Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 4, 2015

Illustrator Saturday – Craig Orback

Craig_OrbackI am a freelance children’s book illustrator living in beautiful green Seattle. My early years were spent on the Central Coast Of California in a little town called Los Osos. I did art for fun and enjoyed life in a coastal California paradise.

My college career began at Cuesta Community College in San Luis Obispo, CA where I received an A.A. degree in 2D Design; then I made the big move in 1994 to Seattle to attend Cornish College of the Arts. I graduated with a B.F.A. degree in illustration in 1998 and promptly began my carrer as an illustrator. I followed my childhood love of illustrated stories and history and in 2001 received my first children’s book job “Nathan Hale: Patriot Spy”. Since then I have illustrated 21 children’s books while also working on projects for children’s magazines, school text books, readers, a graphic novel and other avenues.

For my books I work mainly oil on illustration board, but also occasionally use acrylic, watercolor, gouache, pastel, pen and ink, and the computer, sometimes all for one book as I did for the picture book “Natures Paintbox: A Seasonal Gallery of Art and Verse”. I enjoy sharing my knowledge of illustrated books and painting with students at various local colleges. In my freetime, I create art for myself and enjoy travel, hiking, movies, and sharing my books with children.


This is my early rough sketch of the cover that was approved.


Research Photos

process08Research Photos


Here is my final drawing based on my reference photos. I projected this drawing onto my illustration board. The notes were done while I was painting the cover.


The board has two layers of gesso then I do a wash of transparent acrylic paint so that I am working on a colored surface. I hate painting on a white board and this helps to unify the whole painting as bits of this color will show through on the final. I don’t paint the sky brown as that tends to pollute the vivid pure blue sky I am going for.


Now I begin working in oils. The sky is covered and the landscape begun. I prefer to paint all of the negative space around the main character first. Plopping them into a completed setting and solving issues of lighting and color first in the landscape always works best.


Here is my messy desk next to my easel in mid painting. I have my reference and some supplies there, as well as some of the completed interior paintings so I can match the cover correctly.


Most of the background is complete. I don’t layer paint much. I prefer the immediacy of painting thick and completing an area and then moving on.


Pretty much done with this area. I will tweak it later once the whole painting is covered.


Only Clara is left!


Me sweating the details.


Her figure is now blocked in. Saved the hardest part for the end- the face!


I am tempted to leave it like this but I don’t think the publisher would be happy! My original drawing tends to be pretty simple (as you can see). The realism happens as I am painting. I prefer the flexibility and challenge of working this way.


Almost done! Now just need to detail her dress and polish her face and the rest of the painting.


Still needs more work! Now this is starting to look right!


And here is the completed painting!

processClara_CoverFinal Cover – Below is a Work-in-Process.

step01Final Sketch of a WIP – Making Mt. Rushmore.

step02Value Study

steps03Color Study before actual painting.Rushmorepanel

How long have you been illustrating?

I graduated from Cornish College of the arts in 1998 with a B.F.A. in Illustration/Design and began receiving illustration jobs that summer and fall, just a few jobs. One was pencil drawings for a snowboard catalog (Sim’s), another illustrating a short story about “Goatman” for The Washington City Paper in D.C. (a weekly) and some watercolors for greeting card software. I took anything I could get! So it’s been almost 17 years now.


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

That is hard to say. I remember as kid doing a poster for my grandma and her churches rummage sale which she paid me for. So that might have been my first paying job. Does that count?


What made you decide to move to Seattle and attend Cornish College of the Arts?

I had spent all of my childhood and young adult growing up in a small coastal town in California and I knew I wanted to try living in the big city. I decided to go to art school to study illustration and after thinking about San Francisco or L.A. I zeroed in on Seattle because it wasn’t California but was still on the west coast. I visited Cornish in 1994 and it seemed like a good fit although honestly it was the only school I actually visited. I had researched others though, but living in Seattle appealed to me. I was interested in illustrating for book covers and editorial work at the time and children’s books was not something I gave too much thought about at the time. That came later.


What type of art did you study?

I had classes in design, illustration, color theory, oil painting, watercolor, life drawing, perspective, Photoshop, Illustrator, just to name a few.


Do you feel College helped develop your style?

Yes. I think I knew I wanted to be an oil painter and have that be my medium of choice but the other classes, especially the computer ones and life drawing taught me new skills and helped me fine tune my ability to draw the figure which is a big part of my realistic style now.


What type of work did you do after you got out of school?

I mentioned a few of my early jobs above but I also had a fulltime job right out of school for 3 ½ years doing technical drawings of products at a company called Fluke north of Seattle. I worked in there publications department and used the computer skills I learned at Cornish to complete technical line drawings for the users manuals of the products. It was not the most inspiring job but it paid the bills while I was looking for freelance illustration work and it gave me some extra money to travel to Europe several times which was very inspiring.


Did the College help you get work?

Actually, yes! The job for the snowboard catalog and also the fulltime job for Fluke as a Technical Illustrator were both jobs posted at my school on a jobs bulletin board.


Have you seen your work change since you left school?

For sure. I used to paint a lot looser, some might say messier with less control. Now my work I think is more tightly rendered and detailed but also uses more dynamic perspective, a more unified color palette to match the tone of the story and more expressive characters. Also in general the more I have painted the figure the better I have gotten at it, I think.


When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

It was in 2000. I was working at Fluke and not inspired by that work. I also had an artist agent at the time who was getting me a few jobs in advertising but my freelance career was not happening as fast as I was wanting. I had a friend who mentioned children’s books. So I started visiting bookstores and libraries and realized how fun illustrating children’s books might be. I was also inspired by N.C. Wyeth a favorite illustrator of mine. He had illustrated these great adventure stories for kids like “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe”, books, which I had received as gifts as a kid from my grandmother.


How many picture books have you illustrated?

I have illustrated, chapter books, book covers, readers and other types of projets. Picture books specifically, I have illustrated 8.


What was the title of your first picture book? What year was that?

Keeping The Promise A Torah’s Journey (Kar-Ben Publishing), 2003.


How did that contract come your way?

Kar-Ben Publishing is a part of Lerner Publishing. Lerner had hired me in 2001 to illustrate an easy reader for them called “Nathan Hale: Patriot Spy”. It was my first children’s book and came about after mailing them some samples in late 2000. I sent these samples on my own without an agent. This was my first ever mailing in the children’s book market so my first job came very fast. I then illustrated 3 more books for them in 2001-2003 (more readers). Then they asked me to illustrate my first picture book, “Keeping the Promise.” Lerner provided a lot of work to me early in my career. I will be forever grateful to their Art Director Zach Marrell for hiring my for that first book and subsequent projects.


How did you get the contract with Sky Pony Press for Boys Camp?

In 2012 I was contacted by an editor there, Julie Matysik who had this new series of books that was being started by Valerie Tripp who had written many of the books in the American Girl series. She wanted to do something similar for boys who are often reluctant readers. An editor at Lerner (Millbrook Press), Jean Reynolds who I worked with on the picture book “Nature’s Paintbox: A Seasonal Gallery of Art and Verse” had recently left Lerner. She was helping Sky Horse Publishing in NYC start a children’s division called Sky Pony Press. Jean recommended me for the Boy’s Camp series. As you can see doing a good job for one person can lead to other jobs, so don’t burn any bridges if you can help it!


How did you get to work with Lee & Low on THE CAN MAN?

In 2008 I made a trip to NYC for a week to show my portfolio around. I had done it previously in 2003 and 2005. Meeting editors and art directors one on one had gotten me projects for Scholastic Inc (Scholastic News Magazine) and Simon and Schuster (the reader “John Adams Speaks For Freedom”). It can be stressful running around a city as big as NY trying to learn the subway without being late for appointments. It is also super fun and inspiring being at the center of publishing! So in 2008 I had a meeting with Louise May the Editor in Chief at Lee & Low Books and she liked my work and hired me a few months later to illustrate “The Can Man”. It’s a beautiful story written by Laura E, Williams who I got to meet a couple years later. That was a really fun project to be a part of. It won several awards, including state reading awards in New York State and Pennsylvania, as selected by kids. I was flown out to Syracuse in the fall of 2012 to receive the award which was great fun. I just missed Hurricane Sandy! Syracuse was far enough inland that we were safe. Yikes.


Can ManHow many books have you illustrated?

If you just count the picture books, easy readers , and “Boys Camp” chapter books, it is 22.


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

I have written two picture book stories and I received some feedback from editors but I haven’t pursued publishing them too hard yet. I did write two poems and they were published in a children’s magazine and I illustrated those.


Have you ever thought about doing a wordless picture book?

I think it would be an interesting challenge and I enjoy looking at ones that have been done well but I have left it at that! I am open to it though.


Have you ever tried illustrating a graphic novel?

I did one a few years ago called “Thin Ice” (Heinemann) about you guessed it, two kids that fall through the ice. I enjoyed it a lot, thinking sequentially but because I work realistically and from model photos that presented some challenges with so many separate little paintings.


Do you have an Artist Rep? If so, who and when did you connect? If not, would you like to find one?

I have been with two different agents n the children’s book market over a 10-year period, Liz Sanders Agency and Storybook Arts Inc. For my first few years in publishing I represented myself. I found that to be a very valuable learning experience. I will soon be returning to Liz Sanders after a few years with Story Book Arts. I meet Liz Sanders in 2004 at a SCBWI conference.


Would you be open to working with a self-published author?

I would but it would have to be the right project, something that inspired me, had good exposure and was a fair deal for the illustrator. People have approached in the past but they turn out to be less serious about it after they learn what it entails.


Do you do any other type of illustration other than for children books?

I did some work early on in advertising (theater posters etc) and I recently illustrated an article for a cooking magazine called “The Art of Eating” which I enjoyed a lot, very tasty.


Do you have a favorite medium you use?

Oil paint for sure. But when I have tight deadlines I like to work in acrylic/gouache. It’s a paint that combines both of the qualities of acrylic and gouache paint and dries immediately unlike oil. I also use Photoshop to add finishing details to all of my paintings at the scanning stage.


Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

Yes. I have even traveled to locations for books to do research and take photos. I visited Donner Lake in California for “Survival in the Snow.” And Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff Nebraska for “Clara Morgan and the Oregon Trail Journey.” It’s not a usual practice but it does add to the overall experience of the project as well as bring fun details into the art.


Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?

Yes, as mentioned above.


Do you have and use a graphic tablet?

I do not but I have used one in the past.


Have you done any illustrations for educational publishers?

Yes. I receive much of my work in that market including many of the easy readers I did for Lerner. These books would be considered educational. I think working realistically can lend itself to those types of projects though I would enjoy doing more trade books like “Boy’s Camp”, “The Can Man” and “Gifts From the Enemy.”


Has any of your work appeared in magazines?

I have illustrated for Scholastic’s “Storyworks Magazine” several times and “Scholastic News”, as well as “Highlights for Kids” among a few other magazines. It is always a nice change of pace.


Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes and we have a one year old baby so we have to be careful with my supplies! He is crawling everywhere now.


Is there anything in your studio, other than paint and brushes that you couldn’t live without?

I own an original Trina Schart Hyman illustration done in 1990 for the book “The Kitchen Knight” that is hanging in my studio. That would be sad to lose. It’s my good luck charm.


Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?

Not too much. I just try to meet my deadlines and create new work during my downtimes and experiment with other styles to open myself up to other kinds of work. I also promote my work with my agents help and update my website and social media sites regularly.


What kinds of things do you do to promote yourself?

I have mentioned a few things already. Eblast sent out with new work is great. Also featuring work on sites like, children’s and has helped. As well as mailing out the occasional postcard is great too.


Any exciting projects on the horizon?

A third “Boys Camp” book, “Zee’s story” will be released this May. I also have two readers for Heinemann to start very soon. I have a lot of smallish projects that I am juggling which makes things interesting when managing my time.


Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?

Absolutely. It has changed everything for everyone in this business.


What are your career goals?

I would like to do more trade picture book projects, chapter books and young adult covers. I also plan to do more illustration work outside the children’s book market but still done in my usual oil painting style. Within the children’s book market I would also like to continue to experiment with a simpler less realistic style to see where that takes me. Hopefully it will lead to some books for younger kids that don’t usually want realistic work.


What are you working on now?

Several educational reader projects which keep me pretty busy. I enjoy the variety of subjects and the quicker deadlines.


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

I used to do my oil paintings on canvas but I struggled with my disappointment with how the art was scanned and printed. Unless the art was photographed the canvas texture became very distracting to me. I now work only on illustration board and that has helped a lot. Now my eyes can concentrate on the color and brush stokes. Also the acrylic/gouche medium by Holbein is great for tight deadlines if you still want a painterly look. It also scans well because it doesn’t have the shine of acrylic paint. Thank you to the great Nina Laden for telling me about this medium years ago!


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

I would say draw everyday like many people say but I believe it’s also ok to take breaks, days or weeks even if you get burnt out. I find I come back with a renewed sense of purpose and energy. I love going out in nature and taking hikes to rejuvenate. I also get inspiration at the movies. When it comes to doing the work you were hired for, meeting your deadlines is very important. You don’t want to develop a bad reputation by being unreliable. Also, be accommodating to revisions on projects you are being paid for. In general when presenting your work you need to be able to accept criticism and rejection because that will happen a lot. But also don’t lose your passion for what brought you to this business in the first place or your belief in yourself and your work.


Thank you Craig for sharing your talent, process, and journey with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us.


If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Craig. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Inspiring!


    • Joanleotta,

      Thanks for stopping by and letting Craig know how much you enjoyed his work.



  2. Craig’s illustrations are so alive, they are like wordless stories.


    • Barbara,

      I totally agree. Have a great holiday.



  3. I am your wife and know most of this pretty well, but there were a few things I didn’t and reading it all in one piece made me appreciate it differently all over again. Great work, Craig! I’m so proud of what you’ve done/ do and look forward to what’s to come.


    • Jessica,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. What a nice thing to do. You certainly are married to a very talented man. Happy Easter!



  4. Your style seems firmly rooted in the beautiful history of America. That’s very exciting and unique for an artist. Many find solace in doing the odd and fantastic. In fact, so many tend to do that, that finding a book with such wonderfully illustrated books on our history is scarce! These are amazing! I especially like all the ones from your “History Speaks” series.


    • Trinity,

      Maybe you will write an historical book someday.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Funny you should say that, considering that I just recently got an idea for a book that is set in the American Revolution.


  5. Thank you Kathy and Craig for yet another interesting interview. It is really fascinating to read about the working process of other illustrators. Best of luck to you Craig—your work is lovely!


  6. Thanks everyone for the kind words!


  7. Gorgeous work, Craig. I love Scrooge! Thanks, Kathy 🙂


  8. Thanks for sharing all of your wonderful art work. Do you ever attend state reading conferences to share your information about being a book illustrator?The Colorado State Reading conference (CCIRA) has well known authors and illustrators that do presentations. If you want more information, please contact me. I am a retired reading specialist and I volunteer at the conference.


  9. Thanks Anne. Yes email me with any information you have.


  10. I don’t often read the illustrator post since I am strictly a writer without a bit of artistic talent. However, I am amazed at the process of illustrating — all the techniques, processes, steps, materials. I never knew until reading at this site all that was involved. I like the warmth and color in your illustrations, Craig.


    • hjt,

      I think the writers enjoy the illustrator post more than the illustrators. It introduces them to a world they were not familiar with. Thanks fro stopping by and leaving a comment.



  11. Craig is a master at painting people. 🙂


  12. Thanks for sharing all of this, Craig! Your work is fantastic and it was very interesting to hear about your career path and illustration techniques!


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