Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 20, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – Shawna JC Tenney

shawnaIMG_4080Shawna JC Tenney has always loved to draw and she has always loved children’s books. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Illustration from Brigham Young University and started illustrating as a freelance illustrator a year later. Since then, she has created artwork for 16 books along with children’s magazines, charities, educational materials, religious materials and theater playbills. I love drawing and learning every day.  She works in a number of mediums including acrylics, digital- Photoshop and Painter, charcoal, pastels and watercolor.  

Shawna lives in Utah with two very artistic little girls and graphic designer husband.  Shawna says, “One of my favorite things to do is teach an art class for my girls and other neighborhood kids. I love seeing the beautiful artwork they create!”

Here is Shawna explaining her process:

Process 1: First I draw lots of thumbnails. This helps me decide where to place characters and which angle I want to use. Sometimes I draw the thumbnails in pencil sometimes I use ink or the computer.


Process 2: I always sketch my drawings out first by hand using a mechanical pencil. Then I scan the picture into the computer and adjust lines and shape sizes in photoshop. Often I have to draw more than one sketch to get it right. Then I bring the lines into a new layer by selecting the channels so I can use my original lines and color under them. This also allows me to lock the “lines” layer and change the line colors later.


Process 3: Next I make a grayscale study.


Process 4: Then I make a color study. I usually don’t make this many, but it was fun to explore different color options for my dragon.


Process 5: I lay in the background color in photoshop. I like to use lots of different textures on my brushes. Sometimes I will print out my sketch and throw in some background colors with watercolor, just for fun.


Process 6: I lay in all the foreground color.


Process 7: Then I work in all the details over the top. Sometimes I finish the painting in Photoshop. Sometimes I use Painter because of the fun paint textures you can get. And that’s about it!

How did you end up going to Brigham Young University?

I first went to Utah Valley State College (which is now Utah Valley University) on an art scholarship, where I earned my associates degree. I had a great experience there, but at the time, they offered no Bachelor Degrees. I decided to go to BYU because at the time it had the best illustration program in the state (and also very high ranking nationally). At first I showed my portfolio to one of the professors there, Richard Hull. He thought I had some good potential. Unfortunately, I did not get in the university because of very high admittance standards. Richard Hull wrote a letter to admissions to request that I be admitted into the university to study illustration. Happily, it worked, and I was admitted. I will always be grateful to Richard for helping me get into an amazing illustration program where I learned so much valuable knowledge, which prepared me to working as an illustrator.


What types of classes did you take that really helped you to develop as an illustrator?

I took some awesome figure drawing classes, taught by Robert Barrett, who is phenomenal at figure drawing. I took an amazing (and very difficult) oil painting illustration class from Doug Fryer, where I learned amazing things about mixing color and composition. I also took some amazing illustration classes from Richard Hull, and Bethanne Anderson. Bethanne was my senior project mentor, and she inspired me in so many ways to become a children’s book illustrator and live my dreams. I took a couple  of digital classes in college, but hated them, and vowed I would never be one of those “digital” illustrators. This is very funny if you read on.


What did you do after you graduated?

Funny story. I graduated and had a baby two months later. Then we moved so my husband could go to school at another university. My husband was only able to get a part time job early in the morning working for UPS, and it wasn’t making enough to support us. So I went and got a part time job at JoAnn’s working in the frame shop. I worked there for a while, getting more and more annoyed that I was working at a retail frame shop for minimum wage. I was a well-trained frame shop worker (I had worked at several frame shops prior), and besides, I had a bachelor’s degree in illustration!  All I really wanted to do was be at home with my baby and draw. So I decided to work and pray really hard- take a leap of faith, quit my job and send out my work into the wide expanse of children’s illustration art reps and publishers, and see what happened. I think it was no coincidence that I was in the right place at the right time. Within a month, I got my first illustration job, and I got an art rep.

shawnaFlying Pig

Did Brigham Young University help connect you to companies that could give you work?

No, but I did learn a lot of valuable information about the business of illustration, and how to start getting work.


I notice that you use a lot of different paint materials. Did you start out with a favorite material and expand to others?

When I graduated from school, my medium of choice for my children’s illustrations was acrylics.  Like I said before, I was scared of the computer. Then I saw more and more how people were able to save a lot of time and money by doing their art digitally. I was still afraid that using it would change my style, and I wouldn’t be able to make my art look enough like a traditional medium. Finally, I decided I wanted to learn once and for all how to paint digitally. So I asked my friend Manelle Oliphant to teach me a few things. I also learned from asking some of my other friends a lot of questions. I decided to jump right in and digitally paint a book I had been assigned. It took a while to really understand how to do things the right way (I am still learning a ton all the time), but eventually I got things to look more traditional than digital. So to answer your question- now I only paint digitally- except for things like watercolor sketches. I have tried a lot of different techniques, which may explain why it looks like I use a lot of different mediums.


What was the first thing you did that you got paid to do?

It was some illustrations for a crossword puzzle for a magazine called The Friend, a children’s religious magazine. My second job was the more interesting one (in a bad way). It was a reader for elementary school called The Case of the Bushy Tail. Because of a misunderstanding I took on the job not realizing that I would only have 10 days to paint the entire book- and take care of a 1 year old at the same time. It was…something I don’t want to do again. But many lessons learned.


What was the turkey’s illustration for?

It was a self-promotion piece I did a few years back.


How long have you been illustrating?

About 8 years.


How  many children’s books have you illustrated?

If you count all the readers and chapter books, 17 all together.


I see that Picture Window Books published The Truth About Ogres that you illustrated.  Can you tell us how that contract came your way?

I got that job through my agent.


Can you tell us a little bit about Picture Window Books?

Picture Window books is an imprint of Capstone Publishing. They mostly publish through the school market. I have also illustrated one of their Read-it Readers, called Allie’s Bike. That was the second book I illustrated- a bit embarrassed to look at it now, but its fun to look back on it and see how my illustrations have grown since then.


How many children’s magazines have you done illustrations for?

The Friend Magazine, Highlights, Spider and Ladybug.


You illustrated a few book with Magic Wagon. How did those books and contracts find you?

That was also a job I landed through my agent.


Tell us about DEADWOOD put out by the new small publisher Pugalicious Press. I assume that it is a middle grade book and you were hired to do the cover. What is the story behind getting this job?

Yes, Deadwood is a middle grade novel written by Kell Andrews. I illustrated the cover, and the book came out November 2012. I also landed this job through my agent. Unfortunately, I recently heard that Pugalicious Press has gone under, and the book is already out of print. But I also heard that they are selling the rights to a new publisher, and trying to see if they can use the cover artwork that I have already created.  I hope that things go well for Deadwood, especially for the author’s sake!

shawnaIce Cream

It also looks like you have done a few Christian picture books. Could you tell us about those books, the publishers, and how you landed those contracts?

Yes, I have worked with  Concordia Publishing house on a couple of books (The Parable of the Prodigal Son, and King Josiah and God’s Book) which I got through my agent. I also illustrated a book called, When I Take the Sacrament, I Remember Jesus, through a local publisher called Covenant Communications. I got that job because I met the art director at a couple BYU Alumni events.


It also looks like you have done a few Christian picture books. Could you tell us about those books, the publishers, and how you landed those contracts?

Yes, I have worked with  Concordia Publishing house on a couple of books (The Parable of the Prodigal Son, and King Josiah and God’s Book) which I got through my agent. I also illustrated a book called, When I Take the Sacrament, I Remember Jesus, through a local publisher called Covenant Communications. I got that job because I met the art director at a couple BYU Alumni events.


I notice a lot of illustrations on your website that have a Christmas (Santa) theme. Are they all from one book? Where they published in a picture book?  Same questions for the reindeer illustrations?

The Christmas and reindeer themed illustrations are all from a book I illustrated for an author, Chantell Taylor, called Rosie the Reindeer. The book was finished about 3 years ago, but the author has not been able to publish it yet. That was a fun book to illustrate!


Do you want to concentrate on being a children’s picture book illustrator?

Yes, it is my dream and passion. I have always loved picture books- I love looking at them and reading them to my kids. My big dream is to write and illustrate my own books.


Where were the Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella illustrations, published?

I think what you are referring to is the Beauty and the Beast pictures? I illustrated  a Young Learners Classic Reader version of Beauty and the Beast for Compass Publishing.


Tell us a little bit about the educational books that you have illustrated.

Well, I’ve done a lot of readers for the educational market. They are good bread and butter jobs, but not ultimately what I want to do for my career. Same thing with the religious books. I am really trying to focus my career on getting work in the trade book /big publishers market.


Have you ever tried to write and illustrate a children’s book?

Yes, I have written a few of my own stories, which have failed. I am currently writing a new story, which I plan on finishing soon and then illustrating. I have so many great ideas floating around my head, and I would really just like to write and illustrate my own stories and ideas rather than always illustrating other peoples ideas.


Have you made a picture book dummy to show art directors, editors, and reps.?

I did make one dummy book that I sent to my art rep some years ago. It was a flop, but I learned a lot from the experience and gained a lot of wisdom since then. I hope to have a new dummy out by this fall.


What types of things do you do to get your work seen by publishing professionals?

I’ve been doing a lot of blogging, social media, and sending out my own post cards. Lately I’ve really been focusing on what kind of things I need to do to connect with other illustrators and art directors.  I’ve also been trying to focus my work on the trade book market.


Do you have an agent? If so, who and how long have the represented you?  If not, would you like one?

Yes, my agent is Janet DeCarlo of Story Book Arts Inc. She has been a great agent and has gotten me pretty steady work for the past 8 years.


Do you ever use two different materials in one illustration?

Yes, I’ve used digital with pastels, Photoshop with Painter, watercolor with Photoshop. It’s fun to experiment!


Have you seen your style change since you first started illustrating?

Yes, a lot. When I first started, I only painted in acrylic. My goal was to have as little texture as possible and to finish every single last detail. My colors were very saturated all the time. The end result is that every one thought my illustrations looked too “Disney” and too mass market. So I’ve changed things up quite a bit. Now I use a lot more textures. I realized I don’t need to finish every single little last detail- in fact, it works better when I don’t. I have tried to make the eyes of my characters look less “Disney.” I know better how to use color. I know now that it’s better not to saturate everything with pure color. I also know better how to stylize characters and how to compose an illustration. I think it’s important to be learning all the time- from teachers, from friends, from books, from conferences. I hope my style evolves and changes and improves a ton in the next 10 years!


Have you gotten any work through networking?

Funny enough, no, not really. But I have gotten lots of lifetime friends through networking. And I learn tons from my friends all the time. In fact, I run a local monthly illustration critique group, which I love!


Do you do any art exhibits to help get noticed?

I have participated in a couple BYU Alumni illustration shows. I have also participated in two shows at the Bountiful Davis art center called Illustrators Utah. It is a juried show, and the last  show I was in, I one 3rd place for my illustration entitled Ghost Watcher.


Are you open to doing illustrations for self-published picture book authors?

As I said before, I illustrated the book Rosie the Reindeer for a self-publishing author. I think since then I’ve learned a few things. I may be open to illustrating for a self-publishing author if they had a phenomenal story and gave me an offer I couldn’t pass up. But for the most part, I would say no. I’d rather write and illustrate my own stories or work with a publisher.


When did you start using Photoshop?

The first book I illustrated in Photoshop was The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which was published in 2008. After my friend Manelle showed me how to paint in Photoshop, and I just jumped right in, hoping to make it look just like I illustrated it in acrylics. Since I was so new to the medium, the process took way longer it would have taken to just do in acrylics. Since then, I have learned a lot of tips and tricks to really speed up the process.


Do you own a graphic tablet? If so, how do you use it?

Yes, I paint all my illustrations in Photoshop and Painter with a Wacom Bamboo tablet. I hope someday soon to be able to get a Cyntiq!


How much time do you spend illustrating?

Well, I’m a mom. So whenever I can fit it in! Both my kids are in school now for a full day, so I really try to get a lot done while they are at school. Sometimes I illustrate late into the night or early in the morning.


Do you have a studio set up in your house?

Yes, I have a studio/office room in the house. It’s pretty small and I share it with my husband who is a graphic designer. I have a computer desk and a drawing desk, he has a computer desk, and we also have scanners, printers, a book shelf, and a supply closet. So as you can guess, it’s a little crowded in here. It is also often filled with my kids and their drawings, so it gets even more crowded! But it serves it’s purpose.


Is there anything in your studio, other than paint and brushes that you couldn’t live without?

Of course, my computer (I used a Macbook Pro which I hook up to a bigger screen). My Epson Scanner (since I draw all my drawing with pencil and scan them in). I also love my Epson Artisan 1430 large format printer. And of course my art books. I am obsessed with children’s books and art books!

shawnaChristmas Surprise

You have an illustration you titled Christmas Surprise. Was that used in a picture book? What about the one titled Flying Pig? 

Christmas Surprise and Flying Pig are both self-promotion pieces I illustrated quite a few years ago- when I was still using acrylics. I like Christmas Surprise, but I don’t put it in my portfolio anymore because I often get the comment that it looks too mass market, and I’m going for trade books.


Any picture books on the horizon?

Right now I’m working on a few non-picture book jobs. But I am also working on my very own written and illustrated book –I hope to have a dummy finished and sent out this year.


What are your career goals?

I would love to illustrate more middle grade novels. My ultimate goal is to write and illustrate my own books steadily.


What are you working on now?

I am working on an few illustrations for The Friend Magazine, and I am illustrating a story which will be published by Oxford Publishing house called Harpoona. It’s an under the sea/fish Cinderella story .  And of course, I’m working on my own story!


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

Something that I really like to do is scan textures into Photoshop- such as watercolor textures or gesso textures. This is how to do it. Scan in a texture such as a watercolor texture. Change the mode to gray scale. Play with the curves to make the pattern more contrasted. Select the entire image. Go to the “Edit” menu and choose “Define Pattern” and give it a name. Then your pattern will show up in your brush palette when you double click “texture.” Then set the brush mode on multiply and you can make the contrast go as high as you like. Use this on an already textured brush. Then you can get textures that look like you are using real paint!


I  love the examples of the paper doll illustrations you have on your site. Who did you do these for?

I did some paper doll illustrations for Girl Guiding U.K. (equivalent to Girl Scouts in the U.S.). I also did a fun zombie-ish paper doll for self promotion.


Here are a few examples of Shawna’s black and white illustrations,



Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?

If you are in this field, illustration needs to be your passion. You need to keep finding ways to learn and improve your style every day. Find friends and mentors who will help you and inspire you. Blogging and social networking are important. Never ever give up, no matter how depressed you might feel about where your career is going, or feeling that your art isn’t good enough. The people that make it are the ones that never give up. I don’t even feel like I’ve made it yet to where I want to be, but I’m not going to give up! Remember, you don’t have control over what is happening in the industry, but you do have control over the quality of artwork you are producing– so keep making better artwork. Don’t ever do artwork for free. Don’t take on cheap jobs that pay way too little. Instead, focus on making better artwork, and if you do, the better jobs will come. I keep having to tell myself this every day. I know if I do, good things will happen for me and my art. And I know it will for you too!



Thank you Shawna for sharing your talent and process with us. I see a great future for you and you art and good luck with adding the writing to your achievements. Please remember to let us know when you have new successes. It will be fun following you.

If you would like to visit Shawna, you can go to: Please take a minute to leave a comment below for Shawna. It will be  much appreciated. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Really nice style! I especially like your trees.


  2. Hi Kathy – I especially love these posts.
    Hi Shawna – Your illustrations are awesome. I consider myself an artist, not an illustrator as I’ve never drawn or painted more than one subject matter at a time, and I still draw and paint the old fashioned way. Is it imperative to own a Mac to use Photoshop? And I’ve heard the learning curve is steep for both. You make it seem so effortless. All the best with your own book. I’ll pop by your website. Keep up the fantastic work!


    • Tracy,

      Yes, you can use Photoshop on a PC. I taught myself by buying training CD’s in the beginning. Love to paint in Photoshop. Love the layers. Love the way you can scan things that you have drawn and play with the colors, shapes, positions, without worrying that you are going to mess up your work. I have been teaching Photoshop for the last 10 years. I know it really helps a lot of people to do that.



      • Do you teach on line courses, Kathy?


      • Tracy,

        I haven’t done that. All the courses I have taught have been at schools and colleges and conferences. Do you own Photoshop?



  3. Thanks, Kathy for the interview, and thanks everyone for the comments! Tracy, you can run photoshop on a PC, you don’t have to own a Mac. It might take a while to learn Photoshop, but you can do it! There are tons of tutorials online.


    • That’s good to know. Thanks for the info. 🙂


      • Hi Kathy,
        No, I don’t have Photoshop. It’s something I’m interested in, but I understand the program is expensive.
        In the meantime, I’m going to check out the links.
        You must really know your stuff if you’ve taught it. Impressive. 🙂


  4. I love these interviews and always look forward to seeing them in my in-box.

    Shawna: I love your illustrations and your sense of perspective as in the bird’s eye view out of the tree, and the shot of the hornet’s nest. The zombie paper doll is so cute and funny! Got a question for you, have you ever taken a PhotoShop course, and if so one that was online? If you have and you liked it, could you post which one it was? I’m looking for an online PS course to take and trying to find out which ones illustrators liked. Thanks!


    • Annie, in school I took a computer class which included brief overviews of Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. That was about it in school for me as far as Photoshop went. I went away from school hating the computer. I was mostly taught by friends later on.

      But as for recommendations, I hear that Schoolism gives excellent courses in digital painting. They even have in Intro to Digital painting class. I think they do a really go job from what I hear. You can find them here: Then after you take a class that teaches you the basic digital painting skills, you can find lots good digital tutorials online. Here are a couple places that I would recommend: My friend Dani Jones does a lot of great tutorials:, and my friend and mentor Chris Oatley does a lot also He also runs a school and teaches amazing courses for any artist- digital or traditional on composition called Painting Drama. I took one of his classes last fall and loved it! You can find more about that here:

      Hope these recommendations are helpful


      • Shawna, thanks for adding all the links. I’ll be checking them out. 🙂


  5. Kathy, its nice to visit your blog. Thanks.
    Shawna, you have inspired me. I love the story of your leap of faith in quitting your day job. I want to be like you when I grow up. 🙂


    • Jennifer,

      It’s easier to make those leaps of faith and quit you job when you are younger. But I keep remembering Susan O’Keefe wrote “One Hungry Monster” . It has sold millions of books. I think she said she wrote it in one night and sent it in and got it published, so she quit her teaching job to write full time and it took ten years before she sold her next book. Many books after that, but ten years not bringing in money is a long time.

      But it is always wonderful when you can make a living from something you love to do.



    • Thanks, Jen! Glad you came to visit!


  6. Wonderful work! I really like how you describe the processes you go through and how your work has evolved. I am glad you expressed how important it is to constantly learn and strive for your ultimate goals. I can’t wait to see the books you will write and illustrate in the future!


  7. Thanks for all the links, Shawna, I’ll be checking them all out. I took one PS class at our local art center but definitely want to learn more. Our teacher was an award-winning photographer so it was fun to learn from him, he taught for right-brained artists. But they didn’t get enough enrollment to offer it again so I’m looking for an on-line course


    • No problem, hope you can find one that is a good fit for you!


  8. Nice interview, Shawna and Kathy.


  9. Hi Kathy …your blog posts are just wonderful! love coming to your blog and learning so much.Thanks a lot!
    And Shawna, …Absolutely beautiful all your artworks and the process involved.You are a true inspirations for others.


  10. Hi Shawna- Thank you for the inspiration. Your paintings are amazing! Good luck to you!


  11. I’m really loving the theme/design of your site. Do you ever run into any browser compatibility problems? A number of my blog visitors have complained about my site not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Opera. Do you have any advice to help fix this problem?


    • No, I do not run into many problems. The only one is where a picture might not open correctly, but if you refresh it corrects it.


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