Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 8, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – Kirsten Carlson

kirstenscbwi scrawlcrawl in paris 2013Kirsten’s career combines what she loves best about science, art & design. She is dedicated to creating illustrations, graphics, logos and stories that inspire connections between people & nature.

After volunteering and working  for over 10 years with Monterey Bay Aquarium, Kirsten now works out of her own studio. She is a children’s book illustrator & writer, as well as a visual science communications consultant. Kirsten collaborates on projects with scientists, educators, educational institutions, private companies and publishers to tell people stories about nature and science.

Kirsten illustrations style ranges from whimsical watercolor paintings to scientifically accurate pen & ink illustrations. The project’s audience dictates the style and medium. Her illustration work appears in scientific journals, greeting cards, posters, books, aquariums and brochures. Her design communication projects include logos, print and online collateral.

Kirsten brings her enthusiasm and skills as artist, scientist, and designer to every project she works on. She finds inspiration in nature and knowledge and strives to communicate that in her work.

Kirsten is the SCBWI Regional Advisor in Germany+Austria. She started out on AdCom in WA for 2 years (designing newsletter and conferece materials and the traveling booth use at different events in the USA like ALA). After she moved to Germany, she took over as Illustrator Coordinator for 1.5 yrs before taking over the RA position there. She just became an SCBWI board member and the International Illustrator Coordinator last fall, but has to retire when her family moves to hawaii (IIC must live on international soil).

She and her husband Dave, along with their two cats and two dogs, currently live near the Black Forest in Southern Germany.

kirstenbologna 2010

Here is Kirsten:

I worked directly with the author, Joni Sensel, to create the design for the cover. Because it was going to be the 3rd in a series we wanted to incorporate some elements so it echoed the previous covers, I knew I wouldn’t be able to copy the illustration style of the previous covers so I suggested scratchboard because I know well from my scientific illustration work and I wanted to create in image with strong contrast.

Special tools needed to do scratchboard:
  1. clay-coated board
  2. scratching tool(s)
  3. permanent ink (ie. india ink)
  4. permanent ink pens (for adding lines)
The clay-coated board is available in white and black (black means it is already coated with ink). I prefer to apply my own ink because I don’t want to spend a lot of time scratching away ‘white’ areas, I’d rather leave them white from the beginning.
I learned on Essdee Scraperboard (from the UK: ) but I now prefer Ampersand ( because they put the clay coating on masonite and it’s better protected from cracking. If you use Essdee, you just have to make sure that you put it on a backer board.
You can use just about any sharp tool to scratch the clay surface, it just need to be sharp or you get a ‘fuzzy’ line on the clay. I go through a lot of blades on an illustration, and change them often. My favorite tools are an X-Acto blade #16 and a Scratch-Art flat blade and a Speedball Round Knife. But they make a ton of different types of scratch-tools.
Here are some places you can find the supplies:

kirsten4- preliminary sketches

I did some very loose thumbnails and we quickly chose three compositions that I sketched in more detail. We ended up combining two of the sketches into one composition, and I did a preliminary sketch.

kirsten5 separate pieces

I kept the background, people and knife elements separately.


My assistant (aka husband) made a knife specifically for me based partly on Joni’s description of the knife in the story. Then all I had to do, was draw it from the real-thing.


I uploaded a video showing the process but it didn’t turn out well (learning curve. newbie mistake stuff) but maybe it will help visualize the following.

1.transfer art to clay-coated board (usually using Saral graphite paper in blue) the areas that will be ‘mostly’ black
3.wait for it to dry (blow dryer speeds up the process)
4.scratch and blow off the dust (it is better to use a brush to wipe the scraped powder into a pile, but I either blow or tap the art on the table)
5.the more you scratch the better it gets. I am a messy-scratcher, some ppl are very precise.
6.repairing problem spots is easy—scrape away excess ink or add ink with pens or brush.
7.two tips: make sure you let the ink dry completely before scraping, if the clay is damp from the ink you won’t get a nice clear line; it’s better to apply ink to thinly and have to do multiple layers than add it too thick and get a thick-spot on the illustration (if you buy pre-inked clay board you skip this problem)
kirsten7 skeletons knife final cover

The final cover is a Black and white illustration in scratchboard with digital color, using the same font as the first book (and edition) in the series.


The Giraffe Who was Afraid of Heights was done by hand in watercolor and gouache.
After I said I would illustrate the story, I filled up a sketch book researching Africa, giraffes, monkeys, hippos and crocodiles. My file folder is full of stuff, even after several purges of material. I even went to a zoo where I could hide in a special blind to observe giraffes and I went to a reptile zoo to study crocodiles up close.

I used gouache  to paint the cover and the publisher added the background from another spread to go behind the giraffe head) and added the text and border.

I use almost exclusively Winsor & Newton with some from Daniel Smith paint. I also love Waterford papers the best, Arches smells like wet-dog to me when I start laying down washes (and I get plenty of that smell with my real-life wet dogs). I’ve recently fallen in love with a bamboo watercolor paper from Hahnemühle. I have oodles of brushes, and go through phases where I have favorites, usually varies project by project. I seem to have a lot of DaVinci brand.

How did you end up moving to Germany. How long have you been there? Do you plan to go back to the states in the future?

I fell in love with a military man while living in Monterey, California. We arrived in Germany five years ago (Sept 08) for his job and were supposed to stay in Europe until 2015. However, the military made some unexpected changes and we are moving to Hawai’i this summer. I wasn’t ready to leave but I’m super excited about being near the ocean again.
I see that you have a BS in Biology.


How and when did you get involved in art?

I’ve have been artistic since childhood, but I didn’t start pursuing it professionally until I was in graduate school for marine science. For two months, I spent many hours diving underwater doing research in Antarctica with icebergs, amphipods, penguins and seals. That experience changed my life forever. I was blown away by the unbelievable and unfathomable things I saw and it inspired me to reach beyond science in search of a way to communicate what I experienced to other people.

I found a graduate program that combined science and art—graduated with a Science Illustration Certificate from the University of California, Santa Cruz (the program is now located at California State University, Monterey Bay) and have been illustrating professionally ever since.

Did you ever take any art lessons?

Absolutely…and I still take art lessons whenever possible. I’m definitely addicted to learning. I took one art class as an undergraduate, but much of my illustration training is from the Science Illustration program and the amazing instructors that are still teaching there. I’ve pondered whether I should go back to school for a degree in Children’s Book illustration.


What was the first art related thing you got paid for?

This Kelp Forest illustration for a brochure on diving in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It was a work-for-hire project. Graphite, but printed in one-color (blue).

kirstenphoto 2

How did you get your first picture book assignment? Which book was it?

My first picture book assignment was a story called “You Can’t Untie a Knot of Toads.” It’s a concept book about what groups of animals are called. A friend wrote it and wanted me to illustrate it, so we could submit it to publishers (we didn’t know about keeping writing & illustrating submissions separate). We got rejection letters from Chronicle and Houghton Mifflin and I have since lost touch with the author.

kirstenphoto 3
kirstenphoto 4

You have quite a resume with books, posters, greeting cards and magazines. Which one got you started?

I started with t-shirt designs and logo designs while still in high school. In my 20s, I did an internship with a group called Friends of the Sea Otter and they put my artwork on boxer shorts and sold tons of them. I think that officially nudged me in the direction of wanting to do more illustration.

kirstenphoto 5

Do you think you will start submitting to the Children’s Magazines out there?

Yes. There are so many amazing magazines for kids and I think a few of them might find my illustration style appropriate. I submitted my work to Ranger Rick in the 90s but was rejected.

What types of things helped you develop your illustrations and style?

Going to graduate school for scientific illustration was a huge catalyst, and taking classes from people who inspire me through SCBWI and other informal educational groups. But, listening to feedback from fellow illustrators and sketching as often as possible have been the most valuable resources in developing my style. I’ve been consciously working on developing a more narrative style, like the character for Sleepy Seal.

kirstenphoto 6
Have the materials you use changed over the years?

Most definitely. I’ve migrated from doing everything by hand to integrating the computer more and more. I still use pencil (and think it is integral to my style) as my primary drawing tool but I’ve expanded coloring my works digitally.

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

Yes. I’ve actually been taking a break from illustrating to work on my own stories and strengthen my writing. I am currently working on three picture books and one middle grade illustrated novel. One of the picture books is called Pool Shark.

kirstenphoto 7

It looks like your first children’s book was “The Giraffe Who Was Afraid of Heights” by David Ufer and published by Sylvan Dell. How did you land that contract?

I was contacted by the publisher after attending the SCBWI NY conference in February 2005. The publisher saw my illustration of a polar bear and sent me the text for a story about a giraffe. I said, “Yes, please!” and I signed a contract two months later. I had six months to complete the artwork.

kirstenphoto 8
What types of things do you do to get your work seen by publishing professionals?

I have primarily attended SCBWI events and conferences—participating in portfolio and/or illustration showcases, and signing up for critiques. At the SCBWI LA conference, I won 1st place for Realistic Portfolio, two years in a row.


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

I do not have an agent and am definitely seeking someone to represent me.


How many books have you illustrated?

I’ve illustrated three picture books and one activity book.

Did you self-publish your new activity book, “Where the Land and Sea Meet”? How do people order it if they want a copy?

No, but I am the illustrator, author and art director. The activity book is an education outreach project that a team of scientists published through their universities. It is currently available in English from University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska Sea Grant:
And is available in Italian from Pisa University Press:
It’s also been translated into Spanish but it’s not yet published.


Talk about doing research and your homework. Kirsten takes it to the next level.

kirsten3b-croc study

What types of research do you do for your illustrations? It looks like you snorkel. Do you take pictures or do any research before you start a project?

I love to do research, sketch and photograph extensively for projects. I enjoy learning as much as I love drawing. I will sketch in the cold & snow and even underwater to research my subjects.

Who is Taylor Trade Publishing and how did you end up illustrating Sea Secrets: Tiny Clues to a Big Mystery for them?

They are the parent company for the imprint, Moonlight Publishing. They are printing and distributing all the educational picture books for a scientific group called The Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. I was contacted by the Education and Outreach Coordinator for one of the LTER research groups because she like my illustrations for Ocean Seasons. I designed and illustrated the book for a flat fee, and worked with Beth Simmons, the Education and Outreach Coordinator on several more really fun education projects (but not kids books).

kirstenphoto 11a
kirstenphoto 11b

kirstenphoto 11c

I see Ocean Seasons just came out in paperback. Was it previously printed as a hardcover?

It was published as a hardcover in 2007. Sylvan Dell also offers it as an eBook in Spanish & English.

kirstenphoto 12 a

How do you keep your illustrating talent on the minds of your clients?

Ideally, I would be sending out postcards a few times a year, but I have a lot of opportunity to grow in this area. I’m becoming more active in social media as a way to stay connected to clients that are also using social media.

kirstenphoto 12 c
Have you gotten any work through networking?

Most definitely. Meeting people in person and showcasing my illustrations at conferences are the primary ways I’ve gotten work. Specifically, at conferences involving the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, National Marine Educators Association, and Western Society of Naturalists.

kirstenphoto 12b

Do you do any art exhibits to help get noticed?

I’ve done one every few years, they are a great motivator to produce work and it’s a great way to reach out to the local community.

kirstenphoto 14

Do you ever use Photoshop?

Almost every day. I haven’t decided if I will continue to use them since they are going to be subscription-only, but for now I use Adobe CS5 for 99% of my digital work.

kirstenphoto 15

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

I have and adore my Wacom Cintiq display and Bamboo tablet. They are fantastic tools for working digitally. I use them primarly for touching up work.


How much time do you spend working on your illustrating?

In an ideal week, I spend 20-30 hours on illustrating. However, I’ve invested a lot of time in the last two years to writing and networking. The last year has been less than ideal creatively because my husband was deployed to Afganistan, and I had to juggle several things solo. But now he’s back and things are getting back to normal. As soon as we’re settled in Hawai’i, I look forward to getting back to my ideal week.

kirstenphoto 16

Do you still do your greeting cards?

Yes! I did a greeting card as a promotional mailer for Valentine’s Day this year. The company that originally distributed my cards went out of business and the copyright has reverted to me, and I’d like to continue doing greeting cards as part of my income stream. They are fun and enjoyable short-term projects.

kirstenphoto 13
What is the most important tool or material that you use?

I love my sketchbook bag with my beat-up watercolor set, waterbrush, pen and sketchbook. All my art supplies and the computer are tied for a very close second place.

kirstenphoto 17
Any exciting projects on the horizon?

No contracts at the moment, but I’m working on several self-motivated projects.


What are your career goals?

My goals are to work on creative projects daily — to do a combination of authoring and/or illustrating children’s stories, creating illustrations for licensing and selling ocean wildlife art in a gallery setting. I have an income goal to make between $10,000 and $1,000,000 annually, dependent on production. I fell far short of that this year.

What are you working on now?

I’m focused mostly on the writing-illustrating projects I mentioned earlier.

kirstenphoto 19

Are there any tips.(Example: Something you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, materials etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?

I’d recommend trying out a medium you’ve never used, because I did that and it affected me in an unexpected way. I recently took an abstract-art class, created something that was completely outside my style and it helped me loosen up so that I could create a more spontaneous whimsical piece of work (a triptych on wood) that is one of my favorites.

kirstenphoto 18
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?

Stay committed. No matter what.
Keep creating and surround yourself with supportive friends and colleagues, reach out and mentor folks that can learn from you and ask for help from folks you would like to have as mentors.

kirsten1-first farwalker books in series

kirstenesealbigThank you Kirsten for sharing your process and journey with us. Boy, you really do go the extra mile holding alligators, swimming to the bottom or the ocean, and weathering the cold and snow to get close to nature and your subjects. I enjoyed doing this post and wish you much additional success. For those of you who would like to visit Kirsten you can find her at: and   Her twitter name is: kirstencarlson

Hope you will take minute to leave Kirsten a comment. It is appreciated.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Kirsten’s work is absolutely beautiful. A deep dedication to everything she does is apparent. Great interview!


  2. What a wonderful interview, Kirsten! Your art is amazing!


  3. Hi Kristen,
    I so enjoyed learning about your sratchboard method.
    I loved the otter floating on his back. All of your illustrations are beautiful, and I enjoyed reading about your underwater adventures. 🙂


    • Scratchboard is an amazing medium, and I think your folk art style would translate nicely.


    • HI Tracy! Scratchboard is an amazing medium, and I think your folk art style would translate nicely and/or it might inspire you like the abstract art-class inspired me. Thank you for the compliments, it is fun to know which illustrations ‘speak’ to people—like the sea otter for you. And, I am looking forward to more underwater adventures in Hawai’i.


  4. Wonderful interview and fabulous illustrations. I especially love all her frogs and the polar bear and seal. Just beautiful. Thanks for doing this every week. I so look forward to it.


    • Hi Rosi, I was excited when Kathy asked if she could interview me, I think her blog is great too! Wonderful to hear both the froggies and the polar bear & seal caught your eye.


  5. Beautiful work!


  6. How amazing to see the variety of work here, Kirsten! It’s great to still be able to keep up with all your activity. I loved, loved seeing the artwork and photos and hearing about your adventures. I’m resisting running to an art store right now, but thank you for the inspiration and for finding such an amazing niche in Science Art. Fun to see Joni’s book here, too. ; )


    • Hi Deb, I consider it a VERY successful day when I’ve inspired someone to go to the art store! yay! I am so grateful for the opportunities I get to combine science, art and hang out in nature. Joni’s book was particularly fun because I am such a fan of her Farwalker series.


  7. Wonderful post! Thanks so much for sharing in such great detail! 🙂 e


  8. Lovely work, thanks so much for sharing!


  9. What a wonderful interview! I love Kirsten’s work. It oozes an energy that inspires and makes you happy, just like Kirsten herself.


  10. This is a wonderful post. I am so in awe of your work, Kirsten, and you are an inspiration for me. I love the ocean and have painted and illustrated ocean-themed work, but nowhere near your level of detail and realism.


    • Thank you, Sylvia! I am so inspired by animals and nature, that it is a great honor to hear I’ve ‘passed’ that inspiration on to someone else through my illustrations. Keep on creating! and pass that inspiration forward ; ).


  11. I’m speechless!

    Well, not quite. 🙂 Kirsten your work is AMAZING! Beautiful, compelling, engaging…any picture book writer who has you illustrate their book is fortunate indeed. 🙂
    I just came back from the 2013AFCC in Singapore which was a SCBWI conference plus…and I connected with German illlustrator Julia Kaergel who has done the Lotte books by Doris Dorrie. It was lovely getting an international perspective on writing and illustrating children’s books.
    Best of luck in all you do…I know you will be wildly successful in Hawaii…or anywhere. 🙂


    • Hi Vivian! Lovin’ your ‘speechless comment’! That is so cool that you were in Singapore and met a German illustrator. One of my favorite things about kids books, is the worldwide connections that result from a love of creating children’s stories. Thank you for the good vibes and keep on soaring : )


  12. Hi Kirsten, Your work is beautiful. A wonderful interview and great pictures!


    • Hej, Lena! I’ll have you know that I just packed up “Coralito’s Bay” to come with me to Hawai’i. : ) Thank you for the compliments, Kathy asks great questions!


  13. Kirsten, Your work is gorgeous! I love how you really study the animals (holding that reptile!) Congrats on all your success.


  14. Kirsten’s boundless energy and talents are a force to be reckoned with and recognized. Quite inspiring as usual.


  15. Kirsten, We spoke briefly throughout the Eurocon Paris this year but I am very happy to read this article and get to know you even better…. I am so very impressed!!! Your work is gorgeous!


    • Hi Michelle! I’m so glad we met at the conference (one of the reasons I LOVE them) and it is really rewarding to share what I’m passionate about. I’m so glad to know you enjoyed the interview : )


  16. Kirsten,
    Reading and viewing this post was pure delight! What talent you have! I thoroughly enjoyed the interview.


  17. Kirsten, I always love hearing about your passions and methods. Your work is so beautiful, and so solid. You are one inspiring lady!


    • Hi Anne! thank you! I am approaching speechlessness on all these lovely compliments, including yours. I am pleased-as-punch to know that I inspire you!


  18. What a great post! I enjoyed learning so much more about your art!!


    • Hi Hazel, I am definitely grateful to Kathy for asking me awesome questions. Glad you enjoyed the post!
      The scratchboard timelapse was particularly fun (and easy) to do.


  19. What an inspiring, thoughtful interview. I love your art – it’s absolutely fantastic with such realism and texture. Congrats on all your great projects so far, and I’m looking forward to your art in the future. (Please let us know about your books, greeting cards, anything you create.) Have fun in Hawaii!


    • Hi Brianne, I’ll definitely keep in touch about future projects! Thank you!


      • Kirsten,

        Great work! I have been spreading this wonderful display of your artwork to all.




  20. Hi Kirsten, LOVED your interview and thanks for sharing so much about yourself– your thoughts, goals, techniques, etc! Did you by any chance ever live in Annapolis, MD as a teenager? There was a gal with your name who lived in the community next to mine. Thanks again! (sorry, I couldn’t find your email and am not on twitter)


  21. These are great illustrations


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