Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 7, 2015

Illustrator Saturday – Marjorie Crosby-Fairall

Marjorie-Crosby-Fairall-headshotWhen Marjorie Crosby-Fairall was a little girl she escaped to the library as often as possible where she spent hours devouring picture books and minutely examining their illustrations. Marjorie was very young when she decided to become an illustrator like her then favourite illustrator C.W. Anderson (what little girl doesn’t love horse drawings?).

Encouraged by her creative family, she gained a BFA in Illustration from Northern Illinois University. After moving to Australia, she worked in many areas of illustration, including picture book illustration.

Most recently she finished The Croc and the Platypus, a book written by Jackie Hosking (Walker Books) which was released in July 2014. My Little World, a picture book written by Julia Cooke (Omnibus Books) was shortlisted for the 2012 Environment Award for Children’s Literature, presented by the Wilderness Society. Killer Plants written by Gordon Cheers and Julie Silk (Penguin Books) was awarded the CBCA Eve Pownall Award for Information Books. Her newest book The Croc & the Platypus (Walker Books) was released July 2014.Bio-Ice-cream

Marjorie currently lives in Sydney and work as a freelance illustrator undertaking an eclectic range of projects, including illustrations for educational publishers such as Dorling Kindersley, general editorial book publishers such as Reader’s Digest, and magazines such as Australian Geographic. She says she loves to experiment with new techniques with her illustrations, but always seems to return to her beloved and well-used colour pencils.

Here is Marjorie explaining her Illustration Process for The Croc and the Platypus:

I think the illustrations for most picture books start with an instinctive emotional response to the text. For me it begins with brainstorming, which is a bit like getting your emotional responses down in shorthand form. Occasionally some of the sketches make it directly into the final illustrations.


For example, you might be able to recognize the posture of the shearer (a shearer is the fellow who clips the fleece from the sheep) and his sheep from the doodle above in the final illustration below.


One of my first impressions of The Croc and the Platypus text was that it was ‘joyful’—especially the dance under the stars. So how do a Croc and a Platypus dance joyfully? One evening, while I was cooking dinner, I had a sudden image in my head and rushed into the studio to get it onto paper.


The image was of funny pear shaped characters holding hands and swinging through the air like pendulums. This one image was the genesis for the shape and the personality of the characters.


I developed this a little bit further into these tiny thumbnail sketches. I usually work out the page layout at a very small scale so that I look at the overall flow and I don’t become hung up on detail.


You will see that the image did not change much to the final artwork.


It was important to transform the generic names of Croc and Platypus into characters with personality. To do this I slowly developed a back-story in which they are longtime friends who help each other out without thinking about it consciously. So how do you express this in a picture? Above is the first concept I doodled for the BBQ spread which shows the Platypus lounging by the campfire and using the Croc’s tail as a backrest.


I was happy with this idea so I sketched it up into thumbnail. You can see that I changed the horizon to curving to add more flow and movement and that the Croc tail wraps around the Platypus.


The next step was to go to a more finished rough to my art director at Walker Books. At this stage the feedback was that everyone wanted to see what a fleece tent would look like.


So I unrolled the fleece and erected a tent!


The final stage is Colour Artwork.

So, the process begins with an impressionistic and emotional response that is slowly refined. After the initial burst of intuition and emotion, it is time to engage the analytical brain and make design decisions which hopefully lead to a solution which best communicates your initial reaction.

I suppose every illustrator takes a different approach to creating a picture book. I’m more of a ‘planner’ than a ‘fly-by-the-seat-of–your-pants’ girl—my work is pretty systematic. To illustrate my process, I thought I would take you through the development of one spread from The Croc and the Platypus. This spread had more changes than any other in the entire book. It shows how an image evolves and a little bit of the collaboration with my art director and editor at Walker Books.


Storyboards are small A4 size (297mm x 210mm) roughs of the entire book and they are the first stage to receive feedback from the publisher. The storyboard above received the comment that it would be good to include sheep or shearers to aid the transition to the following spread. The general storyboard feedback included a comment that it would be good to show the Ute (that’s Aussie slang for a pick up truck) from the distance somewhere in the book. I thought these were very valid points so I incorporated both comments into the revisions for this spread.


You will see that I added some rather bemused sheep watching the Ute bounce over a hill to the Shearer Shed. This Final Rough stage, drawn at the same size as the printed book, goes back to Walker Books for feedback. Luckily, they gave me thumbs up and an OK to go to colour artwork.


This snap of my desk shows the beginning of final art. I’ve enlarged the rough 110% and started to redraw it onto heavy watercolour paper. I chose just a small enlargement because I didn’t want the final image to lose the texture of the pencil lines and brush marks when it was scanned and reduced for print.


I’ve redrawn the image roughly onto the watercolour paper. I do this partly because it sets the values and partly because I wanted some of the line work from the under drawing to show through.


Because the story takes place in the Outback of Australia I wanted a tint of ‘red earth’ to show through so I continued the under painting with a terracotta orange. It can be pretty scary to slap that orange on the first time, but after a while it’s quite therapeutic!


At this point, I have a lot of the colour down but I realise that there is something not working—unfortunately I can’t determine exactly what that is. This is when I use the time-tested method of putting it away in a drawer and moving on to something else!


When I finally unearth the drawing from my map drawer, I realise that it is the dust cloud from the Ute that is not working. It is merging with the low lying clouds and looking like a massive storm. Unfortunately, this involves a total rework of the sky.


The sky here is a work in progress and I discovered that it has shifted the balance with the sheep so they need a total rework as well. It’s a domino effect!


The Final Image as used in the book.

So it was a bit of a bumpy ride with this particular spread, but like the characters in the book, it ended with a happy dance!


How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been illustrating since I graduated from college many moons ago.


What was the first thing you created where someone paid you for your work?

I have a vague recollection of illustrating a poster for a pest extermination company back when I was in High School. I can imagine my pest looked too sympathetic to kill and it probably was a terrible poster but I think they paid me $50.


How did you decide to attend Northern Illinois University for Fine Arts in illustration?

Well, finances came into the equation. I don’t know if it’s still the same now, but when I was going to school, it was less expensive if you attended a State school. My family lived just outside of Chicago and NIU had an excellent art program, so it all just added up. I had a wonderful time at school and still remember little pearls of wisdom from my various art instructors. (Mind you those were pearls cast before a swine because I didn’t really understand them until much later.)



Do you think getting your BFA in Illustration helped you get to where you are today?

I know any number of successful artists who are self taught, so I don’t think a University course is essential. Frankly I think going to University is about more than getting a degree—it’s about the experience of leaving the nest. I still attend a lot of workshops and I’m always reading books, blogs and swapping illustration tips with my friends, so I don’t think you ever finish learning the craft.


What types of classes did you take that really helped you to develop as an illustrator?

The course at NIU was an interesting blend of Fine Art, Commercial art (including graphic design and illustration), Art History and General Studies. I can’t think of any specific class but it was at NIU where I was introduced to my first love—Prismacolor Pencils!


What inspired you to move to Australia? Do you ever come back to visit?

While I was attending NIU, I spent a semester studying art on an exchange program in Austria (that’s not a typo—Austria next to Germany—not Australia). When the semester was finished I backpacked for a couple of weeks and while travelling I met a lovely Australian fellow backpacker. Well, after returning to school and finishing my degree and a year long back and forth long distance relationship, I packed up my Prismacolor pencils and portfolio and moved Down Under to marry him!

My family still lives outside Chicago so we try to return as often as possible.


Do you work full time illustrating?

Yes, I illustrate fulltime but like many freelance illustrators it seems to be feast or famine! When I first graduated I worked full time as a designer with the occasional illustration job at the design studio. The design studio had a client who over the years commissioned me to do literally hundreds of wildlife illustrations. Eventually I decided to send samples of my wildlife drawings to Australian Geographic magazine. After my illustrations appeared in their magazine the work snowballed into work for other publishers like Reader’s Digest. Pretty soon I was working full time for a design studio during the day and full time at night with my freelance illustration!


Was Killer Plants by Gordon Cheers and Julie Silk the first picture book that you illustrated?

Yes, Killer Plants was the first picture book I illustrated and the first with Gordon and Julie. Actually, there was some discussion about producing another book with Gordon and Julie because Killer Plants won the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books in the CBCA Awards but that idea never really took off.


How did that contract with Puffin Books come about?

A good friend had a manuscript and asked me to do a sample illustration. She sent it in to Puffin (imprint of Penguin) with her manuscript and long story short, they declined the manuscript but asked her for her illustrator—me! I didn’t know it at the time but it’s the sort of thing we are warned at conferences not to do—that publishers don’t like to see manuscripts with illustrations. I guess you can say that the cautionary tale can sometimes have a happy ending! (BTW, we are still great friends.)


Was that the first picture book you illustrated?

I had a lot of previous experience with illustrating books for Grown Ups, but Killer Plants was my first book for Children.


How many children’s books have you illustrated?

I’ve illustrated five picture books and around a dozen readers and contributed to a number of educational books and magazines. I’m also working on more picture books.


I couldn’t find The Croc and the Platypus published by Walker Books AU on Amazon. Is there a place on Amazon where you can buy their books?

You can visit The Croc and the Platypus website ( to find a listing of a few of the online booksellers who stock the book. I would think it could also be ordered through your local bookseller.



How did The Croc and the Platypus contract come your way?

I sent some of my samples in to Donna Rawlins, the fabulous designer (and award winning illustrator) at Walker Books. Ultimately they asked me to come in and show them my portfolio. During our talks I mentioned that I would really like to move away from the “information books” into something with a visual narrative. They didn’t have a specific manuscript in mind for me at the time, but they connected my desire for a visual narrative with one particular sample and thought of The Croc and the Platypus. BTW, the sample is one I created to enter the SCBWI Tomie dePaola Award—I didn’t win the trip to New York but I got a book contract with it! (Chicken Licken—see below)


Do you know how many books Walker AU publishes a year? Do they only publish local authors and illustrators?

Walker Books Australia is closely affiliated with their parent company, Walker Books (UK), and their sister company, Candlewick Press (USA) and I think it was originally set up to represent those lists. It’s only fairly recently they established a local publishing arm and publish local authors and illustrators. They work closely with the US and UK and I imagine a bit of cross-pollination occurs. I don’t know how many books they publish a year.


I have the same question about My Little World, a picture book written by Julie Cooke and published by Omnibus Books in Australia. How would someone in the US purchase this book? I could not find it on Amazon.

Omnibus is an imprint of Scholastic Books. There are a number of online booksellers who carry My Little World, including The Nile (, Angus & Robertson ( and  Booktopia ( I imagine it can also be ordered through your local bookseller.


How did Omnibus Books in Australia find you?

Omnibus was a story of Serendipity. I mailed some samples to the Art Director and as soon as they landed on her desk she gave me a call. They already had the manuscript for My Little World and they were actively looking for the right illustrator. Right time—right place!


Do you think your style has evolved since you attended college?

In some ways it has stayed the same—I still love and frequently use my beloved Prismacolor pencils, and I can’t seem to help myself from using details and textures, which are elements that dominated my college work. However, I think my experience in design has influenced my work—especially in the flow and balance of the compositions. I think an illustrator is a sponge—you are constantly absorbing inspiration and influences that inform your work. I hope my work never stops evolving!


Do you use Photoshop in any of your work?

I use Photoshop for things like scanning and manipulating roughs and for lots of other non-illustrator tasks such as producing graphics for websites. At the moment I don’t use it for my the final illustration artwork but I will be playing around with it this year because I have a few ideas I would like to try out.


Would you consider working with an author who wants to self publish?

No, probably not at the moment.


Have you worked with educational publishers? If so, which one’s?

Yes, I just finished a book with an educational publisher in the US, but it’s actually in my contract that I can’t talk about the project until it’s published! I’ve also worked with Dorling Kindersley in the UK and several more here in Australia.


Have you done any artwork for magazines?

I’m currently on the team of illustrators for the fabulous School Magazine, which has been producing magazines for Australia’s classrooms for almost 100 years! In addition, I contributed wildlife illustrations to Australian Geographic for many years.


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

Yes! Haven’t we all? It’s not easy, is it? Author/illustrators have created many of my favourite picture books—there is just something about the integration of words (or no words) and pictures in these books that really captures me. I have a few picture book dummies gathering dust in a drawer while I think of how to refashion (or burn) them. And notebooks full of scribbled ideas. I’ve taken classes, attended critique groups and keep plugging away so maybe someday.


Do you have an artist rep. or an agent? If so, who? If not would you like to have one?

No, I don’t have an artist rep but I am considering going down that path. I get the impression that an agent is very helpful in the USA to open doors and to connect with Art Directors, so that’s probably a big factor for US based illustrators. Things are a bit more open door here in Australia, so I have managed to put off making that decision.zia580px

Do you do any types of promotion on your own to get your work seen by publishing professionals?

I have a website (, I send out samples when I have something new to show, I’m very involved with SCBWI and participate in opportunities they offer, and this year I will be adding my samples to a commercial portfolio website.



Do you do any promotion outside of Australia?

Does a website count? In that case, Yes. In fact, I’ve had commissions from Art Directors from the UK and USA who have somehow come across my website. But I do plan to be more targeted in my efforts to promote outside Australia this year.


Have you gotten any work through networking or the Internet?

Through the Internet via my website, definitely. And I have had several commissions from people I have met or leads I have followed from my involvement with SCBWI.


Do you use software for painting like Photoshop or Painter?

I use Photoshop for lots of things, but not for my final artwork. However, I have plans to experiment.


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

Not yet, but ask me next week and I probably will!


How much time do you spend illustrating?

As much as I can! I work from home so I try to be pretty disciplined. My days are structured like a regular workday with an unfortunate amount of time being taken up with admin work, distracting Internet surfing, and emails. I like deadlines. If I have a deadline, all that other work can miraculously be condensed. I find when I am designing and doing roughs for an illustration I need to be consciously thinking and the time passes slowly, but when it comes time to “Color in” I get in a zone and can emerge from a haze at 3am!

north western

Do you have a studio set up in your house?

Yes, I have a very comfortable studio set up in one of the bedrooms in my house. It’s stuffed full of drawers (for my artwork and supplies), my drawing table, my computer and lots of books. The commute is really short and the dress code is pretty casual. My office mate is happy if he just gets a walk and a bone—so no office politics.


Does Sydney have a strong art community?

Yes! Since I have been focusing on illustrating for Children I have become very involved with SCBWI. Sydney is part of the Australia East & New Zealand region of SCBWI and it is very active. I’ve found the community to be very warm and welcoming and it is really wonderful to spend time with other book creators—whether you’re writer or an illustrator we all seem to speak the same language.



What are your career goals?

I’m chipping away on my ambition to write and illustrate a picture book. I’m always working to find a great manuscript to illustrate because I love what I do now! I have been fortunate enough to work in many areas of illustration, but for me, Picture Book illustration takes the cake. I love the visual story telling and the synergy created between the pictures and text. Not a bad way to spend your day—so more of the same please!



What are you working on now?

I have one picture book on my desk and another in the pipeline but I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about them yet. I also do smaller projects for educational publishers, magazines and even children’s theatre posters.


Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?

Have I mentioned Prismacolor pencils? LOL. As far as tips go, if you want to use pencil on top of acrylics, you can try using gesso instead of white paint—it helps to create a ground for the pencil.


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

The best advice I have is work on your portfolio. My experience has been that you are hired to create work that is similar to the work already in your portfolio—so fill your portfolio with the work you want to do.
When I was trying to transition from my Wildlife illustration and Information Book work to more narrative Picture Books, I had to stop and take the time to create a large number of new samples. I used opportunities like the SCBWI Tomie dePaola Award as inspiration and a deadline (I told you I like deadlines!). Fill your portfolio with your best work and if you’re hoping to work in children’s illustration, make sure your images “tell a story”.


Thank you Marjorie for sharing your process and journey with us. Please let us know about all your future successes. We’d love to cheer you on. You can visit Marjorie and see more of her work on her web site: 

If you have a moment I am sure Marjorie would like to read your comments. I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Beautiful work! How cute is that little snuggled platypus baby? I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of you. It was fun to get a glimpse at your process.


  2. Gorgeous! So glad to read about you and your art!


  3. Seeing and learning about your thought process is fascinating–as are your beautiful drawings! Thank you!


  4. I’m a nature lover so I particularly enjoyed the killer plants and animals. Thanks for sharing, Kathy and Marjorie.


  5. Yet another awesome illustrator feature! I’m at the NYC SCBWI conference right now and it has been inspiring (and intimidating) to look at the portfolios of all the illustrators here, but I love that we get the whole background story on your blog posts. Marjorie’s realistic colored pencil art is amazing.


  6. Amazing work and wonderful interview! I love seeing the process. Very inspiring! 🙂


  7. Marjorie, your work is amazing! The detail is just SO exquisite! And I, too, was told by an Art Director that the work that was in my portfolio had better be the work I wanted to do! 🙂


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