Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 19, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – Dow Phumiruk MD

dow001Dow Phumiruk is a pediatrician who has found her passion in art.  Over the past few years, she has been able to focus on her love of illustrating for children.  She primarily works digitally (mostly because she really, really, really needs to erase sometimes).  She dreams of one day illustrating a series of humorous health care books for children (her “See-Through Blob” series).  Last year, she self-published her first book, Pearl Moon.

She lives in Lone Tree, Colorado with her husband of more than two decades, three artistic daughters, one dwarf rabbit, one guinea pig, and three gerbils.

Here is Dow explaining her process:

Since I don’t have a degree in art, this won’t be very technical.  But, maybe it’ll help some of you that are just thinking about giving digital media a try or are still learning some basic Photoshop.

My first step is putting my inspiration sketch on my computer.  Sometimes I draw directly on a blank page in Photoshop.  But often I take a picture of something I’ve drawn on paper and upload from my camera.  Then I open it in Photoshop.  I don’t care about quality, since it’s just a rough image.  This happens to be a really rough  crayon sketch I did at a restaurant.  The food was taking forever, and so I took over the red, yellow, and blue crayons given to my children.  My middle daughter posed, and I liked her cuteness.  We dedicated artists will draw anywhere!!

I immediately use one of my favorite Photoshop tools ever: the brightness/contrast button.  I use this at the beginning and then near the end of most of my pictures.  It’s what gives my art its “pop.”  I love that button (see green arrow below).   Sometimes I brighten only; other times I darken it a bit and crank up the contrast.

dowHow I work 1a

My drawing is suddenly much brighter!  I’m already happier.  But, it’s still very sketchy.  Since the brightness/contrast changes the picture by adding a layer, I flatten my layers to continue to draw on it now.  I do that by selecting the drop down menu; (1) and choose flatten (2).  You probably know how, but here:

dowHow I work 2

Now I clean it up by drawing on top of it.

I pick up my brush (1), choose the big fuzzy one (it’s really called “soft mechanical pencil” under your basic brushes) via this drop down menu (2), and for the big areas of color I am using 100% opacity (3).  When I have most of my colors in, I change opacity to about 50% and work on details.

dowHow I work 3

*For those of you that have a better Photoshop, I think you can multiply your layers so your original lines can keep showing through.  Sadly, I don’t have that feature with Photoshop Elements, which is such a basic version meant for photographers more so than illustrators.

Audrey really just had her hands in her lap, but I decide to make it a tea party picture.  So I add a teacup.  I also change her shirt to her favorite color (I didn’t have a dark purple crayon available to me at the restaurant).  Of course, I don’t want her to have blue hair (maybe in her future rebellious teen years), so now it’s black.  After a while, it looks like this:

dowHow I work 4

I like it but decide I want a more soothing look, so I choose blue for a background.  Then I darken some shadows (under the teapot, etc.) and used a bumpy brush – aka the dry media oil pastel brush) to start adding texture.  I put a big blue rectangle that might look like a poster on the wall for interest It ends up getting colored over and goes missing in the finalized picture).

dowHow I work 5

For more texture in just the background, first I use the magic wand to select my background (1).  Once that’s all highlighted, I choose Filter (2), and go to the drop down menu to choose Grain (3).   *I have very few texture choices on Elements; there are many more brushes and textures on the better versions of Photshop.


This makes it subtly grainy back there, which I like:

dowAudrey Part I-b

I add more blues and some greens with my dry media oil pastel brush.  I add some gold colors around her face.  I mess around some more with grain texture.

Before long, I have darkened it quite a bit, by layering lots of darker tones (I didn’t post all the trial and error).  I also use the brighten/contrast button (remember the good ol’ brightness/contrast button that I told you about at the very beginning?) to darken the whole picture.

dowAudrey Part IIa8

Near the end, I felt it was overall too dark, so I went back to my favorite trick yet again.  I selected her head/face area with the selection brush tool, and then adjust the brightness/contrast again.  And voila!  Her face and surrounding area get brighter.  I really play with that tool a lot!!  The viewer naturally looks at the brightest spots of the picture, and I get to choose where those will be (artists can be so manipulative!).

It’s pretty much done.  I think the total time on this one was under 8 hours, since the style is a bit loose and not too detailed.  I never went back to detail the print on the teapot and cups much more, but I was satisfied.  Hope you enjoyed my discussion!

dowaudr 3

dow0001 cover, framed portrait copy

Did you try the traditional route of publishing, before you decided to self-publish?

It’s more that I am working all fronts simultaneously.  I would very much love to have a real publisher – that would be dreamy!!  It’s what I am actively pursuing.  But because I feel that life is fleeting, and since I started down this path later than many others, I thought it’d be fun to fast forward a bit.  It’s been great, but I know I am capable of much more in the hands of an editor and/or agent who can guide me.

dow008 guilt p rbigger

What made you choose Starry Home Publishing?

Starry Home is my own publishing company.  When you choose to self-publish, you get to pick a name for your publishing company (my name in Thai means “Star”).


How much research did you do before choosing your printer? 

After reading online about self-publishing, I realized that the most cost-effective way to print my book was to find a printer locally.  I called around several places. It took weeks.  I finally found an independent printer that happened to be close by with reasonable prices.

But self-publishing is tricky, especially if you’re obssessive about your work.  It’s not just illustrating!  It’s marketing your book.  You can’t be shy when you have to present it online or in person.  Most of us artists prefer to hang back in our comfy drawing/blogging chairs while someone else works to promote us.  It’s also about having lengthy discussions with your chosen printer about the finished product (Did you notice that these two pages aren’t lined up exactly?  Why is the color on this set of books darker than the other?).  Once my printer and I made several changes in page layout to make me happy, but when the 25 hard cover copies were printed and done, I found an entire sentence missing that was a result of our layout changes.  Who pays for them then?  He’s a small printer; I’m a one-person show.  Neither of us wants to take that hit!  Perhaps you can find a patient printer that can work with you until you’re satisfied, but it’s hard enough to just find one in a reasonable price range.

dowall seasons 1 calendar

Do you think you will try going the traditional route with publishing your next book?

Yes!  I really hope I can break into the traditional market soon.

dow003 dedicaton blob copycropped

Is Pearl Moon a 32 page picture book?

Yes. It is my own Asian fairytale. It is a love story about a cat that reads.

dowmagpies 6

Did anyone help you edit your manuscript, before you sent it off to be printed?

Two talented individuals donated their time and expertise to me.

dowtoad and girl scbwicropped

How are you marketing your book?

It’s currently at our Denver bookstore chain, Tattered Cover.  It’s also on (but as of this moment, I am out of copies, so shipping would be delayed a couple of weeks).  I also enjoy promoting my books at schools.  I haven’t had time to do any other  marketing lately.

dowpeacock 1

Have you tried to get it on Amazon?

It was more expensive than I was willing to pay to keep it on their site.

dowforest copy 2

Since you are a pediatrician, we know you spent years studying science. Have you taken any art classes?

My last formal art class was in high school, and more recently, I’ve learned so much through SCBWI.  The guest artists at the two local conferences I attended were phenomenal (Adam Rex and Will Terry are thoroughly inspiring)!  I made artist friends through SCBWI, and they’ve taught me a lot as well.  My higher education was all health and science – I wish I had at least minored in art, as now I am playing catch-up.


When did you start illustrating?

I drew cartoons all the time as a child.  When I started college, I pretty much gave it up for the sciences.  It wasn’t until much later, after I made the decision to stay home with the kids for a few years, that I returned to my love of art.  That was in 2005.  It was a great hobby to keep me sane while watching my children!!  By 2010 I knew I wanted to illustrate children’s books.  I work as a physician part time now, but I’ll never again let go of the creative in me.  I joined SCBWI in 2011, and it’s helped me grow as an artist  exponentially.

dowgirl with scarf final bright

What spurred you interest in art?

I don’t recall initially, because as far back as I can remember, I enjoyed drawing.  More recently, I was looking for something to do while home with the kids.  It was so impractical to concentrate on medical literature while watching them.  It wasn’t long before I was reunited with my love for art.

dowOwl's Gaze, Lone Tree Art Show 2010

Do you belong to a critique group or the SCBWI?

I belong to both.  Shortly after joining SCBWI, our illustrator critique group was formed by a local artist, Tia Christine.  I’ve met many people through SCBWI that I know I will be my friends for life.

dowtrolls best

Do you have a studio set up in your house?

I have a sewing room upstairs, and downstairs I have a corner with my drawing supplies right in the family room.  It’s by the window, and not far from the fireplace.  I would prefer to keep a studio for my art, but then I’d be holed up there and never see my family, since I draw practically every day.  Maybe when the kids are grown.  They take up a lot of space.

dowstuffed animals 2cropped

Have you put together a portfolio to show off you illustrations?

I currently direct editors and other audiences to my “blogfolio”.  It’s just a blog, but I set it up so it’s like a portfolio (  I post my works-in-progress at a different blogsite ( as well as on my Facebook page, “Dow.”  I also have a traditional black binder from Hobby Lobby in case I need to show hard copies.


Do you find that you spend more time re-painting and fixing things when you do your digital illustrations?

Wow, I sure do!  I’ve learned now that 85% of my piece is often done in the first day.  I get to 90-95% on days 2 and 3.  After that, I piddle with very low yield, and that tweaking can go on for a painful two weeks if I don’t put a halt to it.  But digital art is just so… handy.  Sometimes I really, really need to relocate/resize my subject or erase something hideous.  Digital’s unbeatable for that!

dowgoose cafepresscropped

What software do you use to paint your illustrations?

I use plain old Photoshop Elements version 9.  It was a relatively small investment (in case it didn’t work out for me!).  I haven’t bothered to upgrade yet.

dowsunflower mom and daughter copy

Do you use a graphic tablet?

It’s my Wacom Intuos 4.  I LOVE it.  Really, really love it.

dowTiemdow Phumiruk

How did you learn to use Photoshop or Painter?  Did you take a class?

I learned most of it on my own.  I think it would’ve been much more efficient to take a class for the basics.  There are so many great classes available now, even online (Will Terry does a great job at Folio Academy, for example).

dowDanny and Dolly working r

Are you trying to find an agent or artist rep.?

I am working on that, too.  I try to submit to agents regularly.

dowflying babies resizecropped

What are your career goals?

I am completely driven to become a traditionally published illustrator.  Some days I think I’m nuts: I should just sit back, read some pediatric journals, or take a nap.  But I don’t.  I’ve been drawing almost every single day since I got my Wacom Intuos tablet a couple of years ago.

dowcalendar winter

I see that you have used watercolor in a few pieces. Which came first, watercolor or computer?

Watercolor was first.  But I never got very good at it!!  I really feel like my brain is not wired to leave places unpainted (to keep them white!).  I have to add color and then brighten with white at the end.  I also do a lot of trial and error in my art, which ends up mud in watercolor.  So when I learned to use digital media, I was thrilled.  I still use traditional media (a mix of watercolor, pencil, and ink) when I enter local art shows.

dowholiday snow birds

Did you start doing the stuffed animals and then start doing illustrations?

Another hobby of mine since my youth is sewing.  I learned on my mom’s old Singer over 30 years ago.  After I started medical school, my mom became terminally ill.  While I took the year off of school to be with her more, I sewed  stuffed bunnies (1994).  I think it was therapeutic.  It was unrelated to my illustrations at the time.  Now, with three girls at home (ages 7, 10, and 13), stuffed animal creations are always in great demand.


How long does it take you to design and make one of your stuffed animals?

I tend to sew “on the fly.”  I can whip a simple toy out in about two hours.  Most of them are not terribly  neat, but the kids don’t mind.  I generally don’t make patterns.  At most I’ll use a toy we already own as a model and cut the shapes out based on where I see seams.  Some of the more detailed creatures take a couple of days (for example, a dragon that has wings, scales, ears, claws, etc).  The more appendages, the longer it takes.

dow010 (2)

Have you ever thought about using one of your characters to create a stuffed toy?

Yes, and I’ve done it.  Two of my favorite dolls I’ve sewn are based on my Danny and Dolly cartoon characters.  I made them for my last SCBWI “Chairman of the Board” entry.  Our chapter invited  illustrators to promote their work by decorating a chair for display at our regional conference.  I went to town on that!


Do you sell the stuffed animals?

I was selling the marshmallow stuffed toys previously, but it got dull.  Now I sew once in a while just to enjoy a 3D experience, or if I am making a gift for a friend.  I am generally happier with 2D (I never get bored of drawing!).

dow000 See Through Blob's First Check Up cover

Your second book uses a different style, than your first.  Do you think you will continue with the comic book style?

All my work is bright, but I love both the cartoon style as well as my more realistic style.  I notice the editors and agents I’ve submitted to drift towards my realistic style, so this year I think I’ll focus on that more.

I wrote See Through Blob’s First Check Up because I found that health education books for children are not super fun.  They are educational but very didactic.  I thought it’d be fun to combine my medical education with my love of illustration, and I wanted to do it in a unique way.  I chose to use extreme cartoon goofiness with See Through Blob, because all the kids I’ve ever met love to laugh (and with see-through skin, he’s a great model to teach about internal organs and their related illnesses).  It’s not published yet.

dowBlob says, yescropped

Are there any materials you use that you really like that might help other illustrators?

  • Well, for traditional media, I loved my Prismacolor pencils and ink markers.
  • Digitally, I can’t wait to try a better version of Photoshop, but for now, Elements is workable.  I think if you are on a budget, it’s a place to start for less than $100 (I think mine was $70).
  • I’d be nowhere fast without a pen and tablet.  I love my Wacom Intuos 4 pen and tablet.  I missed it while I was away on vacation last month.
  • Most recently, I invested in a bigger monitor for Christmas (19”).  With my smaller screen, I would print an 8X10 picture out for my portfolio and think, hey, where’d that smudgy stain on the edge come from??  That happens so much less often with the bigger screen, since it’s closer to the size I print them.  Then again, I did just start wearing bifocals.
  • With whatever money you have left, get your SCBWI membership if you’re serious about this business.  It’s not material goods and so doesn’t really belong on this list, but being a member is indispensable.

dowcrying blob A copy

What are you working on now?

Right now, it’s all about reaching my maximum potential in art.  I know that most artists are known for their one style, and I feel that I am still fine-tuning mine.  Meanwhile, I have resolved to diligently “get my work out there” in 2013.  I am submitting to editors, agents, bloggers, and contests whenever I can.  Thanks for giving me a great head start on my resolution, Kathy!

Thank you Dow for sharing your illustrations and stuffed toys with us.  Your journey lays ahead, but you are on the right path.  Good luck and make sure you continue to share new illustrations and successes with us.

You can visit Dow at:  Please take a minute to leave Dow a comment.  Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Dow’s rich color style attracted me to her illustrations. Beautiful. Best of luck to this multi talented lady.


    • Thank you, Barb. I am grateful for the kind words.


  2. I love this interview. As a lawyer-turned-illustrator, it’s so inspiring to hear about Dow’s journey and success. What I also love is that you (Dow) are making such beautiful art using Photoshop Elements…goes to show it’s the talent, not the tools.


    • Your comments are very encouraging; thank you for taking time to post them. I can’t wait to check out your work now, too. 🙂


  3. Beautiful work! I especially love the monster under the bed and the balloon babies. Thanks so much for posting this.


    • Thank you for your thoughts, Rosi. I definitely had fun with those two pictures!


  4. Love your dragon, the gentle softness of many of the illustrations and the sharing of your process. This is a very inspirational post for me since I also always have loved art but have worked in the medical profession as an RN for nearly 30 years. Now, close to retirement, I am trying to catch up for all the lost time. Thank you so much for sharing.


    • I just noticed that I had not ever replied to you, Julia! Thank you for looking through my interview. I hope you are well into your journey into creativity by now!


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