Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 20, 2016

Illustrator Saturday – Matt Faulkner


A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, Matt Faulkner has written and illustrated a number of children’s books. His work has won wide praise for its humor, exuberance and sensitivity. In addition, he is a contributing illustrator to such national periodicals as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. Matt is married to author and children’s librarian, Kristen Remenar. They live with their 3 kids and 3 cats on the lower right corner of the Michigan mitten. He teaches illustration at the Art Academy University in San Francisco.

Here’s Matt explaining his process for his graphic novel GAIJIN: AMERICAN PRISONER OF WAR (Disney/Hyperion 2014) :


Image a. (above) This is the sort of sketch I call “intermediate”. I usually do a series of thumbnail sketches prior to creating intermediate sketches. The thumbnails are rarely something I show to anyone and are primarily created to help me figure out the fore, middle and back ground, light source and overall design of a piece. I scribble all over the thumbnails and they’re just a big old mess by the time I’m finished. A good mess but a mess just the same. The intermediate sketch adds value and detail- fleshing out the bones of the thumbnail sketch. These are what I end up showing the editor.


Now, in this image b.(above) you can see a drawing I did for my editor after she took a look at image a. and expressed concern that it was too complex. I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was too complex so, as you can see from image c.(below), the final art, the piece ended up being a compromise between the concerns for complexity and my desire to get as much detail of bombed-out 1947 Tokyo into one image.


Finished illustration. I had a few more questions for Matt and his process:

Tell us about what tools and paper that you used.

I used Derwent graphite pencils with water color washes and final rendering in gouache. I use very fine brushes- Triple 0’s for the line work. And in this case I worked on a Strathmore cold-press water color paper. Unfortunately I can’t recommend it. I usually opt for Arches 140 lb. cold press paper. That stuff is so yummy I could eat it for breakfast with a little milk and brown sugar.

Gaijin awards cover

How did you choose the colors?

The palette for GAIJIN was chosen to accentuate the difference between the day to day reality and dream life of the hero- Koji. Cobalt blue/Ultramarine and Burnt sienna/Raw umber were the colors selected for day time and a broad, very acidic palette was chosen for Koji’s disturbing dreams. It just so happened that the selection of the blue/brown gave the day time images a feeling of the olive drab/khaki uniforms of the 1940’s and some critics have said that they liked the choice because of that.

Gaijin leaving

Do you paint in layers?

Yes. Lots of underlying water color layers built up to develop depth are meshed with layers of transparent and opaque layers of gouache.

arriving at camp

What do you do if you make a mistake?

Mistakes?! What mistakes?
Just kidding.

Since the final aspects of my work is done in gouache (which has a good opaque quality when needed) I am given the opportunity to obliterate any mistakes. This requires a good deal of color matching between the gouache and the underlying water color washes (not always easy) but I’ve found it to be a good method. Also, I do my best to try and keep a positive attitude about mistakes. When I work I keep a timer nearby. I set it for twenty minutes and regardless of where I am in a given piece, I move on when it goes off. I usually work on about 3 or 4 pieces at a time- bringing each piece up to the next level of completion simultaneously. Using a timer really helps me keep a fresh, objective eye on each piece and allows me to take a healthy perspective on “mistakes”. One thing I’ve found about mistakes is that, given a little objectivity (e.g. working on the other three pieces while I fume over the mistake I made in the first), sometimes a mistake can change from being “A CATASTROPHE!” to “Huh, look at that. That mistake sorta looks interesting.” This perspective won’t necessarily fix mistakes but it can help me to approach them with more creativity and less anxiety. And that’s always a good approach.


How did you research the images?

Research for GAIJIN? I visited internment camp sites, in particular the former site of the Tanforan Temporary Center outside of San Francisco and the Manzanar Relocation Center at the foot of the Sierras in California. Also, the internet, books, magazines, videos etc.

abe cover

Here are a few more book covers.



When did you get interested in art?

One of my first memories is being caught by my sister Stacey as I was drawing on my parents brand new kitchen table with a ball point pen. No paper, just table. Everybody was pretty mad until they saw the picture I drew. It was a fairly close likeness of the family’s dog. When my Dad liked the drawing and wasn’t going to send me to my room for the rest of his life, I realized that drawing was a pretty handy skill. From that day on I started to practice drawing (on paper) everyday.

And, surprisingly, my Junior year high school English teacher- Ms. Burt- is the person who most truly inspired me in my youth to follow where my gifts would lead me. She encouraged me to draw with my writing assignments and I’ll always appreciate her giving me that support when it seemed so many other adult voices were saying things like “Yes, Matt, drawing is cute but what are you going to do for a real job?”

Lastly, I just have to extend a big thank you again to my mentor and friend, painter and mosaicist Glen Michaels. I met him in my thirties when I was going through a rough time and his support and instruction pretty much got me back into the studio; exploring design, medium and style and looking for answers regarding my work that I thought I wouldn’t have the time or inclination to find. I found some of the answers. Still looking for more. Thanks, Ms. Burt and Glen.

abe school

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

Hmmm, I was in college- the Rhode Island School of Design. A friend and I used head down to a mall in Providence, RI and draw caricatures for, I think, 5 dollars a pop. It was a nice gig.

black bell shopping

What made you decide to attend the Rhode Island School of Design? Did you live on the East Coast at the time?

I remember going to visit the RISD campus with my dad. We’d already visited some very nice liberal arts college campuses in New England (I grew up in a town called Arlington- pronounced AHlington- just outside of Boston). The RISD campus couldn’t compare with all those nice ivy covered brownstone buildings and shiny cafeterias at the other schools. He couldn’t understand why I wanted so badly to go to RISD. All I could tell him was that that was where my people were. I had great life experiences at RISD- great learning, great friends.

bicycle wings

What did you study there?

Graphic Design. I was terrified of all the terrifically talent students in the illustration department. So I opted to follow the advice of an advisor who fed my fear- “You want a job when you get outa here? Then go into graphics.” Kinda crazy that I chose that department because I knew I’d end up being an illustrator. But I learned a lot.


Do you feel College helped develop your style?

Yes. There was so much visual excitement going on in all the different departments I couldn’t help but be influenced by it.


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

I got a job doing mechanicals (paste-up for ads) at a cool ad agency called Amiratti and Puris. They were going to fire me after a few months because I kept drawing on my mechanical board. Luckily the boss saw my drawings and thought I might be able to do story boards for them. Not much later, I got my own cubicle, a raise and started drawing t.v. ads for BMW’s. I was on my way!

castle gate

Did RISD help you get work when you graduated?

No. Didn’t ask for help. I’m sure they would’ve helped if I asked, though.

civil war

Have you seen your work change since you left school?

Oh ya. Specially after I studied for a while with the great mosaiscist and painter Glen Michaels.

colored water hill

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

Oh, I knew that I wanted to be a visual storyteller for kids when I was a kid. I loved Mad Magazine- specially Mort Drucker. I just wanted to tell stories the way he did. Oh and I read THE LORD OF THE RINGS in, like, 1977. Did you know they made a movie out of that book? I dug the illustration on the cover. Somebody told me that you could make money doing drawings for the covers of books. I was hooked.


What was your first book you illustrated?

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK for Scholastic, 1985.


How did that contract come about?

One of the writers at the ad agency I worked at saw my work, dug it and showed to his wife, who had illustrated for Scholastic. She introduced me to her editor, Diana Hrsinko and she offered me my first illustration job not long after. That was 1984.

elizabeth congress newspapers

Did you do other types of illustrating before you got that book contract?

Yes, I did some editorial work, some advertising work, etc..

color study

How did you get the contract to illustrate your new book, Groundhog’s Dilemma with Charlesbridge?

The editor, the fabulous Yolanda Scott, contacted my wife, the talented Kristen Remenar ( , who wrote GROUNDHOG’S DILEMMA and asked if how Kris would feel about my illustrating the book. We laughed. “Of course he can illustrate the book!” she replied.

This way we get to keep the original art and we get two royalty checks instead of one! Also, Kris kinda likes my style.


I see that it is available as an e-book, too. Do you have any idea about sales trend for e-picture books?

Hmmm… not so much. If it means I’ll get more royalty money and/or that the book will reach more kids I’m all for it. Also, I don’t mind electronic trees being cut down for e-books. Real trees being cut down for hard copy books? Don’t like that at all.

Elizabeth women

How many picture books have you illustrated?

I think 40. Working on 41. Or maybe 42.

Elizabeth President Wilson

When did you decide to start writing and illustrating your own books?

Back in 1985. Came up with the idea for THE AMAZING VOYAGE OF JACKIE GRACE, basically a graphic novel for 7 year olds. I pitched it over the phone to Jean Fiewel and she bought it. Was a great moment! However, it gave me the wrong impression that all my book ideas would be purchased over the phone for the rest of my career.

They haven’t, just fyi.


What is the title of the first book you wrote and illustrated? How did you come up with the idea?

See above. Came up with the idea in college. Don’t remember what my inspiration was.


What book do you think was your biggest success?

They’re all my babies and I love them equally. Although making GROUNDHOG’S DILEMMA was a heck of a lot of fun and so far it’s selling like hot cakes.


Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?



Do you have an artist rep? If so, who and how did you connect?

Yes. I’m in the process of signing with one right now. Contacted through SCBWI friends when my previous agency and I parted company.


Do you illustrate full time?

Mostly. I also work at a vitamin store. And I teach.


Do you have a favorite medium you use?

Yes, for business I use water color and gouache because they work and ship easily. But I loooove to work in oil. If only it wasn’t so toxic.

meets the queen

Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

Yup. Essential. But I start with thumbnail ideas. Then start doing photos and image research. Gotta get my ideas out first. Then I flesh them out with image research.


Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?


colored water

Do you have and use a graphic tablet?


girl and boy

Do you do exhibits to show off your art?

Oh ya. Somebody asks to show my work- I say YES.

cry baby1

Would you be willing to work with an author who wants to self-publish a picture book?

No. I have tried just about every approach to publishing over my thirty year career and I just don’t have the time for all the variables that come with self publishing.


Has any of your work appeared in magazines?

Yup- Forbes, Time, CRICKET and some others.

cricket mag

Final art for an article in “Cricket” magazine. The young man wasn’t too proud to wear the frightening hat- knitted for him with love by his Nana- to school. Water color, gouache, 2006.

elizabeth crying

Do you have a studio in your house?

In my garage, yes.

planes red green

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

My Red Ryder BB gun. And my oak flat files. I’ve dragged those babies back and forth across the country. Couldn’t part with them if I wanted to.

stand tall Abe Lincoln

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

Keep my sketch book with me at all times. And communicate regularly with my editors and art directors. Communication is key when working on a project.

stand tall Abe

Any exciting projects on the horizon?

I got a graphic novel story I made up about 10,000 rabbits of various size marching through town searching for the perfect buritto! It’s making it’s way through the publishing houses. Is that exciting enough for you?!

Also working with way cool editor Jill Santopolo of Phylomel on an awesome two book project.

process barn sketch

process barn final

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

Sure- it’s so much easier to self promote. Trapsing about Manhattan in either midwinter or midsummer whilst dragging a portfolio from publishing house to publishing house was not fun. At all.

scatter brain Sam

What are your career goals?

Do more work.


What are you working on now?

I’m thinking about sequels- in particular I want to do a sequel for the graphic novel I created for Disney/Hyperion called GAIJIN: AMERICAN PRISONER OF WAR. The sequel would follow two of the teen characters from the original story as they join and fight with the famous GO FOR BROKE all Japanese American battalion in Europe during WWII.


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

Too many of us have become intoxicated by the digital palette with its “billions of colors”. Start simple.   It wasn’t until I started to relate to the colors on my palette as people, characters and friends that they started to truly dance. First find a brown and blue. Don’t just pick any brown or blue.  This brown and blue have to be your most favorite brown and blue. Work with those for a while. See their qualities through practice. Get to know how they vibrate, find their flaws and their virtues. Then move onto developing a broader palette.

Oh, and I have a quote about color:

“You look at red and look through blue. But yellow looks at you.”

Isn’t that cool?!


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

Fall in love with the process, not the goal.

Final art for an article in “Cricket” magazine. The young man wasn’t too proud to wear the frightening hat- knitted for him with love by his Nana- to school. Water color, gouache, 2006.

Japanese baseball

b-ball girls

Thank you Matt for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of Matt’s work, you can visit him at website at:

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Thanks for sharing your art and background Matt, I especially liked your color quote! I was in a workshop that you lead last spring in the Chicago area and enjoyed your work there and am enjoying seeing more here. Thanks Kathy for this rich blog review of Matt’s artwork and journey.


    • Hey Michelle! Thanks for the cudos. I had a lot of fun at that workshop. Hope you did too. 😉


  2. Loved this interview and your work, Matt! Especially enjoyed your attitude about “mistakes.” Priceless!


    • Hey Susan-
      Thank you! And mistakes?! What mistakes?


  3. Matt – I enjoyed looking at your work and hearing your thoughts on color. From a fellow RISD grad who also loves to work in traditional media.


    • Long live RISD! And you, too, Doris!


  4. Your story is as interesting as your illustrations are beautiful. Thank you.


    • Thank you, Carleen.
      Very kind of you.


  5. Feeling proud of our Michigander Matt Faulkner! He is a perfect example of hard work + talent = achievement.


    • Hey Carrie, right back at you, my friend!
      And thank you for your support and help with matching me with my new agent- Abigail Samoun of Red Fox Literary!


  6. Wow, so great to see another Michigander here. I especially loved seeing so much of his artwork gathered in one space. Kudos, Matt!


    • Thank you, Michigan-sistah Kristin!
      I know- Kathy does a great job on this blog. So much work makes it something I want to come back and explore again and again.


  7. Not a Michigander but always glad to see a fellow Chautauqua Graduate being featured! I really enjoyed this article and am thrilled that Matt and Kris have found well-deserved success with Groundhog.


    • Many thanks, Lynne.
      And- Chautauqua! That was such a wonderful experience. I hope Highlights brings that back some day.


  8. Love this interview and love your style! I love the color quote, and your timer boundary with yourself during the tough stages. I really love that you don’t use Photoshop or a tablet. This is the first interview that I’ve noticed that an illustrator doesn’t use them. Your multi layered process of planning and painting is an inspiration to me.


    • Howdy, Lyn.
      Thank you very much. And nothing against working digitally. It’s just that I don’t find the experience satisfying. If I thought all those years ago when I fell in love with brushes and paint that I’d have to drop them in favor of creating stuff with a key board- a key board!!! for crying out loud- I would’ve immediately opted to take up my other passion: bowling.
      Ha, just kidding. I pretty much live in the gutter when bowling.
      Besides, you can bowl with a key board now too.
      Be well,


  9. Matt’s work is always outstanding — it’s really inspiring to see him pull out his gigantic watercolor papers and start to paint. Thanks for this terrific interview with our dear friend — nice to see his beautiful wife get a cameo.


    • Thank you, dear Ruth! You have the kindest of hearts. Big hugs to you and Mr. Charlie.


  10. Matt, Your work is simply amazing. And your helpful comments ring true to me. I’ve done a little with digital lately, but it’s not my thing. I’m struggling with a palette and will take your advice. Start with a brown and blue, that I like. And your red, blue and yellow saying – that’s just way cool! I’ve had some training (95 credits) at LCC (Lansing Comm College-after a BA in elem ed), but not in ‘color’. Have not had any experience with gouache, but will explore that more. You were so fortunate to be at RISD, I wasn’t, but can feel it in my dream bones. Currently, I’m working on writing the non-fiction pb story of the American chestnut tree, and need more narrative arc according to a recent #4 judge rating in “Rate Your Story”. So, back to the writing board for now, but it’s the illustrations that I want to have sing ‘magnificent’ eventually. If you ever give a ‘class’ on some of your techniques of watercolor/gouache, I’d be interested in attending. Thank you again for this exquisite viewing of your work here, from thumbnails to finals, and great to see Kris’s cameo also. Best to you both…


  11. […] me with a brilliant personification and invitation into the reading. Click to read a little about Matt Faulkner’s illustrations and to see a picture of him and his wife, Kristen Remenar. (I learned something new […]


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