Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 24, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Jennifer Gray Olsen

As far back as she can remember Jennifer Gray Olson loved to draw. A painfully shy child, art was one of the first ways she was able to connect with other people. When she was young she used her artwork as a way to start conversations with out all the awkwardness of actually talking.

This love of art carried through high school and on to college where she graduated in 2003 from California State University, Fullerton with a BA in Art Education. After graduating, she realized rather quickly that teaching was not her calling. She wanted to draw for a living. Four years and two kids later, in 2007 she decided to go for it. She accepted a contract to illustrate a chapter book entitled Inside Guide to Harry potter released by Japanese publisher Eigotown.

 With the support of her family and the guidance of her amazing critique group Jennifer has been able to pursue her dream of becoming a successful illustrator. Over the past few years she has illustrated a handful of educational books for publishers Wireless Generation and Genius Publishing. She also illustrated Hank by author Ron Ovadia and was a regular contributor to the L.A. Times Kid’s Reading Room. She is currently collaborating on an e-book with author Todd Kessler, co-creator of Blue’s Clues.

In addition to illustrating, Jennifer is also the co-coordinator for the SCBWI Orange /Riverside/San Bernardino county illustrator’s schmooze. Jennifer lives in Corona California with her husband, two boys and baby girl.

Here’s Jennifer explaining her process:

I use watercolor the whole time and micron pens, which won’t bleed when wet. I also use Kraft paper tape to secure my paper to a board before I begin painting so that it won’t warp once it gets wet. Sometimes if I’m going for a softer look in the painting I’ll use a kneaded eraser over the whole thing before I start.

Before I start a final illustration I always start with a color sketch in my sketch book. Kind of like a mock up of what I’m planning to do.

Next is my pencil drawing

 I then ink the piece and go over it with a wash of yellow ocre

I go back over it with yellow ocre again and try to lay in more values.

I always start with painting the character I’m most excited to paint. This might not be the best way, but it keeps it fun for me…like having dessert before dinner 🙂

I lay in the background

Then I paint the rest. I like to let my paint drip.

Here’s a close-up

The watercolor portion is done!

I then scan the painting and adjust the color levels in Photoshop. And here’s the final piece of art!!  The final digital version is what gets sent to the publisher. 

How long have you been illustrating?

I suppose I’ve been illustrating all my life without really realizing it.  I got serious about it a couple years after graduating college.

What was the first thing you painted and got paid for doing?

I began illustrating professionally in 2007 after being approached by a Japanese publisher named Egiotown.  I believe one of the editors had seen my illustrations on and followed that to my blog (I didn’t have a website at the time).  They hired me to illustrate a chapter book entitled The Inside Guide to Harry Potter, an ESL book to help teach English to Japanese readers.  I’m a die-hard Potter fan, so it was a great first project for me to work on!

I read on the Internet that you went to California State University, Fullerton, where you earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in art education. Did you teach after graduation?

After college I had my two oldest children, Ethan and Eli, and I stayed home with them full time.  I did however spend a few days in the classrooms of friends of mine that were teachers, to see if I was cut out for it.  It definitely wasn’t a good fit for me at the time, which ultimately led me to entertain the possibility of becoming an illustrator.  That being said, I haven’t completely ruled out the possibility of teaching art someday.

Do you feel your experience at CSU helped develop your style?

Probably not so much my illustrating style but perhaps my artistic preferences and general aesthetic.  While attending CSUF and San Jose State University my emphasis was in craft; mainly sculpture and glass blowing.  Spending so much time in both of those art departments definitely had a major impact on the work I do today.

Could you give us the low down on the types of classes you took at CSU?

I spent the majority of my time in the ceramics department.  I took every sculpting class I could get me hands on!  Looking back though, there were two classes that didn’t seem relevant to me at the time, but the knowledge from which is invaluable to me now.  Intro to illustrating with Larry Johnson introduced me to how powerful an ongoing narrative can be in artwork.  Before that class I really only viewed art as a single stand-alone piece.  Also, I’m still constantly using the skills I learned in Cliff Cramp’s digital illustration class.  That course gave me a solid foundation in Photoshop that I still pull from.

Have you seen your work change since you started illustrating?

Sometimes I think it’s almost unrecognizable from what it was 5 years ago!  I didn’t have those years in college to work out the kinks in my style, so I’ve kind of had to do it as I go.  I would say I only found my “voice” about two years ago, but then I think artists are always evolving and changing over the years.  I hope I continue to do so.

I found the above illustration on the Internet that you did titled SCARED.  Can you tell us what inspired that illustration?

I did the piece SACRED as part of the book launch for my friend Elana Kuczynski Arnold’s new book SACRED that just came out.   The piece was based on the main character, who as a result of a tragedy was coping with her grief through anorexia.   Even though it was a pretty dark piece, it was a lot of fun to illustrate something outside of my usual style.

How did you get involved in illustrating the picture book HANK?

I was approached by the author, Ron Ovadia, to illustrate his manuscript.  I believe he found my work on  The contract was a “work for hire” agreement.  He was great to work with and it was exactly the kind of experience I needed at the time.

Is Hank a Self Published Book?

Yes.  Ron published it himself through Dog Ear Publishing.

Does working with self-published authors give you enough money to continue do freelance work for them?

For me it didn’t, but if you’re willing to set a price point and not undervalue your work, it definitely could.  There are a lot of great self-publishing opportunities out there and I would never close myself off to it completely.

Do you have a contract that you use for self-published authors when agreeing to do their illustrations?

I do now.  However, Hank was the only self-published picture book I’ve worked on.  After completing that project I spoke with many other illustrators who had worked on similar projects and I did a lot of research on fair pricing guidelines.  I now have a flat rate for that type of “work for hire” that I try to stay strict to.

How do you keep a client from constantly asking for changes to what you have illustrated?

It should be specified in the contract how many revisions they’re allowed to ask of you and whether or not you will be expected to revise after the final color pieces are turned in.  Also, if you are asked to revise after finals are submitted, usually you should be compensated for the additional work.  Most of the time this isn’t a problem.  That being said, I had one publisher in particular that always seemed to overlook that part of the contract.    I think I was probably on my third book with them before I finally started enforcing that portion of the contract (I’m kind of a push-over).  Doing that greatly improved our working relationship. 

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on two projects.  The first is a book dummy that I both wrote and illustrated entitled HOW TO BE A SUPER AWESOME WARRIOR NINJA.  It’s about a Ninja Bunny that feels as though he’s not meeting his full ninja potential (master of all ninjabilities).  He decides to follow the advice of the “Narrator,” who promises to guide him to becoming a Super Awesome Warrior Ninja.  This does not go well for Ninja Bunny (ninjaries).  In the end he realizes that the most important lesson is to be your own ninja.  I actually JUST sent it out to a few publishers who had asked to see it.  Keep your fingers crossed.

The second book I’m working on is THE GOOD DOG by Todd Kessler (co-creator of Blue’s Clues).  He and I are collaborating on this 52 page e-book that we hope to release in the spring of 2013.  I’m having so much fun working on this project!  The story is amazing and Todd is fabulous to work with.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own picture book?

That’s the goal I keep working towards.  While I love illustrating other peoples stories, in the end I want to make a career of illustrating my own.

Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

Not usually.  If I’m illustrating a specific location or type of clothing, I’ll do internet research to find images.  Sometimes if there’s a gestural position I’m having trouble with I’ll pose for it myself or force one of my kids to do it.

Has anyone requested you to do an e-book for them? If so, do you have to approach the illustrations in a different why?  Follow certain guidelines, etc.?

As I said above, I’m currently working on an e-book.  Overall, my approach is pretty much the same.  I have a little more freedom with the composition because I don’t have to worry about the gutter in the middle of the page as much.  However, I might have to tweak some of my illustrations when we format the book for the IPad, because I believe they DO still use a faux gutter.

Of all the illustrations you have done which one is your favorite?

I think my favorite would have to be a black and white piece I did for my portfolio.  It’s of a monster named Saul who has some unwanted guests take up residence on his antlers.

Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?

With my professional work I use it every time.  When I first started, I painted primarily digitally, now I mainly just use it to tweak the watercolor painting and put some finishing touches on it.  Sometimes just a quick shift in the color balance can change the whole mood of the piece and I like having the freedom to do that (or undo that) if I choose.

Do you have and use a graphic tablet?

I use a very old and very small Wacom tablet.  I’m still hoping Santa will bring a new Cintiq Touch one of these years!!

Do you have an artist rep. or agent?  If not, would you like to find one?

I don’t have an agent at this time but I’m definitely interested in signing with one.  I’m currently researching potential literary agents that I’d like to submit to.

Do you have a studio in your house?

Yep!  My studio is right next to the living room and all the chaos that comes with two boys and a baby.

Do you have a favorite medium you use?

Ink and watercolor. I’ve worked in everything from digital painting to clay and I always end up back at watercolor and ink. I use micron pens and then watercolor over them.

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

I’m kind of obsessed with my water color paper, it took me years to find just the right one for me.  I use Stonehenge Cream Paper 22×30 and I buy it by the sheet. 

What kinds of things do you do to promote yourself?

I try to send out promo cards twice a year and enter illustration contests. Although networking at events and talking to editors and art directors’ one on one seems to be one of the best ways to get your name out there.

Have you ever tried your hand at a wordless picture book?

I actually put together an almost wordless dummy book just before the 2012 SCBWI summer conference. It’s about a girl and her umbrella. The umbrella doesn’t like the rain so it decides to run away but races back to save the girl when she finds herself in a dangerous situation.

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

With taking care of the house, 3 kids, and meeting deadlines I just try to work whenever possible and try to be flexible about it. If I was completely rigid about the hours I can work I would constantly feel defeated when my attention was needed somewhere else and I had to pause working. Luckily I work most nights from 5 to 9 when my husband is home and also, my mother-in law is nice enough to take the baby twice a week in the daytime so I can work. My fabulous friends and family also pitch in when I’m in a pinch with a deadline.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own picture book?

That’s the goal I keep working towards.  While I love illustrating other peoples stories, in the end I want to make a career of illustrating my own.



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

1. Take yourself seriously at what you do, because if you don’t know one else will.

2. Hire a housekeeper to come in twice a month and clean the bathrooms (I’m still working on that one).

Thank you Jennifer for sharing you expertise, journey, and art with us. I am sure we will be seeing more from you.

If you would like to visit Jennifer you can do so going to her website at It would be great if you could take a minute to leave Jennifer a comment. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Cute. I’m a big fan of well-done, fun stippled stuff. Go stippling!


  2. Wow. This is great stuff. I LOVE the dragon in the closet, but then I love most of what I’ve seen. Thanks for posting this.


  3. absolutely beautiful work!!! love the interesting angles and lovely color!


  4. Kathy,
    thank you for sharing Jennifer Gray Olsen with us. This was so much fun to read and see. The progression through several pieces was fantastic. Very inspiring. What fun.


  5. What a beautiful post! Jennifer’s work is so much fun to look at.


  6. Love Jennifer’s work.


  7. I fell in love with Jennifer Gray Olson’s work at my very first illustrator’s conference, and have delighted in everything I’ve seen since of hers since then. Thank you for the comprehensive look at her work. I saw pieces I’d never seen before – what a treat!


  8. Another wonderful interview of a very talented illustrator!


  9. Nice work! I love how the use of ochre under the color work gives your first picture more dimension.


  10. Thank you, Jennifer and Kathy! You know, I’ve always been so impressed by WHAT an artist chooses to paint (the content of the picture), not just HOW it’s painted (perspective, medium, etc.). You’re gifted with BOTH! Thanks for the fun!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: