night before (reading, rubbing noses, saying “How cozy are those toes?” etc.)

How did you get that contract?

My wonderful rep, Chris Tugeau, got it for me.  I have been with her since 1997 when I first moved to New York after graduating from art school.  After Night Shift Daddy, other books followed.

I see that you went to the Art Center College of Design.  Could you give us the low down on what types of things you studied?

Art Center was a grueling experience, but well worth it for me.  Even if you had a BFA from another school (I didn’t,) you had to take their core courses and work your way through them. I was in the Illustration department.  There are eight terms to complete.  We took everything having to do with art and design in the first terms:  graphic design, lettering, shop, art history, perspective drawing, and more, along with a ton of traditional drawing and painting classes.  By the fourth term, the classes start to get more specialized and focus on illustration.  In the later terms, there are even more high level and  specialized courses that may focus on entertainment design, story boarding, children’s book illustration, editorial illustration, etc. that you can take in addition to the required drawing and painting courses.  I took a wonderful children’s book illustration (my only one!) course taught by Marla Frazee which made a lasting impression on me.  I made my first book dummy in her class.  She is a wonderful instructor.

Do you feel your experience at the college helped develop your style?

Yes, definitely.  Part of the wonderful thing about being an art student, and I’m so lucky I was able to be one, is that you are given time.  Time to explore. Time to experiment with different tools and media.  Time to hone your skills.  It is just such a valuable experience to have that time to try different things out.  It is also a very focused and competitive environment, so there was no slacking off. We worked very hard.
Some of the things I learned in art school which I had never really thought of before then in terms of my work were basic things like composition, values of light and dark, and color.  So a lot of those concepts informed my style in a new way.  Also, it was the first time I ever painted with acrylic.  A fantastic editorial instructor, Joel Nakamura, taught me how to layer the paint in thick layers from dark to light.

Do you have a favorite medium you use?

Right now, I am having a fun time experimenting with watercolor.  It’s something I never really learned how to use.  I love how it is very quick and spontaneous, and I’ve been finally using my portable watercolor kit to paint wherever and whenever, including busy corners in Manhattan!

Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

It depends on what the project is.  For something like Green as a Bean, or Soup Day, for example, I didn’t do any research.  I just created images out of my head.  But for books like B is for Bulldozer, Wake Up Engines, and Good Night Engines, I definitely had to do research, because I didn’t even know what half the vehicles looked like! Lol.  I took a lot of pictures around the city, and I also used the picture library in the Midtown Manhattan library branch near Grand Central.  This was before Google Images!  I still love going to the picture library, but if I need to see something very quickly, I use the web.

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

It’s hard to say, because they are all so different and special in their own way.  But I think Soup Day is especially near and dear to my heart because it is the one I both wrote and illustrated, so it is truly “my baby”.  Also, it is inspired by my real “baby”: My son, Jamie.

Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?

I do.  I use it mainly as a tool though. I don’t create original art in it per se.  For some of my books, I make collages, so part of the collage is hand made (paper and good ol’ glue) and other parts are pieces I make and put together in Photoshop.  For Hush Little Monster, I did all the paintings using a combination of acrylic paint, dyes, India ink, and watercolor.  Then I did the line work using India ink and brushes.  I also did washes of ink. I scanned each into the computer and put the illustrations together with the painting on one layer, the line work on another layer, and the washes on another layer.  I really like working this way, because it gives me more control to change the line, or the painting to work together, so it is more flexible than just painting and inking the whole thing and then scanning in.

Do you have and use a graphic tablet?

I use a Wacom tablet all the time, but I don’t use it to draw or paint with!  Ha ha.  I use it for selecting precisely and quickly and for using the clone tool a lot.  I love it because I can work so much faster with it than with the mouse.

How did you connect with your agent, Chris Tugeau?

I was very fortunate to get connected to her in the mid-90s indirectly through Marla Frazee.  When I moved to NYC after art school, I contacted her, we met, and we clicked.  Chris was extremely patient and supportive of me, as in the beginning I didn’t get work for a couple of years! I was working full-time as a web designer at an advertising agency at the time.  But once she got me my first job, I was able to freelance full time.

Do you see a lot of advantages to being represented ?

For me, I can’t imagine it any other way, because it’s the only experience I have!  When I first moved to NYC before I met Chris, I think I was showing my work around when I could for about a month.  It was very difficult, but people were really nice and encouraging.  But with a full time job I found it would be impossible to continue that route.  So I am extremely lucky that I was able to get representation then.  Also, I don’t think I am so savvy with contracts and such, and I am happy to let someone else take care of that –  I do read everything, of course, but in the beginning, it was so foreign and scary to me, so it was such a comfort to know someone else had my back, and I wasn’t going to sign anything I would later regret!

Do you have a studio in your house?

(Loud guffaw inserted here).  We live in a very small apartment with limited space.  My studio used to be in a corner near a window by our garden but we moved everything down to the cellar when my son was about to celebrate his 2nd birthday to make room for the party.  Well, it’s been down there ever since, and he’s eight now.  But actually, I like it down there, especially when I am working on my collages, because it gets really messy and I would not like to look at that upstairs!  There is a thick fire door and when I am down there, no one bothers me.

My work is very portable.  Sometimes if I need to supervise my son and his friends on a play date, I’ll just bring whatever I’m working on upstairs and work in the kitchen.  The computer I work on is also upstairs, so half the time I’m near the garden these days anyway.

Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?

I make a ton of lists.  Every week I make a list of things I would like to accomplish during the week based on my other list of long term goals.  Then I schedule everything in as best I can for each day of the week. I’m used to juggling a number of things at a time. But it can be crazy without my lists!  I’m able to accomplish everything (or most everything!) if I just take the time to organize and plan my path at the beginning of the week.  Every now and then, I’ll review my goals and see if they have changed, if I’ve accomplished them, and to figure out what else I want to achieve.  I write a lot also to clarify my thoughts.  I have stacks of both filled journals and filled sketchbooks!  I prefer the old school way of writing in my journal and making my lists by hand on paper!

Any tips that you can share that might help an illustrator?

Sometimes when I am crazed with deadlines, busy with paperwork that needs to be done, attending to my blog, daily housework and cooking and scheduling play dates for my son, I forget to take a breath and find that quiet space.  When I remember, it makes all the difference.  That time is important, I think, for all artists to find that inner voice and allow it to express itself, whether it’s in the form of a story idea or a doodle or sketch.  You have to let the creative spirit have room even when life’s daily pressures and demands encroach.  Don’t forget to take time to take a walk, take a nap, or just be still for awhile.

Also don’t forget to draw every day—that is, drawing for yourself, with no criticism.

What inspired you to write and illustrate, Soup Day?

Soup Day was inspired by my love of cooking for my family and of cooking with my son, Jamie.  Even when he was a baby, I’d park him in his chair near me while I cooked dinner.  When he got a little older, I let him help me by dumping ingredients in a bowl, stirring, even cutting with a plastic knife (with my guidance).  He’s much less of a picky eater than my husband, and I’m convinced it’s because he’s been cooking with me and trying out what we cook together.  I made up the soup recipe featured in the book to get him to eat more vegetables, and it became his favorite.


What kinds of things do you do to promote yourself?

Every year I always take out an ad with my rep, Chris, usually with the Directory of Illustration.  I maintain images on their site as well.  I make new postcards to send out several times a year.  I post on my blog daily (  It is a mainly a cooking blog, but I have close to a thousand subscribers, so every time something happens related to my books (events, signings, blog interviews like this one!), I post on my blog to get the message out.  I also use Facebook, twitter, and pinterest to showcase and publicize my work.

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

When I started the illustrations for Hush Little Monster, I learned how I could put my black and white line layer over my painting and change the layer mode from “normal” to “multiply” and all the white would disappear!  I don’t know why it took me so long to discover this.  It is such a cool technique.  I also used it to put my ink washes over my paintings to give them more depth, creating some darkness.  Then I could select certain areas that I wanted to stand out from the darkness by just “cutting out” an area in the wash layer (eg. The cat’s glowing eyes on the cover).  Of course, this is all in Photoshop.

With regard to painting materials, I swear by my Sta-Wet palette and paper.  I love it and can’t imagine (well I can, because I used to not have one years ago) not using it every time I paint with acrylics.  I helps keep the paint fresh for days, which is great because it doesn’t go to waste!

What are you working on now?

There are several things that are in the works that I can’t talk about right now unfortunately!  Hopefully I will be able to soon, though – I will keep you posted! Other than these “secrets” I am preparing to redesign my site and change hosts, which is like a full time job in and of itself!  I am also doing a lot of book events and appearances with my husband, Denis Markell, to promote our book, Hush Little Monster, which was released by Simon and Schuster this fall.  We are also working on some new book ideas that I need to make dummies for, which I haven’t done yet.  Next year, a wonderful book written by Anne Rockwell, called Truck Stop, that I just finished illustrating, will come out with Viking.


Do you have an words of wisdom to share with other illustrators?

Other than the classic ones that I try to live by, such as “do what you love” and “just draw and draw and draw and draw some more”, I would say that I’ve found it important to be open to change.  The industry is constantly changing.  Technology is changing.  The market is changing.  As illustrators creating something that is somewhat of a commodity (we create art for ourselves and art that we love, but we are also selling art), it is not a bad idea to be flexible and be willing to adapt to the environment we want to thrive in. Whether that means learning a new program, trying a new technique, or thinking about a creative problem in a different way, embracing change and flux rather than resisting it  (because it is “the unknown”) is the path I try to take.

Also, be open with information.  Help other people if you can.  So many people have helped me and have been supportive in my career, and I feel so lucky for that.  I could not have done it on my own.  I think it is good karma to give back and continue the cycle of positivity.  

Thank you Melissa for sharing your books, illustrations and journey with us. We’ll be looking for your future picture books, which I am sure will be many. If you would like to visit Melissa, you can find her at:

Please take a minute and leave Melissa a comment.  Thanks,

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Congratulations Melissa, on all your recent (and soon-to-be future!) success. It’s been a joy working with you. And thanks, Kathy, for the shout-out for Good Night Engines and Wake Up Engines, our books from Clarion. Yet another great post!
    Denise Dowling Mortensen


  2. I love Melissa’s work and always look forward to her blog recipes. Thanks for a great interview, Kathy!


  3. Melissa,
    Your work is beautiful! Congratulations!
    Thank you Kathy!


  4. a fine talent and a fine person…family! thanks Kathy….. chris T.


  5. What a treat to see such an overview of your fine illustration, Melissa. I was impressed by the steps you took to create Snuggle Mountain. The first sketch is perfectly fine, but you pushed yourself to get images that were really special, and such fun for a child. Great work!
    Great post, Kathy.


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