Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 10, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – Laura Watson

watsonLW_headshotAs a freelance illustrator working in Toronto, Laura Watson has been creating whimsical illustrations for children’s books, educational materials, magazines and various retail applications since graduating from Sheridan College’s Interpretive Illustration program, in Oakville, Ontario, in 1995. Born and raised in the heart of the lovely Kawartha Lakes region in Peterborough, Ontario, Laura also studied Fine Art at York University and graduated with an Honours degree in Visual Arts.

In the past few years, Laura has enjoyed illustrating four trade children’s books (most recently, Peek-a-Little Boo, written by award-winning author and poet, Sheree Fitch, and published by Orca Books) and countless school publications for subjects as diverse as poetry and math. Laura lives in the east end of Toronto with her husband and five-year-old daughter, and works in a converted backyard garage studio surrounded by a slightly unkempt garden. She enjoys the outdoors, runs often and spends as much time as possible at the beach hunting for sea glass.

Here is Laura talking about her process for “Little Gorilla”:

This was a really cute story called “Little Gorilla Makes His Bed” that I illustrated for Humpty Dumpty magazine. It’s two spreads – a mix of full and half page illustrations and spots. I’ll describe how I did the first spread.

Once I have the sketches approved by the client, I start out with the digital file with all the type in place.

watsonLittle-Gorilla_rough-spread1_layersI’ll check all the tech specs then for the final, making sure it’s the right dimensions, resolution, CMYK or RGB, and add bleeds if necessary.

Then I decide which parts of the illustration would be best painted by hand. For sure that would be faces, body parts showing outside of clothes (I don’t usually paint the clothes), and often the sky if there is one. So I paint all of those, in acrylic on illustration board


Most times, I decide on a palette ahead of time and make a digital reminder of it to keep on the desktop. I didn’t do one for this particular project but as an example, here’s one for Llamour-Fou. I often browse and start with one I find there, altering it to fit the particular illustration.

Also – since I do the final in a sort of “digital collage” I pull all the pieces and layers from a library of painted swatches and scanned backgrounds that’s growing all the time. So I look at the palette I plan to use, and the particular subject matter of the illustration and see if there are any holes in my library of swatches, i.e., for the gorillas I knew I’d need a lot of black and brown hairy stuff, so I painted a couple more swatches for that. Here’re a bunch of the original swatches I’ve painted (for this and other projects):


Most are painted on illustration board, but some on plywood for a different texture. And then I’ve scanned in found paper, old library cards, old ledger paper I found in my grandfather’s file cabinet, fabrics, Japanese paper, etc…. I’m always keeping an eye out for stuff like that.

So then I work in Photoshop, with the rough sketch as the background layer, and usually start with the larger elements of the background, the sky or the foliage or the ground (although truth be told sometimes I just start with whatever’s most fun!) With the full page intro illustration I made the sky by combining swatches of orangey-red, turquoise and dark blue by varying the transparencies of layers and erasing streaks of the top one until I had a nice sunset.


Then I added all the leaves (pretty time consuming) by cutting out the outlines of the leaves out of greenish swatches, using the lasso tool, copying and pasting them into place. For the gorillas I used the painted faces and hands, cut out the furry parts from a brownish black very textured swatch, and made their bellies out of scans of menswear fabric (actually the baby gorilla’s belly is from one of my daughter’s dresses, but I altered the colour palette to make it manly enough for a gorilla).


Once all the pieces are in place, then I add shadows, glows where the light would hit, tweak things here and there (which I could just go on and on doing, it’s hard to know when to stop …. usually I’ll just move on to something else and then go back to it with fresh eyes later). And then you have the finished piece:


I did the same process for the spots on the second page: [




And a few weeks go by and then a printed copy arrives in the mail! So exciting!


 Here it is, all finished.


How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been actively working and looking for work since I graduated from Sheridan College in 1995 – almost 20 years ago – yikes!

watson8cef3b021438ca8963a6118f2d20ca32I see you attended the Sheridan College’s Interpretive Illustration program. Can you tell us a little bit about that program?

It’s really the place to go in Ontario, at least, if you want to be an illustrator. Toronto also has the amazing OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) but Sheridan really specialized in illustration. It’s now the only dedicated Bachelor of Arts Illustration degree program in Canada, but when I went there it wasn’t a BA program – just a diploma. There were two streams: Interpretive (books, advertising and editorial) and Technical. Like any school, it was the teachers that made it really special. Of course, some were better than others, but they were all quite different and I gained knowledge from several of them that I use almost every single day.


What type of classes were your favorites?

Bizarrely, I think I really liked the technical illustration courses (we had to take a couple of those even if we were in the Interpretive program) – maybe only because I knew I wouldn’t go in that direction in my career so it was just a bit of fun to learn the little tricks to make things look “real”. The precision of it appealed to me even though I was TERRIBLE at a lot of the techniques (like using a ruling pen or French curves). The best was book illustration, though, as I knew going in there that I wanted to illustrate children’s books. I think that was in 3rd year, when we had a real major, and my book class was taught by the amazing Lorraine Tuson ( She gave us the idea that being an illustrator is the best job in the world, because you really get to be an architect, landscape designer, fashion designer, industrial designer, you get the idea… creating worlds and everything in those worlds. We did fun things like building a miniature stage set and then working from that to create illustrations (a great way to play with vantage points). I could go on and on…

watson93f2d51ea56cae92109f6c08700a57c8Then you followed up that by going to the Fine Art at York University. How did you decide to continue your study in Visual Arts?

I actually started out at York, right out of high school, and then went to Sheridan afterwards. I had been raised with the assumption that I’d go to university and get a degree, and I knew I wanted to study art in some form, so I went to York as it had the most beautiful fine arts building. I went for a tour and saw how all the upper year students got their own individual studio space, and I just loved that. But in about 2nd year I met a couple of established children’s book illustrators through friends and local appearances and in talking to them realized that was what I wanted to do. So I finished up my degree, took a year off to work and travel, and then went to Sheridan.


What classes influenced your work the most?

Definitely Lorraine Tuson’s book illustration class, as I mentioned before. Also, we had an amazing painting prof – Maxine Schacker – she was very demanding and took no B.S. She didn’t hold back in the least in criticizing our work and especially our process (to this day I feel guilty eating and drinking while painting because Maxine said it was so terrible for your health, but who can resist sipping a coffee while painting?) But at the same time I learned so much from her – mainly what stuck was colour and paint and how to build layers and areas of light and dark, warm and cool, and really think about what colours are going next to each other and how they will create a form. She wanted us to begin with the large shapes of a model’s body in life painting, and avoid the trap of getting bogged down in detail too early in the process. I remember her shrieking at somebody “Don’t put nipples on the model!”. She was pretty memorable.

watson9849f5480708c90ce398e0105c3da79dWhat was the first thing you illustrated where someone paid you for your work?

I was asked to sketch one of two concepts for a graphic design firm to pitch to their client – a software company. It was an illustration of a mailman and a dog, for software packaging, and they told me if the client picked the direction I sketched I’d get the job, and if not I’d get $50. So, I got $50. I did go ahead and do a final painting of the rejected sketch anyway, and had it in my portfolio for awhile.


Did the school help you find work?

No, not at all. I might not have taken full advantage of their resources though, mainly because right after graduating I moved to Toronto, about an hour away from Oakville, where the school is, and this was 1995, so the Internet wasn’t really a factor. It’s not like their was an online job board or anything. Some of our profs did give us some advice about cold calling, promos, portfolios, etc. and a little about how to work with clients if we ever did get work. But that was a shortcoming of the program (and something I’ve heard from lots of the people I went to school with). They really should have had an entire class just about the business side of things, and about how to actually get out there and get work.


How did you get your first big break?

In my first couple of years out of Sheridan I was working first in retail and then I got a job as a project coordinator in a corporate graphic design firm. In my spare time I worked on my portfolio, and also on a mini-book – it was the story The Little Red Hen. I photocopied the illustrations at Kinko’s and then put together (hand bound) a bunch of little books, maybe about 15 of them. I mailed them out to all the publishers I knew of. I got calls from two publishers and the one that seemed like the most promising was Kids Can Press – they offered me a book right away. I think I was really really lucky! Well, I know I was. It was a collection of three classic stories set in barnyards. I did a lot of barnyard animals for a while there.


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

When I was in 2nd year university, I went with a friend to an opening of a gallery show of children’s book illustrators (she had a friend who was already a published illustrator at something like 20 years old, and her mom was also an illustrator, both in the show). And seeing the illustrations framed on the wall made me realize that it was the art form I wanted to do – I actually don’t remember even considering it before that. And I chatted a bit with my friend’s friend and her mom about what they did, and I remember really clearly leaving the gallery knowing that was what I wanted to do. I just didn’t have a clue how to go about it!


How many picture books have you illustrated?

Four, and I’m working on my fifth.


What was the title of your first book? Who was it with?

That was “Three Barnyard Tales” and it was with Kids Can Press.


Have you done any work for children’s magazines?

Yes, lately I’ve done quite a few illustrations for Humpty Dumpty and Turtle magazines.


How did you come to be represented by Deborah Wolfe?

Last summer I was doing a big rethink of my career, because after the financial collapse of 2008, which coincided with the birth of my daughter and my taking a couple of years off from promoting myself, my work pretty much completely dried up. There just was nothing out there for me. I did a lot of work on my portfolio, did a major re-vamp of my style and technique, switching from all-traditional painting by hand to doing most of the work digitally, remade my website and started up my Etsy shop ( And I thought I’d try again to find a rep – something I’d had limited success with in the past. I looked over the sites of lots of reps, and noticed Deborah represented a lot of children’s illustrators, and also that she’d been in the business for a really long time. I dropped her an email and she called – I was so happy to hear from her!

watson77341480Do you think you have gotten you more jobs by having representation than you would have found on your own?

Without a doubt, yes. She has a huge network of contacts and a promotional reach I could never have on my own. Also it’s really a huge advantage to have someone to negotiate for me and handle all the financial and legal details.


How did you get the contract to do Peek-a Little Boo with Orca Books?

I actually don’t remember! Is that terrible? It really was a long time ago. They were great to work with, though, and I did go on to do a few other book covers with them.

watson77348500Is most of your work done for Canadian publishers?

All my books that I did in the past were, but after about 2006 most of my work has come from the U.S.

watson77350500Have you done anything for educational publishing houses?

Yes, I’ve done lots of work for educational publishers – that’s most of what I’ve done.


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

I don’t, actually, I really don’t enjoy writing at all (although THIS is sort of fun). I have a five-year-old so I’m always reading kids books aloud and have a ton of respect for a well-written, non-annoying children’s story. They really have to hold up over multiple readings, sometimes every day for a week straight. I just don’t think I have what it takes to write a good children’s book. I do have ideas for books sometimes, though, so you never know… my husband’s a really good writer, so maybe we’ll team up one day…


Do you ever do art exhibits?

I haven’t, but I sure would love to!


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

I usually do a bunch of research on the Internet, and make up digital collages of helpful images that I print out and keep close by while I draw or paint. And then inevitably I need to know what something else actually looks like in reality so I just use my iPhone and use google images to have a quick look.


What is the one thing in your studio you could not live without?

These days, it’s my computer. Also, the baby monitor. I spend a lot of evenings and nights in my studio, and it’s a separate building from the house (a converted garage) so it’s good to be connected to the people in my family, and I like listening to my daughter snore while I work.


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

I do try to put in full working days on weekdays, which ends up being about 7 hours, between a morning run and picking up my daughter from daycare at 5:30. Often I’m on a deadline and I end up going back to the studio for a couple of extra hours in the evening. I don’t work the same hours on weekends – unless I’m on a deadline and I’ll put in a couple of hours here and there.

watsonFairytale_finalDo you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Yes! Before the Internet it was so labour intensive to get in touch with people and to get your work in front of the right people – even to find out who the right people were. And the fear of rejection is so much worse in person or in a phone call, it’s just so much easier and less scary to do cold calls by email. Of course, the Internet is kind of a time sucker too… you can spend the whole day browsing Pinterest and calling it research, which it is, but it’s so hard to keep a limit on it.


How do you market yourself?

I have portfolios on several paid and free websites –, Directory of Illustration, Deborah Wolfe’s site (,,, Behance, etc. And I have my own website (, my tumblr (, my blog ( and I use Pinterest too – I have a board with my illustrations, and I try to find art directors’ and art buyers’ Pinterest pages and follow them, hoping they’ll follow me back and see my illustrations. Oh, and my Etsy shop where I sell prints of all my self-directed stuff. So when I do a new illustration, I take a few hours to post it on all those places. Deborah does periodic email blitzes and puts my portfolio in front of as many people as she can. Next year I’m going to have print ads in Directory of Illustration and Workbook as well. And I keep a list of “dream clients” and every now and then I do an email promo of my own, or a print mailer.


Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

Yes, it’s what I spend about 80% of my time doing.


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

I did try one briefly a really long time ago, and it just didn’t appeal to me.

watsonil_570xN_484901459_salmDo you have a favorite illustration?

Right now my favourite is the last promo piece I did. Usually my favourite piece changes to whatever I just finished!


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

I did try one briefly a really long time ago, and it just didn’t appeal to me.


What are you working on now?

I’m working on an amazingly fun project I feel so lucky to have! It’s a book of nursery rhymes set in the desert. It’s at the stage where the roughs are all approved and I’m starting the finals, which is the most fun stage in my opinion. I love the U.S. desert, all the bizarre shapes and vibrant colours, the light – so this will be fun! It’s all due at the end of October, and I’m planning to run the New York marathon on Nov. 3, so the next three months will be all desert art and running. I’m really looking forward to it.


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

I’d really love to get into the kids gift and toy market somehow. I’d love to do things like puzzles, craft kits, toy packaging, board games… that sort of thing. I’d love to do that while my daughter’s still young so she could play with something I’d illustrated!

watsontumblr_mnxirhUWTg1reeoy8o1_500Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful illustrator?

Hmmm… well, I hope I don’t sound like a Negative Nelly but I don’t consider myself a successful illustrator yet. This year I’ve been really fortunate and I feel like a moderate success, but it’s still a struggle. It’s still not enough to make a full-time living, and I have to supplement it with freelance proofreading work. I’m lucky to have another skill that pays well and that can be done here and there with some degree of flexibility. So I think I’m headed in the right direction but still have a ways to go. I’m happy to be where I am now and I like the direction my career is going, so I would say there are three things that have helped me get here, and that I would highly recommend to anyone just starting out:

1) Try to find a good, experienced rep: It’s been so great to have someone in my corner and to know that while I’m working away she is out there looking for more work for me. There are only so many hours in the day and only so much you can do yourself.

2) Try not to have a day job, but find a way to supplement your income on your own schedule, because making a living as an illustrator is VERY hard. And if you do resort to having a day job it becomes nearly impossible to motivate yourself to work on your portfolio or look for illustration jobs when you come home tired at the end of the day. At least that’s how I remember it; I haven’t had a day job since 2000! 3) It’s obvious, but: Never give up.


Thank you Lauren for sharing your talent, process, and journey with us. Please keep in touch and let us know when you have good things happen, so we can help you celebrate. Don’t forget to check out Laura’s Etsy shop ( She has lot of great artwork you can give for a birthday, etc. for a baby or toddler.  You can find Laur’s website at:

Please take a minute to leave Laura a comment. It is really appreciated. Thanks!

Talk Tomorrow,



  1. I was very interested to read about Laura’s process, as scanning in textures has been on my list of techniques to try. Thank you for sharing! Lovely work.


  2. I ALways love Saturdays because of your Illustrator features, Kathy! Wonderfull work, Laura, SO distinctive! Thanks for sharing, ladies 😀


  3. Reblogged this on watsonillo and commented:
    REALLY lovely of Kathy Temean to profile me on her blog this past Sat. Now I’m going to have to go back and read ALL her posts as she’s got great industry-insider info and lots of inspiration for someone like me!


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