Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 27, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Lisa Anchin

Lisa Anchin has been drawing since she could hold a pencil and making up stories since she could talk. After doodling her way through her adolescence, she received her BA from Smith College in French and Studio Art. After a few short side trips along the way, including a handful of fulltime jobs and a Master’s degree in French and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, she graduated with her MFA from the School of Visual Arts’ Illustration as Visual Essay Program.

Now she lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She spends most of her days (and sometimes nights) holed up in her studio stringing words together and compulsively doodling, but she can also be found haunting one of the many cafes of the five boroughs, sitting with a bucket of tea, scribbling in a sketchbook, and wearing a ridiculous hat.

Here’s Lisa talking about her process:

When I’m working on a large composition, for myself or for a job, I like to warm up before I jump right into the painting. While I was in the middle of a recent project, I decided to use a sketchbook sketch as a warm-up painting.

These short warm-ups give me the opportunity to play around with characters I’ve been working on. This is Hurricane Zelda; I’m in the process of writing her story and sketching thumbnails for her dummy book.

In my sketchbook, I started playing with poses for this very active, hurricane of a child. This is a kid who never sits still, so I sketched her in a number of poses in motion. This was, by far, my favorite. It’s a nice loose, mid-leap sketch.

I taped the sketch onto my lightbox and transferred a few very loose lines onto my good paper. Then I switched off the lightbox and redrew her completely, removing some of the superfluous lines and refining the overall shape and detail. I also darkened the edges because I wanted some of the pencil lines to show through the paint layers.

I started by painting all of the flesh tones with acryla-gouache, building up slowly, first with thin layers of violet and burnt sienna in the shadows. Next, I went over those shadow layers with a pale flesh tone and finally applied a layer of pink and sienna for the rosy blush on her nose, cheeks, ear, and knees.

This is my favorite shade of purple. I use it in nearly all of the shadows in my pieces. Here I painted in the purple shadows before moving onto the pattern of the skirt.

Next I laid in the black checkerboard pattern, building up a few layers of black paint. When I was satisfied with the black, I painted overtop with a bit more purple and a grey-blue to darken some of the shadows.

When I paint, I tend to move around the character, tackling areas that won’t interfere with currently drying paint layers. While the skirt was drying, I began work on her hair. I started with a layer of burnt sienna to give the hair a warm tone.

After the first layer of burnt sienna, I layered washes of burnt umber and additional layers of burnt sienna and finally went in with a fine brush to paint the more defined curls.

Once her hair was dry, I laid down a single wash of a warm pinkish-red as a base layer for the sweater.

I built up layers on the sweater, starting with the same purple and grey-blue for the shadows followed by additional layers of the pink-red until it was dark enough. With a fine brush, I added lines of sienna, purple, and blue to define the buttons, the buttonholes, the ribs on the cuffs, and the outlines of the sweater.

Like most illustrators, I begin by sketching. I think best with a pencil in hand, so I start brainstorming ideas over a stack of plain old computer paper. I do a ton of sketches and drawings.

If I’m working on a full composition, I do a series of thumbnail sketches. If it’s simpler character drawings, I start doodling ideas.

Once I’ve decided on an image – here Oscar the Sheep decorated like a Christmas tree – I use a lightbox to do a very loose transfer on my good paper. I don’t want to lose the looseness of the original sketch, so I only use the transferred lines as a guide to redraw the entire sketch. I tweak some of the details, correct any problems with proportions, perspective, etc.

When I’m happy with the sketch, I begin putting down paint. Depending on the opacity of the area, I decide between watercolor or acryla-gouache. I actually prefer the acryla-gouache to any other paint because I like that it dries fairly permanently. Watercolor and gouache layers can be disturbed with water, but the acryla-gouache goes down and stays down. Here, I used acryla-gouache.

Adding more Layers of paint.

More layers.

More color

If I’m using a background color, I lay that in first. Here, I was working with a white background, so I started right in on the characters. I usually paint the lighter areas first and work up to darker areas and colors. Here I worked on Oscar’s face, legs, and woolly body. Then I added layers of paint to his hooves, garlands, and ornaments before moving on to Coco’s face, hair, and finally her clothing. Each part of the image is made up of dozens of layers of paint. I like building up a series of translucent/transparent layers until I’ve reached a color value/darkness that I’m satisfied with

Final colored illustration. Now all that’s left is to add text.

Now on to my Chanukah Card.

For the penguins, I began by painting a yellow watercolor wash in the background before moving on to the characters. Using acryla-gouache, I started with the shadows on their bellies and then added pigment to their bodies and wings.

I did all of the beaks and feet at once and finally their winter gear.

When I was satisfied with the penguins, I moved on to the flamingo character. In the same way, I began with layers of pink on the body and legs, then his face, and finally his hat and scarf.

I deliberately made the Chanukah piece slightly ambiguous. When you look closely, you might have an “aha” moment, but then again, you might not. You might just think it’s a pretty spiffy winter-holiday-related painting of some
penguins and a flamingo.

Below is the sketch I brought to a class and the major comment was simplify, simplify, simplify. Why clutter up the background and foreground? So I took everyone’s advice, scanned it into photoshop, erased all of the superfluous pencil lines, shrank Grandpa and the boy down, stretched the tree, and printed my pencil sketch super lightly onto a piece of watercolor paper.

Once I had my sketch printed, I hauled out my brown ink and dip-pen, and inked the sketch. When the line-work was done, I set it aside to dry so as not to smudge any of the nice clean outlines.

Step two is laying in a brown wash using the same ink as the lines. I started with the tree because it is the largest shape in the image and was probably going to remain just an ink wash with no other color laid over it.

This is the painting all inked.

When I was done with the wash and once the wash was dry, I went back in with my pen in a couple of places to darken the shadows and reinforce some of the lines. And you guessed it, another round of waiting for the whole thing to dry.

Once the ink wash was completely dry, I began dropping in spots of color in places. A little green in the leaves, the grass, and grandpa’s sweater. Blue on the boy’s jeans and a little ocher and raw umber on his shirt. And finally a little of the reddish umber color to warm up some of the browns.

Ta da! All done!

Finished Sketch to Finished Color Illustration

I see that you majored in Studio Art and French Studies at Smith College.  Can you share a little bit about what you studied in Studio Art?

I was primarily a French major at Smith, but I had always loved drawing and painting and couldn’t imagine not doing some form of art. I actually ended up as an art major almost by accident; I took an art class each semester and ultimately had enough courses to fulfill the major requirement. Smith’s art department was fairly traditional, with a focus on a fine arts approach. I took two semesters of drawing and two semesters of painting. Both series focused on working from life – still lifes and live models. Most of the work I did during the first three years of college were large format drawings and oil paintings. During my senior year, however, I took a sculpture class that changed everything. It wasn’t so much the medium that changed my outlook, but rather the professor, now one of my mentors. He was the first person to really encourage me not to get boxed in to other people’s definitions of art. If I wanted to make narrative pieces that’s what I should be making. If I wanted to draw bunnies in tutus or alligators and rocketships, that’s what I should be drawing.

Did anything from your French studies spill over into your art?

The French Studies major was varied and diverse; I studied literature, history, society, politics, and art and lived in Paris for a year. My main interest, however, was and has always been fairytales, and the french tradition is incredibly vibrant and extremely rich. I read the classic contes de fées of Charles Perault and Madame d’Aulnoy and Jean de La Fontaine’ fables and poems in the original French. The greatest influence of this coursework has probably been on my writing, rather than my art, but it’s all connected. The magic and whimsy of the fairytales filter into everything I do.

You received your MFA from the School of Visual Arts’ Illustration as Visual Essay program.  Please tell us about the type of things you studied in the Visual Essay Program.

The Illustration as Visual Essay program at SVA is a brilliant approach to illustration. Illustrations are often paired with text, but we give little thought to the relationship between them. The point of the program was to talk about illustration in conjunction with text, which was a perfect approach for someone interested in picture book illustration. The program for me was a career shift, so I threw all of my efforts into learning as much as I could about picture books and children’s illustration. The first year of the program was mostly coursework – a year-long oil painting course, creative writing, digital skills (from photoshop to html to online branding), a class exploring different media, and two seminars on  making books. For both seminars, I made a 32 page, full-color picture book. The second year had some coursework – a year-long drawing-on-location course, a class on the digital book, a course on comics and graphic novels – but focused mainly on a self-driven, thesis project. My project was five book dummies, under the supervision of Pat Cummings. I used the year to work with Pat, studying what makes a good picture book – character driven stories, page turns, complementing image and text, changing camera angles, etc. I wrote, illustrated, and hand-bound all of the books.

What were you trying to accomplish when you attended Columbia University to get an MA between Smith and the School of Visual Arts’?

I actually went to Columbia to pursue a PhD in French and Comparative Literature. I thought I was going to be an academic, and I had propsed a project doing comparative work between French and Yiddish fairytales and folktales. However, I slowly discovered that studying stories would never be enough; I was the girl in the back of the lecture hall, forever doodling and drawing. When I realized that I was happiest drawing and telling my own stories, I decided it was time for a change. I threw everything I had at turning my doodling into a lifetime career in illustration and writing for children. I knew that I couldn’t make the transition on my own, so I applied to SVA. When I was accepted to the Illustration Program at SVA, I finished the MA portion of my degree at Columbia and left with my Master’s degree and no regrets.

What classes did you enjoy the most?

I love language, so learning Yiddish at Columbia was really fun for me. It also opened the door to an entirely different literary tradition than the one I was familiar with. Out of all of the academic courses that have influenced my career, my studies in Yiddish have actually had the greatest effect.

Which school provided you with most of your artistic skills?

Smith and SVA both had profound effects on my artwork. I received my foundation skills at Smith. There is no substitute for learning to draw from life. Most of the time, I draw from my imagination, but I use the knowledge gained in basic figure drawing every time I pick up a pencil or brush. At SVA, I honed those skills, learning to loosen up and develop my own visual language. Rather than trying to mimic my favorite artists, at SVA I began defining my narrative voice.

What was your first paid art assignment?

I actually received my first assignment right after college. A family friend saw my artwork at my parent’s house and asked me if I would be interested in doing illustrations for the educational market. For a few months before I found a full-time job and subsequently enrolled at Columbia, I worked for RALLY! Education, a company that publishes education and test-prep materials for kids.

What type of illustrations have you done for children’s magazines?

I’ve done illustrations – interior story illustrations and cover art – for a few Jewish magazines. This is where my studies in Yiddish have had the greatest effect on my professional career. Pakn Treger  is not primarily children’s focused, but the illustrations for this publication were for a Yiddish folktale that I translated during a summer internship at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA. I’ve also done work for the Moshiach Times, a Jewish children’s magazine out of Brooklyn. At times, the magazine has asked me to illustrate Yiddish folktales and do cover art.

I see you have listed HarperCollins as a client.  What type of work have you done for them?

I do freelance design in-house at HarperCollins where  I work with a series of picture-book designers. The work varies day-to-day and ranges from layout design, cover and jacket design, text and typography work, photoshopping original art, creating images in illustrator, to scanning original art. Though the scanning might seem like the most boring part of my job, it’s actually my favorite. While at HC, I’ve had the opportunity to handle work by Wendell Minor, Carson Ellis, Jane Dyer, Wes Hargis, Diane deGroat, Ned Young, and Gris Grimley among others. The images in picture books are decent replicas, but there’s still so much lost. There is nothing like seeing an artist’s work up close.

How did that come about?

After I graduated from SVA, I had a summer internship in the art department at GP Putnams Sons Books for Young Readers (a division of Penguin) under Cecilia Yung. After the internship was over, I had the oh-no-I-live-in-NY-and-don’t-have-a-real-job-how-am-I-going-to-pay-my-rent freak out and hastily applied for an assistant position at HarperCollins. I was overqualified for the job, but, three months later, when one of their designers left on maternity leave, the art director called me for a freelance design position.

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

I have always wanted to make books. As a child, I compulsively carried a notebook around for writing stories, and I “published” my own newspaper for my family. If you had asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I would have said an author, specifically of a book for children. During college, I actually wrote a 100+ pg middle-grade novel (that’s still sitting on my hard drive… it needs a major overhaul before anyone will ever see it). I started focusing on the illustration much later. Though I filled sketchbooks with doodles of children and animals, I didn’t realistically think I could do anything with my artistic skills until Lee Burns, my mentor at Smith, pushed me to draw what felt right and uniquely me. I’ve never been interested in making fine art; it’s always been children’s books. And it wasn’t until an aha-moment at Columbia that I decided to give it a real chance. I’ll never forget it; I was at the French Department’s annual student conference, and I had my notebook on my lap, presumably for taking notes at the conference. Of course I was drawing. Suddenly I looked up and looked around; the audience was enthralled by the lecturer. I, on the other hand, had been so focused on the character I’d been drawing and the story I’d invented for her, that I had missed the entire panel. I realized then that I would never love my academic studies as much as I did drawing and making up stories. That night I sent in my application to SVA.

Do you feel living in Brooklyn helps in furthering your career?

It has definitely helped with networking. A lot of wonderfully kind people in the children’s book industry live in Brooklyn, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet quite a few of them. And Pat Cummings, my advisor from SVA, lives only one neighborhood over. Schedule providing, it’s great getting together with her to chat and talk children’s books. Whenever I start to feel frustrated with what I’m doing, Pat has always been an amazing positive force and gets me back to the drawing board, raring to go.

It looks like most of your illustrations are done with ink and watercolor.  Would you say those two are you favorites to use when illustrating?

Yes. For the color work, I actually use a combination of acryla-gouache and watercolor. Of late, I’ve been using the acryla-gouache more frequently. And though I haven’t done as much black and white work recently, I love working in ink – either with a brush or with a dip-pen.

Would you like to have an artist rep. take you on as a client?

Absolutely! Because I want to illustrate and write, I’m also looking into literary agents as well as to art reps.

What are you doing to try to make that happen?

I’ve just started the agent/art rep search. SCBWI is one of my favorite resources, so I’ve been using their website and materials to research agencies. I’ve looked up a number of houses and am focusing on agents who share my aesthetic and who seem invested, not only in current and immediate work, but also in building a lifetime career for their clients.

I love your sketches. Do you always have a sketchbook with you when you go out?

Thanks Kathy!

Always. I actually carry two – a moleskin sketchbook and a small 5.5×8.5 Canson pad. I love to draw and feel best with a pencil in hand. I’ll only carry a bag that’s big enough to fit both books. You never know when or where inspiration will strike.

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

I try to keep regular 9-5 hours, but more often than not, I work much longer hours during the week and sometimes on the weekends. That being said, the nice thing about freelancing is that I do make my own schedule. If a friend is in town unexpectedly and only has time to meet up midday, I’ll enjoy an afternoon out and then work longer hours later. Ultimately, though, I love what I do, so it’s really not hard to keep me at my drawing table into the wee hours of the morning.

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

I work traditionally, so, for the most part, I use Photoshop only to merge and color-correct scans of my final images. But spills and schmutz happen, so at times I use it to clean up the final illustration. Not to mention, I have a cat that likes spending time with me in the studio. No matter how diligent I am about keeping my palette closed and my water clean, I often find little black cat hairs stuck to my paintings; I do Photoshop those out.

Did you set up a studio in your home?

I did. My apartment has a teeny room off of the kitchen that I’ve commandeered. My boyfriend also has a desk in there, but more often than not (sorry Ez!), it’s covered with my things – pages of sketches, pencils, cups of paint water, stretched-paper drying on a board.

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?

Two answers…

The serious: A stretcher board. I would love to be able to use expensive paper all of the time, but, alas, a nascent freelance career doesn’t always allow for it. A few years ago, I went to a talk by Marla Frazee, who introduced me to the wonder of stretched paper. Because of her presentation, I almost always stretch my paper before painting on it; it keeps thinner and lower-grade papers from buckling and rippling, and I find that the paint adheres more smoothly to the stretched paper’s surface. When I graduated from SVA, my dad gave me an amazing stretcher board that I’ve been using ever since.

The not so serious: Hats. I love love love hats, and the sillier the better. My work isn’t terribly serious, and I like wearing ridiculous things. When I was in college, my friends would often find me at my desk wearing a bright pink wig. It reminds me to have fun and not to take either myself or what’s on the drawing board too seriously.

Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

I do. When I can find a willing friend to pose, I’ll take photos of him/her. Other times, I set my camera up on timer or use photobooth to photograph myself in any number of absurd poses and facial expressions. And if I don’t have access to a model or animal – I have yet to find any flying bunnies in Brooklyn or, despite what you may have heard about the sewers in NY, any gators wandering around the city – I do a lot of visual research online and at the NY Public Library’s picture collection.

I love that you have a blog and share what you are working on with everyone.  How long have you been doing that?

I started my blog during art school. Our digital teacher was a strong advocate of all types of social media and emphasized the importance of active blogging. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback about the blog and am often asked by friends and followers to show process work and sketches that don’t often make it onto my website or into print. It’s also fun for me to share what I’m working on.

Most of your illustrations look like they are from book dummies you have illustrated.  Did you write the text for these or recreated picture book already written?

I find that I make my best work when I start from a book dummy. When I’m working on a dummy, I do tons of sketches, – tiny thumbnails, character development doodles, larger detailed compositions – and I come up with my best compositions after working through these process sketches. I’ve actually done precious little finished illustration based off of classic stories. I keep sketches of scenes from classic fairytales as a fallback when I don’t have anything else to work on, but I usually want to work on my own characters. The vast majority of my work is from my own stories/book dummies. Right now, I have the five dummies I created while in school, two additional dummies that I completed over the last year, and another two in process right now.

Do you see yourself writing and illustrating your own books?

Yes! I want a lifetime of making heaps and heaps of books. At this point in my career, I would be happy bringing another writer’s story to life, but I do have my own stories to tell. I also have written stories that I plan to submit solely as author. It’s important to know your own strengths, and I am definitely not the best illustrator for these particular stories.

Do you see yourself writing and illustrating your own books?

Yes! I want a lifetime of making heaps and heaps of books. At this point in my career, I would be happy bringing another writer’s story to life, but I do have my own stories to tell. I also have written stories that I plan to submit solely as author. It’s important to know your own strengths, and I am definitely not the best illustrator for these particular stories.

What type of marketing things do you do and what one have worked the best?

I send out promotional postcards three or four times each year and have actually gotten work directly from these mailings. I also think that “branding” yourself is important. On my website, my blog, and all of my postcards, I’ve kept my name as a sort of logo. Art directors have told me that the consistency is good; they always recognize the name-logo. As much as I’d like to say that this is the best way to get work, I’ve found that making connections, meeting folks in person, and networking have been the best thing for my career, especially at the SCBWI conferences.

Lisa’s Mantra:



3. Dive Right In




The first order of business is to get to know my character.

I did a whole bunch of sketches. Pages and pages. In some she’s too tall, others too old, or too pointy, too round, too chin-y… and in others, just right. Somewhere along the way, a friend evolved. And finally, when I thought I knew her again, I did a full-color character study.

Here is what I came up with.

I had to add this sketch.  It’s so funny and Lisa has really captured a universal true moment.

Been there – done that!

What type of marketing things do you do and what one have worked the best?

I send out promotional postcards three or four times each year and have actually gotten work directly from these mailings. I also think that “branding” yourself is important. On my website, my blog, and all of my postcards, I’ve kept my name as a sort of logo. Art directors have told me that the consistency is good; they always recognize the name-logo. As much as I’d like to say that this is the best way to get work, I’ve found that making connections, meeting folks in person, and networking have been the best thing for my career, especially at the SCBWI conferences.

Do you have any words of wisdom to share?

Do what you’re passionate about. It’s never too late to switch careers and dive into this field. All of your past experiences and everything you’ve done will only enrich your work. You have to do what you love, and if drawing is it, do it every day. It can be a slow and, at times, frustrating road, but you have to believe in yourself and remember why you love it. That will keep you going back to your drawing table every day.

Lisa, I can’t imagine that someone isn’t going to snatch you up.  You are just oozing talent. Can’t wait to buy your first picture book.  Thank you for sharing your illustrations, process, and journey with us. So many people write me to let  me know how much they love Illustrator Saturday and the illustrators tell me how helpful it is to them.

You can visit Lisa at:  If you have a few moments, I am sure Lisa would love you to leave a comment for her. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Hi Kathy, Love this post. Lisa’s style and color caught my eye.


    • Barb,

      Thanks for leaving a commentt for Lisa. How are the Mothers doing?



  2. I love this artwork, but especially the Norman Rockwell self-portrait at the beginning. Very cute and funny. Thanks for posting this.


    • Rosi,

      You are right, that one is super cute. Thanks for leaving a comment.



  3. Another fascinating interview, Kathy. Lisa’s work is really special.


    • Holly,

      Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed illustrator Saturday. It is the post that takes the most time, so it is nice to know people appreciate it.



  4. Great story… beautiful work!!! Such a talented lady. I agree with you, Kathy, someone will snatch her up!!! Thanks for another terrific interview!


    • Susan,

      Thanks for taking the time to visit and leaving a comment for me and Lisa.



  5. This is simply amazing! Wow is all I have to say 🙂


    • Kathy,

      It really is amazing. Thanks for the comment.



  6. I love seeing the process! Great work!


    • Melissa,

      I am doing a post this year where I show off a piece of art that hasn’t appeared on my blog from all the illustrator Saturday featured artist. I hope you will send me something.



  7. wow…Wow….WOW! These are amazing, delightful, inspiring works!!! Thank you so much for sharing the process, Lisa. I’d never heard of acryla-gouache….I’m getting out my art store coupon and going out….no wait…you’ve inspired me so much I have to draw….no wait…I must tell Kathy THANK YOU for once again so generously sharing your site….I’m so excited about the possibilities.. my favorite is the Christmas sheep. 🙂 I’m following both of you….


    • Laura,

      Thanks for leaving a comment for Lisa. I am working on an end-of-the-year post where I pick my favorite from each illustrator featured this year. It is so hard.



  8. Very impressive! Thank you so much for sharing your process and images in various stages. It is very helpful to see how other artists approach a new project. Great work!


    • Frank,

      Thanks for leaving a comment for Lisa.



  9. This has left me feeling so depressed…Lisa is so talented and if she hasnt been snatched up then what hope for mere mortals like moi??? In any case, all the best to her, may she have a life full of success.


    • S,

      I am always surprised at the talent out there. It reminds me of how I felt when I left high school as one of the best artists and realized that I was just a drop of water in a vast sea of talents artist in College and Art School. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have talent and Lisa’s talents will get noticed and she (you and I) will become successful as long as we keep plugging away and continue to walk diown the road we need to be on. It can be a slow go, because we all have life to deal with and sometimes life gets in the way.

      Here’s to a less bumpy road in 2013.



  10. Lisa I came upon your work by accident today…..and I love it….It is perfect for a childrens book that I want to publish and would like to get in touch.


  11. Oh, did I enjoy this! Thank you, Lisa and Kathy 😀


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