Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 9, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – Susan Detwiler

detwilerRed Canoe book signing 410 008croppedSusan grew up in Maryland and was educated at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where she and her husband and two sons now live. Besides books for children, her illustrations have been used for advertising, merchandise, and greeting cards. She is the Illustrator Coordinator for the SCBWI MD/DE/WV region.

We have a real treat this Saturday. Susan has offered to give a way her book BIG CAT, Little Kitty.  If you would like a chance to win, please leave a comment and tweet or add to your facebook page. Next Friday I will announce the winner. 

Here are some of Susan’s clients:

Baltimore Precision Instruments, The Baltimore Sun, Barton-Cotton, Bits & Pieces Puzzles, Catalpha Advertising & Design, Educational Press, Girl Scouts USA, Hallmark Cards, Highlights for Children, Humane Society US, Johns Hopkins Women’s Health, Ladybug Magazine, McDonogh School, National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Prospect Hill Press, Real Creative Advertising, Stave Puzzles, Stemmer House Publishers, Success For All Foundation, Sunrise Greetings, Sylvan Dell Publishing, Tree-Free, US Can, Words & Numbers, World Wildlife Fund.

Here is Susan explaining her process:


For the panda book, as with all my picture books, I started by gathering reference photos.


Then I made thumbnail sketches of each spread on one sheet of paper so that I could plan the way it would flow.


I enlarged my thumbnail. 


Then made a more detailed sketch to submit to the editor for approval.


Once approved, that sketch was projected onto my drawing surface, which in this case was gray charcoal paper.


The final was done in soft pastels made by Derwent, Faber Castell and other brands.


I scanned the finals and Sylvan Dell added the text.


Book cover above and interior spreads below:





BIG CAT, Little Kitty written by Scotti Cohn – Publisher: Sylvan Dell Publishing; First Edition (March 10, 2011) ISBN: 978-1607181248

The First Teddy Bear by Helen Kay – Publisher: Stemmer House Publishers; 2nd edition (September 1, 2005) ISBN-13: 978-0880451536


One Wolf Howls by Scotti Cohn Publisher: Sylvan Dell Publishing (May 24, 2012) ISBN-13: 978-1607186090


On The Move Mass Migration by Scotti Cohn  Publisher: Sylvan Dell Publishing (March 5, 2013) ISBN-13: 978-1607186168


How long have you been illustrating?

In the early 1980s I worked as a staff illustrator for J. Walter Thompson Recruitment Advertising, a job that was a lucky break. I learned to draw line art depictions of all races of people and to work within short deadlines. I took freelance assignments whenever I got them, and after a few years decided to freelance exclusively.


When did you decide you wanted to illustrate a children’s book?

I have always wanted to illustrate books for children, and when I read about Stemmer House, a small publisher near Baltimore, I contacted the editor and made an appointment to show my portfolio. Another lucky break! I was given a contract to illustrate The First Teddy Bear, published in 1985. I am happy to report that it is still in print; a second edition was released in 2005.


I see you graduated from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Can you tell us a little bit about that school?

The Maryland Institute College of Art was such an exciting place for me to be in the mid-seventies when I was there! The school was just beginning its phenomenal growth that continues into the present – MICA is one of Baltimore’s premier cultural institutions, is recognized as one of the top art schools in the country, and is the center of Artscape, the largest free arts festival, held each July. I studied Graphic Design/ Illustration for three years and met my artist husband there. I have been back to participate in an illustration workshop, and have several friends on the faculty. However, I was unable to finish my degree back then; I hope to do so in the future.



What types of classes did you take?

I took Illustration classes with Cyril Satorsky and Richard Ireland, Graphic Design with Bob Wirth, and Screen Printing with Quentin Mosley.


Did you have a focus in on any area of art?

I knew that I wanted to be an illustrator, so I concentrated on sharpening my drawing and painting skills and the elements of graphic design that apply to illustration. I regret that I did not study sculpture, because I love to sculpt and spend time at the beach each summer making sculptures in sand.


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

While I was in high school an amateur theater company hired me to design and screen print posters for their production of The Music Man. I was thrilled to get money for having so much fun!


Have you done any work for children’s magazines?

My work is regularly published in Highlights.



Do you have representation from an artist rep or an agents?

I have a licensing agent, but I am not represented in the children’s market.


Your website shows that you published four books with Sylvan Dell Publishing. Could you tell us how they found you?

Actually, I found them; I heard about this young company at a SCBWI conference and was attracted by the fact that they publish only picture books and take email submissions. I submitted a book dummy, which was rejected, but the editor asked if I’d be interested in illustrating a book for them. Of course I said yes!


Are they mainly an educational publisher?

Sylvan Dell includes educational material in the back pages of each picture book, but their books have good stories and beautiful illustrations as the highest priority; their motto is Science and Math Through Literature. They market to bookstores as well as schools and libraries.


Which book was your first?

I illustrated One Wolf Howls by Scotti Cohn, published in 2009.



You also have another book published by Stemmer House. How did that contract come about?

That was my very first book illustration contract, and I was young and had little idea of how it all worked! The editor at Stemmer House gave me the manuscript for The First Teddy Bear and instructed me to divide it into pages and make a book dummy with sketched illustrations on each page. I worked on that book for a year… I don’t think my experience was typical. After that I joined the SCBWI and learned a lot.


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

Oh, yes! My head is full of ideas, and I experiment with stories and drawings whenever I can.


As Illustrator Coordinator, what types of things have you done with the MD/DE/WV SCBWI chapter members?

Besides offering individual portfolio reviews by art directors, editors and agents visiting our conferences, once a year we have a “First Look” panel of visiting faculty comment on illustrators’ work (anonymous) in a slide show format. We also display members’ portfolios at conferences, and include at least one workshop or breakout session geared specifically to illustrators. This year, our region’s 20th anniversary, we held a logo contest.



Have you taken advantage of showing off your portfolio at one of national conferences?

Yes, I participated in the Portfolio Showcase at the NYC SCBWI Winter Conferences of 2012 and 2013.


Do you see yourself writing and illustrating your own book someday?

Yes, I’ve got a couple in the pipeline.


It looks like you have illustrated for a large variety of companies. What did you do to get that work?

While my kids were small I concentrated on greeting card and local advertising freelance assignments, which I got by word of mouth and a minimum of self-promotion. Those jobs were able to be completed quickly and I received payment quickly, too, which suited my situation as a parent working from home. The freelance market has changed since then, and self-marketing and promotion claim a much bigger part of my time. I am targeting the children’s publishing market more than before, but still accept assignments from businesses, when they come my way.



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

It was not true when I started my business, but today I could not function without my computer. The internet changed everything. It’s hard to imagine my work as a freelancer without email, Photoshop, scanning and printing.


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

When facing a deadline I am completely disciplined about work, but an average day is broken up with domestic chores and walks in the park with my dog, as well as art work.


What is your favorite medium to use?

Pencil, followed closely by watercolor.


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

My studio contains a four-drawer file cabinet full of picture clippings I’ve been gathering since I started this work, although I more frequently use the web for photo references. I sometimes sketch or take my own photos for reference, but I always do research at the start of a job.


Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Well, it has brought the world to my fingertips right here in my studio, and it enables me to communicate with clients or potential clients and allows far more people to see my work, so that’s a definite yes.


Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

Yes, I am digitally coloring drawings sometimes, and Photoshop has freed me from the fear of messing up when working in traditional media – I can always fix it on the scan.


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

I do not own one, but have been curious.


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

My commercial work requires me to be fluent in a number of styles, which is fun, like trying on costumes. I did my second book for Sylvan Dell entirely in soft pastel, then a completely new medium for me. But my natural inclination is a fairly detailed and painterly style which has changed only a little over the years. Animals have been my book subjects most often, but I also love to depict children in my illustrations, and use watercolor and pencil more than other media.


How do you market yourself?

I am always looking for new ways to get my work seen by people who could hire me. I have a website, a Facebook page, am registered on LinkedIn, send postcards to editors and art directors, and take every opportunity to hand out business cards. I regularly visit schools and give presentations of my work.


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

Okay, if you’re talking dreams… I’d like to win the Caldecott. But more realistically, I would like to be successful enough in the children’s publishing market that my work would be regularly pursued.


What are you working on now?

I am working on a retelling of an Aesop’s fable about mice.



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

For the panda book, as with all my picture books, I started by gathering reference photos. Then I made thumbnail sketches of each spread on one sheet of paper so that I could plan the way it would flow. I enlarged my thumbnail and made a more detailed sketch to submit to the editor for approval. Once approved, that sketch was projected onto my drawing surface, which in this case was gray charcoal paper. The final was done in soft pastels made by Derwent, Faber Castell and other brands. I scanned the finals and Sylvan Dell added the text. For watercolor illustrations, I use Strathmore 500 series cold-press illustration board, which I buy from Utrecht in packs of 10 sheets. You can use both sides, and it’s 100% cotton rag. I love pan watercolors and Windsor Newton series 7 brushes. I transfer my rough drawings onto the board via an artist’s projector (mine is an ancient “Kopyrite”).



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

Keep working to hone your craft, even if you have to give yourself assignments. Join the SCBWI. Keep listening and learning and studying the art that excites you. Take every opportunity to let your work be seen.

detwilersand_hound copy

Susan takes her artist talents even to the beach.

Thank you Susan for sharing your talent, journey, process, and one of your books with us.  Please let us know when you have a new success or a new piece of art you would like to show off.  You can visit Susan at

I always ask if you will leave a comment for Saturday’s Featured Illustrator, but this week you will put yourself in the running for one of Susan’s books, if you leave and comment and post something on Twitter or facebook about this post. Of course if you do not have a Twitter or facebook account, just let me know with the comment and you will be included in the drawing.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Susan’s art is stunning! I love her colors and composition!


  2. I was so happy and excited to see Susan’s art work and creative process featured on your blog. I learned a lot from her crit session @ a mid-Atlantinc conference. She also has a fantastic ebook out on uTales.


    • Thanks, Annina! I was happy to see your smiling face and read your comment, too.


  3. I enjoyed the variety in Susan’s work. And the sand dog at the end-LOL.
    I tweeted the link.


  4. I’ve been missing a lot of Illustrator Saturdays lately 😦 but caught this one! What gorgeous work! I want to win the book, but don’t want to get greedy since I got lucky with I HAIKU YOU last time!


  5. I LOVE the post for today’s illustrator Susan Detweiler. Thanks for finding so many inspiring and talented illustrators. Please enter me in the free book drawing.


  6. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. I LOVE the flower girl. Too funny. That really is an example of a picture being worth a thousand words.


    • Thanks, Rosi! The flower girl was based on my willful, childhood self — although she looks more like my sister.


  7. Susan, Your work is amazing! I love it all, and your various wonderful styles are so beautiful… WOW!! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, thoughts, and processes. I don’t think you need sculpture classes, your sand sculpture is marvelous!! Kathy and Susan, Very much appreciate this!


  8. What a wonderful opportunity to view some lovely work! Thank you, Susan for sharing your process with us. Every piece is loaded with color and detail. I love the whimsical mice, as well as the realistic children and animals. The diversity is astounding! You are inspiring.
    I’m really enjoying Illustrator Saturday series. I have learned a lot from viewing other artists’ work.


    • Thanks, Janet! I learn a lot from viewing others’ work as well.


  9. We love Susan’s art! Thanks for sharing!


    • Heather,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I was very happy to be able to show off Susan, her art, and her books.



  10. Thank you for this wonderful interview and display of Susan’s work. I am thrilled with the illustrations she did for my three books, and I’m sure anyone looking at this blog post will see why!


  11. It was great to see so much of Susan’s art and the variety. Very nice.


  12. Susan. I knew you were a good artist!! but WOW! You’re fantastic. Maybe we’ll get to visit you sometime.
    Nancy Eudy ( Jon’s cousin)


    • Thanks, Nancy! I appreciate your kind words and would enjoy a visit.


  13. Susan’s art always blows me away and I loved being able to read about her process. Thank you for this piece!! Lois Szymanski


    • Thank you, Lois! You are one of my favorite writers and your encouragement and friendship mean a lot to me.


  14. Wonderful art! Would love to pass it on to others. Thanks for sharing.


  15. simply amazing and inspiring work! I LOVE your nature and animal illustrations and layouts! you are truly inspirational!


    • Tracey,

      Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. It just seems I never have enough time to do all the things I need to do. Will you be at the conference this year?



  16. Your work is phenomenal, Susan!! I think that dream of yours will come true – I can’t imagine your not winning the Caldecott award at some point in your career! Thank you for the interview … and thank you once again, Kathy for all of your great questions.


    • Susan,

      Thanks for leaving a comment for Susan. Remember to send me new things that you are doing.



  17. Reblogged this on writeknit and commented:
    Beautiful artwork!


    • Laura,

      Thanks for helping to spread the word. Hope you stop back.



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