Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 25, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – John Manders

johnphoto240John Manders was educated at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and later took courses at the School of Visual Arts and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where he studied children’s illustration, animation, and life drawing. His interests include puppetry (he studied that at Syracuse University College) and trying to speak Italian.

John’s  work is featured in over 30 children’s books and gazillions of children’s magazines. He’s a member of the Society of Illustrators, the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and is a founding member of the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators. John was also their first president.

A pet lover, John organized the successful Bow Wow Meow art auction that benefited the Animal Rescue League of Western PA, and the PSI scholarship fund. He also curated Illustration:  The Process, an educational exhibit of fourteen illustrators and their working methods.

John’s incredible work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh gallery, the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, and he was honored in the 25-year retrospective of Cricket magazine covers, held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999. That year, he was also a participant at the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy. In May, 2006 he was named Outstanding Illustrator/Author by the Pennsylvania School Librarian’s Association.

john finnigan

This John’s latest book. You can see his process in the following interior spreads in the book.

This is a glimpse of John’s work-in-progress shots from Finnegan and Fox: The Ten-Foot Cop. This scene shows a crowded sidewalk next to a construction site. The lady next to Finnegan is upset because a mouse ran over her foot!

This is thumbnail sketch (very small).,and final painting. With crowd scenes, I’m always looking for people to include in the scene. It’s hard to make up all those characters.

This is the rough sketch.


Tight sketch (half-size of the painting). Using 2B pencils on layout bond paper, he transfers the drawings onto Arches 300 lb hot press watercolor paper.


Next is an ‘underpainting’ in neutral tones with Winsor & Newton Designers gouache.


The color is painted on top of that.  Starting to lay in gouache layers.


Painting in progress. More details added.


Continuing to add layers of detail. Prismacolor pencils are used for highlights and    accents.


Getting a closer look below.


Final below.

johnfinn-1617croppedThe next scene shows New York’s Finest organizing a search for a lost little girl. My cousin’s son is a NYC cop, so naturally I had to put him in this picture or be kicked out of the family. You can see him at the bottom of the page. And here is a photo that includes his loving parents. As always: thumbnail sketch, tight pencil sketch, work-in-progress and final painting. Sorry the final looks so washed out. It looks much better in the book!


Thumbnail Sketch.


Refined larger sketch.


John always does research. You can see photos of New York City police cars taped to the side for reference.



The policeman in the picture is John’s cousin’s son. Family comes in handy sometimes.





Final spread.

Cover Sketch.


Final cover art.


Cover Art above – Interior Art below.

Video below.


Masking fluid (or liquid frisket) is a pretty handy item to have around. Many of the scenes in Jack and the Giant Barbecue have characters in front of the big, wild & woolly American West. I like to spread out and paint that kind of backdrop with equally wild brush strokes. That’s a whole lot easier if you don’t have to carefully paint around the characters.

Masking fluid is kind of a rubbery syrup that you paint on your paper wherever you don’t want watercolor. It dries to a water-repellant film. As you see in the pictures, I masked out Jack and his faithful pony (also using bits of masking tape) so I could slather on the paint with abandon. When I finished painting the background, I peeled away the mask using a rubber cement pickup.

Use the link below to see John’s technique.


What was the first children’s book you had published and who was the publisher?

King Snake in 1997 from Houghton Mifflin.

Where you always interested in comic book art?

Pretty much since junior high school.

john perfect nest500

How did you decide to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh?

It featured a two-year program, classes in drawing and cartooning, housing on the Duquesne University campus and everything was right in downtown Pittsburgh. What’s not to like?


Did you have an art class that you feel helped develop your style?

My style is a reflexion of my personality and many different influences: French/Belgian comic book artists Morris and Albert Uderzo; American cartoonists like Hal Foster, Walt Kelly, Al Capp; painters like Jimmy Whistler and Diego Valasquez.

johnchicken pirate480

After you left College did you get a job or did you go right into freelancing? 

When I graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh I moved to New York City with my buddy Dennis Dittrich. In New York, as everywhere else, wanting to be an illustrator means you’ll be running your own business. At that tender age I didn’t have the smarts for that so I looked for a staff position and found one at a printer—Fan-Sy Productions. It’s a good idea to find a staff position right after you graduate and moonlight your illustration assignments until you get established.

john let's have a party
How long did it take you after you graduated to get your first illustration contract?

I worked as a graphic designer/art director for 10 years before deciding to get into the kid lit business. 
john senor Don500
Was that for a children’s magazine?

Yes, my first assignments were for Cricket, Ladybug, Spider, Kid City, Humpty Dumpty. Illustrating for kids’ magazines is a great way to break into the biz. Not only are you learning your craft but art directors from book publishers frequently scan the mags for new talent.
Did you attend Syracuse University College before you went to the Art Institute?

Yes, I took a puppetry class in the evening. It was fun!

Did you develop your love for puppetry at Syracuse?

No, I became interested in puppetry earlier when I read a book about it by the great puppeteer, Bil Baird.

Do you use any of the puppetry now?

Only in the sense that when I design characters I think of them in 3 dimensions. Having designed and built puppets helps with that.

How did you end up going to NYC to study at the School of Visual Arts and the Fashion Institute of Technology?

I was living in NYC and took evening classes at those schools—picture book illustration, animation and life drawing. 

John’s picture book Jack and the Giant Barbecue has been dominated by National Cartoonist Society for the Reuben Award. The winners will be announced Saturday, May 25th at the Reuben Awards dinner in Pittsburgh, PA. JOHN WON THE AWARD THE BEST ILLUSTRATED CHILDREN’S BOOK FOR JACK AND THE GIANT BARBECUE!

What made you decide that you wanted to be involved in children’s books?

I like designing characters and costumes and settings; I like telling stories with pictures. Picture book illustration seems to be an ideal medium for that.



Have any of your over 65 books been formatted and sold as ebooks?

Yes, The Really Awful Musicians and The Year Without a Santa Claus to name two. Prancing Dancing Lily has been made into an app.

How long has MB Artists been representing you?

Ten years. Before that it was HK Portfolio.

How did you and your rep connect?

I sent postcards of my work to a host of agents. Harriet called me back. She invited me to her office in NYC for an interview and I drove there from Pittsburgh.

Do you except projects that are not children’s book related?

Sure, I accept many kinds of assignments, so long as they suit my style.


Is Mommy’s Monster the only book that you have written and illustrated?

Mommy’s Monster was written by Irene Trimble. I wrote and illustrated The Really Awful Musicans.


I see you illustrated, Pete’s Disappearing Act which is a middle grade book. Usually, the interior illustrations are done in B & W. Does the illustrator get paid less for illustrating these books?


Read Aloud Spooky Stories has three illustrators listed: Robin Moro(Author, Illustrator), John Manders, John Manders(Illustrator) How did that work?

It worked just fine. I was given my assignment and was unaware of what the rest of the book was about or who was illustrating besides me. 

I notice you have an app for Prancing, Dancing Lily. How did that come about? What should we know about making an app? Do you need to have a professional make one for you? Is making an app, expensive?

You should talk to people who make apps. I merely supply the images.

When your book Jack and the Giant Barbecue was dominated to receive the Reuben Award for the Best Book Illustration at the 67th Annual National Cartonist Society Reuben Awards, how excited are you about being dominated?

Pretty excited! My safe word was ‘Reuben’.

Do you have a book or an incident that you remember thinking, Now I’ve made it?

That scenario sounds too Hollywood success-story. My career seems to me a long series of smaller successes and failures, with lessons to be learned after each of them. 
Do you ever use Photoshop to clean up an illustration? No.


How many school visits do you do in a year? As many as I can.

Do you plan to write and illustrate more picture books?


Can you explain the importance of using an underpainting?

An underpainting is the first layer of painting that I do. It’s monochrome—one color—and its purpose is to help me compose the light and dark areas of the image before I have to worry about all the other colors. 

How long do publishers give you to complete the illustrations for a book?

Sometimes a year.
Do you think your style has changed over the years?

Of course. I’ve changed over the years, too. My style retains its core personality just like I do even though both of us are much older than when we started out.

What types of marketing things do you do to keep your name on the lips of art directors and editors?

In addition to having an agent, I promote myself and my books through school visits and sometimes an exhibition of paintings. Postcards are a great way to keep your stuff in front of art directors.
Is there anything you haven’t accomplished in your career that you would like to accomplish?

I’d like to do a graphic novel.
Any words of wisdom for illustrators who have not signed a book contract, yet?

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Hope you enjoyed getting to see John’s illustrations. I will post the interview questions as soon as I receive them from John.

You can visit John at And as always I love when you leave a comment. Hope  you still will even with the glitch with the interview questions.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I love seeing John’s process as he develops his final art. Huzzah for people who still draw and paint with real stuff. (sorry, I am partial to actually drawing and painting, but there you have it.) And a fellow Pittsburgher. Cheers.


  2. Good way of explaining, and nice piece of writing to take data on the
    topic of my presentation subject, which i am going to
    convey in school.


  3. Hi, Kathy—I happened across this interview from 6-7 years ago (?). I’m sorry I gave you only one-word answers so often to your questions. Maybe I wasn’t as comfortable with long answers or explanations then as I am now—though I still paint traditionally and can’t offer much info about anything computer-related. And I think I sound smart-alecky in some of these answers. Learning to write, even writing answers to interview questions, has taken me a long time. Anyway, if I hadn’t thanked you then, thanks for the nice post. I hope you are doing well. —John


    • John,

      You can always let me know when you have a book ready to come out, so we could do a book giveaway and feature you and your book. Te only thing I would need is for you to write up the book’s journey. Stay in touch and thank you for your note.



      • Thanks, Kathy! I’m working on a couple right now, but I can’t divulge until the pub date. I’m also writing a series of history books. The first one is The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space and I post a bit of it every few days on my blog. I’m still in the sketch stage. It starts here:

        Great to hear from you—


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