Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 21, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – Kristin Varner

varnerpic280Kristin Varner grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and graduated with a BFA in Illustration from Rhode Island School of Design in 1995. Kristin has been operating as KBoom, an illustration and design studio since 1998. Some of her picture books for children include ‘Big Feelings’ and ‘Aladdin – A Tale from the Middle East’. Kristin has lived in Seattle, New York City and just recently moved to Berlin, Germany. To see more of her work, please visit her website at

We are so lucky to see the illustrations for Kristin’s book PINK CUPCAKE MAGIC written by Katherine Tegen that is coming out in January. She has also agreed to give-a-way a signed copy of PINK CUPCAKE MAGIC as soon as she receives her copies. The book comes out in January, which isn’t too far away.


Here is how it will work: Anyone that leaves a comment will get their name put in the hat one time. If you would like to collect more entries into the hat you can do the following:

1 entry everything you tweet this link (One a day).
1 entry for putting this link on facebook

1 entry for putting up this post on your blog.
2 entries if you reblog this post.
5 entries if you talk about the book on your facebook page or blog.

Please come back and leave an update on what you did by December 1st in the comment section, so I know how many times to put your name in the hat for the drawing. I will announce the winner on Wednesday December 4th. Good Luck!

Here is Kristin explaining her digital process:


I always start my work by sketching in my sketchbook. I scan my sketch, resize, manipulate, tweak and clean it up and as needed within Photoshop.


I then flood my sketch with a wash of red. For some reason I just love the way the red reacts with the colors laid on top of it.


I then start painting directly onto the sketch using Corel Painter.


I do a complete underpainting to get down initial colors. Then I go back over with detail brushes for a final rendering.



Acrylic process

This image was created as a sample for Henry Holt. It landed me my book deal for PINK CUCAKE MAGIC, but it was never actually used in the book.

varnerZoe1Final sketch that was initially drawn by hand, and then scanned and manipulated within Photoshop.

varnerZoe2When I’m painting with Acrylics rather than working digitally, I have an extra step to get my sketch transferred onto my paper. I stretch a medium weight, hot press watercolor paper and then coat it with a layer of gesso to create a nice textured surface to paint on. If I have the time I will transfer the sketch myself using carbon paper. If it’s a book job and I have several paintings to kick out,  I choose a paper that is thin enough to be run  through an oversized commercial printer and I print my sketches out at the local copy shop, which saves me a ton time.

varnerZoe3I flood the image with a wash of my favorite color…..cadmium red.


I then do a complete underpainting in acrylic to block in colors.


I work over the underpainting and render in details.


Final image. Now back to the interior images of the PINK CUPCAKE MAGIC below.varnerpink_title

How long have you been illustrating?

I received my first paid illustration assignment in the winter of 1996. So as a “professional”, I’ve been illustrating for a little over 17 years.


I see you lived in Utah and attended graduated with a BFA in Illustration from Rhode Island School of Design. How did you decide to attend RISD?

When I was applying to art schools and universities around the country, I was a bit naïve about RISD’s solid reputation. It wasn’t until I was well into my first semester that I realized how fortunate I was to have chosen such a reputable school. But, at the time, I was eager to get out of the conservative influence of Utah and experience something completely new. I was intrigued about living on the East Coast and attracted at what RISD had to offer – especially it’s partnership with Brown University and the opportunity to attend classes at an Ivy League University, which I did indeed do my Sophomore and Junior years.


Can you tell us a little bit about that school?

When I was attending RISD, I felt like the basic fundamentals of art and design were hammered into us. It was a pretty tough environment. I had amazing professors and great classes, but they pushed us hard and we were in studio classes all day and I would work on projects well into the night. I loved it. RISD taught me how to see the world in an entirely new light.


What types of things did you study there?

The first year is foundation and everyone takes the same courses – drawing, two dimensional design, three dimensional design and art history. After declaring my major in Illustration I took the mandatory courses like drawing, painting and conceptual illustration, but for the remaining 3 years I was free to explore within and out of the department, dabbling in mixed media courses, watercolor, poster design, children’s book and editorial illustration, photography, printmaking and on and on.

varnerpink4 (1)

What classes were your favorites?

I loved almost all of my classes in the Illustration department. I also took a class called “New York, New York” that was in the sculpture department.  We hopped on a bus every other early Friday morning and drove down to New York City where we spent the entire day running after our professor (Ellen Driscoll) who would drag us to museums, galleries, random installations, meetings with art dealers, studio visits and any other nook and cranny in the city that had something interesting going on. It was pretty amazing and unrelated to all of my other illustration studio courses, but I found it to be totally inspiring.

varnerpink4 (2)

Did the School help you get work?

Only indirectly. I landed some work and made connections by being associated with RISD. It was only a few years later that I found some assignments through RISD’s online job/internship publication called Artworks.

varnerpink6 (1)

Do you feel that the classes you took there have influenced you style?

Yes I do think my style was somewhat influenced from school, but it’s an on-going process. My style continues to develop the more I experience and continue to research and find inspiration, albeit slowly!

varnerpink6 (2)

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

For the first several years after I graduated from RISD, I was doing a lot of editorial work for magazines. My first paid gig was an editorial spot for Utah Business Magazine. It actually turned out quite nice.


Did you move back to Utah after you graduated?

Yes, I unsuccessfully shopped my portfolio around the children’s book publishing houses in New York City for 6 months before finally giving up and I moved back to Salt Lake City, Utah (where I promptly found work!). I stayed in Utah for two years, then moved up to Seattle for eight years and eventually made my way to Brooklyn, New York where I happily lived for another four.

varnerpink9 (1)

What made you move to Berlin, Germany? How long have you been there?

My musician boyfriend at the time (now fiancé) was itching to leave New York and was drawn to Berlin predominantly for the music scene. We both loved the idea of living in Europe and I’d always wanted to really experience another culture, relish in the cuisine, learn the language etc. I’d spent time In Berlin in 2001 and was fascinated by the history of the city as well as how it’s continuing to rebuild itself today into a creative, modern metropolis. We lived in Berlin just over 3 years.

varnerpink9 (2)

Do you find the German illustrating market different than the US?

The german children’s book trade market is very different than the US. My first year in Germany, I attended the Frankfurt Book fair and met with several German, Austrian and Swiss publishing houses. I was completely caught off guard when they told me that my style was  “too american” .  German kids books are beautiful. They are sophisticated and often more edgy – sometimes border-lining on the bizarre.  The color palette is much more subdued. Although my work is still punchy and very “american,” I do like to think that the german influence did permeate my style a bit.



Do you think you will move back to the United States?

I loved my life in Berlin and thought we’d never leave, but a big job opportunity came up for my fiancé that we couldn’t pass up on and that brought us back to the States in March. We are living in Seattle now, and even though we were not yet ready to leave Berlin, it is nice to be back in the States with all it’s conveniences and closer to family. It’s funny though, we do find ourselves constantly assessing the pros and cons of living in the two countries.


What was the first illustration work you did for children?

It was actually a job for Macy’s department store in Seattle. They funded an annual mothers day celebration in partnership with the Woodland Park Zoo called “Mom and Me at the Zoo”.  I was hired to create the illustration for the event. I believe that was in 2004.


How did that come about?

The art director at Macy’s found me through my website.


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

It was 7th or 8th grade when I started collecting books solely for their imagery. At that time, I was especially into fantasy art. I can remember flipping through pages of dragons, wizards and magical landscapes and realizing that I really wanted to be illustrating these kind of books as well.


What was your first picture book? Who was the publisher?

“Big Feelings”, published by Parenting Counts


Can you tell us the story behind you getting this job?

I was living in Brooklyn when this book actually came to fruition. It was written by Talaris Institute, who publishes picture books as well as books on childhood development and educational materials for parents. They were a client of an art director, friend of mine back in Seattle. She had used an illustration that I did of an Elephant in a design comp for one of their brochures. Years later, as they were working on the manuscript for BIG FEELINGS, a book all about emotions as told through animals, they re-discovered my elephant painting from years back and contracted me for the job.


Did you do anything specific to get the contract to illustrate ‘Aladdin – A Tale from the Middle East’?

The Aladdin book was for Macmillan UK over in England. They hired me directly through my children’s book agent.


How did you get the opportunity to illustrate a book written by Katherine Tegen?

This opportunity also came about through my agent, although not in typical fashion. My agent routinely sends samples out to publishers and art directors. Katherine Tegen happened to see my samples at Henry Holt and thought my style would be perfect for her book. Since Tegen is an editor and has her own imprint at HarperCollins, she had the pull to get me on board. Holt was a bit nervous in the beginning, risking a no-name illustrator like myself to do a book for a big-wig like Tegen, but they sent me the manuscript and asked me to create a sample for them. In the end, they were pleased as punch and we were off and running.


Is this the first book that you have done with Henry Holt?



How excited were you to get to illustrate a book by a famous editor and children’s publisher?

I was absolutely thrilled! It was by far my biggest accomplishment to date. My only apprehension was that I was 7 months pregnant when I landed the contract! I had no idea how I could handle a baby and complete a major picture book in the first several months of becoming a new mom. It all worked out just fine in the end.


Have you done any work for children’s magazines?

Yes, I’ve worked with Highlights HIGH FIVE, Scholastic’s LETS FIND OUT, Scholastic’s “GO!” and I just recently finished a piece for CLUBHOUSE JR.


Have you worked for educational publishers?

The educational market is the bread and butter of my survival as an illustrator. I’ve done countless small readers for educational publishers such as Pearson, MacMillan/McGraw-Hill, Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin and Oxford University Press, to name a few.


Do you have an artist rep or an agent? Could you tell us how the two of you connected?

I’ve been represented by Maggie at Byer-Sprinzeles Agency for about 8 years now. She is also a fellow RISD alumna and she came across my work on the ispot website where I was advertising my portfolio at the time. She sent me a complimentary note about my work and then the dialog progressed toward the possibility of representation. It’s been a wonderful relationship.


Would you ever like to write and illustrate your own book?

Absolutely. I have a few ideas that I’ve been working on, but haven’t put anything on paper just yet.


Are you open to illustrating for self-published authors?

I get approached by at least a half a dozen or so writers every year who are looking to self-publish their manuscript. In most cases the authors have not done much research and have a very limited budget. I have yet to consider taking one on and I don’t think it would be wise for me to do so at this point in my career, unless it was under extraordinary circumstances, or the opportunity to work with a close friend.


What types of things do you do to find illustration work?

These days most of my work is derived directly through my agent and I rely on her to do the majority of my promotion as well. I also advertise my portfolio on the website.


What is your favorite medium to use?

Acrylic paints.


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

Music. I don’t like working in silence and depending on my mood the genre can vary. I just feel like I’m much more productive when I have tunes on.


Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your art?

I don’t have a set time per se but I’m quite a regimented person and my time is more limited these days. When I do have my scheduled work time, I try to make the most of it. If I’m not working on an assignment, I try to sketch or write down ideas for new projects or promotions.


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

I like to do a ton of research. If I’m working at my drafting table, I will make loads of printouts so that I have a collection of images for reference. I also use books with sticky notes so I can easily flip between pages. I find the bulk of my imagery off google images or getty but I will shoot my own pictures as well if I can’t find the correct angle I’m looking for.


Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Yes. No question about it. The ease of having a portfolio online has provided an opportunity for my work to be seen by art directors, agents, and publishers all over the world.


Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

I use Photoshop after I’ve scanned my sketch. Sometimes I’ll spend hours within Photoshop, scaling pieces of my sketch, moving things around, changing proportions,  tweaking and rearranging until I’m happy with the composition. If the illustration is going to stay digital, I will then take the sketch into Corel Painter for a painterly look, or Adobe Illustrator if it’s a more graphic approach. If I’ll be using my acrylics to paint, I will print the sketch back out and transfer it onto watercolor paper.


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

Yes I use the basic Intuos Wacom tablet. I can’t function with a mouse anymore. I am very tempted to try using a Cintiq.



Have you ever won an award for your writing or illustrating?

The “Aladdin – A Tale from the Middle East” book won the 2011 Language Learner Literature Award in the Young Learner category. Otherwise, I’m terrible about submitting my work to competitions and seem to be about two weeks late when finally getting around to those call for entry forms.


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

My style has certainly changed since my early days. I still have slides of my portfolio from high school and my RISD years. I always document my work for my own personal library, whether I think it’s horrible or stupendous. I keep an active folder on my computer containing a catalog of all my current and past pieces. It’s very gratifying for me to occasionally go back and review past projects and see how my work has progressed. My materials have not changed. I’m still using acrylic paints, but over time I’ve developed a specific process of how I’m using them. The same goes for when I’m working on the computer. I have my own method that has evolved over time.


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

#1. I’d like to start writing my own books as well as illustrating.

#2. I’d like to have my work shown in galleries.

#3. I love teaching. I taught Adobe Illustrator classes to professionals in New York at Noble Desktop and I think teaching is my true calling. I’d like to teach again, perhaps an illustration course focusing on the Children’s  Market on a collegiate level.


What are you working on now?

I’m wrapping up a small assignment for Pearson Education right now and will be starting on a few small Young Readers starting in October.


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.

I use Golden for my acrylic paints. I find them to be especially fluid to work with. They’re a great company. I had issues with some faulty caps when I was right in the middle of working on a big educational book assignment. They overnight, shipped me brand new tubes of paint over to Germany without any hesitation.


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

I had a professor at RISD who’s advice has stuck with me over the years. He said that as an illustrator, we should always create our best possible work, even when the client or job seems insignificant. Treat every assignment as if it were golden. I truly believe that persistence pays off at some point down the line….just be patient!


What are some of the companies you have worked with?

Partial client list:

Children’s Museum of Utah Crocodile Creek Hartcourt Brace & Co. Highlights for Children Houghton Mifflin Company Macmillan/McGraw-Hill Oxford University Press Parenting Counts Press PBS Kids Quarasan Scholastic Pearson Education Sun Dance Publishing

Thank you Kristin for sharing your talent, expertise, and journey with us and double thanks for giving us a chance to win a signed copy of your book. It looks like so much fun. You can visit Kristin at:

Don’t miss your chance to win and leave a comment about Kristin illustrations and book. See above to see what things you can do to increase your chances to win.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wow, Kathy, thank you for all this hard work, putting this together! And thank you, Kristin! What a great interview and I’m fascinated by your process. These pictures are incredibly appealing, colorful and SO full of character!

    Congrats on all your success, and especially the baby 🙂

    Now…where’s my cupcake?! 😉


  2. And, Kristin, I forgot to ask—-can you please tell me (us) how it is you’re able to do a red acrylic wash over your outline and the outline doesn’t disappear? I’d REALLY love to know this! Thanks 🙂


    • Thanks for the kind words and interest in my work process! As far as the red acrylic wash – Cadmium red by nature is somewhat transparent. I outline my sketch first using a fine tip, dark green marker to ensure that my sketch will read through once I’ve applied my wash. Or, if I’m printing out directly onto the watercolor paper, I adjust the levels on the digital file so the sketch will print out as a heavy dark outline.


      • Thank you for this info 🙂 And I’m assuming you scan your sketches and save them to a flash drive to have the printer print out the work on the paper you use? I hate to keep bothering, Kristin, but would you mind being specific on the paper you would use at a commercial printer?


  3. I love the use of the red “underpainting” it adds such a brilliant texture and volume to your paintings. Thanks for the inspiration!


  4. Just adorable. I particularly like the frogs in the kitchen and the marching band. Fascinating interview as usual.


    • Thanks for the comments Helen and Rosie!


  5. Kristin, I can’t pick just one favorite piece because all of your artwork is beautiful. I picked up a new tip from you, laying down red first…brillant. 🙂


  6. Hi Kathy,
    Four months later, the big day arrived. Today, I received Kristin’s book “Pink Cupcake Magic”. Her illustrations are truly “magical”. I love her zany style and vibrant colors which captured the essence of Katherine Tegen’s story beautifully!
    Every young girl (and those young-at-heart) will love the ending. 🙂


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