Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 4, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – Alicia Schwab

Alicia_SchwabPIC260Alicia Schwab has worked as an illustrator and designer for nearly twenty years and holds a BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Her career began in Hannover, Germany where she co-founded and co-owned a graphic design company. During those years she developed her illustrative voice producing illustrations for newsletters and books. After returning to the States, she continued working at design firms in Minneapolis, Minnesota as well as producing illustrations for newsletters, websites, and food packaging. For more than a decade, Alicia has concentrated on illustrating for the editorial and children’s book market. She is a member of SCBWI since 2001, and in 2012 she became the SCBWI-Minnesota Illustrator Coordinator for that region. Outside of the studio, Alicia enjoys speaking to the community and schools about her work.

Here is Alicia explaining her process:

I  begin with an idea in my head and start sketching on paper to figure out who my characters are and what they want. Let your subconscious have a say too. Try to let ideas flow without judging them. This sketch was drawn on a large sheet of tissue paper and I used the lower edge to redraw a character from another piece. When I scanned it into the computer a funny accident happened. I noticed the little person looks as if she is trying to tell the audience a secret. A lightbulb flashes and I have a new direction, the girl gives the boy butterflies whenever he sees her.


There is a lot of body language that need to be worked out between the two of them. I tried several different ways of how they hold their hands and position their arms. Some things look great in the sketch stage but then don’t work when fleshed out into solid shapes with the paint.


I sketched several different arms and hands separately and pasted them in place in Photoshop to see what works and get the proportions right. I also chopped up the original sketch and spaced the two a little farther apart.


For the purpose of this example, I have gone back into the final art to simulate the color studies I did for the background areas. Normally, I work this out as I paint. Three areas: the far hill with the tree, the path and the foreground.


I am fairly happy with everything. I went back into Photoshop and fiddled with his right arm some more.


How long have you been illustrating?

I have loved drawing all my life. As a child, my art allowed me to express the ideas I had not yet learned the vocabulary for. This would prove to be a useful tool later in life. But professionally, I started taking illustration jobs a year after college.


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

Growing up, I loved drawing and I was surrounded by great picture books. It only seemed natural to me, to try to make my own picture book as soon as I learned how to write words (at about age seven). My passion for children’s books continues to this day.


I see you attended the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Do you think the art classes you took in college helped you develop an illustration style?

I hold a BFA in Graphic Design. The program has a strong foundation in studio (fine art) classes. I took extra painting classes that helped a lot with color theory and composition. I also acquired a strong knowledge of computer graphics skills that has enabled me to stay competitive as an illustrator/designer. The program did not offer illustration courses at that time, so I have learned on my own and taken additional children’s book illustration classes through MCAD, in Minneapolis.


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

After college, I moved to Germany co-founded a graphic design company. I began by doing editorial illustration and my work won an award, the “1997 Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture & Design” back in the States. Each spread featured a pop-up with a riddle to solve.


How did you end up starting a graphic design company in Germany?

I’ve always had a curiosity for what is over the next horizon. I had studied abroad for a semester in college and was  looking for a way to go back. I figured if I could support myself, I might be able to travel in my free time.

Alicia_SchwabLtrWhat made you leave Germany and move to Minneapolis?

It was a great experience, I enjoyed living, working and traveling in Europe. But the time came when I wanted to live back in the States near my family.


Have you done any work for children’s magazines?

Not yet, but I have done work for the children’s section of a newsletter: “Just Coz” for Smiths Medical.


How did you get to illustrate the book titled, Great Group Skits?

I acquired this project through a networking connection. I had a great experience working with Search Institute Press on the book, GREAT GROUP SKITS, written by Lynn Grasberg and Gina Oldenburg. I enjoyed working with the text and creating chapter head illustrations in black/white.


How did you get involved in illustrating Good Grief, Finding Peace After Pet Loss?

This project also came to me through a networking connection. Although the author, Sid Korpi self-published this book, I did not work directly with her on this project. Sid had a clear vision and marketing plan for the book that worked out really well.


Have any of your books won any awards?

The book Good Grief, Finding Peace After Pet Loss has won 4 awards: 2011 Green Book Award—(Category: Animals).
2010 Premiere Book Award—”Best Book of the Year”, (Category: Self-Help).
2010 Reviewers Choice Award from Reader Views (Category: Inspiration/Spirituality).
2010 IPPY—Independent Publishers Book Award (Category: Pets/Animals).


Is Good Grief, Finding Peace After Pet Loss a self-published book? How is the book doing?

Yes, it is and it has done really well. It is still receiving good reviews from readers as well as the recipient of several awards. The book is not only well written but is well designed which lends itself as a reliable source to comfort those who are grieving the loss of an animal companion. Having been through this a few times myself, I was able to connect the illustration with the audience.


How did you get the job to illustrate St. Catherine University: Guide to Reflective and Intentional Giving?

Through word of mouth from networking. The Twin Cities creative community is like a small town, everybody knows everyone. It is vital to network and stay connected.


How long is the book? How many illustrations did you do for the book?

I created seven full bleed, campus scene illustrations to enliven nostalgic, fond memories of alumni experiences at the university. I was asked to incorporate a circular theme into the artwork. I always love a challenge, so I worked the theme into the gesso ground.


I see you became the illustrator Coordinator for the Minnesota SCBWI chapter in 2012. How did that happen?

I have been a member of SCBWI since 2001. I have volunteered for several organizations over the last +twenty years. I started volunteering for SCBWI a few years ago and found it a rewarding experience. When the position became available I applied for it and have been the IC for over a year now. I feel strongly about being part of a supportive community that helps people find their potential as a children’s book writer and/or illustrator.


What is your favorite medium to use?

Currently, my favorite is acrylic paint.


As Illustrator Coordinator, what types of things have you done with the MN SCBWI chapter members?

I develop workshops to help members learn the craft, marketing and business of children’s book illustration. We have been also exploring newer areas of the industry by offering workshops on Picture Book Apps and Ebook publishing. Last year, we hosted our first Portfolio Show at our regional conference, which was well attended. For the future, we are looking at doing a One-Day-Intensive for illustrators and one for writers. It has been a rewarding experience to work with Quinette Cook, RA and Jessica Freeburg, ARA of the Minnesota SCBWI chapter.


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

This last February, I participated for the first time at the New York Conference and Portfolio Show. I would recommend any SCBWI member to take part in this event or the portfolio opportunities at LA Conference. You will learn a lot.


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

I have held fast to my childhood dream of becoming a published author/illustrator. I am in several critique groups for writers and for illustrators.


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

I am currently not under representation but am actively seeking an agent.


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

I love my sunny studio, but it is chilly most of the year being that it is located in our basement, so I drink lots of hot tea.


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

I do, I use myself as a model with a big mirror. Because the client is local, I was able to make my own reference photographs for the book for St Catherine University. This helped tremendously to understand the campus layout, the position of the sun, the building proportions and the greenery.


Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Sure, social media, blogging and access to information via search engines has really helped me grow as an illustrator.


Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

I currently use Photoshop in the sketch stage of the project and the fiddle with a few things for the finish. It is a deep program and enables me to utilize it in a variety of ways.


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

I use a small Wacom Bamboo tablet when I need to draw on the computer. I would love to upgrade someday to a larger unit.


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

My style has changed a lot since the mid-90’s, but so has my target market. The type of editorial illustration I sold in Germany is different than what was being bought stateside at the time. It taught me to be flexible. I used to work in ink and watercolor, then dabbled vector art while working traditionally in acrylic.


How do you market yourself?

I do blogging, social media as well as send out promotional postcards. I also advocate networking and getting involved in a professional organization such as SCBWI.


What are you working on now?

I am currently writing/illustrating a picture book about a very curious dinosaur.


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.

Currently, I paint in acrylic paint on watercolor paper. I use forks and different things to scrape into the gesso to create the background texture. Experiment. Play. Make a mess. Acrylic is forgiving in that you can edit out the areas you don’t like by painting over it.


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

Draw everyday. Study what children’s book art is being published by visiting the library and the bookstores. Join a critique group. Read voraciously in the genre you want to illustrate in. I learned in Germany the best way to get to know a culture and its people is by learning the native language. Illustration is not just “pretty pictures” but is also a form of communication. The “culture” that it conveys is the specific use of language in the written word. For example, you wouldn’t create the same kind of illustration for picture books as you would for the young adult fiction genre. Understand what age group you are aiming for, and you will better understand your audience through the way they communicate.

Thank you Alicia 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.

If you would like to visit Alicia here is her website address:

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Hello Alicia – lovely work. Thanks for sharing your process! I used to live in Hannover too (got my Diplom (Grafiker) an der HBKBraunschweig). Too bad I didn’t know you then – only had one American friend! Good luck in pursuing your dream!


  2. Hi Alicia,
    Thank you for sharing your lovely artwork. 🙂


    • Thanks, Tracy for stopping by. Nice work and best wishes.


  3. Thank you, Julie! Too bad we didn’t know each other in Hannover. I like your work too!


  4. Wonderful post! We are linking to this particularly great article on our site.
    Keep up the great writing.


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