Posted by: Kathy Temean | December 1, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Betsy Snyder

BETSY SNYDER_HEADSHOT_1_LOBETSY E. SNYDER is a seasoned illustrator-designer of children’s greeting cards in addition to writing and illustrating children’s books. Her work has been recognized with the Please Touch Museum’s 23rd Annual Book Award, a Silver Addy Award (Cleveland—2006), and has been selected for the Society of Illustrators Annual shows.

Here’s Betsy’s Story:

Once upon a time there was a little girl from Ohio who loved to draw on sidewalks and make wishes on stars. One gray afternoon when she was five-ish, in a spark of creative genius (or rainy-day boredom), she intently scribbled on an old piece of cardboard with a bright orange marker. She titled her masterpiece “The Invisible Lady With One Orange Leg”and dreamt of becoming a REAL artist someday.  

And she did! After lots of marker doodles, the proper schooling and a full-time gig as a designer, illustrator and trend consultant at American Greetings, Betsy made the decision to leave the corporate life and go solo…and she’s been working in her slippers ever since.

Though Betsy is all grown up now (mostly), she loves to create smile-inspiring art for kids and the young at heart. You can see her colorful collages and cute characters on all kinds of things, from children’s books to board games to stickers to greeting cards. Her work in publishing and social expressions has won numerous awards, most recently a place in the Society of Illustrator’s The Original Art 2012 exhibition for her illustrations in the book Tons of Trucks. 

Betsy still lives in Ohio and shares a studio with her graphic-designer husband, where they keep drawing on sidewalks and wishing on stars (because clearly it works).

Betsy creates her art from hand-painted and found textures that she scans into the computer and collages digitally. This process gives her the freedom to mix and match until things are just right.  Here she is explaining how she creates her magic:

My process for illustrating a book begins with ideas. I always start with thumbnail sketches.  Sometimes I just dive in.  Other times I need to do research too, pulling visual reference, inspiration or information about a certain subject. Sometimes the memory of a moment makes it way into my books, like this image that inspired a spread in “Sweet Dreams Lullaby.”

When I have a basic idea for composition worked out, I choose my favorite idea and move on to a full size sketch. If I like the feel and gesture of my thumbnail, I’ll enlarge it to full page size and sketch over it on tracing paper. My sketches start out rough.

I focus on finalizing the composition before tightening up details. Sometimes I cut out the best pieces and parts from different sketches and move them around like puzzle pieces.

During the sketch phase, it’s not just thinking about how each sketch works on its own, but also the sequence of how they all work together to tell a story. Hanging sketches on a wall helps me see the flow of the book better. Doing this helps me see how the pacing and scale works from spread to spread. When I get everything just right, I scan in my sketch and make final tweaks on the computer. When my sketches are approved, it’s time to start final art.

I make my textures first. This is my time to be messy. Using watercolors, dyes, acrylics, gouache, pastels—anything, I paint large textures that FEEL like the things in my sketch—in this case, grass, sky, bark, speckled eggs, blossoms, etc. Then I scan all my painted textures and other found scraps of fabric or paper into the computer.

Next, I use Photoshop to build my collage. With my scanned sketch as a guide, I use the path tool to draw my shapes and block in flat color. I keep every shape on its own layer. With the sketch layer turned on, it looks like this

And with the sketch layer turned off, it looks like this.

When I have all the shapes created and I am happy with the overall color feel, I add my painted textures, using my paths to create texture masks—the effect is like cutting out paper with scissors. I use the brush tool for smaller details and layer in bits of tissue paper to soften edges or add shading. I sometimes play with layer effects and opacity to give the illustration more depth.

Much like a real collage, I end up with many layers (hundreds) of textured shapes. Collaging digitally allows me to change the colors and scale of my textures and handle edits easily. This is the end resul.

This is a thumbnail sketch for a spread about fireflies like nature’s night-lights.

This is the final sketch for the firefly scene. You can see that I made some changes from the original thumbnail above, but the basic idea is still there. When all the sketches are approved by the editor and art director, it’s time to move on to the final art. I scan in all my sketches and compose my final art on the computer. Using my sketch as a guide, and working with lots of textures I paint by hand and later scan, I slowly layer up all the colors, shapes and textures into a “digital collage” (at least that’s what I call it). This way, I am able to move things around, adjust colors and make changes. And after a lot of noodling, the art comes to life. Color mood was especially important with this lullaby book, since it starts in early evening and ends later at night. I needed to think about how the sky colors would slowly transition as the sun set and the moon rose.

So, here’s the final piece for the firefly scene, which reads:
dream of tiptoes through the grass
and fireflies that blink and flash,
catching night-lights floating by–
then sending them into the sky.

Below is the final cover image.

How long have you been illustrating?

Officially? Since I studied illustration in school and graduated in 1998. Unofficially? Since I could hold a crayon.

Did you go to school for art? If so, where and what did you study?

Yes, I have a BFA in Visual Communication Design (with an illustration concentration) from the University of Dayton. Go Flyers!

What was the first thing you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

My first “job” out of college was a freelance project for a local wallpaper company. I answered an ad in the newspaper and was so excited to get the gig. It was a 12′ long (yes, I mean foot) wallpaper border that I illustrated in pen, ink and watercolors in one continuous scene. Looking back, it definitely helped prepare me for the scope of bigger picture book projects.

Please use your imagination here. This is so great that I had to include it, but being 12 foot long made it impossible to show the whole thing in one illustration.

I didn’t want you to miss all the wonderful detail, so I cut Betsy’s border apart.

What a wonderful piece to be able to point to and say, “This was the first thing I got paid to do.” Great start to a long career.  Good job, Betsy!

Hope you could appreciate it viewed in pieces.

How many books have you illustrated?

13 (I think)

I see that you have won awards for your books and illustrations. Which one is the most cherished?

Any recognition, big or little, is great affirmation to keep doing what I’m doing. Some of my favorite feedback comes from parents and little ones. But as far as official awards go, it has meant a lot to be a featured artist in this year’s Society of Illustrators Original Art show for my illustrations in “Tons of Trucks”. WOW. Getting that recognition was a huge honor because it put me in the company of other artists and talent I really respect and admire.

You are represented by Painted Words. How long have they represented you?

I’ve been working with Painted Words since 2005. I found my agent when I was looking for someone experienced to review my contract for “Peanut Butter and Jellyfishes”. A friend referred me to Lori at Painted Words, who not only helped with my book contract, but also offered me representation moving forward. Again, serendipitous.  

Do you feel you have gotten more work because of that representation?

I think I have gotten more opportunities more quickly because of my representation—it’s been a good match for me. Having an agent focused on children’s publishing has helped align me with clients that are the right fit. That agent partnership has opened some doors for me earlier than I expected, and the steady work has made it possible for me to pursue publishing opportunities fulltime. But each person’s experiences and needs are different, and I do think it’s very possible to succeed without an agent—it’s all about finding the right path for you.TONS OF TRUCKS_TAR TRUCK_RGBCan you tell us a little bit about being represented? Do you talk regularly with your agent or do you just work as usual, until they call with a project?

My agent and I email a lot and usually talk a few times a week, whenever we need to work out schedules or the details of a new project.  

Don’t Throw That Away was published by Little Green Books. Could you tell us a little bit about this publisher and how they found you?

Little Green Books is an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All Little Green books have earth-friendly themes and are made from recycled materials. The publisher found me through my agent—they saw some samples of a newer style of mine that they felt would work well with the chipboard paper stock and special inks they were using. They also needed an illustrator that understood the printing process. I had just discovered Little Green Books a few months before they found me, and really wanted to work with them, so it was perfect timing. 

It looks like you have done a number of board books. Do publishers pay as much money for illustrating a board book?

No matter what the format, compensation should depend on a number of factors—the amount of work involved, experience and previous book sales, work for hire vs. advance + royalties, etc. For me, the pay has been pretty similar for picture books and board books. The advance may seem like less for a board book, but the page count and size is usually smaller as well. So, it makes sense that a shorter, smaller board book might have a lesser advance than a longer, bigger picture book that would take more time to execute.


How many pages is your typical board book?

There hasn’t been a standard number of pages on the board books or novelty books I’ve worked on—it has always varied. For “Haiku Baby” and “Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger?” (Random House), it was 6 spreads, but for “Tons of Trucks” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), it was 10 spreads.

Do you have an office in your house?

I share an office space with my husband, who is a designer and motion graphics artist. Our little, old  house has needed a lot of renovation through the years, so having a separate office space only a few blocks away gives us a quiet, convenient place to work and keeps us safe from construction dust bunnies. 


What is your favorite medium to use?

It kind of depends on my mood and the project, but I really enjoy more gestural watercolors. I’d also like to practice more printmaking, like linocuts and woodcuts—not necessarily for client work, but just because.


Do you try and spend a certain amount of hours every day working on your art?

I don’t consciously dedicate a certain number of hours to making art—it just usually happens that I do something creative every day since I stay pretty busy with projects. When I’m not busy with client work, I use the extra time to write and doodle new book ideas.

What was your first book?

The first picture book I illustrated was “Peanut Butter and Jellyfishes: A Very Silly Alphabet Book” by Brian Cleary, published by Lerner Books (Millbrook Press).

How did that come about?

Brian Cleary and I both worked at American Greetings—he as an editor and I as a staff artist. In 2005, Brian saw some of my work and asked if I would be interested in illustrating his next manuscript, which was already under contract with Lerner. It was very serendipitous, because I had always wanted to illustrate children’s books and had just decided it would be a good year to move in that direction. So, I jumped at the opportunity, sent my portfolio in to an editor at Lerner, and was fortunate enough to get matched up with Brian’s book.


Could you tell us a little about Millbrook Press?

Working with Lerner/Millbrook Press was a great first book experience. I was lucky to be given a fun manuscript full of possibilities, along with tons of creative freedom, from the cover to the end papers. It was an opportunity to really explore and refine my style…and get published! I will always be grateful that Brian and Lerner took a chance on me for that first book.


Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

It’s definitely helped people find my work and connect me with resources more efficiently. It makes communicating with clients anywhere easy–I send my sketches and final art via email or ftp sites. It’s also a great place to engage and learn—I was able to take an online textile design class with people from all over the world. How cool is that?


This is the Pitch Piece that Betsy made up to help sell the book.

Many of your books have been published by Random House? Did you know anyone there before you started illustrating books for them or was it your agent that got that ball rolling?

Yes, all four of the books I’ve written so far have been with Random House.  I had the idea for “Haiku Baby” floating around in my head for quite a while. When my agent told me of an opportunity at Random House, I finally took some time to get it on paper and to an editor. I also worked up some additional book ideas at the same time, so my first writing venture turned into a 3-book (now 5-book) contract with Random House.

Did you write and illustrate haiku baby or was the text written in house?

“Haiku Baby” was the first book I both authored and illustrated, so it is very much my baby. But I also have to give kudos to my editor and art director at Random House, who really helped nurture my idea into a reality.

Was some of haiku baby done with cut paper?

Sort of. The final art was created digitally, but I wanted give my illustrations the handmade feel of cut paper and collage. Since haiku poems are Japanese in origin, it felt natural that the art should have nuances that reflected its Asian roots, but in a way that felt true to “me”. I studied the textures, colors and mark making in Asian woodblock prints, and incorporated those influences into my digital collage style.   


Not counting your paint and brushes, what is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?

My windows. And my husband. (Don’t make me choose)


What greeting card company did you work for?

I worked at American Greetings for 6+ years. I loved it there and learned so much from so many talented artists that also became good friends. I didn’t intend to leave so soon, but book opportunities took me elsewhere.
Do you still illustrate greeting cards?

Yes, I still illustrate cards and other fun things like stickers , tattoos, and games. I’ve also licensed some of my book art for cards and other products.


Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

Yes, almost always, for sketches and finished illustrations. Sometimes if I get stuck drawing something by hand, I will try sketching on the computer instead, and vice versa. I have found that changing the medium helps me get out of a rut.

How do you market yourself?

My agent takes care of a lot of the marketing when it comes to finding new clients. But I schedule book events and appearances and work with publishers on promo ideas to get the word out about new books. My husband and I have started making trailers for my new books. Social media has become an important promotion tool as well—I have a blog, a website, a Twitter account and a Facebook page.

Do you own or have you ever tried a graphic Drawing Tablet?

Yes, it is a must-have for me. I never use a mouse (ever).

Do you take pictures or do research before you start a project?

Yes, I begin by collecting all kinds of visual reference—photos, color inspiration, art techniques, subject matter information. Sometimes I go back to a photo I have taken and tucked away, and incorporate that moment into a book.

Do you have any material tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tired – A how to tip, etc.

I keep a digital library of all my scanned textures and patterns. That way I can quickly pick and choose textures while I’m collaging on the computer.

Do you think your style has changed over the years? Have your material changed?

Yes, most definitely. I experimented with collage in college, but it took me several years of playing in lots of different ways to develop my process of painting textures by hand and collaging on the computer. The nuances of the style I work in are dictated by the project’s needs, so sometimes I need to try new materials to get the effect I want or make stylistic adjustments that feel right for each book. Every book project helps me grow my style in a different way.


Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

Okay, I’m putting it all out there into the universe (sometimes it works!):

1. Keep making books.

2. Collaborate (with my husband) on content and animation ideas for children’s programming and apps.

3. Design a quirky line of kids’ fabrics or products.

4. Team up and work with an aquarium or children’s museum.

What are you working on now?

My husband and I are working on an animated trailer for my new picture book “I Haiku You” that comes out on Dec. 26. I also just finished up some fun Valentines for Peaceable Kingdom.

I see that you illustrated a book coming out written by one of our favorite former New Jersey Girl – Dianne Ochiltree which is coming out in May 2013. The cover of the book is up on Amazon and they are taking Pre-Orders. Are all the illustrations completed or are you still working on them? What is the book about?

“It’s a Firefly Night” was actually finished in 2007, but the publisher was sold, so the picture book didn’t get published. When the original contract expired, my agent was able to shop the finished book around to new publishers as a complete package. I was so excited to have Blue Apple pick it up. The book is about a girl and her dad catching (and releasing) fireflies one by one—it’s a bedtime story and a counting-up-and-down concept all in one!



Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful illustrator?

If you have a big goal for yourself, like illustrating children’s books, set smaller goals first. Reaching big goals can be overwhelming and even paralyzing, but breaking them down into smaller milestones feels a lot more achievable. Use your tiny goals as stepping stones to hone your skills, gain experience to build on, and ultimately guide you to where you want to be. And remember, one little opportunity can lead to the next in unexpected ways. For example, I did a gift card for Target, which was a fun gig on its own. But that one gift card illustration in my portfolio also landed me several greeting card commissions and even a book deal for “Tons of Trucks”. So, you just never know.

Thank you Betsy for sharing your multiple talents, journey, and process with us.  For those who are wondering about the awards Betsy has won.  Here they are:

Winner Society of Illustrator’s Original Art Show (2012), Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year (2011), Dr. Toy Best Green Product Award (2011), Scholastic Parent & Child—Best of 2010, Children’s Indie Next List (2010), CCBC’s Choice for “Best-of-the-Year list (2009), Parents’ Choice 5 Board Books for Baby (2009), Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Award (2009), Please Touch Museum’s 23rd Annual Book Award.

Please take a minute to leave Betsy a comment – Thanks!

If you would like for follow Betsy, here are the links you can use:

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Oh, did I enjoy this! SO accomplished you are, Betsy 🙂 Congratulations on all your success!

    I, too, love haiku, so I’m naturally drawn to your haiku books. And I couldn’t help myself—I copied and pasted the fairy tale border into Word so I could see it as one (well, almost—-I was limited with the page size) and it’s so impressive!

    Thanks for sharing all this wonderful stuff, ladies 🙂


  2. Thank you for this post, Betsy. Your illustrations are gorgeous! When static images convey so much energy the result is mesmerizing. So pleased to be introduced to your work–


  3. I recognized many pieces by your unique style Betsy – wonderful! It was fun to learn more about you and your work.


  4. Wow! I had no idea how illustrations had changed over the years. I imagine every picture being hand painted. Great article.. Very enlightening.


  5. Love your work Betsy! How do you keep track of all those layers?


  6. Great interview!


  7. Thank you so much for sharing your process.


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