Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 27, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – Kary Lee

karyMacDonald School Visit  3_12This week I would like to introduce you to Kary Lee. I think you will enjoy hearing about her journey, her watercolors and process. Here is Kary:

I see things in pictures. I always have. It wasn’t until college that I realized not everyone did. It explained a lot. My need to solve problems visually made sense. Being artistic gave me a pass with the linear world. I could show through my art that I do get it. I just go about it differently.

I’ve worked with different mediums and as an art director and designer but it was through motherhood that things began to resonate. I rediscovered the wonder and magic of the world as a child sees it, the ordinary as extraordinary. This and my passion for picture books and my new found love as a watercolorist fueled me. I started out creating personal student work as a traditional fine artist.

My execution involves using light and it’s play on the subject matter to mold my images. I use pure transparent watercolor pigments and whenever possible have them mix and blend on the paper to keep my colors vibrant and alive. These elements are the glue that hold together the feel and personality of the my composition. I work in a realistic style so it’s important to keep my images fresh.

To be successful requires an element of interest that can’t be achieved through a photograph. It has to look effortless even though every brushstroke is calculated. The fewer brush strokes, the fresher the feel. Too many and it becomes overworked, flat and boring.

I love being an illustrator and sharing my stories. It makes everything else in my crazy life fall into place. Some years ago my daughter’s play group was discussing what their parents did for a living. “Well,” my daughter stated, “My mommy colors for a living.” Silence fell over the room. I’m totally cool!

karysketch to final stoolcropped

Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

I grew up in sunny Southern California. I spent my early childhood barefoot and in a perpetual bathing suit.  On hot days we would      mix powdered tempera paints with the garden hose and use the sliding glass door as our canvas. On rainy days we would snuggle in the happy chair and read.  My mother’s love for books had a profound impact on me. Now I live in Pullman, Washington, in the South Eastern region of the state and home to Washington State University.

karysketch to final stool2

How did you decide to attend Washington State University for Communication and Graphic Design?

I am a fourth generation WSU Cougar (Washington State University).  So, attending WSU was always my first choice. Communications with an emphasis in Advertising made sense because it was a creative career with the hope of job security.

Karysketch to final stool3


Can you tell us a little bit about the classes you took while at WSU?

WSU has a prestigious communications program; The Edward R. Murrow school of Communications, Murrow’s alma mater.  There were many interesting and informative classes. Ironically, my most practical experience came through my involvement with a volunteer club, National Student Advertising Competition (NSAC).  It mimicked an ad agency campaign and we competed with other universities.  I learned that I loved conceptual thinking, and problem solving I realize now that the process is similar to story telling.  My fine art classes centered on traditional graphic design. It was the early 80’s, before computers were part of any curriculum.  So I learned ‘old school,’ studying traditional typography and layout methods.


You don’t usually think watercolor with Graphic Design. Did WSU have a fine art class that you took?

My final year as an undergrad I took an illustration class from John Christ, an adjunct professor from Atlanta (spelling is to the best of my memory).  He spent extra time with me, taught me to see think critically and really see things before I drew.  He helped me to understand how and why to draw with purpose, to know my subject and the importance of good characters. The experience was wonderful! He was wonderful!  But, my focus at the time was to be an art director.  I turned down his offer to go to a portfolio school in Atlanta. I had no money left.  Hell of a time for me to be practical! But he went back to Atlanta and I lost him. It took years for me to admit that this was a grave career error.  What can I say?  I was barely 21.  I goofed!  John, if you’re out there, it took me 20 years, but I am finally taking your advice and going for the dream!

karySwoozy and Suzy cropped

Did you try other mediums before you decided watercolor was what you enjoyed using?

Not really. Unless you include pencil and ink, because I’ve always loved to draw.  I played around with acrylic, oils and      watercolor in high school, but it was a small school and there was nobody to teach me.  It didn’t come up again until I decided to try book illustration.  And watercolor seemed my natural choice.  I took some classes while my kids were in school.  The instructor was good, but I was the only person under 60 and we spend a LOT of time with flowers and fruit. All humor aside, it was a tough time for me and watercolor gave me an outlet I needed.  I had finally found the my it.       And, as refreshing and empowering as it was, I knew still life’s were not gonna cut it!

karyStans Busy Daycropped

How did you find your way from there to Dallas, Texas for an art director job?

It was actually my third job out of college. I was an artist at a local T-Shirt shop the first year. Based on my daughter’s terms, I think I was a hipster before hipsters were cool! It was great. Then I married to my high school sweetheart.  He took a job with Texas Instruments and we moved to Dallas. The art direction job came after six months working for a banner company specializing in Car Dealership Point of Purchase marketing.  Can you say ‘character builder?’  I set type for used car bumper stickers and cut rubylith for vinyl signs. We also had those fun hoola skirt flags that drape every dealership.  It was grueling but looking back, a great experience!  Every designer should have to squeeze Lewis and Clark Auto Sales into a 5” x 2” space that can be read from 40 feet. Ironically the typeface Impact became my best friend!  I could crank out a mean mechanical in nothing flat.  After 6 months of the sweatshop I landed the graphic designer job and worked my way up to art director.

karyWeed and Seed cropped

What types of work did you do with that job?

I got to do everything; design, layout, illustration, photo direction and even some AV work. It was amazing. It was the type of environment where I was gonna sink or swim.  The story of my life!  So I swam!  I loved the work, the teams, and creative challenges.  Our team worked with a free-lance illustrator and I soon realized I secretly wanted her job.  She was a mom with a studio in her back yard and among other projects, illustrated kids books.  How cool was that?  We became fast friends and I was very jealous!


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

It was at an art show during my still life phase.  I did a whimsical painting that involved Hewey, Dewey and Louie and a color wheel (…you had to be there).  But, it sold for $165.  I couldn’t believe it!


How long have you been illustrating for a living?

I’ve been illustrating for about 14 years now.  Once the kids got old enough for me to breathe I made the decision to go for it.  I got the studio in my back yard, balancing my career as a stay-at-home mom. Things were going swimmingly until I suddenly found myself as a single-mom.  All emotions aside, the timing for my career was terrible.  I juggled my first book tour with my newly acquired real estate career! I remember attending BEA and signing books beside Judy Blume by day (I know, right?) and arguing escrow dates and appraisals over the phone with my broker by night. My plate was a bit full. Something had to give. I knew it would be temporary, but I turned down the next book and dug in to real life.  As I said earlier, I swim even if sometimes it’s upstream!  It was so hard to see that project completed without my name on the cover.  I vowed that I would return as soon as it was possible.  And, here am! I’m back on track with a newfound appreciation for everything! What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and it’s so true. It also gives me ton’s of subject matter. My passion has only gotten stronger.


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

I was 8.  Yes, that’s right. I wrote, illustrated and constructed my first children’s book when I was in the second grade. I guess you could say I was self-published.  I had an old typewriter, paper, pencils, and crayons.  I folded an old scrap of material over cardboard, folded it in half for a cover, glued it with Elmer’s, punched holes in spine with my pencil, and tied it all together with some yarn from the junk drawer.  Ta Da… “’Me and My Dog Ralph.’  Written and illustrated by Kary Lamb, grade 2.”


I see you have illustrated and published four books with Perfection Learning. How did you connect with PL?  

I met an editor, Susan Wilner at a local SCBWI workshop and gave her my card.  Much to my surprise, she called me a few months later!


Can you tell us a little bit about them?

They are actually pretty big educational publisher out of Iowa. The early readers I worked on are just one small division.  They do all types of educational books.  My connection was through Susan and when she hired me she owned her division, Lucy’s Letters out of Seattle, Washington.  In the interim, PL bought her out and my connection was lost.  I did one more book with one of their editors but he had his own group of illustrators, and things fizzled out.  All of the books are still in print.  There are links on my website.

kary waking up

Are they 32 page picture books? When were they published?

No, they were early readers; 1-3rd grade.  They focused on phonics and letters in 8 page simple stories. They were published in 2005 and 2006.

How did you connect with Stonehorse Publishing?

It’s a very small publisher. Usually one book a year.  And, again, I met my publisher through SCBWI.  This time it was at the Winter NYC SCBWI Conference. Dizzy is one of a series of three fiction books.  But all included fun non-fiction facts about the animals the characters were created after. In our case, Pacific White-Sided Dolphins.


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

I definitely want an agent, but the right agent.  I have recently had some great feedback and a couple positive leads.  I am hopeful that things will come together and I will acquire representation soon.

karythrow theball

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

Yes. I actually have one of my stories written and blocked into a dummy, The Race.  It’s a historical fiction story (circa 1880; Kansas) based a story by great-grandfather, a published poet. I’ve had positive feedback from critique groups with award winning authors. But, I am focusing on getting established with an agent before I pursue it further.


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

Yes, and I won!  Runner Up; Realistic Category at the LA Conference in 2003.  It was amazing!  It was early in my career and I didn’t really know how cool it was. I had been upgraded from still life and fruit bowls but most important, I had found ‘my people.’  From that day on my dream turned to goal: to ‘make a living’ as an author/illustrator.

karyflying whale

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

Can I say two?  My natural light view and my music! Both are essential.


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

Yes. But it’s always a challenge. It’s like exercise.  If I skip, it shows.  Staying in ‘shape’ is the key to improving skills and perfecting your craft.


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

Yes, lots of research, in conjunction with sketching and creating characters.  For example, my current book project      involves a deaf girl, so I am trying to learn sign language.  My older work is more realistic and photos were imperative. Now I take photos but try to work more from imagination.  But, even if I’m not using likeness of the model, it always helps to have images, especially with strong light sources because luminosity is sort of my trademark.

karymoreDo you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

No question!  Early in my search it was Verla Kay’s website that opened the biggest door.  That’s where I learned about SCBWI, the single most important external impact on my success. That’s a mouthful, but it’s so true!

karygetting the cone

Are you willing to work with a self-publish author?

No.  It’s a good fit for some, but I choose not to focus my energy there.


Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

Yes, but sparingly and at this point only as a production tool.  I love the traditional process of paint on paper, and it’s also what gives my work my look.


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

I have an old WACOM from about 7 or 8 years ago.  I was curious when I first got it, but the concept was still abstract and the process seemed clunky.  It didn’t really save me any time.  But the new versions seem amazing.  So, I have it on my wish list.


Do you think your style has changed over the years?

I would describe it as my ‘evolving.’ I find my work loosening up, becoming more ‘painterly.’  The thing that remains constant in my technique is the underlying glazes of primary colors to create the luminosity.  As I said earlier I believe this sets my work apart and gives it the depth and life.  It’s not overly obvious but more like a ‘feel.’  The changes in my style have come simply in my gaining experience and knowledge, hence drawing and painting as much as I can.  It’s      quantity that creates the quality. There’s really not any big secret.  If you want to do this, then do it…. A      lot!

How do you market yourself?

With my graphic design/marketing background, I have been pretty good at creating marketing materials. Although I am a terrible client. I can’t seem to decide on anything for myself.  It’s a good thing I don’t have to pay myself.  I couldn’t afford it! I use social networking and attend conferences as often as I can.  I have a website, blog, and am active on Facebook, Twitter and most recently my girls are showing me the benefits of Instagram. Yikes! There are so many choices.  It can be overwhelming.


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

Being able to do this full time, ‘for a living.’   I have so many stories to tell!


What are you working on now?

So glad you asked!  I am very excited to be starting a new book project this month!  A Good Sign for Alice; Guardian Angel Publishing, projected release – early 2014.  Alice is a deaf dog rescued from a shelter by Marie, a little girl who is also deaf and bombarded by two brothers who don’t understand girls.  It is written by Rachelle Burke.  I’m in the thick of research, learning sign language.  The challenge I’m finding will be to ‘illustrate’ deafness.  But hey, it’s the problem solving that I love about this job, right? I’ll be posting progress on my blog if anyone is curious. .


Do you have any material type tips you can share with us?

Professional grade paint and paper are a must if you’re serious about this medium.  My paints of choice are Windsor Newton and Danielle Smith with little exception.  Arches cold press is my choice for paper.  When trying something else I once found my self frantically waving my paintbrush in the air with one hand, the other propped on my hip and shouting with attitude, “What is this crap? I can’t work this way!” …with a French accent!

It’s not really a material type, but my wonderful new Epson Photo R2880 printer definitely affects how I use my materials.  It is oversized and takes watercolor paper.  I can now take sketches, scan them and print directly on the paper. It saves time and frees me up to try without worrying about ruining anything.


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

For me this answer has two parts:

1.         Philosophical:  Stop for a minute and think about WHO you are WHEN you are creating.  That’s your muse; the inner voice you should be listening to if you want to be true to your work.

2.         Practical:  Paint or draw EVERYDAY! Go to conferences! Do your research on publishers, art directors and agents.  Find where your work fits best. Ask questions. But remember the answers are based on that person’s situation.
The truth? There is NO RECIPE! And success for one person is different than another.  At first I would ask questions and get a little annoyed when the answer was, what to YOU think. I have received some amazing help from some very well known authors, illustrators and industry professionals, but it’s still my journey.  And yours will be different than mine!

We a have all heard this:  ‘Do what you love and the money will come.’

For me I suggest a slight change: ‘Do what you love and the happiness and success will come.’  (maybe money too….but that’s just a bonus.) karybwbigger

Kary’s work hangs in public venues and private residences throughout the Northwest. She is currently writing and illustrating a historical fiction book entitled, The Race. It is inspired by a poem written by her great-grandfather.


In 2009 she was featured in Washington State Magazine for a University of Washington athletic event project, The Windermere Cup. The link is on my website, . In 2008, Dizzy the Dolphin received the Mom’s Choice award for Children’s Picture Book Adventure. And, she was a national portfolio finalist at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Conference in Los Angeles, CA in 2003.

Thank you Kary for sharing you expertise, process, and journey with us. Please make sure you continue to share you successes with us. We looking forward to following your career.

Taking a minute to leave Kary a comment is greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I love the contrast of lights and dark, the movement, and the life in Kary’s work.


  2. there is charm and warmth about her work…. I think there is a hint of a deep sense of humor that wants to come out MORE! and would lead to good things in this market. Nice intereview…. nice work 😉 c


    • Thanks, catugeau. I appreciate the advice and support. -Kary




  4. Hi Kathy,
    Glad to read Kary’s story and process.
    Hi Kary,
    I was encouraged to hear you still paint the traditional way.
    And I learned that by having a printer that takes watercolor paper means you save time. I’ll have to save this post.
    Watercolor is not an easy medium to work with and your work is just lovely.


    • All wonderful comments. Thanks everyone.


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