Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 23, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – Kristina Swarner

kristinaheadshotsmall290The other week I had a post about Kristina Swarner who illustrated ZAYDE COMES TO LIVE written by Sheri Sinykin after it was awarded the 2013 Sydney Taylor Honor Books for Younger Readers Award. Her art work is so wonderful, that I thought you would enjoy seeing more of her work.

Kristina Swarner created her first illustrated story using crayon on manila paper, at the age of 5, and has been drawing ever since.

Often described as magical and dreamlike, Kristina draws much of her imagery and inspiration from dreams and from memories of exploring  forests, gardens, and old houses when she was a child.

Since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design,  Kristina has illustrated books, greeting cards, magazines, wine labels, CD covers, and theatre posters, and has won numerous awards.

When not painting, Kristina enjoys music, reading, and trying to grow trees on her balcony. She lives in Chicago.

Here is Kristina talking about her process and Journey:

kristinacricket final sketchFirst, I think about the concept, a lot. Sometimes for days. Once I think I have a good idea, I do a lot of really light, really rough pencil sketches on paper until the drawing looks right.

kristinaprinting plateThen I do a tighter sketch, and trace it so that I can transfer it to linoleum or a vinyl block. I carve out the areas that will be light colored in the final piece, ink up the block, and make a black and white print on heavy paper.

kristina desk

Once that’s dry, I work over it with watercolors and colored pencils. (Above is a picture of my desk.)

kristinaCricket final cover

Final piece done for Cricket Magazine Cover.

kristinaflying horse blog

Kristina has published 19 books.  Below are a few of the covers.

kristinabefore youwereborn

kristina everyday

kristinaenchanted lions





How did you come involved with Zayde Comes to Live?

As I heard it, Jane Yolen recommended me to Sheri Sinykin as a possible illustrator.  Luckily for me Peachtree Publishing agreed with the choice.


This is the cover of the book that sparked the 2013 Sydney Taylor Honor Books for Younger Readers Award.kristinaZayde p 28 spot final

How long have you been involved in art?

When I was three, I told my parents that I wanted to be an artist. I’ve made illustrated books since I was very young. I still have one of my first drawings, of a girl named Alice who looks a lot like a daddy longlegs.


Did you go to college to study art?

I graduated from RISD.


Can you tell us some of the art classes you took?

I took as many different classes as I could–besides a lot of drawing and painting, I took graphic design, photography, animation, poster design, and different types of printmaking.



Do you think those classes influenced your artistic style?

Definitely. The style I use is a distillation of a lot of the techniques I learned.



I noticed that a piece of your art has been chosen for Society of Illustrators Annual Exhibition.  That is a big honor.  How did that come about?

I’d been looking at a long genealogy chart and wondering about the people on it, and had the idea to paint a series called Imaginary Ancestors. I started with a painting of a queen, and was really happy with it, so I entered it in the the Uncommissioned category. I was completely blown away that it was selected. I went to the opening in New York just so I could see it at the Society.



What was your first paid art assignment?

I think it was a tiny painting of a horse for a story in the Providence Journal-Bulletin.



Do you think your style has changed since you first started?

I started out doing mostly watercolor. It was a little frustrating for me to achieve the contrast and texture I wanted with watercolor, and I got tired of standing around waiting for it to dry. I rely much more now on the black and white linoleum print under the watercolor–it’s faster, and gives great depth and contrast and texture.


Was Zayde Comes to Live your first illustrated book?

My first illustrated book was Yiddish Wisdom, for Chronicle Books, in 1996(?).


How many books have you illustrated?

I’ve done 18, not counting textbooks.


What publishers have you worked with?

Some of them are Chronicle, Roaring Brook, Penguin, Dutton, Scholastic, Oxford University Press, Knopf, Random House, and National Geographic.


Do you know how books get considered for the Sydney Taylor Book Award? 

So far it’s been a mysterious process to me, because my publishers submit the books without telling me, and then I’ll suddenly get a phone call that I’ve won.

kristinaumbrella for kathy

Have your illustrations been published in magazines?

Yes, I love working for magazines. I’ve done many illustrations for Cricket, among others.

kristina vinehair

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

When I was about five and could read children’s books on my own. Ferdinand,  A Birthday For Frances, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble– I wanted to make something as magical.



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

It’s a goal of mine. I have a notebook full of more or less fragmented stories. I’ve been too chicken to submit them–I’m working on feeling braver.

KristinaPOPPYGIRL for Kathy

Do you have any favorite materials?  Such as paper, paints, pens, etc.?

I like Rives BK paper, Prismacolor pencils, Winsor Newton watercolors and brushes, and Conte pastels.



Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

I hardly ever work from photos–it always seems to show in the finished art, somehow.  When possible, I sketch from life, or even from my memory, instead. I had to draw an old-fashioned biplane for one project, so I built a biplane out of cardboard and drew that.

kristinastardust for Kathy

How do you get art directors to notice your artwork?

Besides my own website, I have portfolios up on various websites, and still send out mailers every so often. I research places that might use my art and submit work to them, too.


Are you represented by an agent?  If not would you like to be?  If so, who represents you and what have they brought to the table?

I have an agent in London, who’s brought me a lot of work from European clients.



Did you set up a studio in your home?

My current studio takes up half of the dining room.


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?

I have one very favorite discontinued Prismacolor pencil that is only about a centimeter long, so I only use it in extreme emergencies–it’s like the Holy Hand Grenade in Monty Python.


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

I always start at 9:30 and try to work until 5, depending on how much I have to help my kids with homework and things.

kristinain flowers lo res500

kristinaMay Queen 500

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

I use Photoshop for scanning, resizing, and occasionally retouching artwork.


Do you own a graphic tablet?

I do, but I use it mostly for signing things.

kristinalook up 590500


What are you working on now?

My 19th book! I’ve just started it, so it’s still at stick figure stage.



What did you do in the beginning to get noticed and what do you do now?

When I first started out, I relied mostly on sending out printed mailers and tear sheets, and occasionally going around with my portfolio. Now it’s much easier to just email samples and put up new work online, but the flip side of that is that there’s a much larger and more visible pool of people competing for the same amount of work. I still get good results sending printed postcards to point people to my website. I haven’t done as much as I probably should with social media–I tried Twitter for about a week, but it kept making me feel like my writing had hiccups.


kristinatucking in

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

Work ebbs and flows. When work is slow, it’s easy to feel like everyone has forgotten you and that you’ll never get hired again and have to get a job at Dunkin Donuts. I’m trying to retrain myself into treating slow times like a vacation. When my calendar is looking emptier than usual, it’s a good time to research and approach possible new clients, do some artwork for myself, or go out somewhere I usually don’t go and get some new ideas. In a short time I’m usually back to being busy.



Thank you Kristina for sharing you process and journey with us.  I look forward to following you as  you create more wonderful books and illustrations. If you would like to see more of Kristina’s work, you can visit her at:

Please take a minute to leave a comment for Kristina. THANKS!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Your work is absolutely gorgeous! I love the dreamlike quality, the textures and especially your sense of color! I am curious about how you get such wonderful texture from the linoleum print, though, because whenever I’ve done one the color is very flat. Also, how do you transfer your sketch to the linoleum block?


  2. Congratulations on your well-deserved success – the paintings are beautiful!


  3. Lovely, lyrical work!


  4. Oh, my, these are just dreamy. I kept thinking I had found my favorite as I scrolled through, but then found more were just as wonderful. Perhaps the autumn tree with the cat on the branch and the boy next to it, but they are all so enchanting. Thanks for posting this. I so look forward to Illustrator Saturday.


  5. Very interesting interview and I love seeing all the illustrations. Thank you so much for posting these, I look forward to this each week.


  6. I’m crazy about your work, and amazed that I haven’t come across it already. Thanks, as usual, to Kathy for finding the talent! I love your patterned plants and skies, and linocut hair, and dreamy, floating, happy children. If your story ideas are even close to your artwork, I hope you’ll get brave and share some of them with publishers! Thanks so much for sharing this with us.


  7. So inspired, absolutely dreamy! Love love love your work!


  8. Kristina, I love your style and I enjoyed reading about your processes.
    All the best,
    P.S. Kathy, you showcase very talented illustrators. Very inspiring for me.


  9. Thank you all for the lovely comments! 🙂

    ddhearn, the way I transfer the sketch is by tracing it with graphite onto tracing paper and then pressing it onto the linoleum block. If you use a foam brayer instead of a rubber one, it will give a more grainy texture instead of a flat black. I hope this helps!


  10. What a gifted and blessed artist you are, but I cannot find your bio. Could you point me to where it’s published, please?


  11. […] Swarner’s whimsical pages bring to life this tender folktale with a style that is old world, yet fresh and contemporary. Her mixed media technique begins with a pencil sketch that she transfers to a linoleum plate. She prints in black and white on heavy paper, then pulls out her watercolors and colored pencils to create color breaks and rich textures. For more about Swarner’s process, read Kathy Temean’s interview. […]


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